Interviews

Being Really Here in “The Son of Good Fortune”

An interview with Lysley Tenorio about his new novel, "The Son of Good Fortune.”

Lysley Tenorio follows his debut story collection, Monstress, with his recently published debut novel, The Son of Good Fortune. The novel focuses on Excel, a young undocumented Filipino immigrant, and his mother, Maxima, a former Philippines B-action movie star turned online scam artist.  Set in Colma, a Northern California city known for its seventeen cemeteries, and Hello City, an off-the-grid desert community, The Son of Good Fortune explores questions of home and belonging, of family and community, and ultimately, of what it means to be a mother, and to be a son.

Otis Haschemeyer

The mother son relationship is fundamental in The Son of Good Fortune, and here, the mother, Maxima, is strong and self sacrificing. What were you trying to portray with Maxima as a literary mother figure? 

Lysley Tenorio

In many immigrant narratives, the mother is often portrayed as strong and self-sacrificing, as you point out, and that often comes with a kind of fierce reserve. I don’t think it’s an untrue phenomenon, but I did want Maxima to veer away from that, by externalizing that interior strength. I grew up with women who were strong not just emotionally, but physically, my mother especially. I wanted to show that kind of strength and endurance in Maxima and to explore an undeniable truth in Excel’s life—that no one is stronger than his mother. 

Otis Haschemeyer

Excel’s mother, Maxima, tells him he is not “really here,” when she reveals they’re undocumented. Could you talk a little about what “really here” means? This seems to me a profound theme of the book and a question you explore throughout.

Lysley Tenorio

It’s funny, because I’m not quite sure how I came up with “not really here,” but it’s true that Maxima, and Excel in particular, see that phrase as the most apt description of their reality. To me, being “really here,” means being able to live openly in the place that most feels like home, and to have the freedom to invest in that reality or to live openly on the sidelines. I want Excel to have this freedom of choice, to declare big plans for himself and see them through, perhaps fulfilling that immigrant dream of becoming hugely successful. At the same time, I want to give him the privilege of aspiring to something much less. I think the media sometimes portrays both documented and undocumented immigrants as these sources of untapped potential; because they often have to live under the radar, they can’t easily become Nobel-winning scientists or world-changing politicians. While that’s certainly true (I think of Jose Antonio Vargas as a prime example), and is a justifiable strategy in trying to fight for the rights of the undocumented, I also want to grant Excel the privilege of mediocrity; he simply wants to get a decent job, pay his bills, live his life. It’s what most Americans do, and rarely are they expected to be these SuperCitizens that immigrants are expected to become. Particularly now, when Trump wants to create immigration policies that only welcome “the best and brightest,” the belief that all immigrants must demonstrate and fulfill huge ambitions is akin to telling them “they have to earn their keep” by placing unfair standards upon them. Most people just want to live their lives freely and in peace; that’s what Excel wants, too. 

Otis Haschemeyer

I love these juxtaposed settings of Colma, CA and Hello City. Colma exists, but what about Hello City? Why did you feel these two places set the other off in such remarkable contrast? How do they play into the themes of the book? 

Lysley Tenorio

Colma is a town just outside San Francisco, most known for its seventeen cemeteries (a person can’t be buried in San Francisco—no more graveyards). The idea that you have a town where the dead literally outnumber the living, just on the fringe of one of the most famous cities in the world, felt like a thematically suggestive location for a novel about a mother and son living an undocumented existence as TNT’s (“tago ng tago” which, translated from Tagalog, means “hiding and hiding,” and is the Filipino slang for undocumented immigrants). Hello City, which is loosely based on an off-the-grid desert community called Slab City, felt like the opposite kind of landscape. Though it’s also on the fringe, it’s a place that makes up its own rules, where a person like Excel can center or re-invent himself (or so he believes).

Otis Haschemeyer

Back in the Philippines, Maxima was a former B-action movie star of films such as Malakas Strike Force 3: Panalo Ako, Talaga! (“Strong Strike Force 3: I Win, Really!”) and Ang Puso Ko VS. Ang Baril Mo (“My Heart VS. Your Gun”). Your descriptions of scenes from these films make them seem over the top, low value productions, much of it camp. But you juxtapose this kind of pop culture with characters who have very real, heartfelt, artistic aspirations. What draws you to this tension?

Lysley Tenorio

Growing up in an immigrant family, the TV was our primary access to the larger culture, and we didn’t process it with a critical sensibility or sense of American irony. When Bobby Ewing died on Dallas, we took that stuff seriously (which, in retrospect, feels like a betrayal, since it turned out his death was all a dream a few seasons later). As cheesy as those stories can be, I hate the idea of dismissing our response to that material—if we truly felt something, there must be substance to that emotional experience. The pop culture of other countries—the Philippines included—might seem low-brow and campy to our sensibilities, but they’re clearly meaningful to the individuals who participate in it. Maxima is one of those individuals, so as the writer, my job is to explore her ambitions, however unwise they might be, with the depth and complexity of any real human desire. 

Otis Haschemeyer

You immigrated to the U.S. when you were a baby. Can you imagine, like the Dreamers, after having grown up in the US all your life, being forced to go back to a country of some “origin?” How does the idea of “origin” play into your fiction? 

Lysley Tenorio

So I just googled the definition of “origin” and here’s what it says: “the point or place where something begins, arises, or is derived.” Going by that definition, I can’t imagine being forced to return to my birthplace permanently, since I began, arose, and am derived from my experience in America, and no Dreamer should be forced to experience that either, particularly when their origin is in America. This is certainly true for Excel.

I’ve definitely explored the idea of origin in my work. Sometimes it’s done pointedly; in my story, “Superassassin,” from Monstress, a half-Filipino, half-white teen is obsessed with his biracial identity, and tries understanding it through a superhero lens. But origin is so inherent to the material that I sometimes write about it subconsciously, which is how most writers work, I think.

Otis Haschemeyer

This book is about serious things, life and death, oppression and redemption, and of course, the experience of being undocumented. But it’s also very funny and modulated beautifully between finding humor in seriousness and seriousness in humor. How do you manage that balance? Do you have some insights for the aspiring writer, aspiring human, in how to achieve that light balance in a world that, at present, seems to demand either contempt or madness? 

Lysley Tenorio

Sometimes the humor in my work is deliberate, even orchestrated; other times, it plays out on its own, a combination of plot, circumstance, and perspective. However it happens, I look at humor in my fiction as another aspect of emotional truth. It’s not meant to exist as a joke on the page but rather as another honest look at a character’s reality, which hopefully reveals even more about that character’s story.

As for humor in life, particularly in these tough times? That’s not as easy.  But I can tell you that wearing masks in the world makes me realize that Tyra Banks gave the world a tremendous gift when she taught us how to smize (“smile with your eyes”).

Otis Haschemeyer

SPOILER ALERT: Toward the end of the novel, Maxima has a choice, whether to return to the Philippines or remain in the US. What are the ramifications of her choice? 

Lysley Tenorio

This was an extremely difficult moment to write. Not only because I had to figure out the right way to conclude Maxima’s story, but because either choice—to stay or leave—has so much potential consequence off the page. Nothing I write is ever intended to serve as a representation of a collective experience—I don’t think a piece of fiction could ever live up to that responsibility, nor should it.  That said, writers from any particular minority group are sometimes charged (rather unfairly) with that responsibility, so I understand that anything I write might be read with larger societal and cultural implications. So to have an undocumented immigrant contemplate returning to the country of her birth seems to go against what so many undocumented individuals are fighting for. But as a writer, it was vital that Maxima face the emotional reality that life in America, for her, may not be worth the struggle anymore; at the same time, life in her former country may not be viable either.  It’s a tough but honest choice that Maxima has to face. 

Otis Haschemeyer

What’s the one thing you might want to redo or undo about your book?

Lysley Tenorio

I could revise my work forever, so I’m just happy to be done with it. That said, I would love to redo the timing of its release. Publishing a book during the pandemic has been challenging, sometimes depressing, especially after working on it for so many years. And it’s such a tough time for booksellers; though you hear how people are reading more since they’re staying home more, the life of a book—and of bookstores—depends on seeing the book in person, of browsing through the pages, and talking with booksellers about that title. Books like mine depend on that opportunity, which just isn’t possible in these times. That said, I’m grateful and heartened by how booksellers, distributors, and publishers have adapted so quickly, working tirelessly to get these books out in the world. And while it can’t replace an in-store reading, it’s been great to see family, friends, and strangers in particular, show up at Zoom events. To see their faces on the screen, however small, means everything to me right now, as does this conversation about my book. Thanks to The Chicago Review of Books for the space to make it happen, and to you, Otis, for these great questions. Next time I’m in Eugene, drinks are on me.  

Otis Haschemeyer

Thanks LT. I’ll take you up on that. It will be great to catch up with you in person, and congratulations on your wonderful book. 

FICTION
The Son of Good Fortune
By Lysley Tenorio
Ecco
Published July 07, 2020

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