A Mother and Son Scam Their Way Into the American Dream
Lysley Tenorio's novel "The Son of Good Fortune" subverts the trope of the perfect, grateful immigrant
Maxima in the dark. Half-lit by a Virgin Mary night-light and the glow of a screen saver, a slow-motion sweep of stars and planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Earth. Dressed in denim cutoffs and a Mickey Mouse tee, she doesn’t shiver, despite her wide-open bedroom window and the cold night beyond. She sits at the foot of her bed, cleaning her nails with the tip of a switchblade. “May bakas ka bang nakikita sa aking mukha?” she sings. “Masdan mo ang aking mata.” Like all her favorite Filipino love songs, this one is about heartbreak.
Prologues like the one that opens Lysley Tenorio’s The Son of Good Fortune don’t come by often: in tender, vivid strokes, it introduces us to Maxima Maxino, former Pinay B-movie action star, survivor, and undocumented immigrant mother to the book’s protagonist—its eponymous son, Excel, also undocumented.
The adventures these two will undertake, both together and separately—from scamming older white men on the Internet, to arguing with crusty middle-class Filipinx academics, to escaping for dusty off-the-grid towns like Hello City—make The Son of Good Fortune a new kind of Western: an enormously big-hearted and distinctly 21st-century story about just who defines our “outlaws,” and what contemporary America looks and sounds like from the margins.
At the end of our interview, Tenorio mentioned the peculiar reality of publishing a novel during the COVID-19 pandemic: “It’s just really bad timing,” he said wryly. I said, “There’s never bad timing for a good book.”
Elaine Castillo: This is going to be one of those questions that starts off as a comment—the dreaded Question as Comment—I’m that white dude in the audience. For book research, I’ve been in this phase of reading books by white authors that mentioned Filipino characters, so I’ve re-read both J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year and Philip Lopate’s The Stoic’s Marriage, and it’s…interesting: both of them are about white dudes being scammed by Filipina women, in a way that—
Lysley Tenorio: Whoa!
EC: Yeah, exactly. In a way that isn’t in any way, really, interested in the interiority of those characters. The Coetzee does a little bit better, but still, the narrative is not in service to that character. And when I was reading those books, I kept thinking: well, I want to read the book about this supposed Filipina scammer. I want to read the book that’s from the perspective of this supposed Filipina scammer. And when I started to read The Son of Good Fortune, which, I mean, that prologue—hello, welcome to a book! What I realized, without knowing what I was walking into, was that this was that book. This was the book that was about that perspective.
So I just wanted to ask: how did Maxima, her son Excel, how did these characters come to you? How did that world appear to you? Especially a character like Maxima—I mean, I think for most of us in the diaspora, many of us either know this character or are on the way to becoming her.
LT: Well, originally, this novel was about DVD pirates trying to assassinate DVD-sniffing dogs. Based on a true story! In the Philippines and Southeast Asia, there are these dogs that were sort of famous for taking down the DVD piracy underworld, so there was a bounty on these dogs’ heads. So the character that was Excel in the earlier version was this aspiring dog assassin. It was fun to write, and there was a mother who kept appearing in flashbacks—the mother was actually deceased—and as I worked on the book, I realized the most important relationship, and really the most important characters, were this mother and son.
And once I realized, okay, I need to invest in this relationship and figure out the story around this relationship, I knew that I wanted to have a strong woman figure be at the center or near the center of the book. I knew she would be emotionally and psychologically strong—and I think we see that a lot in a lot of immigrant stories, where you sort of have this fiercely strong but also kind of reserved immigrant mother. I wanted that strength to really be externalized, that she be physically formidable [Maxima’s background as a Pinay B-movie action star has left her with considerable fighting skills]; that she be cunning, that she do whatever it takes to make the most of her life.
I’d also been researching these online scams—one website had called it the Filipina Marriage Scam—and I thought, what if Maxima was a scam artist? I was a little hesitant at first about writing an undocumented character who was involved in unethical dealings, right, but, at the same time, I just want to make her an interesting, complicated character—someone who’s willing to do even unsavory things in order to provide her son with a life, and try to fulfill her own life as best as she can.
EC: We have this sort of stereotypical image of immigrants and particularly undocumented immigrants, that there has to be this pose of the perfect, grateful immigrant. This pushes against that.
LT: Yes. And I think that was a conscious decision as I moved forward with the book. One of the things I wanted to address in the book—but I didn’t want to overstate it—was that those who are here, those who are born in the States or are documented, American citizens, they have the luxury and the privilege to aspire to mediocrity; they can aspire to just live their lives in peace and be left alone.
I didn’t want these undocumented characters to be these, like, Nobel-winning scientists in the making. I think all Excel really wants is to be able to walk down the street and not worry. To just have a job, pay his rent. I think Maxima wants more than that, but I think that’s all Excel really wants. And I wanted to write a character who—not that he doesn’t aspire to things or has no vision, but he’s wanting a very basic privilege that so many of us have.
EC: Because it’s such a specific portrait of Colma, and the West Coast, and the Bay Area, when I was reading the book, I also had the impression that I was reading this fantastic contemporary Western, especially with the introduction of Hello City [the off-the-grid town where Excel escapes to for much of the book]. We have this frontier myth of Outlaws and—look, in lockdown time, I’ve been playing a lot of Red Dead Redemption II so outlaw myths are very much on my mind now, anyway. But what I felt when I was reading your descriptions of Hello City and this Western town on the margins, was that this felt like a new way of writing a Western; writing about so-called “outlaws.” Was that in your conceptualizing of Hello City? How did you come to start writing about Hello City into the rest of the narrative?
LT: As I progressed in the novel, I did start thinking of Hello City as a kind of frontier—this kind of untamed landscape where one goes for rebirth or reinvention. For Excel, it’s a place where—at least he believes, anyway—that he can be free. But of course, we realize that it’s still a form of hiding, to be in Hello City. But I did see it as a kind of frontier landscape.
But it was actually based on an off-the-grid city in the desert in Southern California called Slab City. So, a lot of research, a lot of YouTube videos. Slab City was, I believe, a former military base, or it had been intended to be a military base but it was abandoned, and what was left behind were these concrete slabs.
I kind of tweaked that and thought, what if it’s just these helipads with H all over them, so you have this whole landscape dotted with the letter H. And I just thought, what could H mean? So once I started playing with this idea of H—hello, home, hiding, here—Hello City came to me a little more clearly.
EC: Well, it’s interesting, you talking about this linguistic echo with the letter H, hello and hiding, because another thing I found moving in the book was how you use language. It’s a reversal, in a way, of the kind of typical use of non-English words in American literature. I think a lot times, we’ll use—I myself use Filipinx languages, I’ll use Tagalog, Pangasinan, and Ilocano, sometimes without translation, sometimes with translation in context, and that’s kind of the customary way that diasporic writers do this, and you do that as well, but there’s something else you do in the book.
It starts in the beginning of the book: you’ll write what looks like an English phrase, and it is, but to a Tagalog-speaking reader, they’ll hear the kind of Filipino language that’s buried and embedded in that English. So there’s an early description of Excel being “hiding and hiding.” To an English reader, they might go, “Okay, hiding and hiding,” dramatic effect, but to a Tagalog-speaking reader, I immediately heard “tago ng tago” [literally translated as hiding and hiding, but also the Tagalog phrase for undocumented people, also abbreviated as TNT].
It’s a way that I haven’t seen before, of not just writing in other languages, but in understanding the different Englishes that we all operate within. At some point the book describes “unpayable debts”: of course, a Tagalog speaker would hear utang na loob. It’s almost as if you create this kind of ghostly, sort of spectral echo to the English, within English, and also posits this idea that there isn’t only one English, you know—that “English” is also multiple types of diasporic English, itself. I found it inspirational. How did that landscape, that use of language—that soundscape, even historyscape—how did you come to it in the book?
LT: I like your use of the word soundscape, I think that makes a lot of sense. Because—I mean you know this—as Filipino writers, when we want to put in Tagalog in our work, we don’t want to have to accommodate a reader. It just doesn’t feel right: you sort of break the dream and you slip away from the consciousness of the narrative. At the same time, you hope that a lot of the readers can still keep up, somehow; so sometimes you provide context clues, sometimes you don’t… With the Tagalog, I just figured, they’ll get it or they won’t get it, if I can put in a context clue that’s organic to the moment, I’ll do it, otherwise they’re on their own.
But this idea of the English within English, that is something I really had to think about in terms of people like Maxima speaking to other people like Maxima. So what it really was this idea of just closing my eyes and imagining these conversations in a Filipino household: what kind of English would pop out, what are the particular idiosyncrasies of their English, and how do I transcribe that in a way that captures that Filipino English, if that makes sense? In that sense, I kind of just crossed my fingers and did my best to transcribe, hoping that some readers—like you—might pick up on it, and I’m happy to hear that you did.
With non-Filipino readers, they might not pick up on that nuance, but hopefully they can at least find it particular to a voice. So in terms of how I did it, I think it was just a matter of closing my eyes and thinking about Filipino moms we grew up with, family we grew up with, sometimes it was just as simple as that—but really trusting in that moment, this idea of transcription.
EC: The dialogue does feel so lively throughout the book—you do feel like you’re overhearing people’s conversations, as opposed to conversations that seem designed for [a reader’s] kind of comfort and understanding, which a lot of fiction that seeks to translate non-English speech for, essentially, a white audience, can sound like.
LT: Yeah, yeah—I also didn’t italicize, I didn’t want italics in the book for the Tagalog. That was really important to me, not to italicize.
EC: —mm, this refusal to italicize, this refusal to mark as Other Tagalog speech or words for people who are living here, in America. That language is part of the American landscape, and the American linguistic landscape.
EC: You were talking about what Maxima sounds like talking to other people, and of course it brings to mind Roxy [Maxima’s best friend, a trans woman], the person that she’s often talking to the most.
Obviously, reading this as a bi reader—LGBTQ people have always been a huge part of our community and our diaspora, and you have always written about that. I do remember that there’s a short story in Monstress, “The Brothers.” It’s a very difficult story about a cis brother dealing with the death of his trans sibling. And it’s a story in which he does misgender her and deadname her repeatedly. And it does also end with a violent act of trans erasure by the mom, upon the sibling’s body.
It’s painful to read. It’s also profoundly realistic—I’ve definitely had to confront cis dude family members who would misgender and deadname trans Filipinx public figures and trans friends. How did this commitment to portraying queer and trans character in your fiction, how has that evolved from Monstress to now—or has it—and what does it mean to you write about these characters?
LT: Right. You know, “The Brothers” was written a long time ago. I think it was published in 2006, but really I wrote it in like 2002, so—at least in my memory at that time—the idea of deadnaming, I didn’t even know that time. So in recent years when I’ve given readings, I’ve been asked about why would I write about trans issues or a trans character, and there’s deadnaming going on in the story—and I do try to make clear that it comes from the maybe-unrealized transphobia on the part of the narrator.
Nonetheless, I do understand that it’s a very difficult read, especially now. But I did want Roxy to be a trans character because I wanted some kind of stability in the life of Maxima and Excel, and for the idea of stability and normalcy to come in the form of a trans Filipina character… She kind of lives the better life, “the good life,” if you want to say—they go to her for help, and I like this idea that, you know—I try to make my work inclusive, and I wanted to include a trans character because it just—it felt right for their story. But I also understand that it’s such a different climate now that I didn’t want to overstep the lines this time around with the trans character in the way that I think some readers have felt I overstepped with “The Brothers.” So I try to be mindful of the impact that my characters—whatever groups or identities they represent—I do try to be more mindful about it.
Roxy, in some ways, was a character inspired by my own life. Growing up, —you know Filipinos are known for being super social and for having tons of family—but for some reason, we didn’t have a lot of family friends! I don’t know why. But one of the people that did come visit, not often, but at least recurrently, was a trans woman—we didn’t call her trans at the time—a trans friend who would do our hair. And every time she was over, it was like, oh, we have company. And it just felt like—it made me feel normal. Like, oh, just like all my other Filipino friends, we have company coming over. And I thought, what if that was the case for Maxima and Excel? So that’s how Roxy came about.
EC: Roxy as the stabilizing figure pushes back against some of the narratives around trans characters [written by cis authors], which are often overwhelmingly about trans death and trauma; I remember this book that I used to love, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, and I read it when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen. And it was one of the first books that I ever read that had a trans character in it—but looking back at it, that trans character in the book is ultimately killed off in the story [and her death is one of the central tragedies upon which the novel is founded, centering a developing cis hetero relationship]. The spectacle of trans trauma and death as it’s trafficked by cis writers is all-too-common. So the idea of Roxy being this normalizing figure in Maxima and Excel’s lives makes sense—why wouldn’t she be? The concept of trans people not being “normal” is obviously part of transphobia.
When I read the Roxy character, she reminded me of one of my godparents, who—the tricky thing about being in diaspora, is that the epithets are not necessarily the ones that the people themselves might use, just because English is not necessarily their language for self-expression—so this godparent was someone who would probably most closely identify as genderqueer. Queer and trans and nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people have always been an enormous part of what’s often thought of (and of course, still is) a heteropatriarchal Catholic culture; to not show these facets is to not really see the community.
LT: Yeah. I don’t know that [“The Brothers”] is the kind of story I would write now.
EC: It’s good to confront, I think, though—to confront and face—to be able to look back at the work that we wrote, or read, or valued back then; important for our ability to be present in the world now.
LT: It’s evolved, for sure.
EC: I also wanted to know a little bit about genre in the book. There are a lot of mentions of anime and comic books—lots of Filipinx kids grew up on anime, certainly I did—as well as the nod to the Western genre: what were the extra-literary influences that sort of made up the book?
LT: I was definitely thinking about those ‘80s and even ‘90s Filipino action films that sometimes I’d catch glimpses of if I was in a turo-turo joint or on YouTube: it’s the over-the-top-ness, the campiness—that’s just something I’m drawn to in general.
What I’m drawn to with camp, or anything that might seem like camp, is that I love the challenge of taking something that’s mean to be [un]serious, and giving it real emotional weight. So that when Excel, who’s just been beat up by his boss, sees an old movie of his mother’s where she’s climbing out of the rubble after an earthquake hits, he realizes, This is so cheesy, but he’s also in that moment thinking: She’s a tough woman. So I’m drawn to these things that might be seen as lowbrow or low culture and trying to find something emotionally substantial in those things.
Comic books, I grew up with—comic books definitely informed my sense of drama, and hopefully the visual; I try to be a visual writer. So I think those two things really informed not just the book but my writing sensibility.
I tend to overwrite early on, and I go for big drama and melodramatic dialogue, because I always tell my students: When you’re drafting, just go for broke. Be as over the top as you need to be because you’ll always pull back. So that exchange of dialogue that might seem snatched out of that 80s primetime soap Dynasty—so over the top—if you get that on the page, you can find little dramatic moments. You just tame them, and you find little nuances. So these big broad strokes of drama that I so enjoyed as a kid, whether they come from TV or comic books or movies, have in many ways taught me how to write.
EC: I think that’s so apparent in the book, especially in that one scene, when Maxima confronts these academics who are speaking really patronizingly about her life’s work—this work that means absolutely everything to her, and which she does not see with this kind of detached irony. So much of the book, its moral conviction, is about pushing back against that detached irony; going right into feeling.
LT: Yeah. And that to me feels very Filipino. When you’re in the Philippines and you still hear taxis still playing Air Supply or the Carpenters, I mean, that’s meaningful stuff. That’s not kitsch, you know. And even though I didn’t grow up there, I can still feel the emotion of that. I mean, if I’ve had a few martinis and I’m alone in my office, I’m playing the Carpenters. Karen Carpenter singing to me—we can laugh at it, from a more American perspective, but I remember how meaningful those songs were, especially when we were new to the country, and English was not the primary language in the household. How can that be cheese?