Jessica Hagedorn Hagedorn, Jessica - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jessica Hagedorn 1949-

(Full name Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn) Filipino-born American novelist, playwright, poet, short story writer, nonfiction writer, screenwriter, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Hagedorn's career through 2003.

A prominent figure in contemporary Asian American literature, Hagedorn is widely respected as a postcolonial author whose works grapple with issues of power and identity in Filipino society and among Filipino American immigrants. Using characters and situations that evoke the grittier aspects of urban street life, her works treat such themes as cultural and economic imperialism, ethnic and gender identity, violence, and political corruption. Known for blending stylistic elements from disparate literary genres—poetry, fiction, music, and performance art—Hagedorn utilizes a unique collage-like format to examine the influence of popular American culture on the development of Asian American identity. Her best known works include Dangerous Music (1975), a collection of poems and stories based on her childhood experiences in the Philippines and as a young immigrant in the United States, and Dogeaters (1990), a comic novel set in the Philippines of the 1950s.

Biographical Information

Hagedorn was born in Manila in the Philippines on May 29, 1949. She was raised during the reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose reputation for brutality and corruption led to his exile from the Philippines in 1986. Hagedorn immigrated with her mother to the United States in 1963, eventually becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. Hagedorn's family settled in San Francisco, where she attended the American Conservatory Theater, studying acting, fencing, and martial arts. In 1973 a grouping of her poems—titled “The Death of Anna May Wong”—was published as part of the collection Four Young Women: Poems, edited by noted poet Kenneth Rexroth. In 1975 Hagedorn formed a performance rock band, The West Coast Gangster Choir, which became known for their theatrical multimedia productions. Hagedorn moved to New York City in 1978, renaming her band The Gangster Choir and pursuing a career as a performance artist. While in New York, several of her plays were professionally produced, including Mango Tango (1978), Tenement Lover: no palm trees/in new york city (1981), and Holy Food (1988). During this period, Hagedorn also founded the music and performance art group Thought Music. In 1988 Hagedorn travelled back to the Philippines to finish her first novel Dogeaters. She later returned to the Philippines in 1992 as a journalist covering the national elections. Since 1990, Hagedorn has been a regular commentator on Crossroads, a weekly news program broadcast on National Public Radio. Her works have received numerous awards and honors, including the 1983 Before Columbus Foundation Award and an American Book Award for her poetry and prose collection Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions (1981). Dogeaters also won an American Book Award as well as receiving a nomination for the 1991 National Book Award.

Major Works

Hagedorn's poetry adapts the Beat style of Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, and others from the counterculture movement of the 1960s to express the postcolonial consciousness of a Filipino woman. Her poems—often structured as character monologues—act as literary surrogates for women alienated by patriarchal society and Asian Americans trapped between two divergent cultures. The title of “The Death of Anna May Wong,” Hagedorn's contribution to Four Young Women, refers to an Asian American film actress whose career spanned from the era of silent films to well after World War II. In her films, Wong played stereotyped Asian women, exotic and mysterious villainesses with excessive, stylized gestures, who were present in generations of American motion pictures. The impact of mass-media representations on cultural and racial groups, particularly the portrayals of Asian Americans in Hollywood films, has become a recurring theme throughout Hagedorn's poetic and literary works. Another of Hagedorn's frequent motifs is popular music—her first solo poetry collection, Dangerous Music, utilizes the rhythms of jazz and rock music to examine her childhood in the Philippines and San Francisco. Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions collects more examples of Hagedorn's sexually-charged poetry, including a depiction of a transvestite with a blue wig, an earthy hymn to reggae singer Bob Marley, and a sado-masochistic declaration of female liberation. The collection also presents the comic novella Pet Food, which follows George Sand, a Filipino American teenager who lives a bohemian lifestyle in San Francisco, surrounded by street denizens, artists, pornographers, and drug abusers. In 1993 Hagedorn published Danger and Beauty, a retrospective selection of her poetry from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Though Hagedorn first attracted attention as a poet, her early career is particularly marked by her theatrical works, beginning with Chiquita Banana (1972), a one-act play satirizing the actress Carmen Miranda. Incorporating elements of musical productions and performance art, Hagedorn's plays typically present darkly comic ruminations on popular culture, racial and gender identity, and the immigrant experience. For example, Tenement Lover: no palm trees/in new york city employs a pastiche of letters, songs, and monologues to portray a Filipino immigrant in New York City struggling to find a balance between assimilating into his new surroundings and respecting his cultural heritage. Hagedorn has also collaborated on several notable theatrical productions, such as Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon (1977) with Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis, Teenytown (1988) with Laurie Carlos and Robbie McCauley, and Airport Music (1994) with Han Ong. In 1993 Hagedorn attracted critical attention for editing Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, the first anthology of its kind to be produced and distributed by a commercial publisher in the United States. The collection presents works from figures steeped in the early traditions of Asian American fiction, such as Carlos Bulosan, Hisaye Yamamoto, and Toshio Mori, as well as fiction from such emerging Asian American authors as Gish Jen, Maxine Hong Kingston, Bharati Mukherjee, and Amy Tan. Hagedorn also edited the sequel, Charlie Chan Is Dead II: At Home in the World: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, which was published in 2004.

Hagedorn's range of social and political interests and her sardonic wit reached an apex with Dogeaters, her first novel and best known work. Situated entirely in the Philippines and set primarily in the 1950s under the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, Dogeaters offers an acerbic look at class divisions, foiled ambitions, rampant commercialism, violence, and the varieties of corruption in a country deeply afflicted by centuries of Western colonialism and internecine conflict. The first half of the novel introduces an array of characters—the vile plutocrat Severo Alacran; the street savvy hustler and disc jockey Joey; a former Miss Philippines who joins a band of rebel guerillas; an assortment of faded and aspiring movie stars; middle-class families with a range of obsessions; and various government officials who actively repress or simply ignore human rights. The second half of the novel centers on a political assassination and its spiraling effects on the novel's multitude of characters. Amidst the mayhem, the occasional-narrator Rio emerges as a voice of sanity, perseverance, and unspoiled hope. Resembling Hagedorn's poetic works, the narrative in Dogeaters combines a range of materials, including fabricated and actual news reports, poetry, a gossip column, letters, and dramatic dialogue. Hagedorn uses these devices to comment on the unreliability of literary and verbal representations of something as complicated as the national identity of the Philippines. Hagedorn later adapted Dogeaters as a theatrical stage play in 1998. The Gangster of Love (1996), Hagedorn's second novel, follows Raquel “Rocky” Rivera from her origins in the Philippines through her immigration with her family to the United States. The plot experiments with shifting narrators and dream-like accounts of the cultural cross-fertilization experienced by Asian American immigrants. Supported by an oddball cast of friends and relatives, Rocky struggles to establish a musical career in the United States while dealing with her desire to one day have a family of her own. After her brother returns to the Philippines, Rocky and her boyfriend Elvis Chan form a successful rock band called Gangster of Love. In 2003 Hagedorn published Dream Jungle, a novel that resembles Dogeaters both in setting and narrative structure. Employing overlapping storylines and multiple characters, Dream Jungle links the discovery of a lost tribe on the island of Mindanao by a Filipino millionaire, Zamora Lopez de Legazpi, with the filming of a Hollywood Vietnam War movie on Mindanao years later.

Critical Reception

Hagedorn's writing has been praised for its complex treatments of gender, social, and cultural themes from a feminist, postcolonial perspective. Her early collections of poetry and prose, such as Dangerous Music and Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions, have been commended for their unflinching examination of the American immigrant consciousness, as mediated through the influence of Hollywood cinema and rock music. Dogeaters has won critical acclaim as a social satire that portrays the complexities of Filipino society in terms of political, economic, and sexual power dynamics, with Rosellen Brown commenting that the novel is “more effective as cultural history than as fiction.” Several reviewers have argued that the novel deftly demonstrates the influence of popular American culture on all echelons of Filipino society. Lisa Lowe has observed that Dogeaters “thematizes how U.S. colonial rule in the Philippines involves not merely brutal military occupation and economic exploitation, but it is enacted as well through the installation of popular culture and the adoption of its roles, desires, and narratives of resolution.” Scholars have debated the effectiveness of Hagedorn's postmodern narrative techniques in Dogeaters, with some asserting that the fragmentary text weakens the novel's overall narrative structure. Such critics have noted that the novel's multiple plotlines allow little time for effective character development. However, the majority of commentators have lauded Dogeaters as a unique and insightful critique of postcolonial Filipino society. Hagedorn's second novel, Gangster of Love, has received a mixed reception from reviewers, with some faulting the work for its weak central character and lack of emotional impact. Commentators have noted that the more positive critical reaction to Dream Jungle, Hagedorn's subsequent novel, may be due in part to Hagedorn's employment of several of the stylistic devices she originally utilized in Dogeaters.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chiquita Banana (play) 1972

Four Young Women: Poems by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, Alice Karle, Barbara Szerlip, and Carol Tinker [edited by Kenneth Rexroth] (poetry) 1973

Dangerous Music (poetry and short stories) 1975

Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon [with Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis] (play) 1977

Mango Tango (play) 1978

Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions (poetry and novella) 1981

Tenement Lover: no palm trees/in new york city (play) 1981

*Holy Food (play) 1988

Teenytown [with Laurie Carlos and Robbie...

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Leonard Casper (essay date July-September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Casper, Leonard. “Bangungot and the Philippine Dream in Hagedorn.” Solidarity 127 (July-September 1990): 152-57.

[In the following essay, Casper discusses how food functions as a symbol of economic inequality in the Philippines in Dogeaters and criticizes the novel for its underdeveloped characters and weak narrative structure.]

No one familiar with the culture of the Philippines would underestimate the pleasure, beyond the threshold of taste, that eating provides for its people. The immense variety of available foods conveys a felicitous sense of tropical abundance; the diversity of savory preparations, a heritage drawn from mixed national origins;...

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Kathryn Hughes (review date 12 July 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hughes, Kathryn. “Sweet-Sour.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 159 (12 July 1991): 37-8.

[In the following review, Hughes argues that Hagedorn fails to clearly define the variety of narrative voices in Dogeaters.]

Two novels from the US set out to chart a new place in the literary landscape: South East Asia during the middle decades of this century. Dogeaters is set in a Manila ground down by dictatorship—sweet, steamy and so rotten that even the fiercest rain cannot sluice it clean. Such is the social interleaving of the place that there is no need for a clumsy narrative device to bring Generals, street boys and dreamy Catholic girls into the...

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Aamer Hussein (review date 27 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hussein, Aamer. Review of Dogeaters, by Jessica Hagedorn. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4617 (27 September 1991): 26.

[In the following review, Hussein examines the themes of fantasy, food, and popular culture in Dogeaters, calling the novel “an echo of an epic ballad of resistance.”]

At the entrance of the Manila Intercontinental Hotel, a radical senator is shot down. Two bystanders, one a waiter with dreams of show business success, the other a male prostitute and petty criminal, are caught up in a chain of events that will lead to the imprisonment of one and the other's flight to a guerrilla hideout in the mountains. Meanwhile, on the...

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Susan Evangelista (essay date winter 1993-1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Evangelista, Susan. “Jessica Hagedorn and Manila Magic.” MELUS 18, no. 4 (winter 1993-1994): 41-52.

[In the following essay, Evangelista explores the elements of magical realism in Hagedorn's writings, particularly as they relate to the author's identity as a Filipina immigrant living in the United States.]

In 1975, a then relatively unknown Filipino-American poet named Jessica Hagedorn wrote a poem called “Song for My Father” in which life in Manila took on some of the surreal appearance of life in some Latin-American city under siege:

dope dealers are executed
in public
and senators go mad
in prison camps
the nightclubs are burning...

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Shirley Ancheta (review date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ancheta, Shirley. Review of Danger and Beauty, by Jessica Hagedorn. Amerasia Journal 20, no. 1 (1994): 197-202.

[In the following review, Ancheta observes that the poetry in Danger and Beauty is effectively voice-driven and rooted in musical rhythms, commenting that the collection provides a good introduction to Hagedorn's literary range and achievement.]

Jessica Hagedorn: poet, performance artist, novelist and playwright, has deservedly etched her place in American literature. From her early rhythms in Dangerous Music through the successful novel, Dogeaters, Jessica Hagedorn has entertained us. Danger and Beauty is a...

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David Shih (review date winter 1995-1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shih, David. Review of Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, edited by Jessica Hagedorn. Amerasia Journal 21, no. 3 (winter 1995-1996): 210-12.

[In the following review of Charlie Chan Is Dead, an anthology of Asian American fiction edited by Hagedorn, Shih asserts that the most compelling aspect of the volume is the inclusion of works by several relatively unknown authors.]

One reason may be the cover: an Asian American gangster brandishes a revolver, his keen eyes trained on your own. Another, the sheer size of the book: over five-and-a-half hundred pages. Either way, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of...

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Lisa Lowe (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lowe, Lisa. “Decolonization, Displacement, Disidentification: Asian American ‘Novels’ and the Question of History.” In Cultural Institutions of the Novel, edited by Deidre Lynch and William B. Warner, pp. 96-128. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Lowe discusses the relationship between fictional and historical narratives in three novels by Asian American authors—Dogeaters, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée, and Fae Myenne Ng's Bone.]

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up...

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Leonard Casper (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Casper, Leonard. “Four Filipina Writers: Recultivating Eden.” Amerasia Journal 24, no. 3 (1998): 143-59.

[In the following essay, Casper analyses the influence of colonialism and neocolonialism on the works of four female writers from the Philippines—Hagedorn, Ninotchka Rosca, Cecilia Manguerra-Brainard, and Linda Ty-Casper. While discussing Dogeaters, Casper links the recurring motifs of food, mass media, and gossip to the novel's central theme of escapist dreams and fantasies.]

Innumerable historians have traced the Hispanization and Americanization1 of Philippine culture during continuous colonial rule throughout 400 years. Far too...

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Lisa Lowe (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lowe, Lisa. “Memories of Colonial Modernity: Dogeaters.Amerasia Journal 24, no. 3 (1998): 161-64.

[In the following essay, Lowe evaluates the themes of sexuality, politics, mass media, and postcolonial culture in Dogeaters. Lowe also lauds Hagedorn's theatrical adaptation of Dogeaters, complimenting the play for vibrantly capturing the spirit of the novel.]

Colonialism produces its discontents for the colonized elite. They may hitchhike on the grand narrative of western civilization and at times even manage to insinuate themselves as illegal immigrants onto the project of modernity.


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Maria Damon (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Damon, Maria. “Kozmic Reappraisals: Revising California Insularity.” In Women Poets of the Americas: Toward a Pan-American Gathering, edited by Jacqueline Vaught Brogan and Cordelia Chavez Candelaria, pp. 254-71. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Damon offers a critical reading of Hagedorn and Ntozake Shange's poetic works within the cultural and historical context of the 1970s San Francisco Bay Area arts communities from which both poets emerged.]


… the culture of the Peoples of the Sea is a flux interrupted by rhythms which attempt to silence the noises...

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Rachel C. Lee (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lee, Rachel C. “Transversing Nationalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters.” In The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation, pp. 73-105. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Lee argues that Hagedorn's unique Filipino perspective on American spectatorship and cinematic archetypes in Dogeaters creates a powerful critique of neocolonialism and late capitalism.]

[Hagedorn's novels are] the kinds of novels that will be written in the next century. They make the typical American novel look very gray.


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Jessica Hagedorn and Emily Porcincula Lawsin (interview date 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hagedorn, Jessica, and Emily Porcincula Lawsin. “Jessica Hagedorn: Interview by Emily Porcincula Lawsin.” In Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers, edited by King-Kok Cheung, pp. 21-39. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

[In the following interview, Hagedorn discusses her childhood in the Philippines, her life in the United States, her writing career, and the reception of her work in both the Philippines and the United Sates.]

I met Jessica Hagedorn for the first time when I was in elementary school. I met her, not in the physical sense, but in a way that an impressionable young Filipina could never forget: in the Seattle Public...

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Dan Bacalzo (review date December 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bacalzo, Dan. Review of Dogeaters, by Jessica Hagedorn. Theatre Journal 53, no. 4 (December 2001): 642-43.

[In the following review, Bacalzo offers high praise for the March 2001 Public Theater production of Dogeaters, asserting that the stage production successfully transforms the broad-ranging novel into “a vibrant theatrical landscape.”]

Jessica Hagedorn's 1990 novel, Dogeaters, is not the easiest work to adapt for the stage. Set in the Philippines during the Marcos regime, this epic book is filled with numerous characters that have detailed personalities and eccentricities. The novel is also infused with a Filipino pop culture...

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Nerissa S. Balce (essay date 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Balce, Nerissa S. “Dogeaters, by Jessica Hagedorn.” In A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature, edited by Sau-ling Cynthia Wong and Stephen H. Sumida, pp. 54-65. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2001.

[In the following essay, Balce provides an overview of the historical context, critical reception, and major themes of Dogeaters, including a supplemental bibliography of writings by and about Hagedorn.]


[Dogeaters, by Jessica Hagedorn, was first] published in the United States by Pantheon Books in 1990. Paperback edition published by Penguin Books in 1991. Received a...

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Myra Mendible (essay date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mendible, Myra. “Desiring Images: Representation and Spectacle in Dogeaters.Critique 43, no. 3 (spring 2002): 289-303.

[In the following essay, Mendible explores the significance of popular culture and mass spectacle to Hagedorn's representation of Filipino society and politics in Dogeaters.]

To the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary. The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of sleep.

—Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle


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Publishers Weekly (review date 4 August 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Dream Jungle, by Jessica Hagedorn. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 31 (4 August 2003): 53.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of Dream Jungle, calling the novel “[b]arbed and alluring.”]

Barbed and alluring, [Dream Jungle,] this third novel by Hagedorn (Dogeaters; The Gangster of Love) revolves around the purported discovery of a Stone Age “lost tribe” in the Philippines, and deftly explores late 20th-century Filipino cultural identity. Led to the caved-welling Taobo by an enterprising local in 1971, mestizo politician Zamora López de Legazpi is as contented as a...

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Michael Upchurch (review date 5 October 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Upchurch, Michael. “What's Cooking on Mindanao?” New York Times Book Review (5 October 2003): 13.

[In the following review, Upchurch argues that Dream Jungle is Hagedorn's “best book since Dogeaters,” praising the author's skillful evocation of the Philippines in the 1970s.]

A narrative collage hopscotching from year to year, from place to place and from one point of view to another: that's what Jessica Hagedorn offers in her intricate new novel, which boldly links a Manila millionaire's “discovery” of a Stone Age tribe on Mindanao with a filmed re-creation of the Vietnam War on that same guerrilla-plagued island six years later....

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brown, Rosellen. “The Year in Fiction: 1990.” Massachusetts Review 32, no. 1 (spring 1991): 123-46.

Brown discusses the theme of corruption in Dogeaters, describing the novel as “a splashy, vigorous, angry, horrifically amusing and depressing book.”

Corrigan, Maureen. “Yo-Yo in a Rock Band.” Nation 263, no. 13 (28 October 1996): 64-6.

Corrigan criticizes Gangster of Love, asserting that the story is not compelling due to the emotionally disengaged narration and underdeveloped characters.

Iannone, Carol. Review of Dogeaters, by Jessica Hagedorn....

(The entire section is 149 words.)