A “Monstress” Undertaking: an interview with Lysley Tenorio by Noelle Brada-Williams Filipino American Lysley Tenorio, Creative Writing Professor at Saint Mary’s College in California, is the author of the short story collection, Monstress. He has been both a Stegner and a Steinbeck Fellow, and recently won the Rome Prize for literature from the American Academy of Rome. His work has been anthologized in Best New American Voices and published in venues such as The Atlantic Monthly and Manoa. His short story, “The Brothers,” won the 2005 Pushcart prize. Philip Kan Gotanda has adapted his short story “Save the I-Hotel” for the stage and Sean San José has adapted the title story of the collection, “Monstress.” These will be appearing on stage together at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco this fall. This interview was done via email during the summer of 2015 and is organized around his short story collection. AALDP: As you know, Asian American Literature: Discourses & Pedagogies focuses on the teaching of Asian American literature. Has being a Creative Writing Professor at Saint Mary's College affected the way you think about your own work? Lysley Tenorio: It has. Teaching provides the opportunity to discuss, on a regular basis, both the possibilities and limitations of fiction. Being in the classroom, as both instructor and participant, is a privilege, one that keeps me on my toes, requires me to read with an open mind, and simultaneously uphold and question my own beliefs about writing, and what it means to be a writer. AALDP: You have credited a class with Bharati Mukherjee for turning you on to writing about the immigrant experience. After we read Monstress: stories in my Asian American Literature class last semester, many of my own students wanted to know if you see writing about the immigrant experience as a kind of duty. Tenorio: No. I feel no duty to write about the immigrant experience, or any other subject matter, question, theme, etc. I write what I want to write. That said, I always feel a duty to render with accuracy, respect, and empathy, any person, place, or event that I might write about, so research and revision are essential to the process. But perhaps most importantly, I must feel some kind of emotional and intellectual connection to the material; otherwise, what's the point? AALDP: Many of my students at San Jose State are working on BA’s in Creative Writing and they wanted me to ask you about how you do research for your stories as many of them have historical settings. In an interview with the Paris Review, you said, ‘I think it’s absolutely foolish not to indulge in the research.” It struck me that many of the creative writers I know would describe imagining characters and worlds as more indulgent and would refer to research and “fact-checking” as a kind of drudgery. Could you say more not only about your research methods but perhaps elaborate on what it means to you to “indulge” in the writing process? Tenorio: Research—assuming research is necessary for the particular piece I’m working on—is critical in the early stages of a story. Every fact I find has the possibility of informing character, plot, theme, etc. Even on the micro level, research can help determine a single concrete significant detail, an essential building block of fiction. This is why, at an early stage of a story, it’s important to indulge in the research, to give yourself as much potentially valuable information as possible. Plus, it’s fun. The tricky part, of course, is figuring out what information is critical to the work, and what facts you need to ignore. You also want to be careful not to feel constrained or unnecessarily obligated to render the research in fiction. At a certain point, you need to quit with the research and get to the page. AALDP: Knowing that teachers and students are using your collection, Monstress, in a classroom, does that affect how you think about what you write? I've always thought that we place literature in an odd situation when we turn a form that many of us perceive as entertainment and escape into a requirement that people will be tested on. Yet, in the classroom I feel that literature can have such a deep impact on many people who might never have picked up a particular book. Where do you see the role of academia vis-a-vis literature? Are there any things that you would want a class to focus on? Are there any things that you would not want to see done with your stories in a classroom? Tenorio: I appreciate you saying that literature is a form of entertainment, because I think that's an aspect of reading (and writing) that is too often undervalued, particularly by those who read and write "literary" (whatever that means) fiction. A reader's time is precious; if I'm lucky enough to have one, I'd better do all I can to keep that reader entertained, whether it be on the level of story, character, language, etc. I'd much rather have a reader finish my book with a fun reading experience than with a strong thesis statement for the final paper. That said, academia is important for many writers, because it can bring in readers we might not otherwise have, and because it provides a forum to discuss the more abstract ideas that aren't always on the surface. For me, the subtextual story is as vital as the dramatic surface--I cannot write one without the other. So to have these layers of narrative complexity discussed in an academic setting is something for which I am extremely grateful, and can sometimes help me recognize things in my own work that I didn't before. In terms of what I would and would not want to be done with my work in a classroom, I'm pretty open. I believe once the work is out in the world, it must stand on its own, so is therefore subject to the questions, interpretations, and predilections of the individual and group. I can only hope the work is read with an open mind, with a willingness to engage characters whose experiences may be vastly different from a reader's own, and with the belief that there is no right or wrong way to respond to the work. AALDP: There is not much I tell my students absolutely not to do when analyzing literature, but when I teach ethnic literature I do tend to preach to them about the difference between artistic representation and political representation. I typically say something like: Leslie Marmon Silko might be the only female Native American novelist representing Native Americans in the 1970’s—or in my multiethnic literature class—but that doesn’t mean she represents all Native Americans then or now. There was no election where Native Americans from every tribe got together and gave anyone that title. And people outside a community certainly don’t get to make that determination. I really appreciate what you have said in your interview with Larissa Archer of ZZYZZYVA and your response to the reviewer who found your stories too generic and presumably not ethnic enough. Many of us are working with curriculums that imply that each text from a different ethnic community will somehow illuminate that whole community. I think that is part of the awkward task we’ve shouldered literature with when we put it in an academic setting. We want to explore the specificity of individual artistic expression, but even when we are aware of the pitfalls of representation, we still hope the literature will teach our students about the various communities “represented” on our syllabi. It is a bit “Do as I say, not as I do.” Perhaps that is why Reva Gogo of your title story,”Monstress,” is so interesting. Not only is she not confined to any one nation but her character seems to occupy multiple competing identities at one time: beautiful starlet, grotesque monster, aspiring actress, doting girlfriend, practical dentist’s receptionist. She really resists categorization, just like her story. How did you first conceive of this character? Do you perceive of Reva as more or less of a dreamer than Checkers? Is her love and faith in him more or less rational than his view of his future as a filmmaker? Tenorio: I can appreciate that tension between artistic representation and political representation. Any artist who might be seen as writing about and/or coming from a particular group can both benefit from and be stifled it, but it can also generate vital discussion. So thank you for bringing it up. I’m glad Reva resists categorization. The last thing I want is for my characters to come across as reductive types or representations of a defined group or idea. I understand they might be read that way, but I hope they’re also seen as unique, emotionally and psychologically complex individuals. I first tried writing “Monstress” from Checkers’ point of view, but he seemed too extreme in his desires, and I worried that a reader would have trouble connecting with that. Reva was someone who had more distance from the immediate stakes of the story—initially, anyway—and was someone who could tell Checkers’ story while slowly revealing—though not necessarily understanding—her own. This created the tension I needed for the story, so I stayed with her as my narrator. AALDP: How do you see her being transformed yet again for the stage? Tenorio: I’ll find out opening night!
---. “The Messiness of Love, Family, and Identity: Q&A with Lysley Tenorio.” By Larissa Archer. ZZYZZYVA: A San Francisco Journal of Arts & Letters. ZZYZZYVA, 23, May 2012. Web. 18 June 2015. ---. Monstress: stories. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. Print.
"A “Monstress” Undertaking: an interview with Lysley Tenorio,"
Asian American Literature: Discourses & Pedagogies:
Vol. 6, Article 3.
Available at: http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/aaldp/vol6/iss1/3