SF Reads: Monstress

Cover of Lysley Tenorio's "Monstress"

I finished reading this last week and got around to posting just in time—Monstress by Lysley Tenorio is the July/August pick for the San Francisco Public Library “On the Same Page” book club, and the library is holding author talks this Wednesday and Thursday evening at the Excelsior and Main libraries. Every single story in this collection was a joy (and a heartbreak) to read, but my favorites were Monstress, Superassassin, and Save the I-Hotel. In the title story, a Filipino woman dreams of being a romantic Hollywood heroine, but is forever consigned to playing the grotesque monsters of her lover’s B-horror films; she finally gets her big break, but at the cost of her relationship. I don’t like reading or hearing about the film industry (a neurotic holdover from my ill-fated stint in L.A.), but I thought this story really captured the sleaze and the pathos of Hollywood. In the final scene, years after her film’s release, the heroine sits anonymously in a theater where her campy film is being played for laughs, lost in her memories.

Superassassin is a darkly hilarious tale of a teenage boy obsessed with comics and supervillains, becoming a supervillain in his mind as a form of empowerment as his life spirals out of control. His plans to destroy schoolyard bullies and his mother’s boyfriends with his evil weapons technology are alternately funny, frightening, and sad, but always pitch-perfect. As a 透明外人, a possessor of a certain kind of invisibility myself, I also appreciate the half-white main character’s thoughts when faced with a shop owner complaining about thieving Filipinos: “My mutant biology hides that part of me he would fear. Ollie continues complaining and accusing, unaware that a shape-shifter stands before him. I tell him I know exactly how he feels, that they really can’t be trusted, that they’re a dangerous and deadly breed, as my hand fingers its way to the mini-rack of candy bars at my side.”

They are probably going to take away my Asian American studies degree for admitting this, but when I saw the title of the story Save the I-Hotel in the table of contents, while my conscious mind thought “All right, a shout out to the Asian American movement in San Francisco!”, a small evil voice in my subconscious said “Geez, the I-Hotel again?” Don’t get me wrong—no matter how much time has passed, the fact of the injustice remains, and I understand the importance of preserving our history. On the other hand, I was shown the documentary The Fall of the I-Hotel at least five times in various classes and at a certain point it started to feel like the professors were just waxing nostalgic for their student activist days. I guess I was expecting something like the ham-handed dramatic production staged by my Fil Am Lit class, but Save the I-Hotel is the real thing—a deeply human history of the Filipino immigrants in America, and a surprising love story that’s rooted in brotherhood and made more poignant by the tragedy of injustice. Save the I-Hotel doesn’t depend on the plight of the manongs to tug at your heartstrings, though; that starts to happen long before the dramatic events of 1977, when the two main characters are young and full of hope.

San Francisco doesn’t appear in every story, but it’s rendered faithfully in the stories that are set there (The Brothers, Felix Starro, and most especially Save the I-Hotel, which tells the story of a part of San Francisco history that, while overexposed in Asian American studies classes, is little-known to almost anyone else). Monstress is full of the human, the tragicomic, the strange and the sad and the wonderful.

SFPL event information:

Excelsior branch
Wednesday, August 29, 7-8:30pm

Main library
Thursday, August 30, 6:30-8pm

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