About Jessica Hagedorn Essay, Research Paper
Oscar V. Campomanes
A novelist, poet, multimedia and performance artist. Jessica
Tarahata Hagedorn had been in the United States for only three years (after moving from
the Philippines at age thirteen) when her poems caught the attention of Kenneth Rexroth.
Rexroth, a San Francisco-based artist, encouraged her to hone her writing and edited the
book that first featured her poetry, Four Young Women (1973). Forged in the heat of
the early 1970s ethnic revival, her early forays into poetry, playwriting, and short
fiction employed the psychedelic and rebellious idioms particular to that period.
Anthologized in Mountain Moving Day (1973), Third World Women (1973), and Time
to Greez! (1975), she soon produced her first collection of poetry and fiction, Dangerous
While in San Francisco, Hagedorn took acting lessons and subsequently developed an
interest in the performing arts that was to steer her into multimedia work. Her experience
as a lyricist for a band configured her poetry as one of effect and rhythm, proving
congenial to her interest in interpretive readings and theater, After Joseph Papp produced
her collaboration with Thulani Davis and Ntozake Shange, Where the Mississippi Meets
the Amazon (1977), she moved to New York to work as a playwright and musician,
involvements that stamped her poetry with distinctively performative strains. Papp
produced her first play, Mango Tango, in 1978. She then mounted a score of
productions in New York, from Tenement Lover (1981) to Holy Food (theater:
1988; radio: 1989), as well as one in San Francisco, Teenytown (1990).
Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions (1981), a novella that incorporates a surreal
vignette and seven musical poems, distinguished her as an eclectic and highly experimental
artist. It won her the American Book Award for the same year and helped her secure
Macdowell Colony Fellowships in 1985 and 1986. Another Macdowell fellowship in 1988
allowed her to complete work on Dogeaters (1990).
Pet Food clearly contained the seeds for Dogeaters; this accomplished,
hilarious, and hyperreal, novella is driven by two memorable cinematic moments. A starlet
recounts the sordid sequence of her newest skin flick in which a virtuoso pianist plays
"A Moonlight Sonata" while she performs sex with an anteater and five West
Indians on top of a grand piano. George Sand, the youthful but hardbitten
protagonist-poet, gives form to her morbid desire for patricide and suicide in cross-cut
images of Filipino guerillas slaughtering her politically powerful father and her alter
ego. Character sketches for the top, middle, and bottom "dogs" that populate
Philippine society in Dogeaters inhabit this novella’s world of maladjusted migrant
youths and social deviants. What one critic described as "the cinematext of a Third
World scenario that might be the Philippines" in Dogeaters is first seen in
this ensemble of deftly-spliced "rushes."
The cinematic metaphors are apt since Hagedorn has acknowledged Manuel Puig as an
influence and has now moved into video- and filmmaking. Included in sixteen anthologies of
women’s, ethnic, and third world writing since 1975, Hagedorn made her debut as a
screenwriter with Wasteland (the title was subsequently changed to Fresh Kill), a
feature film produced and directed by Shu Lea Chang.
See also: Robert Rydell, Visions of Empire (1984). "Interview with Jessica
Hagedorn," Dispatch 6, no. 1 (Fall 1987): 14-18. Epifanio San Juan, Jr.,
"Mapping the Boundaries: The Filipino Writer in the U.S.A.," Journal of
Ethnic Studies 19, no. 1 (1991): 117-132. Shirley Geoklin Lim et al., eds., The
Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women’s Anthology (1989).
From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Ed.
Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Copyright ? 1995 by Oxford University Press.
Jessica Hagedorn: Cultivating the art of the melange
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
NEW YORK (December 4, 1996 15:03 EDT) — For the record, Jessica Hagedorn
issued this warning before the scheduled
interview: "It’s not really ‘Lunch With.’ It’s ‘Merienda With.’ "
You see, once, a book critic had upbraided her for failing to translate
"merienda" in her first novel, "Dogeaters." So, this time she was
determined to translate everything that landed on the table, including the dinner rolls.
So (again, for the record), let it be said that merienda is a light,
late-afternoon Filipino feast. And there is perhaps no more fitting place for merienda
with Ms. Hagedorn, a poet, performance artist, rock-and-roll band leader, novelist and
Filipina diva, than Cendrillon. It is a fashionable SoHo bistro, where traditional
Filipino fare is masterfully tweaked; where, with a wink and a touch of culinary genius,
the bibingka becomes a rich souffle of gouda and feta instead of the traditional
water-buffalo cheese, and where the paella is a steaming cornucopia of shrimp, long beans
and indigo-colored rice, instead of the standard long-grain white.
Ms. Hagedorn, 47, doesn’t cook much. But like the brains behind
Cendrillon, she too has cultivated the art of the melange, in life and in literature.
Like the critically acclaimed "Dogeaters" (Pantheon Books, 1990)
and her numerous plays and poems, her second novel, "The Gangster of Love,"
published in August by Houghton Mifflin and scheduled for paperback release by Penguin
next year, is a cornucopia of eccentric characters full of drama, bravado and sass. In the
world of "The Gangster," colonizer and colonized collide, and Americans of
different shades and sensibilities bump into each other, not always pleasantly. And the
spirits of Ms. Hagedorn’s fellow eclecticists — Jimi Hendrix, Frida Kahlo, Sly Stone –
roam through the novel. (Cultural nationalists may be pleased to note that the novel also
traces the Filipino origins of the yo-yo.)
"Maybe it’s the more positive side of appropriation:you take from
many different sources, not to steal, but to pay homage to it, to say these are your
influences, to add your own thing," Ms. Hagedorn said. "I don’t believe in
sampling some Tibetan music just to make it sound groovy, but you do your homework, you
understand what you’re doing with it."
In an interview, the poet and writer Ishmael Reed called Ms. Hagedorn a
"vanguard artist," whose work has crossed over narrowly defined racial
categories and embraced African-American, Latino and Asian traditions. Her two novels, he
said, are "the kinds of novels that will be written in the next century."
"They make the typical American novel look very gray," he added.
Ms. Hagedorn was 13 when she came to the United States from Manila in
1963. Her parents had divorced, and she and her two older brothers were told they would be
leaving in a week. "It was so stunning and strange," recalled Ms. Hagedorn, who
now lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and their two girls, who are 13 and 5.
"We said goodbye to everyone and everything in those seven days."
But America had come to her much earlier — in the shape of rock-and-roll.
At 7, she recalls, she heard Fats Domino and Chuck Berry on the radio. "I was like,
‘What is that?’ " she said. "I responded to it physically. It was a very
Years later, as a young writer in San Francisco, she would have a
similarly visceral reaction to the Beat poets and the black arts movement of the 1960s.
She would be dazzled by the poetry of Leroi Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka. With her
rock band, the Gangster Choir, Ms. Hagedorn would sing the irreverent funkadelic tunes of
Sly and the Family Stone. And she would collaborate with writers like Ntozake Shange and
Thulani Davis on performance pieces in the 1970s (called spectacles, at the time).
In 1978, one of those spectacles brought her to New York City. Soon, the
Public Theater produced several of her performance pieces. And in 1990,
"Dogeaters" was published and nominated for a National Book Award, in the
Since then, she has co-written a screenplay and edited a collection of
Asian-American fiction. These days, she is considering an offer to write a theatrical
adaptation of "Dogeaters" for the La Jolla Playhouse in California and
collaborating with a friend, the film maker Angel Shaw, on a documentary titled,
"Excuse me … Are you a Pilipino?" ("Pilipino" is a humorous
reference to a distinctly Filipino pronunciation. The question posed by the title is one
that Ms. Hagedorn, who is of German, Spanish, Chinese and Filipino ancestry, is frequently
asked by fellow Filipinos, who, much to her chagrin, sometimes disbelieve that she is
Ms. Hagedorn has not always been popular among Filipinos. Many were
outraged by the title "Dogeaters," which is a nasty slang term for Filipinos. At
a reading in Hawaii a few years ago, an avuncular-looking man stood up in the front row.
"He kept pointing his finger, like, ‘J’accuse, j’accuse,’ " she recalled.
"He accused me of wanton disregard for the people."
She didn’t let him finish. "I said: ‘I know, I know. I set the race
back 400 years.’ " Describing the incident, Ms. Hagedorn rolled her eyes. "What
is literature for?" she snapped. "You don’t go to literature and say I need to
feel good about my race, so let me read a novel."
That kind of reaction, she said, "was more about how they were being
viewed by Americans — read white — than it was about anything else." She added,
"It was really insidious."
c.1996 N.Y. Times News Service
? Copyright 1996 The New York Times News Service and ? Copyright 1996 Nando.net
An Interview with Jessica Hagedorn
by Kay Bonetti
Jessica Hagedorn was born in 1949, and raised in the Philippines. At the age of 14 she
moved from Manila to San Francisco, were she became a protege of poet and translator
Kenneth Rexroth. Hagedorn’s work includes poetry, prose, performance art, and music. For
10 years she was the lead singer and songwriter of the Gangster Choir band. Her
multi-media theatre pieces include "Holy Food," "Teenytown,"
"Mango Tango," and "Airport Music." Her first novel, Dogeaters,
published in 1990, received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation,
and was a finalist for the National Book Award. In addition to Dogeaters, Jessica
Hagedorn’s books include a collection of poetry and short prose, Danger and Beauty,
which combines the work from two previously published collections of poetry and short
prose, Dangerous Music, and Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions. Jessica
Hagedorn is also the Editor of Charlie Chan is Dead, a groundbreaking anthology
of Asian American writing.
This interview with Jessica Hagedorn was conducted by Kay Bonetti for the
American Audio Prose Library in April 1994. The American Audio Prose Library has produced
recordings of readings by and Interviews with 126 contemporary writers. For a catalog of
complete listings, call 1-800-447-2275, or write AAPL, PO Box 842, Columbia, MO, 65205.
Bonetti: Jessica Hagedorn, you’ve worked in such a variety of mediums:
poetry, prose, theater, rock ‘n’ roll—with The Gangster Choir—and also film. What
medium are you busy with right now?
Hagedorn: I’m preparing for a multimedia theater piece, Airport
Music, that’s coming up in New York City. And I’ve just finished work on a film, Fresh
Kill, I actually wrote a couple of years ago—you know how long it takes to make a
movie—for an independent filmmaker named Shu Lea Cheang. It was based on a story of
hers, so in that way it was a real collaboration. Most of it is shot in New York City,
which was really a crazy thing to do but we lived through it. And now it’s making the
rounds of festivals and looking for a distributor. And the theater piece which involves
film and slides and soundtrack collages, I’ll be performing in as well.
Bonetti: Dogeaters begins at the movies. You seem to be
fascinated artistically by film. Can you tell me why?
Hagedorn: Because the movies really shaped my life. Growing up in the
Philippines, I loved all kinds of movies. We had a very healthy film industry there when I
was a child. It’s now gotten very limited. They only make action movies and hard-core
exploitation movies. Women get raped; men get shot. But in my childhood, they had all
kinds of movies—to rival Hollywood’s really—musicals, dramas, comedies. They were
wonderful. I would go see those movies faithfully every week. It was my big treat. And I’d
go see all the Hollywood movies that would come to Manila. We didn’t have television until
I was about eight years old, so it was either the movies or radio. A lot of radio drama.
That was our television, you know. We had to use our imagination. So it was really those
two things, and the comics, that I immersed myself in as a child.
Bonetti: In Dogeaters, you make delightful use on many
different levels of Love Letters, the radio serial that Rio’s grandmother is so
enamored with and that Rio listens to in the bedroom off the kitchen late at night while
they eat rice with their hands. The servants come in too, and all socioeconomic lines are
Hagedorn: Right. There were also horror shows on the radio. Very
terrifying and thrilling to me as a kid. They had all these creepy sound effects. They
would come on at ten o’clock at night, and I just would scare myself to death.
Bonetti: Did they import any of the American ones like The Shadow,
or was it all produced in the Philippines?
Hagedorn: We produced our own. The radio was, and still is, a real
instrument of communication there because a lot of people, in the villages way out in the
southern regions, for example, can’t afford TVs. There might be one TV per village, but
with electricity being so scarce, the radio’s still used in the home, or the community
will all listen in to the one radio. Politicians use it. When I covered the elections
there two years ago, the radio was really used as a primary medium for political
campaigning. Can you imagine that here?
Bonetti: You used that radio serial Love Letters in several
ways: to comment on the story that’s happening within the novel and just as a very blessed
incident between the girl Rio and her beloved grandmother. Had you by any chance read Aunt
Julia and the Scriptwriter at that point?
Hagedorn: Yes. I had read it years before when it first came out, and
I loved it. Did you notice the torture scene in Dogeaters, when the soap opera is
used as foreground to a very painful happening in the background? That was the most
difficult chapter to write for me. I think torture is so loaded, you know, that it’s hard
to make it effective. And the radio drama was the way I managed to get through it. For me,
it worked really well.
Bonetti: Absolutely. Vargas Llosa, too, in Aunt Julia uses
the soap opera to great effect.
Hagedorn: Well, I have been definitely influenced more by Latin
American writers than by any other type of writer. They are very close in terms of
voice—their humor, their fatalism, their…well that over-used term "magical
realism." It’s a wonderful term that’s just been used so much we don’t know what it
means anymore. But the way they can use language and visions and surrealism without being
corny, and the humor that’s always there, is very close to a Filipino sensibility. More so
than—now this is a completely personal perception—other writers from Southeast Asia.
Bonetti: What is your particular ethnic background? I would like to
talk about that a little bit because the whole question of what it is to be Filipino runs
throughout your work.
Hagedorn: I’m part Spanish. My paternal grandfather came from Spain
viaSingapore to Manila. On my mother’s side it’s more mixture, with a Filipino mother and
a father who was Scotch-Irish-French; you know, white American hybrid. And I also have on
my father’s side a great-great-grandmother who was Chinese. So, I’m a hybrid.
Bonetti: Assuming that it is you talking in one of your prose pieces
from Danger and Beauty, you’ve actualy described yourself this way: "I was
born in the Philippines. I am a quintessential bastard. My roots are dubious." Where
does the bastard part come from?
Hagedorn: Well, there’s always a bastard in the family isn’t there?
And certainly with the Spaniards, they left a lot of bastards around. I’m an underdog
person, so I align myself with those who seem to be not considered valuable in polite
society. I think for a lot of so-called post-colonial peoples, there’s a feeling of not
being quite legitimate, of not being pure enough. And to me that’s the beauty and strength
of the culture—that it is mixed.
Bonetti: Can you tell us a little bit about the basic mix of cultures.
In Dogeaters, you refer in one section to eighty dialects and languages spoken.
Hagedorn: There are many, many tribes who speak their own dialect but
who have no say in what’s going on in government, for example. So we have to think about
that too. But people speak Tagalog, which is also known as "Pilipino" now—the
nationalists claim it’s Pilipino. Many speak English, and some of the older generation
still speak a very fluent Spanish, because that was part of the culture at one time, or a
mixture of the three. For example, in my household sometimes a sentence could have all
three languages in it at once. It’s not like sometimes we spoke the whole sentence in
English and other times in Tagalog. No, it was all in the language. Like a
"Tag-lish" or something. And there are many, many more languages. When the
Spanish came over to do their colonizing, these islands with disparate tribes suddenly got
lumped together. And not everybody necessarily got along. There was, according to some
Filipino historians, a matriarchal society which was wiped out. Animism was practiced.
Some of the people are highlanders; some are lowland peoples; some are Muslims because at
some point in our history the Arab traders had come through there, so there is a very
powerful Muslim faction in the southern region of the Philippines.
Bonetti: With all the backgrounds that you’ve said are prominent in
your family, why is it that you identify yourself with the Asian experience?
Hagedorn: Because that’s been my experience.
Bonetti: Even though your father was Spanish?
Hagedorn: Yes, but he was Filipino Spanish. There’s a difference. When
mestizos go to Spain, they are looked down upon. "Ah, you live in the
Philippines." You know, it’s a class thing, even if you’re rich. There’s always this
motherland–fatherland bit, and then there’s the colonies. My identity is linked to my
grandmother, who’s pure Filipino, as pure as you can probably get. And that shaped my
imagination. So that’s how I identify. I also identify as a Latin person, a person who has
Latin blood. Certainly, I’m exploring that now. And I’ve lived now in North America close
to thirty years. In terms of my politics, I feel a political alliance too, with the Asian
Bonetti: Can you tell us about the concept of "Kundiman"
that you end Dogeaters on?
Hagedorn: The novel ends on an ambiguous, ambivalent note. There’s a
lot of brutality in Dogeaters, and I think that especially with the suffering
that the character Daisy goes through and the loss of the senator and all the other people
who die or are tortured, and just the daily suffering of the poor there, which is
enormous, the Philippines is still a beautiful country and I wanted somehow to convey
that. So I decided originally that the Kundiman section was going to be the grandmother’s
prayer. I mean, actually, that was one of the titles I thought of, The Grandmother
Prays for Her Country. But I thought, "No, I want to even lift it above a
specific character’s voice, and maybe it’s my voice that speaks at the end. But how do I
convey this sort of longing in this prayer, and the rage? There’s a lot of rage in the
prayer." So I decided on the Kundiman because it’s music in a ballad form. It’s very
melancholy music. It’s a love song often sung, it seems to me, in a way or played in a way
as if the love will never be satisfied.
Bonetti: And what tradition does it come out of?
Hagedorn: "Kundiman" is a Filipino word that describes this
music. But I’m pretty sure around the time it became popular there may have been a Spanish
influence on it. We have little orchestras called rondallas and musicians play
this banjo-like instrument called the banduria. When I finally went to Spain, I
found out the Gypsies play it there and the Spanish have claimed it. But actually maybe
the Arabs brought it, the Moors. And so maybe that’s how it came to the Philippines. Who
Bonetti: How did you come to the shape of this novel, of how you
wanted to present this material? Hagedorn: It pretty much fell into place that
way. It made sense as I was writing it. Whenever, for example, I’d come across a news
clipping that really tickled my imagination I’d say, "Oh God! This really belongs
here!" Rather than try to revise the clipping so that it would read as a narrative, I
thought if it’s a news item, use it as a news item, you know. You can have a novel that is
like a collage, which I feel Dogeaters is. A lot of the ten years thinking about Dogeaters
I worried about the structure. How could the structure also tell that story? A lot of
novels about the Philippines or set in the Philippines don’t cut it at all because they
don’t capture the crazy-quilt atmosphere and the hybrid ambiance that occurs twenty-four
hours a day. Things happening all the time, and noise and crowds and beautiful animals and
amazing flora. At the same time, pollution and urbanization and sophistication and, you
know, the jungle. How do you do all that? You can’t tell it in a traditional way because
the language dies. And also the music of the language itself, the music of the streets.
How do you convey that chaos? So, once I decided to go with it as I found it, I relaxed
because at the risk of alienating some readers, this was the way the novel had to be
Bonetti: You’ve described the "memory of Manila" as
"the central character of the novel I am writing." How much of the Philippines
of Dogeaters, because you left at the age of fourteen, is the product of memory,
as you’ve implied, and how much is the product of augmented memory and research?
Hagedorn: It’s both. I think it’s very important that it’s memory
first because too much research and factual writing can kill a book. I wasn’t trying to
write the absolute "real deal" story of the Philippines. I was only writing
about a certain time frame and also about a certain group of people in a city, you know.
This is not the quintessential Philippines novel. I mean, I don’t know who’s going to
write that. There are many writers there who have grappled with creating the epic
Bonetti: "I am the other, the exile within," you have also
said. Do you think that in some cases, or in your case, it was an advantage to be an
outsider as it were, writing from memory, in order to deal with such a large subject?
Hagedorn: Having distance always helps. It gives you a certain
overview that when you are right up against it, it’s very difficult to make certain
Bonetti: How did you come to the characters that surely were not a
part of your growing up in Manila at all, such as Joey?
Hagedorn: But they were. I mean I didn’t go to those bars when I was
eight years old, but those people were always there. That’s why the book jumps back and
forth in time. When I was old enough and going back to the Philippines more often, it was
the time of martial law when it was very repressive on the surface. At the same time there
was a lot of corruption, and pornography was part of life even though you had this regime
that was trying to present itself as being squeaky clean. Well, it was the height of the
worst moral decay. I was on my own then, so I could explore what I wanted to explore. And
I already had the idea that one day I was going to write this novel, so I made myself open
to a lot of different experiences and met all kinds of people. I wanted to get to that
underbelly because I felt like those were the people who nobody cared about and nobody
thought about and they were too easily dismissed.
Bonetti: Characters like Domingo Avila, who is assassinated, begs
comparison to Ninoy Aquino. And Santos Tirador, the handsome guerilla, has his equivalent
too. What kind of a challenge was it for you to work in a purely fictive way and yet know
that readers were going to recognize some of these people?
Hagedorn: I hear that it’s a wonderful parlor game back home for
people to go "I know who this is!" It’s funny to me because I really did combine
people. Otherwise, it’s too easy. I thought that Avila was the most difficult because he
was the good guy, and good guys for me are hard to write about without making them saintly
and boring. I tried very hard not to make it too obvious. He’s killed in front of a hotel,
for example, not coming off a plane. Anyway, there are so many people like him. That’s
another reason I did not name the president and the first lady purposely. It wasn’t to be
coy. It was that the Marcoses were symbols. They weren’t the only dictators we’ve ever
had. They just happened to have been around the longest, and they were the most public and
the most celebrated and the most reviled. But there have been many victims, many
assassins, and many political assassinations. You just don’t hear about them because it’s
part and parcel of politics there.
Bonetti: Were you conscious at all of this novel being able, at least
on one level, to be read as a dual coming of age novel? It’s Joey’s coming of age, and
it’s Rio’s coming of age.
Hagedorn: Yes, but I didn’t plan it that way. I’m not a writer who
works off an outline. I don’t do file cards. Some writers know where they’re going when
they sit down to write a novel. I know there are certain things I want to include, but I’m
character-driven and if the characters keep moving and living and growing on me, the story
unfolds. It’s like a puzzle which starts falling into place. But I never know where I’m
going when I start. I knew it was going to open in a movie theater. I knew it was going to
be from this young girl’s point of view. I knew that sometimes the character of Rio, the
young girl, would speak in the first person and sometimes she wouldn’t, but I didn’t plan
for the character of Joey to be the only other character who speaks in the first person.
Actually someone had to point that out to me. They said, "Oh, you have the two
Bonetti: What do you think is going to happen to Joey after he finds
himself up there in the mountains? Do you think about your characters that way at all?
Hagedorn: Yeah, I do. But I didn’t want to deal with whether he would
become the good revolutionary or not. I think there’s been so much disillusionment that’s
occurred with the left in the Philippines. And I could see that the point was that Joey is
taught something. Then where he goes from there wasn’t my concern any more. It was going
to be very ambiguous because he could turn into a really awful person once again. This new
knowledge that he has about what’s going on around him doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s
going to become a better person.
Bonetti: It seems that where we leave off with the character of Joey,
in that very ambiguity, you do have fertile ground for questions about the relationship
between the personal and the political. What makes a person become a revolutionary in this
world? There are any number of ways that can happen, and in Joey’s case it was being the
product of a horrifically abused childhood.
Hagedorn: And then the accident of seeing something occur and
realizing he’s been used. But I’m not so sure that he gets to understand it all. That’s
why I wanted to leave it open. I did not want to go the easy way and make him go from
anti-hero to hero.
Bonetti: Is it a uniquely Filipino thing, or just something particular
to him, that Rio’s father is a personof Spanish background living in the Philippines for
several generations and still feels like a visitor, that Spain was still really home? And,
in fact, his mother does still live in Spain.
Hagedorn: His mother lives in Spain, but she’s not a Spaniard either.
Is it a Filipino thing? I don’t know. I really don’t want to generalize like that because
that’s where you start getting in trouble. It’s specific to this character, but there are
many characters like him who are so caught up in the class garbage of feeling that they’re
the colonials in their own country. It’s almost as if the Philippines is a stopping point
and then life will go on once we get to the United States, get our visa and leave. Now,
it’s no longer about going to Spain. That was a particular generation. Now, it’s like
"We’re going to get our visas and split and come to the United States." Because
they have given up on the Philippines, they feel a certain hopelessness and despair, and
they don’t want to stay and try to fight it. They feel it’s a situation that they have no
power to change. Rather than even fighting or voting for someone else or something, they’d
rather leave. So, it’s a comment on that—about living there and always feeling like a
stranger. And maybe that’s a uniquely post-colonial condition.
Bonetti: What do you make of the contrast between Joey and Rio, of how
they both end up not having any control over their lives?
Hagedorn: There are a lot of similarities between the two even though
one came from pure poverty and the other comes from an upper-middle class background and
has access, she thinks, to many other things in the world and to material goods. But even
she has no control on one level. But there is a point where the two of them realize they
might have some control over their lives. They do, in their souls anyway. And she starts
to come to grips with that as the book ends. And he…Who knows? He’s a pragmatist. Joey
is a survivor, that much I’m clear about. Whether he goes back and hustles for the rest of
his life or he really changes. Maybe he gets betrayed again? Because, hey, the left,
they’re not saints either. Or he may end up working for the telephone company. I based the
Daisy character, for example, on a composite of several people, but one of them had been
in the mountains, had fought, had really taken this idea of the revolution very seriously.
But finally, she came down from the mountains, just got burned out and tired of being on
the run. She was one of the most wanted people in the Philippines and by the time I
interviewed her, she was working at a mundane job and seemed to be somewhat at peace with
whatever compromise she had come to. It was completely bizarre because she had been
somewhat of a legend.
Bonetti: People know who she is?
Hagedorn: Yes. Bonetti: And nothing’s happened to her?
Hagedorn: Not anymore, no. She’s not living under an assumed name.
It’s kind of hard to do that in the Philippines. The city itself, you know, they would
know who you were, so she couldn’t do that. So, who knows, Joey could have ended up that
Bonetti: You’ve written that at one point you scorned yourself and
that it was only later, after you had left the Philippines "to settle in the country
of my oppressor"—which you have also said you never thought of as being the
oppressor back then—"that I learned to confront my demons and reinvent my own
history." First, what are the demons you’re talking about confronting?
Hagedorn: The demons of identity are certainly some of the demons I
confront. God, I don’t have to list all my demons, do I Kay? But in that particular
sentence I meant this sort of condition of who am I? I am of mixed blood. Where are my
allegiances? Is there an easy answer? No there isn’t. I wanted to have clarity about what
I was doing. Who am I as an artist, as a woman? Now whether or not I choose to answer
those questions, I still get disturbed by them. Those themes permeate my work, so that’s
part of the demonology of my life. And I think about issues of mortality and immortality.
I’m starting to confront now living in the United States as opposed to living back in the
Philippines. Why I’ve decided to do that. It’s important to me to know why, and would I
die here? That’s my new question. Is this the country where I want to die and be buried?
If so, maybeit’s because this is a country that allows you to reinvent yourself.
Bonetti: The two ideas are interrelated, are they not? Confronting
your demons and reinventing your history in the sense of overcoming false things that are
taught to you by the textbooks when you’re in school? I was intrigued by the sense of
correcting history in your work. Is that what you’re getting at?
Hagedorn: Even revisionists can be cloudy when they revise history, so
I’m very suspicious of that too. It goes back to memory. What we choose to remember is
also colored, don’t you think? How, for example, I elevate the mother to this Rita
Hayworth vision. And the father, who is a more troubled character, but still charming. The
charming gangster. I have these archetypes in my memory. Even my memory is questionable,
of course, but it’s the memory I live with. So, there are things from your childhood that
are always with you, and perhaps they were always an illusion anyway but, yet and still,
you have to be fueled by something.
Bonetti: At the age of fourteen, you were taken by your mother from
Manila out of one very multi-ethnic culture into America, another multi-ethnic culture.
What was that like?
Hagedorn: It was terrible at first. Luckily, she chose to live in San
Franciscoand not in someplace where we would’ve stood out. There was a multi-ethnic
community and, luckily, there was Chinatown, for God’s sake, which we constantly went to.
It was the closest thing to Manila we could find. I was at such a terrible age, so gawky
and awkward, and I didn’t know whether I was grown up or still a child. So it was a weird
time. Also exciting. I mean I had always fancied that I would travel once I was old
enough, and live in many places in the world, so I had that adventurer thing anyway. It’s
just that it happened a little too abruptly. And I was uprooted in the middle of my school
work and I wasn’t ready to go then, it was not the time. Too many adjustments too fast.
But I was also flexible and we all were tougher than we thought. It took a turn for the
better when I realized that one of the positive things about it was that as a female
person, I suddenly had a sense of freedom that I never had growing up in Manila in that
over-protected colonial environment—the girl with her chaperones and everything that
still goes on, that kind of tradition. And even though girls are not discouraged from
going to school, they’re still expected to marry and have a family and that’s the subtext
of everything. In America, suddenly I was free from those shackles. And because my mother
was preoccupied with trying to make a new life for herself, reinventing herself at age
forty, she could not control me as much as she would have liked too. So there was a pay
off for me.
Bonetti: Was this when you started writing?
Hagedorn: I started writing seriously then. I had always written. As a
child, I loved to read and I always thought of myself as a writer. You know, I was very
dramatic. I would write little poems and I loved to make little comic books. I would
illustrate them, four-page comic books, and thought of myself as a writer. When I was
fourteen, my mother gave me a typewriter, thank heavens, and I guess she thought that
would be a healthy way to keep me at home. I would type poems and read.
Bonetti: And then I’ve heard that somebody in your family sent them to
Kenneth Rexroth? How did that come to happen?
Hagedorn: We had a family friend who knew a lot of what was going on
in San Francisco. He would come over and I showed him my poems because he was a reader, so
it was nice to talk books with him. And he gave them to a journalist friend of his who
thought to send them to Rexroth. Kenneth at the time was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle,
I think, or The Examiner, one of those papers. He’d write about whatever he
wanted, always about art and culture with a little bit of politics thrown in. He called up
and said, "Why don’t you and your mother come for dinner?" He had a daughter my
age, and it turned out he lived in the neighborhood. So it all fell into place. I found
out that he was this wonderful poet and semi-controversial, which of course appealed to my
rebellious nature and I thought, "Oh, yummy, you know. It’s not some corny old
guy." He became something like my mentor in that he had all these books, thousands of
books. Poetry, novels. And he said, "Just come over here whenever you want. You can
borrow books." He would invite me out with his daughter to go to readings and to do
all these beatnik things like go to a book store at nine o’clock at night, which I was
just so thrilled by. And he’d get me books and he’d say "Here, you should read
this." He wasn’t didactic about it. He just said, "You should look at Mallarme.
Look at the French surrealists. Look at this." I guess he trusted my intelligence
enough to know he didn’t have to lecture me. And I would sit in on his classes at San
Bonetti: Is there a reason why you didn’t go on to college?
Hagedorn: I don’t like academic settings very much. I find them
oppressive. I like learning in a much more unconstructed way. I also was very interested
in the theater at the time. One thing Kenneth showed me by turning me on to all these
writers who were not much older than me, who were writing what to me seemed very exciting
at the time, was that you didn’t need to have a college degree to be an artist. It was,
you know, the sixties. So, I turned my back on it and went instead to the American
Conservatory Theater, a two-year acting and theater arts program.
Bonetti: So you did go on to school. You went to a conservatory
Hagedorn: Yeah. There were no degrees though. It was practical.
Bonetti: What about that, being practical? Did you think atall in
terms of writing and theater as something you could earn your living doing?
Hagedorn: I was very naive. I always thought I would eventually make a
living. And I had a very romantic notion of art, that it was a higher calling. I had all
kinds of jobs. I worked at Macy’s. I worked at the post office. But I always sort of had
faith that one day I would make a living off the writing or the acting or directing. It
didn’t bother me. It was a great time when you could live with ten people in one room. It
Bonetti: So where did the fiction fit in to your work? Taking on a
novel is a very daunting, long term task.
Hagedorn: What made me want to write a novel was reading One
Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez. I was turned on to that by a friend from
Mexico who gave me the book. It was like holy communion or something. I said
"Yes!" Here is a novel that reads so lyrically and so poetically, and yet is a
novel. It’s a wonderful story. You want to know what happens to these people. And at the
same time I saw the connection for me. It was like the Philippines was something I was
carrying around and I didn’t know what art form it would take to convey the story I wanted
to tell, and I read that book and said, "That’s it. One day I’m gonna do it." I
started devouring all the other writers that were being translated at the time—Manuel
Puig, Cortazar and others. I went on a frenzy. The early `70s was the Latin American boom
in translation. And I would buy them as they came out. And I stored all of that away.
Bonetti: Is there anything that you can identify that you bring from
the poetry and from your love of music into the fiction?
Hagedorn: Rhythm. And I think the love of language, the sheer word
play. I love words. The sound of words, and puns. It’s very Filipino too. Filipinos love
puns and word plays and they love language, the intonations and the nuances. They take it
seriously. They also play with it.
Bonetti: A subject that we’ve only touched on is the question of
Hollywood and the movies,the American movie industry, on the culture that you grew up in.
It seems as though the Philippines were really swept away by American movies in terms of
expectations and a particular view of the world. And this has been noted as a phenomena
that happened other places too, like in South America. And you’ve continued to have a
great interest in the power of film.
Hagedorn: I think it was a great colonial tool. Even if it was
entertainment, and it was, an industry that was begun out of a desire to entertain and to
make money. Somewhat innocent in that way, crass but innocent. Yet, I think it’s a
wonderful way to seduce the minds and the hearts of people. It’s a very powerful medium.
You sit in the dark. Everything is larger than life. It tells a good story in a short
amount of time. It’s very easy to be swayed by it. It’s as close to life as you can
imagine. And yet, there’s something magic about it because everybody looks good.
Everybody’s a giant. And it’s beautiful or it’s hyper whatever-it-is. It’s hyper-ugly,
Bonetti: And it instructs us about how we are supposed to see
ourselves and how we’re supposed to see the world? In speaking of this very factor in
Dogeaters, John Updike said, "A borrowed American culture [borrowed from the movies
he's talking about] has given Filipinos dreams but not the means to make dreams come
true." And that you as a writer are as good as anybody he’s ever come across in
showing the impact of the movies on, as he put it "the young minds of the third
world." And you didn’t have any corrective, any North American corrective when you
walked out into the streets of Manila afterward. Can you say how this shaped the
generation you grew up in? Do you think that the American movie culture had anything to do
with keeping people from seeing what was really going on around them?
Hagedorn: No, that’s sort of minor. I think we all need our escapes.
But I’m not going to say that just because you can run into an air-conditioned theater for
two hours out of the day to escape from the heat and the oppression and lose yourself
that, you know, the movie musical is the root of our problems.
Bonetti: But is there a way in which Hollywood shaped Filipino
Hagedorn: In our notions of beauty, OK? These Gods and Goddesses of
the West were constantly being fed to us. They didn’t look like us. We thought they were
exotic. I remember the first time I saw a woman with red hair and blue eyes in the
Philippines. I just couldn’t stop staring. And even in our own movie industry, the big
stars of the time were the people with the more refined features. You weren’t going to get
the pure Filipino look on the screen. They would always get the lighter mestiza. A lot of
cultural shame is reinforced by these movies.
Bonetti: As a writer you have made film a central part of your
Hagedorn: For other people perhaps it was something else that brought
them to certain conclusions about their lives and their identities. But, for me, film was
truly one of the more powerful sources of entertainment, enlightenment, disillusionment.
So, I use it a lot. In the writing of Dogeaters, especially, the movies were
there because they were absolutely part of the fabric of my memory. Once I found that key,
all the doors started swinging open in my imagination.
Bonetti: In Charlie Chan is Dead, an anthology of Asian
American literature that you recently edited, you wrote that you were "eager to
subvert the very definition of what was considered fiction." I’m interested in
knowing what you meant by that. How do you feel your own work subverts the very definition
Hagedorn: In Dogeaters, the easiest way to answer that one is
the way I use what are considered factual documents. For example, the McKinley Speech is
not a fiction, it’s a real speech he made in 1898. There’s also an Associated Press
bulletin called "Insect Bounty" that’s real as well as a fiction that I made up.
And there are fake newspaper items along with real newspaper items with real people’s
names, and it all fits into this sort of novel form. I play with what is considered fake
and made up and actual facts of history. I think, too, in the way I use language. In the
fact that I use Tagalog without a glossary. The story is not linear. It doesn’t follow the
traditional form of a novel, and the time frame isn’t clear. It goes around and around. I
go back and forth between the fifties and the eighties, quite comfortably I think.
Bonetti: Is there any sense in which you are writing for a purpose, to
correct stereotypes or to reinvent history in a way that corrects wrongs?
Hagedorn: If I were to write with that agenda in mind, then I’d
destroy the writing. No, I write really because I have to and if the writing also destroys
some of those myths and subverts forms and makes people question the very idea of the
writer, the woman, the Filipino-American, the whatever, great!
Bonetti: Where does art have to come from to accomplish those kinds of
ends? If you set out directly to accomplish them, you probably wouldn’t have writing that
is, in your opinion, worth reading? So, where does it have to come from?
Hagedorn: It has to come from the deepest, deepest, deepest insides of
your soul. And it’s got to be brutally honest. It’s like pornography. You know it when you
are doing it and you know when you’re bullshitting. You know when you’re being
self-conscious and contrived and forcing something to be there because you want to make
sure that people get the point. You know when that’s happening. But if you just really
listen to yourself and to your characters, you don’t go for the easy stuff.
Bonetti: The other major art form that we haven’t talked about yet is
your involvment in the world of music. As I understand it, for a number of years you had a
band called The Gangster Choir. Is that right? Can you tell us about that, and
what kind of an influence this experience has had on your life as a writer?
Hagedorn: I formed the band in 1975 because I was a poet at the time,
very active in doing live readings and starting to think about readings as performance. We
didn’t have all of those terms in the Bay Area like "performance art," which to
me is a very East Coast kind of label. We just did it. But I knew there was something more
I wanted to do than stand up there with a piece of paper or with a book and read. So I had
an idea that maybe there was a way to work with a band. I had heard a little bit of The
Last Poets, for example, who actually had a record. And I got very excited by the
idea of the spoken word to music. So, you could call this rapping before its time.
Bonetti: How did the band actually come about?
Hagedorn: I called Julian Priester, a composer friend of mine, and
asked him to help me get some musicians together. I didn’t really think the musicians
would go for it, but they all showed up. We started rehearsing. Julian and I wrote three
things that had chorus parts, so we included singers. It was such a wonderful experience I
decided to just go for it. Whenever I could, if there was a performance coming up or a
reading where they could actually have the entire band there, I would include them and we
became sort of a fixture in the Bay area poetry-and-music scene. And the band in various
forms grew to nine or ten people, full horn section, electric guitars, bass, back-up
singers. You name it, we had it. It lasted for around ten years and when I moved to New
York, a couple of the people moved with me and we re-formed again, dropped the "West
Coast" from The Gangster Choir title and just called ourselves The
Gangster Choir. And we worked in all the clubs. You know, there was the New Wave
scene, CBGB’s, the Mudd Club, all that. And we had to become more
musical. And I just figured, if Sid Vicious can sing, I can sing too. It was very
liberating for me, and the band became more streamlined and edgy. It was an interesting
time to be around with a band in the `80s. Part of that will be covered in my next novel I
hope, one I’m working on now.
Bonetti: But allthis was while you were working on Dogeaters?
Hagedorn: My daughter was born in the `80s, and I reallywanted to
begin working on the novel. Maybe having a child made me realize that I might be old
enough to attempt a mature work. And there was a point where I said, "I cannot be
everything and do everything and write a novel. Something’s got to go." I knew the
novel was going to be a big undertaking, and I had to be alone to really focus. So the
band was disbanded. But I still work with music when the occasion is right. Last year, I
went to San Francisco for a music festival and they asked me to put a band together. They
gave me a budget to hire local people. It was great. So now from time to time I’d like to
continue performing because it’s a different kind of high when you perform musically. It’s
just such great fun, and with good musicians it can elevate the words to another level and
enhance the poetry, and it’s marvelous!
from The Missouri Review