With this complex, richly detailed, and accomplished first novel, Jessica Hagedorn confirms for herself a place in the foremost ranks of the growing number of writers who are creating a flourishing Asian American literature. Jessica Hagedorn was born in post-World War II Manila but emigrated to the United States at the age of twelve and has lived in San Francisco or New York since. In the artistic circles of these two American metropolises, she has made a reputation for herself as a performance artist, band leader, radio commentator, and writer; much of her work takes a feminist perspective. Hagedorn visits the Philippines frequently, and her ethnic roots are apparent in all her writings—poetry, short fiction, and now a novel.
“Dogeaters” is unflattering slang for Filipinos, and Hagedorn’s choice of this epithet for her title is probably meant to be defiant and challenging, in the manner of Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men (1980) or Frank Chin’s Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1975). These writers’ titles say something akin to honi soit qui mal y pense. Specifically, Hagedorn’s title defies and challenges demeaning stereotypes of Filipinos as individuals, as participants of a culture, as members of a society. It challenges Filipinos to resist such stereotypes and refuse to allow themselves and their society to be overtaken and dominated by them. Hagedorn’s title is also a double-edged irony against any reader’s smug sense of cultural superiority; for if Filipinos may be disparaged as a third-world people of backward dogeaters, are there no first-world peoples among whom dogs eat their own kind? One need only inquire of Jonathan Swift.
Dogeaters is an ambitious book which sets out to evoke the ugly and dispiriting mood of the infamous Marcos era in the Philippines, roughly the 1950’s to the 1970’s (the first specific date mentioned is 1956 and the last 1967). The book itself is like an epic film in form, lyric in mode, and tragic in development.
The form of Dogeaters has parallels with modern epic novels influenced by film techniques, novels such as Andre’ Malraux’s epic of the Chinese Revolution, La Condition humaine (1933; Man’s Fate, 1934) or his epic about the Spanish Civil War, L’Espoir (1937; Man’s Hope, 1938). Like such works, Dogeaters is populated by an extensive cast of characters intended to present the conspectus of a whole society; indeed, the characters of Dogeaters are drawn from all strata of Filipino life. Like Malraux’s novels, Dogeaters is constructed with a series of montage-like episodes which coalesce into a collage of contemporary Filipino mores. The ambitious inclusiveness of Hagedom’s enterprise can be seen even by a cursory analysis of the social strata represented in the book.
At the very top of Hagedom’s social rung are the President and First Lady. Neither is named, but the First Lady is nicknamed the Iron Butterfly, not far different from Imelda Marcos’ nickname of Steel Butterfly. Hagedorn’s descriptions of the President are also redolent of the puffy, semicomatose appearance of President Ferdinand Marcos in his later years: “The beaming President grunts He hardly moves at all, swollen and rooted to his chair.”
Beneath this couple, three layers of society are represented by extended families. Rubbing elbows with the first family are the thoroughly unlikable Alacrans, a wealthy and well-connected clan. The head of this family is Severo Luis “Chuchi” Alacran, a tycoon who controls or owns newspapers, broadcasting stations, film and recording studios, a department store, a soft drink factory, and even the country club. Fond of reminding people that his family name means “scorpion,” he is as ruthless as he is rich. His wife is a former nightclub hostess who wins a beauty contest, becomes a starlet, and affects the airs of a grande dame after her marriage; hardly a lady even if she is fair; she is a poisonous version of Eliza Doolittle. The Alacrans have a stormy marriage, and they are further disappointed by their daughter Rosario “Baby” Alacran, who is ugly, chews her nails, exudes body odor, breaks out into rashes, and elopes with the vulturelike Lieutenant Colonel Pepe Carreon, a specialist in the torture of political prisoners. It is clear that Hagedorn is highly critical of this uppe, class, which, according to her portrayal, exerts its power by its ability to unleash terror and to control dreams. Carreon and his boss, General Nicasio V. Ledesma, are their agents of terror. The Alacrans’ film studios and their stars (Lolita Luna and Nestor Norales) are the manufacturers of celluloid dreams, an opiate for the masses. Hagedorn portrays this class of people as a contemptible and dangerous oligarchy.
Hagedorn’s sympathies lie fully with a contrasting family on a somewhat lower economic rung. This is represented by Senator Domingo Avila, leader of the opposition to the regime. He is an idealistic populist and the only main character in the novel who is altruistic and who has a vision of the Filipino past, a national identity, and a national psyche. Indeed, his wife is an outspoken professor of Philippine history. In contrast to the ugly Baby Alacran, the Avilas’ daughter Daisy is a beauty, and wins a beauty contest (engineered perhaps by the First Lady), much to the embarrassment of her parents. After the beauty contest, however, Daisy goes into seclusion, weeps incessantly, and then gives a media interview that is scandalously critical of the ruling regime. Senator Avila’s ideology and career bear some resemblance to those of the real- life Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, the husband of President Corazon Aquino, and like Aquino, Avila is assassinated by the regime’s security forces. After her father’s assassination, Daisy, who has by then married and divorced a British financier and become the lover of a guerrilla leader, is arrested, tortured, gang-raped, and exiled with the other members of her family. Daisy, however; returns illegally and with her cousin Clarita (an erotic artist) becomes a guerrilla fighter.
The upper-middle class is represented by the Gonzaga family, from the narrative viewpoint of the daughter, Rio Gonzaga, ten years old when the novel opens, and the character who most closely resembles Hagedorn herself Freddie Gonzaga, Rio’s father, is the central figure of this grouping, and his life is bound up with the Alacrans in that he is the vice president (“chief pimp”) of Severo Alacran’s international conglomerate, Intercoco. Freddie golfs and gambles with Alacran (“we’re related by money”) along with other Manila bigwigs while his wife, Dolores, a Rita Hayworth lookalike, nurses a discreet passion for the Brazilian ambassador. Rio’s cousin, Pucha, voices some of the most meretricious and reprehensible values of her class. A daughter of the less wealthy branch of the family, Pucha wishes to clamber atop the country- club social ladder, marry an Alacran, and get richer in order to realize her Hollywood-Max Factor fantasy of materialistic splendor. Pucha also derives a sense of racial superiority from her Spanish ancestry (somewhat like a May-flower descendant’s pride carried to excess), so much so that she is bigotedly anti-Chinese. Rio, however, wickedly informs her that their Spanish blood sprang from a fornicating friar and that their great-great-grandmother was a Chinese.
In a sense, these ruling strata of society represented by the Alacrans, the Avilas, and the Gonzagas are the top dogs of Philippine society. The underdogs are the working class, victims of their society’s exploitativeness as well as of their own penchant for delusion. Orlando “Romeo” Rosales and Trinidad Gamboa, star-crossed lovers in an empty romance, are Hagedorn’s primary representatives of these proles. Both are youths from the surrounding countryside who have migrated to Manila to seek fulfillment. Lacking both talent and contacts, Romeo unrealistically pursues the dream of becoming a movie star; in reality, he is merely a waiter, forever in attendance, limited to aping one matinee idol or another. Trinidad Gamboa (no Calypso enchantress she) is a homely, gold-toothed cashier who longs to be “devirginated” and who cheerfully allows Romeo to take advantage of her, body and purse. Both of them are captives in the Alacran financial web—Trinidad works in an Alacran...
(The entire section is 3472 words.)