When Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn (HAY-guh-dohrn) saw her first novel, Dogeaters, nominated for the 1990 National Book Award, it propelled her to prominence in American letters, but her status was the product of decades of gestation. She once said that she had “been writing pretty much all my life,” noting that her grandfather, too, was a writer and that she wrote four-page “little novels,” as she terms them, at the age of six and seven. Although she emphasizes that she always wanted to work in theater, as a performer, writer, or director, her early literary effort was directed toward poetry.
Hagedorn emigrated to San Francisco in 1961. She expressed her gratitude to Kenneth Rexroth for his help and encouragement in her dedication to him of Danger and Beauty. An even more seminal influence at that time was the milieu of what she terms the “artists of color” in the Bay Area. She has singled out Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis as particularly valuable to her career development, as both a writer and a performer, and acknowledges the early work of Winston Tong and Ping Chong’s Nuit Blanche (pr. 1981). Because she wished to see family in Manila during the years of martial law, she visited the Philippines as often as twice a year. Her emotional ties to the country of her birth remain strong, constituting a marked cultural influence. To finish Dogeaters, for example, she returned to Manila for a few months in 1988.
Instead of attending college, she set out to realize her ambition to work in the theater by training with the American Conservatory Theatre. The regimen encompassed mime, acting, fencing, martial arts, and t’ai chi, a perfect program for Hagedorn, whose works’ prominent characteristic is eclecticism. She considers herself a...
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