'Surreal indicative': Filipino-American author Tenorio charms library crowd in Stonington

There are hundreds of good reasons to take a walk through Stonington Borough. But the stroll made by Lysley Tenorio late Saturday afternoon must have been exceedingly fine.

Shortly before 5 p.m., Tenorio left his apartment on Water Street and headed a few blocks south to the Stonington Free Library. There, Tenorio, author of the renowned short story collection "Monstress" — and current writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House — treated dozens of fans to a wonderful reading of old and new works and answered questions with warmth and wit.

"I see some new faces here, which is great when you live in a town of 800," Geoffrey Little, a member of the James Merrill House Committee, said in his introductory remarks. He then described Tenorio, a Filipino immigrant whose family moved to California when he was 3 months old, as a writer whose stories of immigration and cross-cultural experiences in America are "pure imagination" — because, he said, quoting Tenorio, "'my life's just not that interesting.'"

Little added the neat fact that, 10 years ago, Tenorio's partner, Bruce Snider, was a Merrill writer-in-residence and, during that time, Tenorio was working on some of the stories that would be included in "Monstress."

Tenorio, who's also a creative writing professor at St. Mary's College, was dressed in a dark blazer, a black, open-collar dress shirt and jeans, and seemed completely at ease behind the podium. "We love it here," he said. "In San Francisco, where we live, we're always meeting friends out at restaurants or Happy Hours. Here, we've been in more homes than we have restaurants. The idea that we've been welcomed by so many of you for home-cooked meals or cocktails, and more cocktails, is amazing."

Earlier Saturday, Tenorio said he'd had lunch at Noah's, where the special of the day was chicken adobo. "That's a favorite dish in the Philippines." In faux awe, but clearly happy, he said of the Noah's kitchen, "How did they know?! And it was very good!"

Tenorio first read an excerpt from a "Monstress" piece called "Felix Starro," which he prefaced by explaining that the story has subsequently been the basis for a stage musical. "It's a strange experience to hear people singing what I wrote," he confessed. "And I promise I won't be singing."

"Felix Starro" is about a young Filipino man who travels to San Francisco with his uncle, a con man whose scam is "psychic surgery," wherein the healer places his hands on the afflicted and, for cash, extracts bad blood and illness-causing growths and tumors. Fake blood and raw chicken livers come heavily into play as part of the grift, and the young narrator, an understudy, is in turn scamming his own uncle in hopes of staying behind in the U.S. with fake documentation.

It's a funny but also melancholy story, rather like Ray Bradbury performing a literary exorcism on Malcolm Lowry, and Tenorio's low-key, smooth delivery offered the material with the timing and tone of a seasoned late-night jazz DJ who knows the music stands on its own. As he read, Tenorio frequently folded the front section of his well-feathered copy back so he could hold it in one hand. With the other, he could push his glasses back up or take the occasional sip of white wine.

Folks chuckled several times at the witty prose or the details and machinations of the main characters' well-practiced "art." One particularly vivid description elicited such a laugh-out-loud response that Tenorio broke from the narrative to observe, "Interesting," before falling back into the story's flow.

After "Felix Starro," Tenorio switched to a few stapled, typewritten pages and shared a section from the prologue of his first novel, "The Son of Good Fortune," which will be published in July by Ecco Books, a Harper-Collins imprint. More by chance than planning, the prologue also featured someone adept at the art of the con — the heroine Maxima, who employs a fake wound and romantic guile to swindle cash from a lonely North Carolina rube on a "Good Catholic Filipinas" website. The selection was equally well received, and one suspected more than a few people in attendance would pre-order "The Son of Good Fortune" when the event was over.

Tenorio also answered questions from the audience. On the duality of his "Filipinoness" and "Americaness" and the experiences thereof, he said, in part, "I grew up feeling always American. To me, the stories that I write feel very American" — he laughed and explained that the reading's excerpts weren't necessarily typical — "but I think the feelings and attentions that (the characters) feel certainly are biographical. These questions of wanting to do right ... and seek out your own destiny while staying true to your particular collective are inherent to any of us, so they therefore feel very American to me."

He added that many of his characters are good-hearted people "who sometimes do bad things because they have to or because they can, and because the root of good fiction is tension and conflict and trouble and I want to find characters who embody those things."

Another question centered on how Tenorio might describe his writerly voice: Would he maybe call it "the surreal indicative"?

Laughter broke out and Tenorio seemed delighted by the phrase. He said, "I kind of want to make a cologne now and call it The Surreal Indicative. Would you all buy it?"

Based on the response from the room, and from the tone of the entire event, Tenorio presumably could sell anything: Short story collections, novels, cologne ... even psychic surgical procedures. Such, it seemed, are his artistic gifts.

r.koster@theday.com

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