SPECIAL ISSUE: INTERVIEWS
By Melissa R. Sipin
Lysley Tenorio’s debut book, Monstress, was published by Ecco Harper Collins in 2012. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Zoetrope: All-Story, Ploughshares, Manoa, and The Best New American Voices and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A Whiting Writer’s Award winner and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he has received fellowships from the University of Wisconsin, Phillips Exeter Academy, Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Born in the Philippines, Lysley currently lives in San Francisco, and is an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College of California.
What I love about your short story collection, “Monstress,” was the varied depth of your characters. You said in an interview, “I think it’s really important for a writer to know what matters to them emotionally, that way you can find the core of the character.” Could you expound on that?
I think you need to know what you care about, what you’re really passionate or saddened or angered by in order to give your writing that sense of urgency. Speaking for myself, I don’t write anything autobiographical and I’m a firm believer in the idea that just because something happens to you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s interesting. It’s only interesting if you have a real emotional investment and emotional perspective on that material, whether it be real or not. To that extent, I would argue that most writers are writing about things that are emotionally autobiographical to them, meaning that the emotional concerns of their characters in their fiction/nonfiction pieces, or in their poetry, resonate with them emotionally based on the writer’s experiences. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a leper colony, for example, but I think those ideas of exile, isolation, dislocation, and perceptions of beauty, I think those are things I thought about growing up. So I have empathy for those ideas but I’m much more interested in contextualizing that against a fictional backdrop than I am writing about whatever true life experience might have evoked those emotions within me. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t write anything autobiographical. People write autobiographical material all the time and it’s wonderful, but you have to have the right emotional perspective or at least the right emotional questions about them before you can really explore that material.
What motivated you to write?
I didn’t start writing until my senior year in college and it never occurred to me to write fiction. But then I took a class with a writer named Bharati Mukherjee, who wrote a book called The Middleman and Other Stories, a short story collection that won the National Book Critics Circle award in ‘88. I actually took a lecture class with her not knowing anything about her. When I read her book, I was really impressed and dazzled by how she was writing about the American immigrant experience from the perspectives of people who clearly were not her. She had some stories in there from the point of view of Indian American women, but she had Filipino characters, Trinidadian characters, white characters. She tried to inhabit those different perspectives. It was clearly a fictional leap on her part and I really admired that. As someone who grew up in an immigrant household I already had a connection to that kind of material but to see her taking that theme from so many different points of view and so many different experiences—to me that was something to aspire to. I can try to do this, I can try to write something I really care about but do it in a way that’s so clearly not like my own experience. And to me that’s the fun of fiction—try to be in someone else’s life, try to be in someone else’s story. I really believe had it not been for her, I wouldn’t have started writing. I read as a kid, a lot of comic books, but books weren’t that big a deal in my house. I don’t know what I would’ve done. But luckily, I had the good fortune of working with her.
You mentioned in several interviews that a reviewer critiqued your collection and has said that the stories were “generic” because they didn’t give her an understanding of the Filipino/Filipino American experience. I really loved your commentary around that, how you said, “No, it’s not my objective… and it’s odd that anyone would expect a kind of comprehensive understanding of an entire group based on eight stories.” What can you say about the burden of representation? How can beginning writers understand and counter/dispel this myth?
First, I don’t want to discount the idea of writing for a community or a particular audience. Particularly one that is historically or currently underrepresented in a given field. And the truth is there aren’t a lot of Filipino/Filipino Americans publishing, and there certainly aren’t too many in the literary mainstream, which is unfortunately the kind of thing that gets you the most exposure. I’m not saying you have to go mainstream, but those things can be helpful in trying to establish a presence. I understand that question: am I obligated or do I want to take on the responsibility (or even the privilege) of trying to represent a community? If that is your main motivation, I really don’t know how good of work you can possibly produce. I think you can only produce good work if you’re writing about things that matter to you emotionally and psychologically as a writer, as an artist, as a human being. And I also think that you have to write about something that is entertaining to you. If you’re not writing about things that are fun, that you enjoy imagining or questioning, why bother? You can do a lot more fun things than sit at your desk and write. Writing is lonely, it’s isolating. What’s important is to write the thing you want to write, to enjoy it on a gut level. They’re [mainstream America] going to, for better or for worse, look at you as a possible representation of that group. So it’s a reality you probably have to—well, you don’t have to be aware of it—but it’s a reality, and do with it what you will.
I read a very interesting article about the relationship between anger/rage and one’s art that said: “Every minority writer, however defined, has had to deal with this issue of how to mix or balance or address or ignore the relationship of art to anger… even minority writers who don’t seem angry on the page have had to think about the kinds of anger that are tied to being their particular minority and decide to evade it or sublimate it into something else.” How did you appropriate anger in your characters?
First, I have to wonder if I even possessed that anger that he’s talking about. Did I have that anger? It may seem like such a broad term to me, and I’m reluctant to respond to that term directly. I can say that I’ve maybe felt that sense of injustice or unfairness. I think especially in terms of this idea of representation or diversity, I often do feel Filipinos, as Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans in general, are underrepresented. I do think a lot of my work is motivated by this idea that I want to make it clear that we are here, that Filipinos have been here for quite some time historically. That they have put forth their investment in the American reality. And I think it would be great if they got a little more recognition. Maybe that’s a kind of anger, but I do feel insistent on making a presence for my characters let’s say. So I think in a story like “Superassassin,” a kid who’s on the fringes of society especially in school, I think he’s trying very much, and he’s motivated by a lot of anger. He wants his presence to be known, and he wants his presence to be felt. I think the irony in that story is that he’s also battling for anonymity and a secret identity. We never learn the narrator’s name, at the end of by the end of the story he dons a mask, he dons a costume. So, I do think there’s a conflict there. He wants to be acknowledged, he wants to be recognized for his power but at the same time he wants to maintain a sense of secrecy. I have no idea what that means (chuckles) but I think the fact that there’s tension there suggests that whatever anger I might have or frustration, it’s a complicated one.
How is the novel going?
In my own experience, writing a book of short stories is no preparation for writing a novel. So when I hear writers who say, “I felt I trained on writing the short story and now I’m writing the novel,” I don’t understand that at all. They’re such different challenges. Writing a short story is incredibly difficult, really hard. Give me a set of characters who I feel a connection with and I’m pretty much going to be immersed in the universe for quite some time.
Fill in the blank: writing to you is ___ ?
Need-based. By that I mean—I need to do it. If I didn’t do it, it would gnaw away at me. It would make me feel incomplete. Writing doesn’t necessarily bring me joy or it’s often not fun, but I don’t think I could be at peace with myself if I stopped. That may change in the future, but right now I’m mostly doing it because I need to do it. I’m obviously not doing it for the money or the fame (chuckles). If I don’t do it, then I don’t really have creative work. I teach and that’s obviously a job. It’s a job that I feel fortunate to do, but I love the fact that another job of mine that is equally important to me is writing. I love the idea that at the end of the day, my work is to create. It’s to turn make-believe into something tangible and substantial, and hopefully meaningful to someone else. I love that, and if I didn’t have that, I think my life would be pretty incomplete and empty.
In your opinion, what role does art play in the 21st century?
I would say it plays an unclear role because there’s so much stuff that pops up in the world, whether it be technologically, politically, geographically. There’s just so much happening that I can see in certain lives, in certain atmospheres, I would imagine that art is pretty meaningless; it really can’t do anything. But then, I can see situations where you can have a similar set of circumstances and art is essential. So I would say it’s unclear.
How about a more personal question: what’s on your iPod?
I’m so bad—I don’t listen to music very much. But when I was at the MacDowell Colony, I would listen to music on my iPod. What I would listen to the most is a band called Earlimart. I have two of their albums on my iPod and I love their stuff. I listen to Abba: Gold Hits. I listen to the Breeders. I had college roommates who used to play that all the time. I listen to a bit of the David Byrne—the musical that he did for Imelda Marcos, “Here Lies Love,” which is by, I think, Florence and the Machine. That’s some of what I listened to when I was away.
What’s your favorite city in the whole world, and can you write there?
My favorite city tends to change, but my most recent favorite city is Montreal. I didn’t even try to write there because I was on vacation. If I was there for an extended period of time I could do it. But if I were to go back for just a couple of weeks, I’d just be running around all the time. Though it’s not my favorite city, but obviously means a lot to me, is the city where I grew up—San Diego. I cannot write there; I cannot do any serious writing. I finally learned to accept it and be completely okay with the fact that I can’t write in the house that I grew up in. I kind of like that because it reminds me that it’s just another part of my life—there’s a huge part of my life where writing is completely insignificant. I have this existence and that existence, and I like that they’re quite separate. And that can obviously create tension as well, especially if I’m feeling like I have to get work done when I’m home. I don’t mind it anymore, and I’ve learned to embrace it a little bit.
I’m curious to know: how was the Filipino community receptive to your book?
I feel like they’ve responded. Here’s an example: I had to give a reading at Santa Rosa. I’ve gotten accustomed to readings where you might have a good crowd and other times you have two people show up. I didn’t know anyone in Santa Rosa and thought: this will be one of those nights where two people will show up. And it was quite a drive, I was tired, and I was thinking that I’m not quite in the mood for this. But when I walked in, it was packed. Every seat was taken. Most of the people there were from the Filipino Historical Society of Sonoma County, because the events coordinator of that bookstore had the genius to contact them and ask them to co-sponsor this. So, I got there and there was this huge spread of Filipino food. All these people had no idea who I was, but they all showed up, they listened they asked questions, and they took pictures. It was one of the greatest experiences regarding this book. So, I definitely felt supported that way.
Have you done a reading in San Diego?
My family was there in San Diego, so they were able to round up all their Filipino friends. I didn’t know too many people there, but they were all kind to attend. That one was a really good turnout. But, I actually just got invited to do a tour in the Philippines—so I’m excited about it. I was born there, but we left when I was seven months old. I’m excited that they reached out, and I believe I’ll be going out there tentatively in February. We’ll see if that Filipino community turns out. I once read some scholarly article about Filipino American literature, and they mentioned me briefly and said I would have no readership in the Philippines because the stories were just too American. But to be perfectly honest, I was fine with that; if they aren’t interested in American fiction that’s fine because I’m an American writer. Just because you have a particular commonality, they may not be your community. They may not get you.
And lastly, what does being Filipino American mean to you?
It means that I’m an American, it means that there’s no such thing as a definitive or a quintessential American. It means that Filipinos are here and they have been here, and they’ve invested a lot in this country. It’s also a way of affirming your presence here. I think, also, in the wrong context, it’s a way of marginalization; people can put you to the side because of it. It means a lot of different things.