Jessica Hagedorn Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Jessica Hagedorn was born in the Santa Mesa district of Manila in the Philippines in 1949 and spent her childhood in the midst of a family that considered literary and artistic activities to be a vital part of life. As a child, Hagedorn was influenced by her mother, an artist, and by her grandfather, a writer and political cartoonist, as well as by a cultural milieu that included American movies, Tagalog radio melodramas, and classic literature in the Western tradition. Hagedorn recalls attempting her first “novel” at the age of eight, writing “The End” on the last page of the little “books” she created. When she was thirteen, her parents divorced, and her artist mother moved to the United States with their three children and settled in San Francisco, where the young Hagedorn continued writing poetry and creating comic books. When a family friend sent samples of Hagedorn’s poetry to the poet Kenneth Rexroth, he became a mentor, giving her permission to sit in on his creative writing classes at San Francisco State University and taking her with his own daughter to poetry readings. Rexroth encouraged her to read widely and to continue writing and included her work in Four Young Women, a collection that he edited in 1973.

Growing up in the San Francisco of the 1960’s, Hagedorn was immersed in the diversity of the city and inspired by the growing multicultural consciousness that pervaded both the literary and social environments. Among the authors whose work she read and now cites as influential are Amiri Baraka, Gabriel García Márquez, Bienvenido Santos, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Ishmael Reed. Through her involvement with San Francisco’s Kearny Street Writers’ Workshop, she deepened her awareness of and empathy with her own literary and historical heritage as an Asian American. These influences, together with those of her childhood in Manila, ultimately led to the unique brand of performance writing for which Hagedorn is known.

Hagedorn very early took an interest in the performing arts; her first stage appearance—at sixteen—was at the Straight Theatre in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Instead of going to college, she decided to enter the two-year theater arts program at American Conservatory Theatre, where she studied acting, as well as martial...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Born and raised in the Philippines, Jessica Hagedorn experienced the United States through the eyes of her mother and through images provided by American textbooks and movies. “The colonization of our imagination was relentless,” she has said. Only when she started living in California in 1963 did she begin to appreciate what was precious in the Filipino extended family, a cultural feature partially left behind. In California, she began to feel allied with persons of various national origins who challenged American myths. Kenneth Rexroth, who had been patron of the Beat generation in San Francisco during the 1950’s, introduced her to the poets who gathered at the City Lights bookstore. In 1973, Rexroth helped her publish her first poems, later collectively titled “The Death of Anna May Wong.” Her principal concern was the exploitation of Filipino workers.

Her poetry became more and more influenced by the rhythms of popular street music. In 1975, she gathered together a volume of prose and poetry called Dangerous Music. That same year Hagedorn formed her band, The West Coast Gangster Choir, and sang lyrics of her own invention with them. In 1978, she left San Francisco without her band and established herself in New York City. There, along with Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis, she performed her poetry at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. In 1981, Hagedorn published her second collection of mixed prose and poetry. During the 1980’s she worked on her first novel, Dogeaters, which exposes corruption in her homeland as a result of Ferdinand Marcos’ years of “constitutional authoritarianism.” Dogeaters is also a novel that she has described as a love letter to her motherland. The characters in her novel for the most part are trapped by consumerism; this plight is caused by the Filipinos’ long history as a colony and by their dreams of success, which too often come from American soap operas. Hagedorn’s work is devoted to substituting for such stereotypes the complexities visible among people in Metro Manila and the urban reaches of the American coasts. Her anthology, Charlie Chan Is Dead, signifies a new image for Asians.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn was born in the Santa Mesa district of Manila in the Philippines. She grew up in an artistic family. Her mother was a painter and her maternal grandfather was a writer. At the age of six, Hagedorn started writing four-page “novels.” After she immigrated to the United States in 1963, she studied mime, acting, fencing, martial arts, and tai chi at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, California. Her regimen prepared her for a career as a performance artist. In 1975, she created the West Coast Gangster Choir, renamed the Gangster Choir after she moved to New York City in 1978. The group disbanded in 1985, but from 1988 to 1992, Hagedorn continued working and joined the trio Thought Music. In 1990, Hagedorn became a commentator on National Public Radio’s weekly news broadcast Crossroads.