Stephen Tenorio Jr. is a multi-talented person. He is a writer, painter, attorney, and a former JAG officer. He comes from the Marianas, a place so close to his heart that it provided the setting for his novel, ‘An Ocean in a Cup’. Do you want to know more about the book? Read the interview.
Pasifika Tales: If you were to summarize the plot of your book, ‘An Ocean in a Cup’, in just a few sentences, what would you say?
Stephen Tenorio Jr.: A story cataloging a young and good-hearted man’s life in the beautiful Marianas islands, tribulations of human behavior in small islands, and the haunted state he endures caused by an unknown illness that often overwhelms him with despair, anxiety, and fear. Beneath the general plot, there is layer of consciousness, and then other layers beneath.
PT: Tomas, the protagonist of the book, is a very interesting character. Who or what was your inspiration?
STJ: Tomas is somebody many young islanders in the mid to late 70s on Guam were encouraged to be – respectful, humble, a hard worker, and helpful. In some ways, maybe he is Charon for the reader, or a demurred Beatrice or Virgil.
PT: Did you also have your sources of inspiration for supporting characters? Because I must admit they are as intriguing as Tomas.
STJ: Most of the characters are based off actual people I’ve met or knew about, even the bad ones. Some of the dialogue are comments or perceptions I remembered, and human interaction that were brought to my attention or I observed first hand.
PT: You’ll probably agree that your novel is not an easy read. It’s a multi-layered story that every reader might interpret differently. Was this your aim from the beginning?
STJ: I thought that the ‘multi-layering’ would have been apparent the first time I tried to get it out in the public because the novel is entrenched with rows of symbolism and prose. I think the first chapter was demonstrative of the level of reading the reader had to manage. Interestingly, several years after publication, I met three people (by happenstance, at different times) on Guam who read my book and all went to a US college in the east coast. They all conveyed they were familiar with my literary style of writing because their studies included a list of interpretive fiction. Since, I’ve had this liberal presumption that interpretive fiction has a wider audience on the east coast in the US.
Interpretive fiction is not new with respect to literature but like calculus it is distinct from its brethren within its own discipline. And like calculus, interpretive fiction will attract only those invested into its critical and complex nature because it is taxing on the mind.
Generally, the feedback has been consistent in that the novel reads as interpretive fiction. Interpretive fiction separates from the ‘escapism’ type of work most people are familiar because it requires the reader to ‘stop, think, and reflect’. Even a simple online search is telling: interpretive literature is described as a fictitious narrative to illustrate one or more practical truths, moral principles or codes of ethics. Unfortunately, its anatomy is incapable of being an ‘easy read’.
I’ve had some college students tell me that the novel seems like a collection of short stories, each chapter having its own parable or moral lesson. I regard that as a good perspective that explains the novel’s multi-faceted structure.
At times, I get comments that the novel’s level and nature of reading is similar to Joyce, Proust, Faulkner. Others tell me the layering reminds them of theological narratives dense with passages that are heavy with symbolism. Again, the consistency towards interpretive fiction surfaces.
I intended my work to be full with euphony. I wanted the aesthetic of each paragraph or chapter to be able to survive independently in a coherent literary state without the support of the novel in its entirety. I wanted the reader to be able to tear a page or chapter out and that page or chapter, in itself, would contain layers of literary pieces that would offer the reader value.
But above all, I wrote for the student – when I was a literature teacher, I realized there wasn’t enough good Pacific Literature pieces that challenged the reader to truly reflect on human nature and engage their critical thinking skills from narratives that represented the Marianas. So yes, the design included multi-layers, aesthetics, euphony, and symbolism as pillars of the composition.
Interestingly, I offered some teachers free novels – they just didn’t take them, even a classroom set for resource. I only had one high school teacher take me up on the offer. Ironically, this was a type of experience that would have likely made it into the novel. (So if you know a teacher interested in a class set, I think I have one or two I could send).
I didn’t set out to write interpretive fiction. I just wanted to tell a story in an artistic way. Like a child, the novel matured on its own.
PT: What should readers take away from Tomas’s story? Is there a message you wanted to convey?
STJ: I think the ‘take-away’ to finishing the novel is similar to the internal take-away you may get from completing a marathon or summiting a mountain. The satisfaction you get from accomplishing such a challenging task is the reward of completing something difficult while not being so verbose about the fibers of the achievement. This novel is like a marathon for the mind or a mountain for an introspective person.
A friend once said about my novel – ‘There are some things that made me really think about stuff. Some paragraphs I kept reading over and over because it made me re-think about how we see things back home.’ Interestingly she told me it took her about three-in-half months to finish the book, because she kept going back to re-read the marked paragraphs and taking her time before moving on to the next page. She seemed solemn about her reflections — I think her experience hit it right on the nail for me about how to finish the novel.
Often I do get specific comments about how some parts remind readers about certain hypocrisies of island life, a couple of times I’ve been told some of the characters reminded a reader of their grandparents as to the values they held – or mentors that advocated a principle about life they prized. One professor noted that I described ‘Chamorro-isms’ in my novel. In these instances, I am happy that some of my readers connected the fiction to their personal life or thoughts. These revelations are on target. It’s a great feeling to know these connections are surfacing.
Finally, I have those who just like reading passages and have no regard for the novel as a whole. They describe my work as flowery and poetic. They might not know the story at all or discovered any revelation in the novel, but instead were just entertained or affected by the euphony and prose. It’s fun to hear this type of feedback discussing the aesthetic appeal about the prose. The comments are beautiful layered frostings on a plain cupcake.
PT: Your book is set in the Marianas and is beautifully adorned with Chamorro words, which add authenticity to the whole story. How important was it for you to incorporate the local language into the narrative?
STJ: The selection of Chamorro words was predominantly driven by euphony. Sometimes, I spent days reconstructing the preceding paragraphs before the introduction of a Chamorro word so the reader could experience the optimal pleasantness in learning or reading that Chamorro word.
For example, ‘gamson’ in Chamorro means octopus. It’s such a pleasant word to say and the definition brings an active and vivid image to front. I remember reconstructing the entire story of that section in the novel just so the Chamorro ‘gamson’ would appeal to the reader.
I wanted Chamorro words that somebody in some other country could read and experience enjoyment. A word that would stick in the mind because it was pleasant to say and rewarding to know what the word meant.
PT: You are from Guam. Would you agree with me that there are very few local authors recognized by a wider audience? Do you think this can be changed?
STJ: Most of the people I have met that enjoyed my novel and would discuss it in part were readers who yearned for that deep dive into ponderous thought and critical reflection. Coupled with the literary density of my novel, my presumption is that my novel won’t get much traction in the general audience because of its literary persona. Again, interpretive fiction is an acquired taste and the opposite of the more popular and welcomed ‘escapism’ fiction. So access to a wider audience for my work will always be challenging because although its good and valued reading it is not necessarily fun reading.
As for local authors — in general — I’ve experienced the challenges that lay ahead for them in the local community. Notably, there is enough fictional work on Guam to have a secondary curriculum dedicated. Yet in light of the available work, we are still far from getting anything established near the levels of other ethnic and cultural communities that promote their local authors on a consistent platform that impacts the ‘wider’ audiences. Unfortunately, I don’t have any point of reference to offer advice on how local authors can gain a wider audience outside of Guam.
Can it be changed – on Guam in getting a wider audience? I tried to change it, in some ways, but I had no success. Before leaving Guam, I had some good insight into what type of books appealed to the island, based on consumer data someone shared. Additionally, some seasoned librarians also shared with me their thoughts about the degree of penetration the libraries have on the island. This knowledge allowed me to have a new perspective about the challenges authors may have on Guam in promoting their work. It’s a labor of love.
PT: Which Pacific authors should people be reading?
STJ: I am a big fan of Jose Rizal. I have him up there with Steinbeck and Dickens.