Tenorio’s The Son of Good Fortune (Ecco, July.) takes a searing and humorous look at an undocumented Filipino mother— a former action movie star—and her pizza-slinging son.
Joker, Maxima’s childhood martial arts instructor, was a grandfather figure to Excel despite their having no blood relation. How do you define family?
Family is whoever. It’s whatever you want, though it demands some degree of investment, concession, and sacrifice. All families require that. While writing this novel, I was interested in the ways family members struggle to find common ground when things are difficult and emotionally fraught, and when they clash on individual needs and desires.
By leaving the Philippines while pregnant with Excel, Maxima attempts to go to great lengths to improve her child’s future prospects. However, her unforeseen early labor keeps him from being born in the U.S. What did you set out to express about citizenship, immigration, and vulnerable populations??
I hope my novel shows immigrants as complicated individuals whose needs and ambitions go beyond nationality. Their status informs their experience, but it doesn’t dictate it. Excel and Maxima get sidetracked by daydreams of love, fame, and adventure, and make mistakes and score small victories along the way. They’re human. As basic as that concept is, it feels important at a time when Asians and Asian-Americans see their dignity and humanity at risk.
First, though, I think our obligation to vulnerable groups is to affirm that their humanity is vital and deserving. In this time of Covid-19, for example, I’m thinking of vulnerable people who are helping society survive in ways they always have—grocery store employees, postal workers, restaurant staff, public transit operators. It’s nice to call them heroes, but I imagine most would prefer to be safe at home.
Excel derides one of Maxima’s old films as “bad art.” Does truly bad art exist?
I think an artwork’s value is determined by how a person experiences it. Excel initially thinks Maxima’s Filipino action movies are ridiculously cheesy, but later, when he understands how much he really needs her, he’s able to see, while watching one of her films, just how physically strong and emotionally resilient she is. That he can hit the pause button and literally freeze that moment in time, is quite powerful. Even “bad art,” in an unexpected context, can create an experience that is meaningful, potentially life-changing, and beautiful.