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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...

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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

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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 McCauley] (play) 1988

Dogeaters (novel) 1990

Kiss Kiss Kill Kill (screenplay) 1992

Two Stories (short stories) 1992

Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction [editor and contributor] (short stories) 1993

Danger and Beauty (poetry) 1993

Airport Music [with Han Ong] (play) 1994

The Gangster of Love (novel) 1996

Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines [photographs by Marissa Roth] (nonfiction) 1999

Dream Jungle (novel) 2003

Charlie Chan Is Dead II: At Home in the World: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction [editor and contributor] (short stories) 2004

*Hagedorn adapted Holy Food as a radio play in 1989.

†Hagedorn adapted Dogeaters as a play in 1998.

Kiss Kiss Kill Kill was filmed under the title Fresh Kill in 1994.

Leonard Casper (essay date July-September 1990)

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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; the surfeit of calories, unconscious compensation for an enervating climate or an expression of the bahala na (come what may) fiesta attitude: consume today what the day provides, let tomorrow take care of itself. Filipinos and food are more than alliterative. They are intimately inseparable, throughout all their waking hours. Of course, such extravagant truisms must be qualified quickly and enormously. The Philippine Cookbook by Reynaldo Alejandro or The Culinary Culture of the Philippines by Gilda Cordero-Fernando may sit on the sala cocktail table, next to volumes of art and architecture. But how many Filipino families can afford cocktail tables; or all the delectables described in these books or served in Metro Manila restaurants? The number of undernourished children in the Philippines is second only to those in Bangladesh; and a dismaying proportion of city slumdwellers or provincial peasants feel fortunate to have a principal meal of small fish and rice—a diet normal elsewhere for prisoners of war or foreign hostages. The wealth of Philippine food exists largely for wealthy Filipinos only.

One assumes that Jessica Hagedorn understands that drastic cleft, in terms of food, between haves and have-nots, because although her novel Dogeaters (1990) makes no direct comment on that terrible condition, her pages overflow with avalanches of food, described, prepared, and eaten, within a class so privileged that they take for granted their right to be exclusive consumers of others' labor, although they themselves are not producers of anything real or substantial. The detailed menus and eating habits, scene after scene, are far too disproportionate to serve merely as cultural authentication. The reverse is true of the novel's title: “dogeaters” might well be a pejorative term applied generically to all Filipinos, though anthropologists using it could allude with some accuracy only to certain mountain tribes of the north. Clearly also, it is an ethnic slur, originating among non-Filipinos, and demonstrably not the attitude of Hagedorn, a mestiza living in New York. One has to conclude, therefore, that either the title is meaningless except as an eye-catching device, or it implies a dog-eat-dog omnivorousness among the novel's elite, who are subject to Hagedorn's scorn. Naturally, everybody must eat to stay alive. But must they eat one another? It is this cultural cannibalism which Hagedorn is portraying, if her novel is to be taken seriously at all: Filipinos devouring one another, by careless accident or by deliberate intent, and in varying degrees. The violence of Colonel Pepe Carreon and General Ledesma is an extension, only, of the mindless self-satisfaction of the principals of the Gonzaga family. The novel's covert purpose is to present variations on the theme of greed; to portray normal appetites out of control, bodies in the service not of spiritual vision but of voids so desperate for gratification verging on gluttony that they incite, in the ruling class, extreme forms of avarice.

Sen. Domingo Avila, an incorruptible, and in this novel, the rare oppositionist to a way of death disguised as a way of life, once accused society's elite of suffering from a “hunger for glamor and our Hollywood dream.” In an underground pamphlet he wrote that “we Pinoys suffer collectively from a cultural inferiority complex. We are doomed by our need for assimilation into the West and our own curious fatalism.” His complaint seems to be that too many Filipinos acquiesced to colonialism not militarily—the Philippine-American War's cost in human lives made eventual peace inevitable—but culturally, by acting as if President McKinley's infamous remarks about the Filipino's lack of civilization and Christian ethics were correct, rather than fatuously absurd. Senator Avila is assassinated for his candidness, but not before he has helped make clear the connection in this novel between feeding-frenzies, movie “make-believe,” and the national dream turned nightmare; a connection otherwise only implicit in the dominant patterns of Dogeaters.

Traditionally, the Philippine Dream or ideal has been communitarianism. Despite tribal conflicts and factional betrayals, the basic notion of shared equality extended through compadrazco or compensated for through patronage has long been held in respectful reverence, as the rightful order of things, the moral imperative which all Filipinos are bound to observe, however imperfectly. The history of that communitarianism precedes Christianity, Western democracy, the UN definition of universal rights, though each of these has reinforced the original sense of mutual regard and assistance. Avila's appeal seems to have been to that same high tradition, the spiritual essence and measure of Filipinism: not to be corrupted by the sacrifice of personal/cultural honor to mere consumerism. So long as the integrity of that Philippine Dream was not tampered with, conceivably it might be compatible with traditions of freedom and aspiration and growth imported from other countries. The danger enters whenever Filipinos suffer the inferiority complex to which Avila refers; whenever they feel confident not as themselves but as Spaniards or Americans or just plain “wanna-bes,” those fantasy figures regularly on the Philippine radio or in the movies. The normal process which sees inspirational dream as preliminary to realized deed is replaced by a deep sleep, characterized first by a loss of memory, a loss of destination and direction, and then by a loss of reality altogether. The characters in Dogeaters, in their passivity, come to represent a segment of society so superficial that one can readily understand those readers who consider the novel no more than a random collage of sophisticated tsismis (gossip), a beach ball, for a game without net, rules, referee, or score (in mid-1990, the New York Times placed Dogeaters on its list of suggested summer reading, when the mind vacations and interest can be interrupted without loss).

Joey, Rio, and Romeo, the characters who sometimes take over the narration and into whose consciousness the movement then dips, do little to help remove the impression of drift and shapelessness. Joey has a sympathetic role as illegitimate child of an Afro-American G.I., long gone, and of a Filipina whore who has drowned herself. Although he is a junkie and male prostitute, full of “street smarts,” he dreams of an imaginary lover who will take him off to Las Vegas (he has chosen the last name Sands as his own, after the casino in the American desert). Meanwhile, he pretends to a kind of independence as DJ for Andres Alacran's CocoRico. When he witnesses the assassination of Senator Avila, he flees for protection to “Uncle” who once rescued the corpse of Joey's mother from the water. But when “Uncle,” afraid of guilt by association, seems intent on betraying him to the authorities (who probably would want him dead, lest he identify their hired gunman), he runs again—understandably. What is not so understandable is why Hagedorn has him risk all the accumulating sympathy by butchering “Uncle's” dog, Taruk; and why the underground should take him not to a safehouse, from which he might have declared the innocence of Romeo Rosales, the alleged killer, but to “the mountains.” This sanctification of the abused street person through conversion into a guerrilla is a breach of, not credible evolution in, Joey's character: ironically, an independent has been transformed into a malleable figure, more usable than useful, through the power of activists. (The fact that one of the activists is Daisy Avila who similarly has been almost magically altered at best establishes a precedent. Not much earlier, Daisy was a romantic adolescent briefly and unhappily married to a British banker. Since then, having fallen in love—somehow—with guerrilla Santos Tirador, she has been gang-raped by the military for not disclosing his whereabouts. Tirador himself is typecast, rather than characterized: his credibility therefore is in question from the start rather than, as in Daisy's case, from any abrupt about-face.)

Rio, who at times seems to share parts of Jessica Hagedorn's autobiography, is even more defective as a narrator. In the 1950s she can bring only a teenager's view to bear on her surroundings. Twenty or more years, although she has seen and recorded much more, her capacity for critical understanding has not grown. She has distanced herself geographically—gone to America, at her mother Dolores Gonzaga's bidding, although eventually she lives thousands of miles from her. Rio does not marry, has no children. The novel as an album of memories may be littered with invented history, as Rio herself admits and Pucha (who, however, could have equally faulty recollections) insists. If Rio is to be considered responsible for Dogeaters' form and facts, so that their peculiar nature (including Joey's and Romeo's soliloquies?) represents her nature, what does she in turn represent?

There is a lack of accurate, sequential chronology in the narrative. References are made to the “President” apparently in the fifties, nevertheless bearing the same characteristics as the later president, Marcos (references to the First Lady—Imelda—are much more consistent). Rio seems unaware of Magsaysay, Garcia, and Macapagal as personalities, and equally unaware of their programs and the sociopolitical events associated with their administrations. Is Hagedorn implying, through Rio, the immaturity and detachment of a whole class of Filipinos, their insularity from entire economic and psychological dimensions of society? If these confusions in configurations of time are deliberate, are they intended to parallel similar confusions in genealogy? So many cousins are named but immediately lost: in order to indicate the possibilities of nepotism, in Philippine culture; in breeding; or the perimeter of blood lines which prevents the extended family from being truly community-oriented. At a more dramatic level, it is hinted that Sen. Domingo Avila and General Ledesma may be half-brothers (the general, in that case, being the bastard of Don Amado). Then again, they may simply be cousins, members of long-feuding northern families. Which is the truth? Is the vague offstage presence/absence and finally death of Rio's American grandfather, Whitman Logan, symbolic of some obscure aspect of Philippine-American relationships? Or just another example of Rio's inability to probe persons beyond the limit of surface personality?

At least within the small circle of typically well-off urban habitues portrayed in Dogeaters, one might expect characterizations to be intimate and profound and revealing. They are not. The vignettes tend to be quaint, colorful, even fascinating as tsismis always is. Depending heavily on impressionism, Hagedorn sketches Carreon and Ledesma as figures utterly devoted to military power qua torture; and Severo Alacran as the other half, largely invisible, of a military-industrial establishment: naked greed conspiring to maintain control over natural and human resources. The opposition figure, Senator Avila, is reduced even more—to the equivalent of a position paper. It is difficult to respond emotionally to his murder since, in this novel, he is never really alive. Even several cameo-portraits provide more personal dimension than these large stereotypes: La Sultana, sybil in her ancient Mercedes; Lola Narcisa, eating with the servants; Leonor, the general's wife, in her austere miniature hermitage; Lolita Luna, trying to control her big scene with Ledesma … Underdeveloped and fleeting, nevertheless, these are memorable. Compared with them, the insubstantiality of the “major” characters is too readily apparent. Pucha, for example, is a caricature: in her, the appetites for food and sex converge, playfully. Yet she is more lively and identifiable than Rio, the more “intellectual” and ultimately more mysterious of the two. Equally unclear in purpose is the reason for so much attention devoted to Romeo Rosales, only to have him disappear into the torture chambers, accused of a political murder which he stumbled into by sheerest accident.

When plot, following hard on Avila's death, finally is introduced as a mode of moving and shaping characters, it still does little to remove the image of these figures as less than credible. Why is it Joey who is rescued and not Romeo; and what practical, rather than dramatic, difference does it make that Joey becomes a guerilla? Certainly he can identify Avila's assassin; but who will believe him? No one really thinks that Romeo is a hit man (similarly, no one really thought that Galman killed Ninoy Aquino, in 1983; but even Ninoy's widow as president has been unable to have the soldiers convicted who were alleged to have murdered her husband).

So, if the chain of events late in the novel seem too contrived and the characters gravely underdeveloped, what prevents Dogeaters from being written off as negligible scrapbook of colorful eccentricities and absurdities? The answer has to lie in the imperative pattern linking food/dreams/radio-TV-movies/cosmetics/tsismis. If eating in excess is the central symbol for the unfulfilled, bottomless appetite of the elite, its corollary is the recurring obsession with image, rather than with reality. Beyond the idle attention to manicure and permanent, any normal aspiration for fulfillment is reduced to a yearning for an imaginary, not imaginable, self—abetted by constant vicarious substitution of fantasy (serials on the radio, talent shows on television, romantic movies of rapture and violence) for attainable reality. Madame (Imelda), queen of all beauty queens, is mocked for thinking she has been cursed by her spectacular beauty; and for saying, “What would life be without movies? Unendurable, di ba?” (Passing reference is made to the Manila International Film Festival—one which cost the lives of scores of construction workers, perfect symbol for how crushingly a dream-palace can weigh down on the people.) Yet Madame is different only in degree, not kind, from most of the characters in this novel. And Alacran, otherwise a shadowy presence inseparable from his diversified holdings, appropriately owns Mabuhay Studies. His dream of power merely fuels the dreams that he sells to the millions, for millions. And when Daisy is being gang-raped, it is to the background sound of soap opera drama; and Ledesma's special cruelty epitomizes, rather than contradicts, the macho or at best tolerant or indifferent attitude that most of the males (including the homosexuals) have toward women.

In fact, one steady inference from Dogeaters is that the typical Filipina, well-fed, well-dressed and housed, well-educated, has betrayed Filipinas-the-nation and the pre-Spanish tradition of the babaylan priestess, by being so vacuous. Marriages in the novel are arranged and sometimes endured, but are rarely durable. Even under colonial rule, Filipino women had more rights, more empowerment, more equality (outside the sexual double standard) than their European or American counterparts. But the descent of conversation (another oral art, like eating) into endless tsismis is indicative of the infertility, the immaculate contraception, among these female characters. Cora Camacho, the gossip columnist, is their spokesperson even if they like to consider themselves superior to her. Communitarianism is lost to “What will people think of me?” Dolores Logan Gonzaga flees to the States for freedom, but seems to vanish there. Her daughter Rio, also in America, has escaped the vacant life of Manila's rich: but what does she have instead? Only memories (and perhaps falsified ones) of her past, along with occasional visits to her Lola Narcisa, an icon of sense and sensibility, a survivor in the wasteland of the Unreal City. The transfigurations of Clarita and Daisy are suspect. They are refugees, nominal activists: what really is their “activity”? There is little evidence of fulfillment, of health restored, even in these several exceptional females; they are escapees, more neutered than counterforceful. Is that why the feminist-leaning Hail Mary, at the end, metamorphoses into a monstrous, atavistic image? Have they fled one void, only to enter another? Is greed purged, but the basic hunger still there, unsatisfied: to be, to belong, to become? Does the novel avoid the claim of frivolousness, only to become a drama of despair? Is the choice between two forms of meaninglessness?

The most persuasive device employed by Hagedorn against charges of triviality, of having written a summer seaside entertainment caricaturing her birth-country, are the numerous dreams recounted in such detail and number that they cannot be ignored. Madame says proudly that she is a dreamer: but isn't everyone? An opening society requires ambition; it is invitational, as was Eden itself. A problem arises only with the destructiveness that can accompany dreams turned violent through greed and overreaching, the inability to say “Enough”; or dreams turned insensitive, complacent, illusory in defining the dreamer's goal or the means to achieve it. And often the dream that is too small (the elitist's narrow vision) helps feed the dream that is too big (the collusion of business tycoon with military tyrant). An entire spectrum of dreams occurs in Dogeaters, including at the most literal level those of Dolores Gonzaga, of a hairy angel; the First Lady, of Cristina Ford and George Hamilton at the Waldorf-Astoria; Girlie, of the barefoot caddies attacking ostentatious golfers; Joey, of the soap latherers, while en route to the mountains. Baby Alacran's self-induced drowse, during which she sees herself starring in a movie, is particularly interesting because it connects the series of actual dreams with the daydreams of so many (like Romeo Rosales; Andres Alacran, Joey Sands) who fantasize escaping their lives by joining professional entertainers such as Nestor Norales, Tito Alvarez, Lolita Luna, without realizing the sexual or drug problems that consume these unhappy performers. Rio sounds more assertive when she tells her friends that after she has grown up, she will make movies, not act in them. Sadly, however, the “movie” she makes as an expatriate may well be in and of the mind only: the history that she is forced to invent for herself. The need to dream becomes for too many not transcendence toward a higher reality, but escape from reality, just as Freddie Gonzaga likes to consider himself a Spaniard, though Filipino born; and Rio keeps referring to her “Rita Hayworth” mother; and Romeo's real name is Orlando.

Dogeaters' theme becomes most transparent when one realizes how violent so many of the dreams are—nightmares, really; and how self-violating are so many of the daydreams, the wrongheaded wishes. Rio's own recurring dream is pathetic, by comparison: of herself and her nearly forgotten brother Raul as nocturnal moths, endlessly, futilely, attempting to reach heaven. Yet it comes closer to the shared nightmare, the bangungot of the collective unconscious, in the final episode, “Kundiman,” a national lament. If the Lord never was in the Holy Virgin, no redemption can ever be foreseen. So the soul rages.

Conceivably, Hagedorn has risked what many a postmodern author also risks: negligible characterization; discontinuity, in place of causality (a plot not contrived); without necessarily concluding that faith in restored order, recovery of true spirit is absurd, so let the dogs eat the dogs, for that is human nature and our common destiny. No; the novel is not that cynical or defeated. The epigraphs to both books that constitute Dogeaters hint at a hope still worth nurturing. Jean Mallet, in his 1846 edition of The Philippines, speaks of the necessity of waking a sleeping Filipino gently, however critical the circumstances seem to be. Later, Rizal is quoted, prodding, predicting, that the Filipino people must/will awaken after centuries of sleep.

The “sleep” referred to is not just a cultural sense of inferiority, under the impact of long-endured colonialism. Too many importations have been Filipinized, to adopt that single, simplistic explanation for the Filipino as sleepwalker. There are indigenous habits also—“eating”; tsismis; limitations on the extended family; nepotism; factionalism—that add self-betrayal to betrayal from without. History records all of that, for anyone to see. But there is another history beyond self-criticism: of self-knowledge, at its best among Filipinos tracking love, gently offered, not revenge. Perhaps, whatever its flaws/apparent flaws, Dogeaters is just that, a sincere and gentle shaking of the sleeping Filipino, lest the land itself die of bangungot.

Kathryn Hughes (review date 12 July 1991)

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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 same story. Instead, they are bound together by a series of desires, cynically manipulated by a corrupt regime, which work to enthrall at every level of society.

There is sex, for instance, a commodity for sale in the smartest consulate bedrooms and the seediest clubs where “shower dancers” strut their soapy stuff for the goggle-eyed foreigners. There is Hollywood, too, for Manila is a community that fantasises that it is just to the east of LA, a cultural colony where imported icons like Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson rub shoulders in imagination with local porn stars and TV personalities. Finally, there is the pull of brand names: the fetishisation of Rolex and Rochas, the subtle disappointment in home-grown products like Sportex or TruCola. Obsessions like these truss up the community and lay it, played-out, at the well-shod feet of Madame, the president's wife.

In this, her first novel, Hagedorn reveals her background as a poet and performance artist, telling much of her story in dialogue. Yet Dogeaters returns us to the question of how to convey native speech patterns while writing in another language. In the end, Hagedorn resorts to a more sophisticated version of the filmmaker's trick of giving U-boat commanders thick German accents, by having her characters speak in Filipino-English.

What works less successfully is the narrative, which is told by several characters, male and female, young and old. Perhaps because gender and even class are so provisional in postwar Manila, so open to renegotiation through hard currency, the voices are not sufficiently defined for us to catch the shifts and ride them smoothly. The result is as promiscuous and spinning as the city itself. Dogeaters maps out a shining new landscape for us, but fails to people it with equal imagination.

Nothing could be less true of Amy Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife. Her first, The Joy Luck Club, took the US by storm two years ago with a central mother-daughter relationship so powerful that it pulled the book away from any literary or ethnic ghetto. Tan has done it again with a big, bold story set in pre-revolutionary Shanghai and framed by a contemporary family drama whose near-misses of communication, secret trade-offs, and emotional culs-de-sac brilliantly describe its own culture while refusing its limitations.

Chinese-American Pearl cannot tell her mother that she has multiple sclerosis. Winnie, in turn, has never told Pearl the truth about her life before she arrived in the States in 1949. Thanks to the dislocation of emigration and the chaos of revolution, it has been easy to reinvent the past, to change, names, places and people. Only the threat of Winnie's friend Helen (real name Hulan) to tell Pearl what really happened galvanises Winnie (real name Veili) into setting the record straight.

Winnie's story of her life in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s is stuffed with documentary detail. We learn about tea, hairdressing, dowries and going to the lavatory in pre-revolutionary China. We catch the decadence, the sweet-sour smell of an over-ripe culture on the turn. Teenage girls from genteel business families gossip about Ginger Rogers, kept in line by a phalanx of formidable aunts and mothers-in-law who nonetheless are powerless to protect them against the weakest and cruellest of men.

Reluctant to comment on the importance of its own project, The Kitchen God's Wife tells its story without a scrap of literary self-importance. Yet its very lack of pretension, its refusal to puff its own processes, draws attention to our own lack of stories by women from immigrant cultures: in Britain we have, as yet, no female equivalent of Mo or Rushdie.

Aamer Hussein (review date 27 September 1991)

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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 borders of this narrative, the story of Daisy, the senator's daughter, arrested for her seditious activities, interrogated and brutalized, unfolds.

Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters is a song of her native Manila, a walk on its wild side where, in the city's pits of deprivation, the privileged and the powerful rub shoulders, in a search for young flesh. It is also an indictment of the Marcos regime, a fiction about the net of politics cast over the lives of ordinary people, changing victims into rebels.

There are echoes of Han Suyin in Hagedorn's evocations of the timbre of life in South-East Asia; there is more than a touch of Manuel Puig, too, in her fascination with the paraphernalia of popular culture. The radio soap opera, Love Letters, captivates rich and poor alike, the film studios magnify a universal dream world and provide playmates for the corrupt politicians and their cohorts, the tycoons and entrepreneurs, who are the targets of Hagedorn's satire. Her gallery of villains—which includes Imelda Marcos, caricatured as a Philippine Alexis Colby, lying her way to fame—is full of cardboard cut-outs, luridly coloured, larger than life yet smaller than their victims.

Hagedorn captures the rhythms and the flux of her city in a variety of viewpoints and voices; Tagalog phrases are interlaced with Americanisms and she takes pleasure in naming (often suspect) street-foods: dogflesh, pig's black blood. Food imagery recurs in the protagonists' dreams; their dream language is a hybrid of Roman Catholic and animistic elements, full of metaphors of sacrifice and penitence. Dates are deliberately vague; the events seem to be taking place in the 1950s, but could equally well have occurred much later in the Marcos regime.

This nightmare vision of Manila as the gateway to a neo-colonial hell, a microcosm of the underdeveloped world, is reflected in the eyes of Joey, the child of a black American soldier and a whore who abandoned him to drown herself. His path to the guerrilla lair in the mountains is guided by fatalism; along the way, he seeks relief in drugs, homosexual prostitution, and casual theft, but inherent in his wasted life is the possibility of transformation, and this is the resilience that Hagedorn celebrates.

Dogeaters is an echo of an epic ballad of resistance, of the disenfranchized and the disenchanted. Although, towards the end, there is a hint of an encounter between Joey and a rebel daughter of the rich, Hagedorn leaves their story—in the fashion of Scheherazade and soap opera—tantalizingly half-told. The ballad of Joey, Daisy and the mountain guerrillas remains to be sung in another novel.

Susan Evangelista (essay date winter 1993-1994)

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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
with indifference
curfew draws near
soldiers lurk in jeeps
of dawn warzones
as the president's daughter
bogies nostalgically
under the gaze
of sixteen smooth bodyguards
and decay is forever
even in the rage
of humorless revolutionaries

(Danger and Beauty 37)

The tone of this poem, and of a few other poems and stories dealing with life in the Philippines, suggested an interesting contrast with Hagedorn's other work, her Filipino-American writing which, although it shares the same sharp-edged glitter and flamboyance of the Philippine-centered work, lacks its dreamy, fantastic cast. Hagedorn's novel, Dogeaters, nominated for the National Book Award, deals with life in Manila in the 1970's, and makes this reader think of Gabriel García Márquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude. In contrast to Márquez, Hagedorn's story is urban-centered (and terribly urbane), moving in a milieu which could only be Manila, with its outrageous blend of Spanish elitism and elegance gone seedy, American flash and decadence, and Third World desperation and brazenness. It is slicing and cutting and irreverent, disjointed like Márquez's dream world, but a little more nerve-tingling than dust-covered Maconda. Nevertheless it carries a strong sense of magic realism, of bizarre characters and strange coincidences, of real life gone unreal with a sudden verbal twist, exposing the reader to “a world totally reconstructed and subverted by fantasy” (Llosa 5). We are left in limbo between the magic and the real, in a world as it might be described by a peasant, for instance, or a street-boy—someone far removed from the logic and power of that world, experiencing reality but a reality touched with the magic of incomprehension.

Jessica Hagedorn was born in 1949 in the Philippines to the Visayan Hagedorn family. She immigrated to the United States as a twelve-year old in 1961, living in San Francisco and New York, where she was deeply influenced by black soul music, black culture, rock and roll, and a group of black and Chicana women writers and musicians. She was one of four women featured in McGraw-Hill's early collection of ethnic and women's poetry, Four Young Women: Poems. She has published in various Asian-American collections and magazines: Liwanag (1975), Time to Greez (1975), The Greenfield Review (1975), and Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian-American Poets (1983). She has published three books of her own: Dangerous Music (1975), Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions (1981), and Dogeaters (1990).

As a Filipina writing in the United States, Hagedorn had strong literary antecedents to draw on. Filipino immigration to the mainland United States started in the 1920's, after the waves of Chinese and Japanese immigration had been controlled by discriminatory legislation. By 1932 Carlos Bulosan, an Ilocano of basically peasant stock, had launched his very prolific writing career, in effect getting a head start on what was to become the Asian American Movement of the seventies. Bulosan's America Is in the Heart is still considered the classic account of the Filipino-American historical experience, and the old manong whom Bulosan loved so, still around in the fifties and sixties and seventies, older, of course, and maybe poorer, became the natural starting point for the new Filipino-American writers. Oscar Peñaranda worked in the hop fields and the salmon canneries to duplicate the experience of the manongs, while Al Robles recorded hundreds of hours of taped interviews with the “old-timers” and Lou Syquia went into political activism to forestall the demolition of the old International Hotel in San Francisco, where so many of the manongs lived. And these men wrote—poems, stories, plays—which dealt with the life experiences, the oppression, and the powerlessness of the Filipino manongs, as young men in the thirties and as old men in the sixties.

Jessica Hagedorn too drew on this tradition, writing first of Filipinos in America. She does not write about the manongs, however, but about their descendants, working class Filipino teenagers in the United States in the sixties, and she does so against the background of sixties music: Smokey Robinson, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix. There is a certain seediness in the environment in which her characters move, but the music relates them to time and place, making them as definitely American as they are Filipino. Nellie, for instance, in “Smokey's Getting Old,” is a lower class immigrant who went to the United States in 1959, unwillingly because as a young teenager she didn't want to leave her barrio friends and the simple pleasures of wearing orange lipstick and eating roasted pig and going to the movies on Sundays. She lives in Stockton, one of the centers of early Filipino immigration to California, until her father tries to marry her off to a fifty-eight year old manong bachelor. At this point she runs away to San Francisco where she rats her hair, hangs around Woolworth's, and goes to see Smokey Robinson at the Cow Palace, fitting in but never mainstream, in love with Ruben, a Mexican, whom her father can't stand “because he's a Spik.”

We find more explicit comments on Filipinos as immigrants in the novella Pet Food. This is a wild story about an immigrant Filipina, a writer named George Sands; Boogie, George's long-time friend, gay but bordering on straight, being kept (and kept high) by a Japanophile named Prince Gengi; Silver Daddy, an art-lover-slum-landlord from whom George rents a flat; Silver Daddy's daughter called Porno, after the movies she makes; and Auntie Greta, George's transvestite uncle who is eventually murdered by one of the young men he loves so. George's mother doesn't like her friend Boogie because he is gay, he is an “American born Pinoy with no class,” and he “smells”:

“Boogie doesn't smell,” I retorted. “He wears tangerine oil.”

“That boy smells like a fruit alright,” my mother said smugly.


George and her family, because they are upper class, seem to be less foreign, less immigrant, than Boogie's family. In a conversation about foreign status, this interchange takes place:

“How do you know? You were born in America. You've never been home,” I said.

“All I have to do is listen to my father talk in his broken English,” Boogie said wearily. “Look at his worn-out hands. See my mother's shy and frightened face every time she gets on a bus. They're permanent immigrants in this lousy place …”


Hagedorn's Filipino-American voice is broader, though, than that of the male Filipino writers—broader perhaps because she is a woman and feels an easy identity with other ethnic women, other Third World women trying to operate within the First World. The First World is a dangerous one for women, especially for foreign women:

there are rapists
out there
some of them
don't like Asian women
they stab them
there are killers
out there
some of them
smile at me

(Danger and Beauty 61-2)

There are other dangers too, more subtle forms of violence done to the soul. These show up in “Natural Death” in direct contrast to the glitter of the superficial environment of gold lamé jumpsuits and rhinestone cloaks and young men wearing yellow satin dresses created at the start of the poem. There is a sudden intensification into “telephone calls / from anxious mothers,” then a whole list of things that these mothers warn their daughters to beware of:

beware of nightclubs
and cuban names
beware of the street
beware of doorbells and abortions
beware of pregnancy
beware of public transportation
beware of frozen meat
and strange men
and rabid animals
beware of strange colors
strange smells
strange sounds
strange feelings
beware of loneliness
and the rhythm
of your heartbeat


The sudden internalizing of fear that tells the daughters to beware of themselves, of their own living, is presumably the natural extension of the other fears that lead so inevitably to “Natural Death.”

Still, Hagedorn's women are strong people-for-themselves, no matter how much they are victimized and marginalized by the world around them. “Canto de Nada,” for instance, is the song of a woman named Nada, who is of course nothing but also everything, all women, especially all oppressed women: “daughter of ainu and t'boli / igorot and sioux / sister to inca and zulu.” She is also all male stereotypes of women, from “the brand new bag” to “the dragon lady's baby,” “the punk,” “the dancing girl.” She is also

the divine virgin
waiting for a trick
on the borderline
between emeryville
and oakland.


She is nothing except music, but she is still all women, and all things for herself. In that sense “She is the real thing.”

Hagedorn is her most militant in a very short one-act play called Chiquita Banana. Here the main character is Carmen Miranda, a prostitute entertainer, who wears “her inevitable banana lady costume” and who is later to refer to herself as a militant banana. Cesar Romero, bartender and pimp, is eagerly awaiting her arrival and all but kow-tows to her. A white woman drug pusher named Jean Harlow is also there, and is as patronizing as Romero as she offers Carmen some pure cocaine. Then Carmen's mother Miranda enters, with her younger daughter Ruby Delicious, who is in a drugged stupor. Miranda sings a few lines from Cole Porter.

love for sale
appetizing love for sale
love that's fresh and still unspoiled
love that's only slightly soiled
love for sale.

Ruby is, it turns out, pregnant, and the mother has decided simply to sell her off to the highest bidder. Immediately the two white men in the place start dealing with the mother for the daughter, and it looks as if Ruby is to be auctioned off to Mr. Milktoast. Carmen, however, intervenes, demanding scathingly of Milktoast, “do you think we're in some sort of zoo for your amusement? Do you think we'd make good wives because we look like your mama's maid back in San Diego? Or do you think we're gonna do the mambo for you in bed?” Carmen then produces a gun and hands it to her sister Ruby, who shoots the two white men and returns it. Carmen shoots Cesar Romero, shoots Jean Harlow, shoots her mother, and then turns towards the audience and shoots her absent father, presumably as being any man there. There is a blackout, and Carmen's soft voice is heard singing:

the militant banana. …
peeled his chiquita sticker
and split, saying
I'm not no chiquita freak banana
i gits browner and better
sweeter and cheaper for de people!

This is the voice of Hagedorn as an ethnic writer in America. Filipino-American consciousness, as an American-based ethnic movement, was just beginning to blossom, however, when martial law was declared in the Philippines by then-President Marcos and a small group of political exiles, intellectuals, and Philippine-based writers gathered in San Francisco, and to some extent simply coopted the fledgling Filipino-American movement. These exiles had a great deal of political understanding and sophistication and tended to view the immigrant community as an offshoot of the colonial and exploitative relationship between the United States and the Philippines in general. Naturally enough, they refocused attention on the internal politics and living situation in the Philippines. The work of the women writers in this post-'72 era is most interesting; Emily Cachapero, for instance, writes in the same sort of sharp, bright, political but impressionistic style that Hagedorn learned to use so well. In “Miss Philippine Islands,” she writes in commemoration of the Miss Universe Contest held in Manila as part of the “bread and circuses” distractions offered to the Filipino population during the early years of martial law.

miss philippine islands
at the miss universe contest
miss PI at the miss universe
contest has highways across
her body
everyone at the show
has a map
and those men
un-fresh from nam
know the map
by heart
wearing their navy caps
at the same slanted angle
as an asian cunt
is supposed to be
waiting for miss PI
to parade
in a thigh high slitted
even though she's not chinese
waiting for a peek
she has highways
across her body
but bypasses isabella
she hides it under that still ratted hair
trying to muffle the sound
of ating tao
cebu and leyte
her breasts
surrender time and time again
to the slightest touch
just like in the war
she has highways
across her body
and mindanao
muslim land
moro land
is under the fold in her belly
it's a secret
kept between the thighs
miss PI at the miss universe contest
knows who the winner is
even though she doesn't like
the answer
because the winner is
the winner is
the loser.


The poem is worth quoting here because the same event, in slightly disguised form, figures centrally in Dogeaters—in which Hagedorn's winning beauty contestant promptly alienates the First Lady by denouncing beauty contests and disappearing into the activist movement in the mountains. (Hagedorn again bases this defection on a real incident involving a young woman named Nelia Sancho.)

Hagedorn's own writing of this time includes poetry of similar tone. “Souvenirs,” one of her major poems, features the rather decadent atmosphere of life dominated by the church and the first lady and a false holiness:

in manila
the president's wife
dictates martial law
with her thighs
sanctity n piety
is her name
as she sips tea
in madrid

(Danger and Beauty 29)

The stifling lethargy of this poem seems to suggest the lack of control people felt they had over their own lives in these days of martial law. In one of her prose works, Hagedorn writes of a recurring nightmare she has every time she is home in the Philippines visiting her father. Guerrillas come to the house and kill everyone in it, with the exception of her totally helpless grandmother who prays incoherently but seems to inspire a bit of respect. She is home only by chance, of course, as a visitor, but nevertheless feels that such a death is her destiny. She does not fight. Her killer is good-looking, looks much like her boyfriend, and for a moment as he leans over her, she thinks he is going to kiss her, but he slits her throat instead. She remains passive, accepting, overcome by tropical inertia as much as by the knife. On hindsight Gabriel García Márquez's Erendira is called to mind here, and again one suspects that this passive acceptance of things-as-they-happen is meant to suggest the real lack of power to either name or change their universe that people in such societies experience.

Dogeaters has two voices, both powerless, uncritical. One is the voice of a young girl named Rio, and the other of a young male junkie-prostitute named Joey Sands. Rio is the preteen daughter of the moneyed Gonzaga family, privileged and sheltered, but for all that still exposed, on a very personal level, to the oddities and problems (all except poverty, of course) of martial law Manila. She counts among family friends General Ledesma, who runs the abusive military, Severo Alacran, the richest businessman in the country, and Senator Domingo Avila, the outspoken voice of the opposition. Her idle mother is surrounded by gay hangers-on—a dress maker, a hair stylist. Her cousin Pucha is outrageously flirtatious in her adolescence, knowing enough even then to be attracted to the repulsive Boom-boom Alacran for his money. Her grandmother has the special diet for her strange maladies flown into Manila through the concessions of the American ambassador.

Joey Sands is at the other end of the social scale but strangely enough knows some of the same people. He is the abandoned child of a black American serviceman and a prostitute, into prostitution himself, and into drugs, working in a seedy gay bar run by a poor relation of the Alacran family. People from the fringes of Rio's life populate the bar on occasion: Lolita de Luna, the woman kept and somewhat jealously guarded by General Ledesma, and the dress maker and hair stylist of Rio's mother. As the lover of a wealthy German man, Joey too experiences some of the high life and becomes, at great danger to himself, a crucial witness to the assassination of Senator Avila, and, in the end, finds himself in the mountains with the “subversives.”

The simple poor of Manila are also represented. Romeo Rosales is a waiter at one Alacran establishment, and his girl friend Trinidad works as a salesgirl at another. Romeo is an aspiring actor, former classmate of movie star Tito Alvarez—and he lives in a dream that his old friend Tito will help him break into movies, perhaps give him a bit part in a film of his own. Of course he never succeeds in getting on to a shooting location. His take on life remains interesting, though we last see him gunned down crossing one of the main streets of Makati, the assumed assassin of Senator Avila. We never hear anything more from or about him, presumably because at that point he has become a simple pawn, an answer to a crime, and no one would then be interested in what he might have to say for himself.

Echoes of Gabriel García Márquez abound in the more bizarre elements of the story. There are a number of strange illnesses in the book, in “good” families, in which there is so much corruption beneath the surface that one would expect it to manifest itself in odd ways: Baby Alacran has skin that erupts into terrible scabs and rashes that cover her whole body. At another point she develops a sweating disease in which she soaks uncontrollably in both heat and cold. Daisy Avila wins a beauty contest and then spends months unable to stop weeping. She may be weeping in advance for her father's death and for the rape and torture she will undergo in the hands of the military under General Ledesma, who continues to call her hija, like a daughter, through it all.

Dream sequences are also very interesting and very pointed. The First Lady dreams of partying in the Waldorf Astoria and suddenly noticing she has no shoes on. She rushes into an elevator run by George Hamilton. Finally alone in her room, she writhes feverishly on an ice cold bed and then discovers the Pope hidden behind the curtains. His smile becomes the President's leer as the dream turns into nightmare. Girlie Alacran has a class warfare dream reminiscent of that recorded in Hagedorn's earlier novella Pet Food, only here the caddies of the golf club suddenly attack the family with name brand golf clubs. Girlie protests her impending doom and tries to save herself, first by meekly suggesting “You must be mistaken,” and then in a frenzy of cowardice trying to convince her assailants that the one they really want is her brother Boom-boom, and that she doesn't even like golf anyway. In a last desperate effort to save herself, she offers the caddies her body but they ignore her, and this rejection, says Hagedorn, is what Girlie remembers afterwards of the dream.

Then there is La Sultana, the fat, middle-aged fortune teller, who lives in a Mercedes-Benz parked near the Paco Cemetery, and of whom it is said that she neither urinates nor defecates. Our introduction to La Sultana is in half a paragraph midway through the book, in which we learn that even the First Lady comes to consult her. Here the shadowy Santos Tirador has come to see her, surrendering his last one hundred pesos to be told that he will find a woman whose life he will ruin and that he will die because of this, but he will die happy. We never really see La Sultana again, although she is mentioned, and we never see Santos Tirador either, although we find out later that Daisy Avila is carrying his child when she is questioned and tortured by the military, and that he is the subject of some of the questions put to Daisy. One gets the feeling that these two briefly defined characters are actually central to everything that goes on in the book, that Tirador is perhaps the assassin and perhaps part of the military intelligence as well until he becomes dispensable, and that perhaps the whole thing—Daisy's part in the beauty contest, the assassination that follows, even the whole subversive movement—is orchestrated by La Sultana from the back seat of her Mercedes-Benz. Strange indeed, but surely many people in Manila would be willing to believe such a tale in relation to the Aquino assassination. One can certainly imagine hearing such from a street vendor or a group of watch-your-car boys in Manila's streets.

The book is firmly anchored in martial law Manila, maybe 1974 or 1975, when the government was most busily engaged in providing the trappings of a free, democratic, and rich capitalist society. Military power came with a genteel veneer but could be brutal: Daisy is tortured by a general who talks to her like a daughter. Class interests speak, but not loudly enough, and Daisy has presumably lost the protection of her class with the assassination of her father, the oppositionist senator. (Interestingly enough, class interests do often transcend political differences in the Philippines, and often the members of a single powerful family may be engaged in left, center, and right-wing politics. This is probably one reason we can weather coups and revolutions without harboring much vengeance, why coup leaders are welcomed back into the government with handshakes and smiles, why Imelda Marcos could return to the country and run for president in 1992.)

Hagedorn focuses on the Manila Film Festival and a beauty contest, presumably the Manila Miss Universe Contest, as symptomatic signs of the times, with the emphasis on show and pretense—blocking out the tourists's views of squatter locations with board fences. In the midst of all this decadence is the continual commentary on it provided by the Talk Show and Cora Camacho, clearly modeled after real talk-show hosts Elvira Manahan and Inday Badiday. Cora comments on everything, interviews everyone, shows a wonderful dedication to scandal and tastelessness, and at the same time integrates all the events and characters in the book, from Daisy's weeping spells, to the First Lady's indignation over her denunciation of beauty contests, to the Alacran fortune, to the sexual habits of key military men, to the political movement of the left and the assassination of the senator—everything comes under the scope of Cora's commentaries. And of course, her shows become the subject for further commentary and interest, as they themselves are a political event. In fact, in Marcos's Manila these shows did provide such a focal point for political and other interests, seeming to provide the trappings of a democratic society enjoying the luxury of free speech, but more than once talk show guests of the era were arrested or even gunned down as they left the recording studios after their “outspokenness.”

The reader may sense by now that on some levels Dogeaters is a disjointed book, with its divergent voices, characters and events. But at the same time we have seen unifying factors: relationships between principle characters, the way they all relate to the major incidents of the novel, especially the assassination of Senator Avila, surely the central incident. Joey Sands was there, caught in his own criminal act of robbing his German lover. Romeo Rosales, the slightly pompous innocent who went on believing to the end that he could call on his old high school friendship with Tito Alvarez for aid and succor, was made the scapegoat when the killing needed solution. Romeo, who had been depicted as thinking only of his own vanity, his movie hopes, and his love affair with Trinidad. Rio and Baby Alacran are family friends and class associates of the murdered Senator. Daisy is of course his daughter. La Sultana seems to know about it before it happens, and Cora Camacho does the public commentary every step of the way.

But Hagedorn leaves the connections loosely established; there is nothing neat about this book. And perhaps because of this disjointedness, along with the underlying sense of oneness that the reader gets almost intuitively, the whole thing seems both real and unreal, a little like magic but a little like life. When Gabriel García Márquez was asked to explain some of the more bizarre incidents in One Hundred Years of Solitude and some of his other writing, he said that his grandmother used to tell him such stories, in a very down-to-earth, matter-of-fact tone. “Beautiful Remedios rode up to heaven on the sheets one morning.” Just so. And this is the feeling one gets from the tone of Hagedorn's novel; one can well imagine someone's gay hairdresser telling the story of how Joey tried to rob the German and ended up having to flee for his life because he witnessed the assassination, or Manila's yuppies talking about “this guy Santos Tirador, who seems to be popping up everywhere,” or the matrons discussing “this old woman who lives in a Mercedes-Benz near Paco Cemetery.” We take in stories like this all the time, accepting them as possible or probably true—and the more outrageous the real event, the more outlandish the stories. We still have wonderfully fanciful interpretations of the central trauma of the Marcos years, which was, of course, the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.1


  1. Dogeaters features several historical events, albeit in somewhat disguised form and with some disregard for temporal order. Manila did host the Miss Universe Contest of 1974, and, a few years later, an International Film Festival for which the Folk Arts Theater was hastily built at the cost of many workers' lives. Nelia Sancho, winner of the Miss Asian-Pacific beauty title, did later renounce such contests and join the anti-Marcos movement. (She has most recently been engaged in encouraging Filipino “Comfort Women” to speak out about their wartime experiences.) Ninoy Aquino, opposition senator, was, of course assassinated in 1983, and his murder pinned on a man called Rolando Galman. Several witnesses to this crime did subsequently disappear or die.

Works Cited

Bruchac, Joseph, ed. Breaking Silence: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets. Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review P, 1983.

Bulosan, Carlos. America Is in the Heart. 1946; Seattle: U Washington P, 1973.

Cachapero, Emily. Liwanag. San Francisco: Liwanag Pub., 1975.

Hagedorn, Jessica. Dangerous Music. San Francisco: Momo's P, 1975.

———. Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions. San Francisco: Momo's P, 1981.

———. Dogeaters. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

———. Danger and Beauty. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Llosa, Mario Vargas. “Fiction and Reality.” Modern Latin American Fiction. Ed. John King. New York: Noonday P, 1987.

Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Harper Collins, 1970.

Mirikitani, Janice, et al., eds. Time to Greez! Incantations from the Third World. San Francisco: Glide Pub., 1975.

Shirley Ancheta (review date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1459

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 collection of poetry and short fiction from her earlier books, including Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions, together with new work. The book is divided into four sections: “The Death of Anna May Wong: Poems, 1968-1972,” “Dangerous Music, 1975,” “Pet Food & Tropical Apparitions, 1981” and “New York Peep Show, 1982-1992.” This volume allows those not familiar with her earlier poems to appreciate her range and achievement.

The book is dedicated to the late poet, Kenneth Rexroth, who encouraged Hagedorn from the time she was a teenager. In her introduction, Hagedorn writes:

His [Rexroth's] flat on Scott Street is the ultimate boho heaven for me. Poetry is respected. Writing is life. I am awed by his library of ten thousand books in all sorts of languages; a kitchen stocked with Japanese goodies; Cubist paintings on the walls; and a living room where you might chance upon James Baldwin, Gary Snyder, or Amiri Baraka (then known as Leroi Jones)—in town for a hot minute. I am grateful even then for my esoteric and streetwise literary education.

In fact, some of the poems in the first section are from the Rexroth-edited anthology, Four Women Poets, published when Hagedorn was twenty-one or twenty-two:

her name is nada
daughter of ainu and t'boli
igorot and sioux
sister to inca and zulu
born from the mouth of a tree
the lullaby of joe loco
and mongo
turquoise eye the lullaby of pattie labelle
and the bluebells
flowers of her smile
the strut the style

(“Canto de Nada”)

It is a poem that celebrates the unity and shared experiences of people of the diaspora, who have crossed and re-crossed the waters and borders. The cadence resists the simple act of poetic word on a dead page; this is a poem to be heard, not read. By the end of the poem, it is the ear, not the eye that has been awakened to the sounds of Jessica's clear style, which influenced other women poets who were to follow:

she is nada all music
she is nothing    all music
she is the punk    all music
the dancing girl    all music
she is nada    nothing
she is the real thing
and in her womb
one could sleep for days

When I think of the earlier poems that make up this collection, such as those in the “Dangerous Music” section, I think of her memorable performances in the Bay Area with her group, The West Coast Gangster Choir. I think of Jessica creating her poems in a Victorian flat in San Francisco, headphones on with Eddie Palmieri's salsa, an IBM typewriter or the simple pen and writing pad—for this was the 70s, before writers even thought about owning a gorgeous computer. Jessica was deep into it: the rhythm, the passion of imagination and memory, and the long haul of the commitment to writing.

Her poems are voice-driven, with the voice leading the words. She knows the power and betrayal of words and through them she plucks a rhythm to sustain the performance poet who must be seen and heard:

there are some people i know
whose beauty
is a crime.
who make you so crazy
you don't know
whether to throw yourself
at them or kill them.
which makes for permanent madness. …
stay away
from magic shows.
especially those
involving words.
words are very
tricky things.
everyone knows
the most common
instruments of
they most likely
be saying them,
breathing poems
so rhythmic
you can't help
but dance.
and once
you start dancing
to words
you might never


In the 70s, we learned our fractured histories and Jessica, who emigrated from the Philippines in the 60s, retells the past through the eyes of the mestiza descendant of post-colonial survivors:

… in Manila
the nuns with headdresses
like the wings of doves
piety and sanctity are their names
n their sweat
stale n musky
in the woolen robes they wear
in the heat of a tropical day
hiding breasts n cunts
n beat you into holy submission
with tales of purgatory
n the black saint of lima
martin de porres
n lapu lapu
was just another pagan
who cut off some spaniard's head
n magellan's statue looms instead
like a nightmare in manila
where you dream colors
of the first donald duck movie
you've ever seen
underneath a mosquito net. …


These are images of the neocolonial realities of Manila, resurrected by Hollywood and Donald Duck; it is the fake idea of America, forced fed to the Filipino people through the movies.

Pet Food is a launching pad or prelude to her successful novel, Dogeaters, which was nominated in 1990 for the National Book Award. Hagedorn takes more risks here than in her earlier work. The novella takes place in San Francisco, the place of strange, hip city dwellers—where marginally hip people link together momentarily, creating urban ecstasies through the use of cocaine, sex, and hip dialogue. The narrator, a young female poet, goes by the name of George Sand (the pseudonym of Aurore Dudevant, the nineteenth-century European novelist). We discover a Rexroth-like character, Silver Daddy; Auntie Greta, a drag queen with lots of heart; Prince Genji, the ugly villain, and a host of others. In a short piece entitled “Cinderella,” the writer Sands receives a gift:

I was writing in my studio when a coach pulled up in front. … The elegant coach was driven by rodents wearing lace-cuffed velvet jackets and sequined knickers. Satin ribbons were tied to their tails. … There was a knock at my door. A footman entered, wearing an oversized Halloween rat mask, “I have been sent by Cinderella to give you this,” the footman said, handing me a vial of cocaine.

The characters are so insulated in their obsession with cocaine and sex that their hip world of indifference hides a world extracted of meaning and purpose. At times, the reader is cut off from entering the story by the esoteric, hip imaginings of George Sand. The setting is the late 70s early 80s when cocaine use was so common, our “neighbors” used it. While the novella might seem more a celebration of excess, we forgive the character's overindulgence with cocaine because of the edge and newness that the language takes.

Again, it is important to place this experimental piece as groundwork for the very successful Dogeaters, which Jessica calls her “love letter” to her motherland. Dogeaters is a cleverly constructed commentary on American pop culture colliding with troubled, modern Manila during the Marcos dictatorship.

In the last section, Jessica's newest work illuminates the meditations of the traveler, the sojourner, the searcher. As in her other work, she lends us her keen observations on the effects of cultural imperialism and feminism, without overwhelming her narrative power. She allows the urgent voices of memory to find themselves and ask her who she is.

In the landscape of her memory, she's in Zamboanga—in an open market surrounded by grinning women. They call out her name … “I am one of you,” she tells the women. “I am not an American. …” The women mock her with laughter; they don't believe her lies. She's a perpetual foreigner, at home in airports—an exile within, homesick for what she can only imagine.

(“Travels in the Combat Zone”)

How can we celebrate the exile in the cities of New York, San Francisco, and Manila? To take in all of her. To listen to her work, not just a few, but each one, piece by piece.

As a major writer, Jessica Hagedorn has taken on the heavy responsibility of giving the reader a continuous dosage of her work. Her multimedia theater pieces have been presented at New York's Theater, among others and include Holy Food and Mango Tango. She is also a commentator for Crossroads, a syndicated weekly newsmagazine on public radio. Hagedorn edited the newest Asian American fiction anthology, Charlie Chan Is Dead just out from Viking Penguin. Her choices are good ones.

Danger and Beauty is an important work because it gives the reader an inner look to Hagedorn's beginnings. It is the recognition that we have been and continue to be, in the presence of a fine writer, one of our own: Jessica Hagedorn.

Still writing. Still admired.

David Shih (review date winter 1995-1996)

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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 Contemporary Asian American Fiction intimidates upon first glance. How this attitude strikes you “mostly depends on your race, creed, hair color, social and economic class and political proclivities” (90), if I may borrow from Marilyn Chin's narrator in her story, “Moon.” From the outset this anthology celebrates, perhaps even demands the subjectivities of its contributors. “I let it be known that I was definitely more interested in ‘riskier’ work, and that I was eager to subvert the very definition of what was considered ‘fiction’” (xxviii), writes editor Jessica Hagedorn. Take nothing for granted, we are warned. Only one thing is for sure: Charlie Chan is dead, and somebody has killed him. If the cover is any indication, his death was neither accidental nor painless, but calculated. An Asian American has killed him. Or maybe forty-eight Asian Americans have killed him, each of their stories a bullet into the heart of the Chinatown detective whose “cryptic, psuedo-Confucian” (xxi) language did more to typecast the Asian American than any other pop icon.

Of these contributors, almost half have their work published in a major collection for the first time. They are joined by more well-known Asian American writers, from the seminal—Carlos Bulosan, Hisaye Yamamoto DeSoto, Maxine Hong Kingston—to those who have recently found success in the commercial and critical arenas—Gish Jen, Joy Kogawa, Amy Tan. With the efforts from these more established writers previously appearing in published form—many are novel excerpts—Hagedorn's call for new voices is almost certainly the most exciting aspect of this anthology for readers of Asian American literature. Her introduction recognizes these new voices for their characters' divergences from stereotypical “standards” of behavior, particularly those ascribed to Asian Americans. “They make love, worry about the future, hurt each other, endure hardships. … They get high. Sell their bodies. … They are tough and noble. They survive. They remind us that in our civilized anguish, we are still beautiful and amazing” (xxx). Indeed we do. Given this prelude, however, one cannot discount the temptation to read these fictions first for their sensationalist aspect, second for their artistic merit and emotive potential. In most cases, the reader leaves the milieu of the writers more affected, even moved, by the lives of their characters than titillated or shocked by the circumstances of their living.

Charlie Chan Is Dead departs from earlier Asian American literature anthologies with its pluralistic interpretation of Asian Americanness. Even with its alphabetical arrangement the anthology reveals a facile negotiation of style and subject from work to work, as if anticipating the charge of sameness leveled against the work of Asian American fiction writers. The emotional range of the fictions parallels the cultural diversity of their authors as well. Darrell Lum's charming “Fourscore and Seven Years Ago” drops us into a community of adolescent boys in Hawaii whose concerns appear nothing more serious than sneaking a look up a teacher's dress. Moments of irony arise from the most innocuous situations such as Daniel's unease in dressing up as Abraham Lincoln to address the student body: “I still nevah like cause look stoopid when dey pin da black construction paper bow tie and make you wear da tall construction paper hat but she said it was one privilege for say da speech” (288-89). Lum's pidgin handily demonstrates its efficacy in communicating experience while refuting those false pidgins put forth by mainstream books and television. The looseness of Lum's adolescents gives way to the tension of the following novel excerpt by Laureen Mar, “Resistance.” The characters here own an overdetermined sense of history, only too aware that they are Asian Americans in a dominant white society. Grant Ito is a reporter who works to reconcile his activist leanings with his flawed private relationships. Central here is his father, a suicidal man seemingly ruined by is internment, unable to win the affection of his ex-wife, Grant's bourgeois mother, or the esteem of his son: “his father was a push-over, he thought, the videotape of the camps going at half speed through his head” (313). Mar allows us access into the casualties suffered from the collision of filial love and personal politics.

Whether by “riskier work” Hagedorn means experimental form or alternative content, Charlie Chan Is Dead delivers on both counts. Still, in many cases, any marks of the avant-garde are balanced by familiar plots driven by conflicts within the family. In a series of numbered entries, none longer than a paragraph, Jose Garcia Villa's 1933 “Untitled Story” details the pained wanderings of a young man across America in search of two loves: that of women and that for his father. The narrator of Marianne Villanueva's “Lenox Hill, December 1991” openly announces her method: “I can describe things more accurately if I present, briefly, scenes that stand out in my mind,” (478) and follows with sixteen numbered “memories” which trace her last moments with her dying sister. R. Zamora Linmark fashions “They Like You Because You Eat Dog, So What are You Gonna Do about It?” through eight short interconnected vignettes which juxtapose scenes of a boy's turbulent domestic life with those of his emerging sexual and cultural consciousness among his peers.

To draw a connection between these “fractured” narratives and a fractured self struggling to piece together what is “Asian” and what is “American” generates too easy an analysis, and to do so is to saddle the writer with an unconvincing and ultimately false trope. This anthology aims to counter the legacy of Charlie Chan with its multiple, singing realities. It does so, as advertised. But as a people Asian Americans exhibit all these problems not so much because we are aliens shell-shocked by unsympathetic culture, but because we are all too human, often fallible and sometimes wondrous.

Lisa Lowe (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13332

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 at a moment of danger.

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Frantz Fanon directs our attention, in Black Skin, White Masks (1967), to the importance of language as the medium through which a colonizing culture forms the colonized subject: “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization” (17-18). In alluding to the paradoxical fluency of the colonized subject in the colonial language and culture, Fanon astutely names the twofold character of colonial formation. The imposition of the colonial language and its cultural institutions, such as the novel, demands the subject's internalization of the “superiority” of the colonizer and the “inferiority” of the colonized, even as it attempts to evacuate the subject of “native” language, traditions, and practices. Yet the colonized subject produced within such an encounter does not merely bear the marks of the coercive encounter between the dominant language and culture, constructed as whole, autonomous and disinterested, and the specificities of the colonized group's existence. Such encounters produce contradictory subjects, in whom the demands for fluency in imperial languages and empire's cultural institutions simultaneously provide the grounds for antagonism to those demands.

In this essay I will be extending Fanon's analysis of the role of colonial narratives to modes of cultural imperialism that cross national boundaries, are in excess of a single nation-state formation, and are complicated by displacement and immigration. I will be considering literary countertexts as sites in which such imperialist modes are thematized, disorganized, and ultimately, critically resituated in relation to alternative cultural forms. Through discussions of “novels” written by “Asian Americans” in English, this essay considers the novel as a cultural institution that regulates formation of citizenship and the nation, that genders the domains of “public” and “private” activities, that prescribes the spatialization of race relations, and, most of all, that determines possible contours and terrains for the narration of “history.” In other words, the cultural institution of the novel legitimates particular forms and subjects of history; it subjugates or erases others. In this regard, I observe the institutional and formal continuities between the novel and historical narrative.

With the emergence of print culture as an institution of modernity in the “West,” the Anglo-European and U.S. American novel has held a position of primary importance in the interpellation of readers as subjects for the nation, in the gendering of these subjects, and in the racializing of spheres of activity and work. Franco Moretti (1987) has analyzed the bildungsroman as the primary form for narrating the development of the individual form youthful innocence to civilized maturity, the telos of which is the reconciliation of the individual with the bourgeois social order. For Benedict Anderson (1983), the novel as a form of print culture constitutes a privileged site for the unification of the citizen to the “imagined community” of the nation. Likewise, David Lloyd (1987) has argued that the national literary canon functions to unify aesthetic culture as a domain in which material differences are resolved and reconciled; the bildungsroman has a special status among the works selected for a canon, for it elicits the reader's identification with the bildung narrative of ethical formation, itself a narrative of the individual's relinquishing of particularity and difference through identification with an idealized “national” form of subjectivity.1

We can view Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813), for example, as an important artifact and producer of nineteenth-century English discourses on middle-class morality and propriety, of women's domestic role within the ideology of separate “public” and “private” spheres, and of the reconciliation of bourgeois individualism and the social order through the marriage contract. Yet as a result of the institutionalization of the novel in England as well as in the British empire's systems of colonial education, the powerfully determining divisions and narrative resolutions of Austen's novel extend well beyond her nineteenth-century English public to the globalized readers and recipients of popular culture in the late twentieth century. In reckoning with that legacy, we might think of the ways in which the orthodoxy of domestic womanhood emerges as a ruling category and terrain of contestation in postcolonial Anglophone novels. Buchi Emecheta's novel The Joys of Motherhood (1979), for example, portrays a Nigerian woman in the 1930s and '40s poignantly caught between “traditional” Ibo definitions of motherhood within the extended family and the “modern” capitalist gender relations prescribing female domesticity within the nuclear family imposed by the colonial British state. The description of colonial education in Jamaica in Michelle Cliff's Abeng (1984) also offers an apt allegory for the widespread communication of English “civility.”2 Just as the Jamaican schoolgirls of Abeng are required to recite William Wordworth's poem “Daffodils,” so they are disciplined to conform to received notions of proper middle-class English “femininity.” “No doubt the same manuals were shipped to villages in Nigeria, schools in Hong Kong … Probably there were a million children who could recite ‘Daffodils,’ and a million who had never actually seen the flower, only the drawing, and so did not know why the poet had been stunned” (85). Though the resolutions narrated in Austen's bildungsroman were by no means uniform and complete in her own time—there were certainly growing contradictions between the notion of separate spheres and nineteenth-century social practices, between her narrative of class reconciliation through sentimental marriage and the turmoil of the period that E. P. Thompson described in the Making of the English Working Class—I would argue that in the institutionalization of the English novel in the British colonies, there was an even greater contradiction between the values and norms of the colonizing culture and the bifurcated, unequal colonial society that the colonial education functioned to sustain and reproduce.3 And the cultural and political identifications of the United States with Britain ensured that the bourgeois English formation detailed in Austen's novels has been disseminated with a scope almost equivalent to that of television reception. Just as the English novel was a central cultural institution in British colonial education and contributed to the formation of subjects in the British colonies of India, Nigeria, and Jamaica, so, too, did the American novel from The Scarlet Letter to The Sound and the Fury exercise its formidable authority on the literary and cultural traditions of African Americans, Chicanos/Latinos, and Asian Americans in the United States. I do not intend to imply an always oppositional relationship between an imperial metropolitan culture and its subordinated others, nor am I claiming that the Anglophone writing by colonized or minoritized groups in every case transgresses the imperatives of the English or American novel. Rather, let us emphasize that owing to complex, uneven material histories of colonization and the oppression of racialized groups within the United States, the sites of minority or colonized literary production are at different distances from the canonical nationalist project of reconciling constituencies to idealized forms of community and subjectivity. As I have argued elsewhere, the structural location of U.S. minority literature may produce effects of dissonance, fragmentation, and irresolution even, and especially, when that literature appears to be performing a canonical function.4 Even those novels which can be said to conform more closely to the formal criteria of the bildungsroman express a remarkable contradiction between the demand for a univocal developmental narrative and the historical specificities of racialization, ghettoization, violence, and labor exploitation. The kind and degree of contradiction between those historical specificities and the national narrative served by the cultural institution of the novel generates formal deviations whose significances are misread if simply assimilated as modernist or postmodernist aesthetic modes. The effects of these works are more radically grasped in terms of their constant interrogation of the discrepancies between canonical historical narratives and what Walter Benjamin would term the material “catastrophes” those histories obscure.

In the discussions that follow, I examine three contemporary Asian American texts that interrupt the traditional functions of the novel as a medium for narrating the development of the individual and its reconciliation to the social order, as a site of interpellation for the citizen-subject of the nation, and as a work that enacts the separation of autonomous aesthetic culture from material stratification and gender and racialized differences. These texts challenge the concepts of identity and identification produced within a universalized narrative of development. They skew the relationship of the citizen-subject to the nation by interrogating the construction of both “Asian” and “American.” The discussion of these Asian American texts begins with the observation of the rhetorical and institutional congruence between U.S. historical narratives about Asia and Asian American on the one hand and the institution of the Anglophone novel on the other. The Orientalist histories take up the realist aesthetic that governs representation in the novel, and they borrow the formal devices of the novel as a means of situating Asia and narrating the incorporation of Asian immigrants into the U.S. American nation. In contrast, the “novels” by Asian immigrant and Asian American women explore other modes of telling, revealing, and spatializing history. In meditating on the notion of blood as ground and figure of representation in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée (1982), on tsismis (gossip) as an antifiguration of narrative in Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters (1990), and on the excavation of urban space in Fae Myenne Ng's Bone (1993) as a disruption of temporalization as the novel's privileged mode, I trace how these Asian American novels displace the representational regimes of the institutionalized novel by writing out of the limits and breakdowns of those regimes.


The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Throughout the twentieth century U.S. Orientalism has been determined by several differentiated but interconnected apparatuses of rule. Orientalism was deployed to justify the use of brutal military force in the colonization of the Philippines, the war against Japan in 1941-45, culminating in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war in and partition of Korea (1950-53), and the war in Vietnam (1954-75). Orientalism also bears a crucial relationship to the history of Asian immigration, exclusion, and naturalization. Immigration Exclusion Acts in 1882, 1917, and 1924 barred entry to the United States to Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, and, though the Magnuson Act of 1943 repealed Chinese exclusions, the exclusion of other Asians continued. While the McCarran-Walters Act of 1952 established quotas of one hundred for each country within the Asia-Pacific triangle, it also specifically screened for “subversives” and allowed deportation of immigrants with Communist affiliations (Takaki 1989). Immigration and naturalization laws have thus been not only means of policing the terms of the “citizen” and the nation-state but part of an Orientalist discourse that defines Asians as “foreign” in times when the United States has constructed itself as ideologically at war with Asia (Gotanda 1995).

The crisis of U.S. national identity during the period of war in Asia, coupled with the imperatives of racializing and proletarianizing the Asian populations immigrating to the United States from a variety of national origins, has necessitated a complex and variegated discourse for managing “oriental otherness.” A racialized and gendered anti-Asian discourse produces and manages a “double front” of Asian threat and encroachment: on the one hand, as external rivals in overseas imperial war and global economy, and on the other, as a needed labor force for the domestic economy. The “blood-will-tell” anti-Japanese racial discourse during World War II, propaganda about the traitorous Asian as subhuman, and the extensive conflation of Asian women with accessible “foreign” territories to be conquered and subdued are all parts of a mid-century U.S. Orientalism tailored to homogenize and subordinate both internal and external Asian populations (Dower 1989). World War II inaugurated an acute figuration of the Asian as racial enemy; and, throughout the postwar period until 1970, war films and popular novels as well as “official” historical narratives deployed this discourse for the purpose of unifying national identity, justifying the cold war, and assisting the expansion of the domestic American market (Browne 1992).

In the post-cold-war period, though the traditional anti-Asian figurations persist, the emergence in Asia of formidable capitalist rivals has also given rise to a discourse of economic penetration and trade with those overseas nations that the United States had previously caricatured as enemies. In the meantime the abolition of national origin quotas in 1965, allowing for 170,000 immigrants annually from the Eastern Hemisphere, has enormously changed the profile of “Asian Americans,” rendering the majority of the constituency Asian-born rather than multiple-generation: the new immigrants from South Vietnam, South Korea, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan have diversified the already existing Asian American group of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino descent. “Multiculturalism,” leveling the important differences and contradictions within and among racial and ethnic minority groups, has since emerged as a discourse that seeks to integrate Asian immigrant workers into the domestic capitalist economy. And, finally, as U.S. capitalism shifts production to the Third World, making use, in low-cost export assembly and manufacturing zones, of Southeast Asian and Latin American female labor in particular, the proletarianization of nonwhite women has led to a breakdown and a reformulation of the categories and the relations of national, racial, and gender difference that were characteristic of the earlier, more nationalist-inspired Orientalism.

This contemporary shift toward the transnationalization of capital is not exclusively manifested in the “denationalization” of corporate power; more important, it is also expressed in the reorganization of oppositional movements and constituencies against capital that articulate themselves in terms and relations other than the “national,” notably movements of U.S. women of color and Third World women (Sandoval 1991; Mohanty 1991a).5 Thus an important dimension of my discussion is to urge consideration of Asian immigrants, with specific attention to Asian immigrant women, as a group emerging out of colonialism and neoimperialism in Asia as well as immigrant displacement to the United States. Asian immigrants are determined at once by the histories of Western expansionism in Asia and by the racialization of working populations of color in the United States.6 Especially in light of post-1965 Asian immigrations to the United States, “Asian American” subjectivity is a complex site of different displacements, among which figures prominently the displacement from a decolonizing or neocolonized Asian society to a United States with whose sense of national identity the immigrants are often in contradiction. Once Asians have arrived in the United States, the demand that they insert themselves into liberal capitalist discourses of development, assimilation, and citizenship provides the grounds for antagonism to such demands. The imperatives that the subject identify—as national, classed, and gendered subject—arise within the materially differentiated conditions of racialized workers of color that simultaneously produce disidentifications out of which critical subjectivities may emerge. Disidentification expresses a space in which alienations, in both the cultural and economic senses, can be rearticulated in politically oppositional forms. But disidentification does not entail the formation of even oppositional identities against the call to identification with the national state. On the contrary, it allows for the exploration of alternative political and cultural subjectivities that emerge within the continuing effects of displacement. The discussions that follow explore three recent Asian American “novels” that produce alternative “histories” out of the conditions of decolonization, displacement, and disidentification.

Western theorists of modernity and postmodernity, as well as postcolonial intellectuals, Subaltern Studies historians, and feminist critics of colonialism, have articulated critiques of the realist aesthetic as a regime for the production of history. In studies of the rhetoric and tropology of nineteenth-century historical narratives, Hayden White (1973) and Dominick LaCapra (1985) target verisimilitude, development, and teleology as fundamental to European history's truth effects; for Jean-François Lyotard, famously, the postmodern moment is one witnessing the breakdown of such master narratives of dominant culture and aesthetics (1984). That Western historiography itself establishes the congruence of historical narratives with a realist representational project suggests that this aesthetic constitutes not only the historiographical means through which empires narrated their own progress, not only the aesthetic imperial subjects used to represent colonies as peripheral objects, but also the aesthetic they imposed upon their colonies and within which they demanded those colonies narrate themselves. Accordingly, critiques of Orientalism have linked the aesthetic interrogation of the project of representation to the historiographical critique of narrative as an apparatus of European colonial rule (Said 1978). Postcolonial theorists have written about the way in which colonial powers imposed modes of historical representation on the colonized (Prakash 1990; Chakrabarty 1992) and have analyzed the violence done to, but failed containment of, the colonized within the modes of literary representation (Niranjana 1992b; Lloyd 1993). Radical historians of India and the Philippines have argued that both official colonialist histories and the elite nationalist histories they have implicated and engendered have favored the narrative structure of progressive development of a unified subject and people, a structure that has subjugated the fragmented, decentralized activities of mass uprising, peasant revolts, and laborer rebellions (Guha 1988; Pandey 1988a, 1988b; Ileto 1988). Feminist theorists have further challenged Orientalist historiography by interrogating narrative histories as technologies of patriarchal rule (Sangari and Vaid 1990; Mohanty 1991a): their insistence that all aspects of colonial society are gendered has provided a basis for moving the critique of Orientalism beyond a privileging or universalizing of the colonized subject—male or female—as a means of decentering Orientalist history.

In this sense, the authority of Orientalist narrative falters on a number of frontiers; yet quite evidently, the documentations of its failure take place differently, depending on the locations and contexts of their production.7 While U.S. Orientalism makes use of the representational and narrative regimes of an earlier Orientalism that expressed the European empires' desire to institutionalize colonialism elsewhere, it has also been transformed by a different state formation, and by the global and national contexts of U.S. expansion in Asia. Keeping this in mind, it is useful to consider how U.S. historical accounts of Asia take up the formal features of the aesthetic governing the novel.

In Eric Goldman's The Crucial Decade—And After: America, 1945-1960, the commencement of the Korean War lies in a conversation between Truman and the State Department. Goldman writes:

The American government had long known that Korea was a trouble spot. … In the spring of 1950, the American Central Intelligence Agency was reporting that the North Koreans were continuing to build up their military machine with Soviet assistance and might launch a full-scale offensive.

(1960, 148)

Harry Truman had heard enough. He told Acheson that he would order his plane, the Independence, readied immediately and asked the Secretary of State to get together with the military chiefs and prepare recommendations. … Bess Truman waved good-by to her husband with a look very much like the one she had on that eerie evening when Vice-President Truman suddenly became President Truman. Margaret stood a bit apart from the airport crowd, staring at the plane with her hands clasped under her chin as if in silent prayer.


The very nature of the Presidential decisions disarmed critics of the Truman-Acheson foreign policy. … They put their faith, above all, in General Douglas MacArthur. It was at the General's recommendation—and this fact was generally known—that full intervention had been decided upon, and Douglas MacArthur was in command in Korea.


For one moment, suspended weirdly in the bitter debates, … the reckless plunge of the North Korean Communists and the bold response of Harry Truman had united America.


In Goldman's narrative, history is developmental. A succession of events leads up to a crisis, and then the crisis is resolved. History is made by elite heroes (the president and secretary of state), whose foes are U.S. public opinion and intragovernmental relations, and the drama is played out before Bess and Margaret, a loyal feminine spectatorship. The narrative structure implies that Korean leaders and mass groups are merely a passive, perhaps colorful backdrop for the drama of the central noble protagonist, President Truman. The dynamics of Korean nationalism in its relationship to the Japanese occupation, the generational and political schisms within Korean nationalism that were expressed in the division of North and South Korea, as well as the larger scope of U.S. involvement in Asia before 1950—all are erased or obscured by the central drama of the U.S. government's decision to send General MacArthur into South Korea.

The account of Korea offered by James Thomson, Peter Stanley, and John Curtis Perry's Sentimental Imperialists: The American Experience in East Asia (1981) also elucidates features of U.S. Orientalist narrative:

Korea's tragedy has been that the nation is alone, precariously situated between the major cultures of China and Japan, with no neighbors comparably small or weak. …

With one language, one ethnic group, and one society, Korea is one of the world's oldest and most homogenous nation-states, stubbornly retaining its distinct cultural identity despite periodic invasions and recurring waves of foreign influence. Perhaps this cultural tenacity is in part due to the challenge posed by the outside world.


“Korea” is here posited as a fixed, static victim, without differentiation from itself. Unlike the West, which possesses self-consciousness and can know itself through the universal reason of its own histories, “Korea” is fundamentally unphilosophical and atavistic. Thomson, Stanley, and Perry narrate the history of Korea as tragic; their narrative exemplifies the paternalism that figures the West as the father and Asian nations as backward children in need of emancipation. It positions Korea with reference to a West-Other axis, obscuring the relations between Korea and other Asian peoples and suppressing any recognition of Korea as internally complex: as a country of differently classed and propertied populations, men and women, many religions, official and unofficial nationalism.

The larger project of Sentimental Imperialists reiterates the narrative form and function of the bildungsroman; it documents the history of imperialist war in Asia as a story of the progress of the United States from youthful “innocence and grandiosity” through the “dashing of hopes” to the maturity of a nation seasoned by the trials of war in Asia. It narrates the national reconciliation of a United States made wiser by the errors of having entered into difficult and not always victorious wars, “educated” by the lessons of anti-Communism and imperialism. Fundamentally, it exemplifies a narrative of nationalist unification, celebrating the triumph of liberal tolerance and a magnanimous state that protects and incorporates immigrants.

We have observed that this link between historical narratives of the United States as a nation and novelistic narratives of the individual is mediated by adherence to a realist aesthetic, a fetishized concept of development, and the narration of a single unified subject. Having mentioned already the Euro-American poststructuralist or “postmodern” critique of the congruence of historical narrative and the novel (White, La Capra, and Lyotard), we must differentiate such “Western” challenges to representation from the “decolonizing” writing that emerges from Third World, diaspora, and racialized U.S. American sites. In The Wretched of the Earth (1968), Frantz Fanon defines decolonization as a process of thorough social transformation that disorganizes the stratified social hierarchy beyond the nationalist party's capture of the state from the colonizer. Decolonization, in Fanon's sense, does not prematurely signify the end of colonialism but refers rather to the multifaceted project of resistance struggles that can go on for decades in the midst of simultaneous neocolonial exploitation. Associating bourgeois nationalism and the colonial state's structures of domination, Fanon designates decolonization as a third alternative to colonialism and nationalism, an ongoing project exhausted neither by the political narrative of constitutional representation promoted by the state nor by the notion of a nationalist aesthetic that posits national culture and the representative work as sites of resolution. Decolonization can be defined as necessarily antagonistic to existing institutions of representation, aesthetic and literary, as well as constitutional or political. We can therefore read Asian American writing as emerging out of decolonization in this sense. Euro-American postmodernism dissolves the notion of a homogeneous “West” as it has been constructed within Enlightenment literary and philosophical categories; like poststructuralism, it contests the “modern” within European terms, and reveals the difference internal to the making of the “West.”8 In contradistinction, “decolonizing” writing, which may include features associated with postmodernism (such as nonlinear, antirepresentational aesthetics), emerges not from a terrain of philosophical or poetic otherness within the West but out of the contradictions of what Bipan Chandra (1980) has called the “colonial mode of production.”9 Whereas the relations of production of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism were characterized by the management of the urban workers by the urban bourgeoisie, colonialism was built on the split between colonial metropolis and agrarian colony, organizing the agrarian society into a social formation in which a foreign class functioned as the capitalist class. In order to maximize the extraction of surplus, the necessary reproduction of the relations of production in a colonial mode of production was not limited to the reproduction of class relations but emphasized the reproduction of hierarchical relations of region, culture, language, and, most particularly, race as well. “Decolonization,” then, is the social formation that encompasses a multileveled and multicentered assault on those specific forms of colonial rule; that project of decolonization is carried forth in the “postcolonial” site as well as by immigrant and diasporic populations.

In other words, if we understand “decolonization” as an ongoing disruption of the colonial mode of production, then Asian American writing participates in that disruption from a location already marked by the uneven and unsynthetic encounters of colonial, neocolonial, and mass and elite indigenous cultures that characterize decolonization. These material pressures produce texts that resist the formal abstraction of aestheticization that is a legacy of European modernism and a continuing feature of European postmodernism. In this sense, the writing of the “decolonizing novel” takes place necessarily by way of a detour into the excavation of “history,” as we will see in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée.


… the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

In Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's 1982 Korean American text, there is no full narrative account of the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, no linear history of the brutal suppressions of a resistant Korean nationalist movement that originated in the Tonghak Rebellion of 1884-95 and flowered in the March First movement of 1919.10 There are no emancipationist narratives of the Korean War of 1950 and the partition of Korea in 1953, or of the exodus of Koreans and their dislocations in the United States, on the one hand, and no explicit narrative history of the U.S. neocolonial role in the military dictatorship and the development of state capitalism in South Korea, on the other. Rather, Dictée juxtaposes a series of episodes, scenes, and evocative fragments, including an account of a period of Korean nationalism during the Japanese colonial occupation, a description of the adult narrator's displaced situation as a Korean American immigrant, and a memory of the narrator's return to a military-ruled South Korea after the Korean War.11

Making use of fractured memory, poems, and dreamlike impressions, Dictée resists the core values of aesthetic realism. Rather than constructing a narrative of unities and symmetries, with consistencies of character and plot, it emphasizes fragmented recitation and nonidentity. Repetition is taken to its parodic extreme and disengaged as the privileged mode of mimesis and realism. Dictée's unfaithful relationship to realism resonates with critiques both of the traditional novel and of official historical accounts.

Images of blood—spilling from the open wound, staining the pavement as a crowd is assaulted by troops, seeping from students caught and beaten—punctuate the episodes in Dictée. Descriptions of blood hemorrhaging, emptying, and flowing, erupt in a text that refuses continuous narration of the wars, insurgencies, containments, and violences that are central to both U.S. neocolonial and South Korean nationalist accounts of the Korean people during this century. Allusions to splitting, breaking, and dividing—of tongue, body, family, and nation—pervade Dictée. One scene in particular, depicting the splitting and severing of the represented body in relation to representation and narrative technique, alludes to the military suppression of the 19 April people's revolt of 1960, and, in this scene, blood becomes the ground of representation as well as the figure of erasure.

I feel the tightening of the crowd body to body. … The air is made visible with smoke it grows spreads without control we are hidden inside the whiteness the greyness reduced to parts, reduced to separation. Inside an arm lifts above the head in deliberate gesture and disappears into the thick white from which slowly the legs of another bent at the knee hit the ground the entire body on its left side. The stinging, it slices the air it enters thus I lose direction the sky is a haze running the streets emptied I fell no one saw me I walk. Anywhere. In tears the air stagnant continues to sting I am crying the sky remnant the gas smoke absorbed the sky I am crying. The streets covered with chipped bricks and debris. Because. I see the frequent pairs of shoes thrown sometimes a single pair among the rocks they had carried. Because. I cry wail torn shirt lying I step among them. No trace of them. Except for the blood. Because. Step among them the blood that will not erase with the rain on the pavement that was walked upon like the stones where they fell had fallen. Because. Remain dark the stain not wash away. Because. I follow the crying crowd their voices among them their singing their voices unceasing the empty street.

(Cha 1982, 81-82; my emphases)

This passage dramatically disrupts not only syntax but also the grammars of predication and causality fundamental to the novel and history: both presuppose closure (telos) and character (subject of development). Just as the passage portrays bodies that are wounded and separated, so too is syntax interrupted and truncated. There is a conspicuous absence of purposive narrative context, and no explanation for either the disrupted syntax or the fragmented bodies; there is only blood, as if blood, which issues from the breaking of both syntax and limbs, were the only language that emerges out of the violence of grammar. Blood is not merely the representation of violence but the trace whose stain, whose flow, whose indelibility is the measure of what cannot be represented, is the index of the violence of historical representation itself. A subversion of predication occurs in the repeated separations of subjects from modifiers, and the repeated dislocations of subject and predicate, as in “The stinging, it slices the air it enters,” in which it is an unnamed firing that is the subject of “slices” and “enters” and that presumably results in “the stinging.” Predication and causality are disrupted as well by the temporal inversion through which the stinging precedes the slicing and entering.

“Because,” the conjunction conventionally used to express cause or reason, has a peculiar status in this passage. “Because” usually precedes a logical sequence or inference, indicating an unequivocal causal relationship, but here, the four repetitions of the conjunction defy this grammar and are followed by blood staining the pavement. In this sense, not only does the inverted grammar (splitting—“because”—blood) register the failure of temporal narrative, but the repetitions of “because” followed by blood (“that will not erase with rain”) assault causality as a trope of official history. They interrogate predication as one among several discursive orthodoxies for producing historical truth, and ultimately target the violent regimes of official representation and narrative themselves: both the U.S. narrative of Korean emancipation from Japanese colonialism by U.S. intervention on the one hand and an official South Korean narrative about the rise of Korean nationalism and its role in the modernization of society and the capitalist economy on the other (Choi 1993).

We have in this passage from Dictée a conception of history that treats the “historical” not as a continuous narrative of progress, maturity, and increasing rationality, not as a story of great moments and individuals, but as a surplus of materiality that exceeds textualization, that renders inoperable the vocabularies and grammars of nineteenth-century post-Enlightenment narrative with its belief in the individual, reason, and the linear evolution of civilization. The materiality of history is, in this passage, what will not be ordered, what does not coagulate and cohere. This materiality does not become accessible with a mere change of perspective, or even a shift to another narrative; it is not exclusively a question of creating more “accurate” narratives. Rather, “history” becomes “visible” not in its narrative representation but in its defiance of the dominant regimes of representability. Like the blood that is itself not a “fixed” material but materiality's belated sign, it spreads, skews, seeps, and will not cohere into the developmental progress that narrative history and the novel demand.

Dictée's treatment of the relationship of a mobile, nonunivocal narrating subject to official events suggests that narrative accounts giving priority to elite groups against a backdrop of the institutions of government, political assembly, the military are partial and obfuscating. It dramatizes the fact that the investigation of nonelite, popular activity requires not only a deviation from the well-documented, official account but also a transformation of historical understanding and a revaluation of what is considered to be significant. Such an investigation demands that we become literate in what may appear, through the lens of traditional representation, to be only confused, random, or violent incidents. Rather than provoking cynicism about the possibility of writing history, the challenge to representation signals the need for alternative projects of many kinds and suggests that the writing of different histories—of non-elites, of insurgencies, of women, from the “bottom up”—inevitably runs up against representation and linear narrative as problematic categories. In this respect, texts like Dictée provide an opportunity to reflect on the possibility of alternative modes for historical retrieval and recollection, at the very level of the form in which they are written and conceived.12


The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Jessica Hagedorn's 1990 Dogeaters is a Filipina American text that also radically alters the form and function of the novel and of historical narrative through explorations of alternative means for representing the history of “the popular.” Like Dictée, it poses institutions of “official” historical representation against a notion of history as fragments and against the telling of history as a process of partial, imperfect recollection. Dogeaters thematizes the displacement of an Asian immigrant/Asian American narrator who “remembers” the Marcos era. It foregrounds the connections and discontinuities between her diasporic location and the Filipino nationalism that emerges as a consequence of and a challenge to Spanish colonialism (sixteenth century-1896), U.S. colonialism (1902-World War II), and neocolonial martial law (1954-1972). The Filipina American character Rio's national identifications with the United States and with the Philippines are each thematized, and yet disrupted, by her temporal and geographical dislocation.13 Rio's “recollections,” from her standpoint as an immigrant to the United States, both mediate and defamiliarize the “homeland”; at the same time, the “Asian American” writing of a culturally heterogeneous and class-stratified Manila of her past grounds Rio in a multivalent collective memory that diverges repeatedly from the voice of the subject interpellated within a single national discourse. The collage structure of the text also interrupts the development of a national subject: Dogeaters places together discontinuous, simultaneous first- and third-person narratives about characters as different as a general, a senator's daughter, movie actors, a mixed race “call-boy,” bakla transvestite hairdressers, and a department store salesgirl. An episodic multiperspectivism replaces character development; melodrama and pastiche parody realism. The integrity of “official” historical representations—such as an 1898 address by President William McKinley justifying his decision to invade the Philippines, news articles from the Associated Press, or an 1846 history of the Philippines by Jean Mallat—is subverted by the fragmented citation of these documents, and by the “popular” genres of text to which the cited documents are juxtaposed: transcripts from a radio melodrama entitled Love Letters, scenes from Douglas Sirk's “All That Heaven Allows” and other Hollywood films, quotations from advertising, or bits of talk show or tabloid gossip.

In discussing Dogeaters, I wish to focus on the role of gossip as a popular discourse that interrupts and displaces official representational regimes. Extravagant and unregulated, gossip functions as an “unofficial” discursive structure—or perhaps we might better characterize it as an antistructure or a destructuring discourse—running distinctly counter to the logic of verisimilitude and the organized subordination of written narrative. Though gossip is unofficial, I do not mean to imply that it occupies a terrain that is separate or discrete from official narratives; rather, gossip is peculiarly parasitic, pillaging from the official, imitating without discrimination, exaggerating, relaying. In this sense, gossip requires that we abandon binary notions of legitimate and illegitimate, discourse and counterdiscourse, or “public” and “private,” for it traverses these classifications so as to render such divisions untenable. Rather than mere “postmodern” experimentation, Dogeaters disorganizes official history through its multiple performances of gossip, moving from particular citations and instantiations of gossip—tsismis (Tagalog for “gossip”), hearsay, anecdote, slander—to gossip's informal sites and institutions—the beauty parlor, the television talk show, the tabloid “Celebrity Pinoy”—to staging gossip as a trope of popular insurgency itself. By “gossip,” I do not mean to refer to gossip practices that function as commentaries upon, and primarily “domestic” excursions from, bourgeois propriety, of the sort we find in Austen's Emma or George Eliot's Middlemarch. Rather I wish to associate “gossip” in Dogeaters with the concept of “rumor,” as elaborated by Subaltern Studies historians and others, in order to locate it as a public form of popular discourse in colonized societies in which relations of rule force popular modes of social organization (from subcultures to acts of insurgency) into unsanctioned sites and discourses. Historian Vicente Rafael, for example, has elaborated the importance of rumor in the Japanese-occupied Philippines as a popular strategy for “fashioning alternative bases for recounting, and accounting for, [the colonized's] sense of deprivation” (1991, 67). Rafael argues that unlike practices that seek to stabilize social institutions, rumor does not result in “the conservation of the social formation” but rather produces “evanescent communities” (75).14

In this regard, we might fruitfully extend Rafael's notion of rumor through the terms offered by historian Reynaldo Ileto in his “Outlines of a Nonlinear Employment of Philippine History” (1988). Ileto discusses the relationship between elite linear, developmental history and the popular knowledges, practices, and sites that are subjugated by official accounts. He argues that

in examining historiography, criminality, epidemics, and popular movements, one has only begun to reflect upon those crucial moments when the state, or the historian, or whoever occupies the site of the dominant centres, performs a cutting operation: remembering/furthering that which it deems meaningful for its concept of development, and forgetting/suppressing the dissonant, disorderly, irrational, archaic, and subversive.


One focus of Ileto's critique is the internalization of European colonialist ideology evidenced in the developmental histories produced by the nineteenth-century Philippine nationalist elites who led the challenge to Spanish rule. He characterizes Teodoro Agoncillo's history of the Philippines as paradigmatic of this nationalist tradition, showing how it relies on the following categories in sequence: a golden age (pre-Hispanic society), the fall (conquest by Spain in the sixteenth century), the dark age (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), economic and social development (the nineteenth century), the rise of nationalist consciousness (the post-1872 Katipunan revolt), the birth of the nation (1898), and either suppressed nationalism or democratic tutelage (post-1901, U.S. colonialism). After arguing that nineteenth-century discourses of modernization privileged a small elite and subjugated the knowledges of “others,” a second focus of Ileto's work is the assembling of a “counter-history” of the Philippines that gives priority to “irrational,” disorderly, “popular” phenomena. A “history” that attends to the popular and regional activities of bandits provides an account of mobile, dispersed insurgency, and of the official modes of regulation erected to police and suppress that insurgency.

“Gossip” in Hagedorn's text responds to Ileto's call for more articulations of a “nonlinear emplotment of Philippine history.” By featuring gossip as an element of, and as an organizing principle for, social relations, Dogeaters offers scenes, dialogues, and episodes that are not regulated by plot, character, progress, or resolution. Both the gossip it features and the format of the novel itself move by way of a horizontal, or metonymic, contagion rather than through the vertical, or metaphorical, processes of referentiality and signification. Spontaneous, decentered, and multivocal, gossip is antithetical to developmental narrative. It seizes details and hyperbolizes their importance; it defies the notion of information as property. Gossip exemplifies both antinarrative and antirepresentational strategies that dehierarchize linear historical accounts, be they Orientalist and nationalist, with a popular, multiple record of very different kinds of activities and modes of social organization.

Gossip in Dogeaters is recognized as having a superior authority and giving greater pleasure than other discourses: “Pucha signals me with her eyebrows, then whispers she'll call me first thing in the morning. We'll go over the night's tsismis, the juicy gossip that is the center of our lives. If the laundress Catalina is really the General's mother, then who is Apolinaria Cuevas? Who is the red-haired foreigner's wife Tito Severo is fucking?” (66). Yet precisely owing to its popular status, members of the ruling oligarchy are also keenly aware of gossip and rely on it for the information on which they will base their economic and military decisions: “Tsismis ebbs and flows. According to a bemused Severo Alacran, richest of all the richest men and therefore privy to most of the General's secrets, the best tsismis is always inspired by some fundamental truth” (101). For those pragmatically in need of instruments with which to stay in power, gossip is acknowledged to be a more valuable discourse than a discourse of “truth.” Yet defying possession by a single owner, and moving easily across the class boundaries that express the concept of property, gossip is always in circulation, without assignable source and without trajectory or closure. Mobile and promiscuous, it collects significance as it travels from site to site; orality and speed make it “common” and yet difficult to detect or trace.

Gossip often plagiarizes, and in doing so satirizes, official civil institutions: government, marriage, family, the law. Adultery, bastardy, homosexuality, criminality, intoxication, profanity—each corresponds to the tropological structure of gossip, which cites the official and yet is in excess of it; these affinities underline the location of gossip as the terrain of such activities. As it is parasitic upon the details of “private” life, it derides the separation of “public” and “private” spheres, transgressing these separations symbolic of bourgeois order. Since gossip is unwritten, it does not respond to demands for linguistic purity; it deviates from the laws of national languages, as well as from the linguistic separations of “high” proper language and “low” colloquialisms. In Dogeaters, gossip combines colloquial English with Tagalog and Spanish slang. This hybrid text circulates in and around Manila, a city that is itself the expression of a Philippines colonized and occupied at different times by Spanish, Japanese, and U.S. powers.

After dinner we drag ourselves to the adjoining living room for coffee, cigars, and Spanish brandy. “We're out of French cognac, I'm afraid,” my mother apologizes. “Excellent, excellent. The French are overrated! Spanish brandy is actually the best in the world,” Uncle Augustin says … “Johnny Walker Black, on the rocks for me,” my cousin Mikey says …

“That Johnny Walker is sprikitik, boss!” Mikey cracks up …

My mother turns to my father. “I don't get it, Freddie. What's the difference between putok and sprikitik? Don't they both mean fake?”

My father thinks for a moment. “You might say Congressman Abad sprikitiks when he plays golf, but General Ledesma rewards his army with cases of putok liquor.”

Tita Florence fans herself with a woven pye-pye.Dios mio, Freddie. What are you making bola-bola about? …”

“The General is from a good family,” Tito Augustin says to my mother. “Do you remember the Ledesmas from Tarlac?” My mother shakes her head. Tita Florence puts down her fan to correct her husband. “Wrong, Augustin, as usual. Nicasio is the outside son of Don Amado Avila and the laundress Catalina. I know because my mother is from the same town as the Avilas—”

My mother's eyes widen. “You mean he's actually Senator Avila's half-brother?”

“And the president's former chauffeur,” Tita Florence nods triumphantly.


The Saturday night talk of the Gonzaga clan exemplifies the many dimensions of gossip. This evening, the talk turns around the distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity—of ancestry, of nationality, of liquor, of sexual fidelity, of the military government—in the liminal space that is indeed the “proper” site of gossip. Yet as Rio's father Freddie differentiates between the uses of the informal Tagalog terms sprikitik and putok, the distinction between different orders of inauthenticity becomes crucial: on the one hand, acceptable acts of apparition or seeming and, on the other, the unacceptable counterfeit or the “bogus.” While sprikitik is associated with magic or spiritualism, putok connotes illegitimacy and scandal; Freddie's comparison (“Congressman Abad sprikitiks when he plays golf, but General Ledesma rewards his army with cases of putok liquor”) establishes putok as a lower order of deception than the “abracadabra” magic of sprikitik. Thus the gossip moves from one connotation of putok to the next: not only does General Ledesma give putok liquor labeled “Dewar's Scotch” or “Johnny Walker” to his soldiers (which “is so terrible, their guts rot and burn”), but the Gonzagas speak of the General as if he himself is a putok, an “outside son,” a “former chauffeur” “outside” the network of ruling families. Initially, the meditation on two orders of inauthenticity opens up an implicit subtext of the conversation—government power and rule; when the ruling military dictatorship is backed by the U.S. government, the former colonizer of the Philippines from 1902 to World War II, who sprikitiks and who is the putok? Who has the semblance of the usurper and who the semblance of the usurped? Gossip, as the instrument of the masses, becomes the terrain for the critique of degrees of deception, and for the organization of actions against the apparatuses of rule.

In another turn, the discussion of inauthenticity in relation to birth moves from the particularity of the General's illegitimate birth to the allegorical level of the heterogeneous cultures, languages, and races in excess of the legitimate nation provided for by the “birth” of the Philippines in 1898. In a country with 7,100 known islands in which eighty dialects and languages are spoken, and a cultural and racial hybridity that has mixed Spanish, Malayan, Chinese, Arab, Hindu, North American, and others with “native” groups over the course of four centuries, the distinction between the “authentic” and the “inauthentic” (hybridized by the history of colonial and commercial encounters) may be less salient than the turn around different kinds of “seeming,” the cultural, racial, and linguistic admixtures that are the contemporary expression of the Philippines. Like the composite, multileveled languages of the conversation, the drinks mentioned in this scene are themselves marked by the history of hybridizing colonial encounters.15 The reverence for Spanish brandy, the taste for imported Johnny Walker Black, as well as the TruCola and coffee Hagedorn's characters are drinking—each alludes to different parts of the history of the Philippines: three centuries of Spanish rule, U.S. colonialism and the subsequent penetration of the Philippines by U.S. commodity capitalism, and the emergence of Philippine industries emulating U.S. products.

Daisy Avila, the “demure and solitary” daughter of the high-profile oppositional leader Senator Avila, begins as a dutiful daughter sequestered in the “private” family home and emerges into the alternative “public” sphere as a leader of armed insurgent guerrillas. Her first step toward this transformation takes place just before her twentieth birthday when she is crowned beauty queen of the Philippines. When Daisy denounces the beauty pageant as a farce on Cora Comacho's talk show Girl Talk, she “becomes a sensation, almost as popular as her father. The rock band Juan Tamad records a song dedicated to her, ‘Femme Fatale.’ Banned on the radio, the song surfaces on a bootleg label, Generik; it is an instant underground hit. Condemned as NPA [New People's Army] sympathizers, band members are rounded up by plainclothesmen from the President's Special Squadron Urban Warfare Unit” (109). Gossip produces figures around which other social discourses are organized. Daisy is just such a figure, and in this instance, the scandal of Daisy becomes a hub around which discourses of gender and sexuality, as well as discourses of counterinsurgency, revolve.

The representation of Daisy occurs always through forms of gossip—the tabloids report her marriage and divorce to Malcolm Webb, tsismis circulates about her pregnancy: “Daisy Avila is pregnant with Tito Alvarez' baby, Daisy Avila is secretly married to the President's only son, Daisy Avila is a junkie” (107). Headlines scream “Fickle Daisy in Hiding!” (111). This construction of “Daisy” reveals the decisively reactionary dimension of gossip, historically a key purveyor of the control and regulation of women's bodies, sexualities, and agency. As woman, Daisy is figured as carrier of community, and the gossip about her is concerned with the containment of her sexuality, and with her transgressive movement across “private” and “public” domains as she changes from pious daughter to revolutionary.16 In this sense, while I focus on gossip in Dogeaters as an antirepresentational and antinarrative form, I would not suggest that it is anything like a counterethical system; we cannot understand gossip as intrinsically progressive or subversive. Nonetheless, Daisy's transgression of gendered roles and spheres is instantly linked with acts of political insurrection: indeed we might understand the eventual armed insurrection in which she participates as a mobilization that is not a univocal, linear development of politicization, that takes place according to gossip's model of spontaneous displacement and contagion. Revolutionary activity in Dogeaters is not teleologically narrated; it does not privilege heroes, martyrs, or the development of the revolutionary subject. The association in Dogeaters of insurrection with gossip may refer implicitly to a history of guerilla strategies that were not centrally organized, and to different modes of political practice that have been obscured by the stage of oppositional party nationalisms.17


History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now.

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

In Fae Myenne Ng's novel Bone (1993), Mah, a sewing lady in San Francisco Chinatown, who, like the other women, brings home her sewing to finish in the evenings, urges her daughters, Leila, Ona, and Nina, to help with darts, seams, and zippers. The narrator, Leila, writes:

It was an easy pattern: four darts, four straight seams, and a simple zipper. Six dollars per dozen. Mah could finish a dozen in a little over an hour (Miss Tsai took at least two). A pattern like this came around once a season, and every shop in Chinatown was rushing its orders. On Stockton Street, ladies stopped their rivals from other shops and compared wages. Every lady smiled, every lady nodded: This pattern was easier than eating rice. All the ladies were working overtime at the shop. Mah even had Tommie deliver bundles to our apartment, and I helped to sew them on our Singer.


That the women of Bone provide the labor for a consumer market in which they scarcely participate, sewing clothing their meager wages will not allow them to buy, demonstrates how the geographical, cultural, and linguistic boundedness of their Chinatown community is a product of the spatially uneven development of a capitalist economy that supplies the dominant center by managing and extracting from the peripheries. The policy of paying the worker by piece exploits the women in ways that extend beyond the extraction of surplus value from hourly low-waged factory labor. The incentive to complete as many pieces as possible ensures that the sewing women will work overtime without compensation and will make the home an additional site of labor. Thus the lives of the members of the Leong family are imprinted by Mah's work as a sewing woman: from the central motif of the sewing machine in all of their lives to the vulnerability of the immigrant home to capitalist penetration to the tense contrast between Leon's difficulty staying steadily employed and Mah's “over-employment.”

Leon and Mah, their marriage and their employment histories, express how discriminatory immigration and naturalization policies transformed Chinatown from the bachelor society of the 1940s to a family society. These laws also changed the garment industry, whose sweatshops made use of Chinese male labor during the industry's growth from the 1920s to the '40s and then turned increasingly to female labor (Loo 1991) after the Magnuson Act of 1943 repealed Chinese exclusions, after the McCarren-Walters Act of 1952 permitted wives and children to enter as nonquota immigrants, and after the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished Asian national origin quotas.18 Most of all, the family relations in Bone express the constraints put on individuals when the “private” space of the home is a “workplace” that prioritizes the relations of production over Chinese family relations. With the erosion of the “private” sphere, the boundaried space of Chinatown becomes the “frontier” upon which antagonism to racialized exploitation of Chinese workers by the dominant society is articulated. From the breakdowns in communication between the parents to the various “flights” of the three daughters (emotional, mortal, and physical)—the affective, cultural ties of the Leong family members bear the weight of immigrant laws, geographical segregation, and the imposed relations of production.

Having meditated on “blood” and “gossip” as disruptions of official regimes of representation and narrative, I turn to Ng's Bone in order to explore another mode through which Asian American writing addresses the problem of history. Bone confronts the narratives that have so often suppressed events and people that do not conform to the logic of development, and the equally vexing problem of how alternative records might adequately attend to those suppressed materials. Just as Ileto proposes a “nonlinear emplotment of history” that maps rather than narrates spaces of insurrection and suppression, Ng's Bone, in my view, explores space as a category in which to read about the emergence of, and the obstacles to, Asian American social life over the past century. Meditations on the produced locality of community, records of the affective dimensions of the “everyday,” excavations that trace the regulation and transformation of the physical and psychological spaces of otherness give priority to space over the temporality that is stressed by the traditional novel and official history. History in Bone is the history of place, an archaeology of the richly sedimented, dialectical space of urban Chinatown community. The buildings and streets, the relations between spaces, the relations between human individuals to work, to leisure, to life and death are all material testimonies not only to the means through which U.S. society has organized Chinatown space to enhance production and reproduce the necessary relations of production but also, and equally, to the means through which Chinatown society has reconfigured spatial discipline and rearticulated the ethnic ghetto as a resistant, recalcitrant “historical” space. Bone exemplifies what Edward Soja (1989) has termed a “critical human geography,” one that excavates the uneven geography of locality within the pressures of universal temporalized history.

San Francisco Chinatown, the site explored in Bone, emerged in the late nineteenth century in response to intense periods of anti-Chinese violence between 1870 and 1890 and the government's authorization of residential segregation in 1878. The old core area is the most densely populated: stores, restaurants, and family-association houses that apparently have withstood the penetration of urban, industrial culture from the outside are concentrated on Grant Avenue and off Portsmouth Square. Since 1947, and the lifting of the restrictive covenant, Chinatown has grown beyond its old borders and through the valley that lies between Nob and Russian Hills west to Van Ness Street and eastward to the financial district; outlying satellites of Chinatown dot San Francisco and can be identified by the presence of Chinese businesses and grocery stores (Nee and Nee 1972). Chinatown is a “social space” that is produced and reproduced over time in connection with the forces of production. Yet a social space cannot be adequately accounted for by simply describing its objects or its chronological history. As Henri Lefebvre (1991) reminds us, the mediations of groups and social factors within knowledge, ideology, or the domain of representations must all be taken into consideration. Social space contains a great diversity of objects, and these objects are not merely things but also relations. Labor transforms these objects and their spatial relations; indeed, social space infiltrates, even collides with, the concept of production, becoming a central dimension of the latter's content. Lefebvre writes: “No space disappears in the course of growth and development; the worldwide does not abolish the local” (86). In other words, “Chinatown” is produced by the interrelation of spaces—from worldwide networks of capital, labor, and commodities to national, regional, and local markets. Its space emerges as an expression of this heterogeneity and dialectic, with all of its objects eloquently testifying to that spatial interrelation, and ultimately calling into question the hierarchy of these networks of interrelated markets.

In a posthumously published essay, “Of Other Spaces,” Michel Foucault (1986) discusses “heterotopia,” those spaces of alterity which call into question the hierarchical organization of all other social space. Foucault defines heterotopia as sites of crisis and deviation (prisons, sanitariums, or cemeteries) or sites juxtaposing several incompatible spaces or temporalities (the festival, museum, or colony). Heterotopia function in a critical relation to the binarized space that remains: they expose the untenability of the hierarchized divisions of space into domains of public and private, leisure and work, or legitimacy and illegitimacy. Chinatown can be considered such a space: a sedimented community space that condenses at once barbershops, boardinghouses, and gambling halls (traces of late-nineteenth-century bachelor societies) with schools, churches, or family service businesses (signs of the transition to family society and the influx of women after World War II) and with the restaurants, stores, and factories in which newer Chinese immigrants work. Chinatowns are at once the deviant space ghettoized by the dominant configurations of social space and the resistant localities that betray the internalization of “others” within the national space. The heterotopia of Chinatown challenges what Akhil Gupta and James Fergusen (1992) have called “the isomorphism” of space/place/culture/nation. It marks the disunity and discontinuity of the racialized urban space with the national space. It is a space not spoken by or in the language of the nation.

The elaboration of space particular to Bone is permitted by the reverse chronology of the narrative. If an overemphasis on temporality actively submerges and peripheralizes the “geographical” as a category of social life, then Bone's narrative reversal works to criticize the overdevelopment of temporal contextualization as a source of meaning. The narrative moves backward in time, in a reverse approach to the suicide of the middle sister, Ona. One effect of the reverse narration is that causality as a means of investigation is disorganized. While Ona's death appears initially as the originating loss that would seem either to motivate the reverse chronology or to resolve a progressive one, when the event of the suicide is at last reached, it dissolves, apprehensible not as an origin but as a symptom of the Leong family's collective condition. The opening chapter represents the ongoing schism between Leon and Mah as if it were the effect of Ona's death, but as the chapters move backward, we learn that the painful divide between the parents precedes the death, resulting from a steady stream of losses: Mah's loss of her first husband, Lyman Fu; Leon's absences when he worked as a seaman; Leon's loss of his “original” history and antecedents upon immigration; his successive job losses; his loss of Mah to her affair with Tommie Hom; and finally, the loss of paternal authority that obliges his daughters to chaperone and care for him.

The novel investigates Chinatown space as a repository of layers of historical time, layers of functions, purposes, and spheres of activity. The Hoy Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association, for example, is a building that condenses many different activities into a space that is undifferentiated, in which leisure and work, family and business coexist. If the rationality of production seeks to organize space in accordance with a sequence of actions that accomplish a certain “objective”—the production of an object, in this case, a garment—then the spatial arrangement characteristic of the building skews this rationality. Leila narrates her visit to the Benevolent Association:

Friday after school, I walked down to the five-story building at 41 Waverly Place. The narrow staircase squeaked. I stepped aside on the first landing to let some Italian guys carrying white carnation wreaths pass. On the second floor, the rumble of machines and the odor of hot steamed linen made my nostrils feel prickly; these sensations brought back memories of working in Tommie Hom's sweatshop, helping Mah turn linen pockets. Ironing the interfacing for the culottes. The time I sewed my finger. The awful exactness of the puncture point where the needle broke nail and skin. An exacting pain.

A racket of mah-jongg sounds, plastic tiles slapping and trilling laughter of winners filled the third floor. The fourth smelled of sweat. Sharp intakes of breath, sudden slaps, guys grunting. Master Choy, White Crane Gung-Fu Club.

The office of the Hoy Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association was like many other Chinatown family-association offices: family and business mixed up. To the right, a long counter; to the left, the reception area, made up of two hand-me-down sofas, old arm touching old arm.


Though the prioritizing of the relations of production organizes the “private” space of the Leong home as a workspace, the collective space of the Benevolent Association is not organized with production as its sole end; work is not the privileged referent of its arrangement of space. The Benevolent Association is a space of multiple functions in which activities are simultaneous, not hierarchized or temporalized. Its condensed simultaneity of activities ultimately comments on that other organization of social space which relegates Chinatown to the periphery serving the dominant center. Where the Benevolent Association tiers one floor of activity on top of another, other buildings alternate and double activities into a single space. Leila learns that the funeral house where Grandpa Leong was prepared for burial was also a makeshift storefront with “nailed-together benches” and “stacks of boxes”; the funeral parlor doubled as a warehouse for Shing Kee's Grocery. Then the space went on to house other things: “Everybody's Bookstore, Master Kung's Northern-style Martial Arts Club, and the Chinese Educational Services” (83).

The hybrid space that doubles as family association and business, exercise space and work space, space of life and space of death finds an analogue in the suitcase of papers that Leila's stepfather, Leon, keeps. In the informal “archive” of Leon's papers, we are offered an ethnological, bibliographical, and demographic space containing records of the everyday life that Leon has lived, of the work he has done, of what he has dreamed and remembered:

I lifted the suitcase up on to the kitchen table and opened it. The past came up: a moldy, water-damaged paper smell and a parchment texture. …

… this paper son saved every single scrap of paper. I remember his telling me about a tradition of honoring paper, how the oldtimers believed all writing was sacred. …

I made paper files, trying to organize the mess. Leon the family man. Airmail letters from China, aerograms from Mah to Leon at different ports, a newsprint picture of Ona graduating from the Chinese Center's nursery school, of Nina in her “boy” haircut and an awful one of me and Mason.

Leon the working man: in front of the laundry presser, the extractor; sharpening knives in the kitchen; making beds in the captain's room. Leon with the chief steward. Leon with girls in front of foreign monuments.

A scarf with a colored map of Italy. Spanish pesetas in an envelope. Old Chinese money. Dinner menus from the American President Lines. The Far East itinerary for Matson Lines. A well-used bilingual cookbook … Had Leon been a houseboy?

Selections from newspapers. From The Chinese Times: a picture of Confucius, a Japanese soldier with his bayonet aimed at a Chinese woman, ration lines in Canton, gold lines in Shanghai. From Life magazine: Hitler, Charlie Chaplin, the atom bomb.


The suitcase of papers is a material archaeology of Leon's life, just as Chinatown is a sedimented site of collective memory for the Chinese in America. Sedimented space is an emblem for history as excavation rather than projection, simultaneity rather than sequential time, and collective geography rather than individual biography. The suitcase of papers is also the record of the conversion of “blood” to “paper” that is required when Leon renounces his Chinese past in order to assume the legal identity of citizen. Leon Leong is a “paper son” who, like thousands of other Chinese, claimed a paper identity in order to pass through the Angel Island immigrant detention center. According to U.S. law, the children of Americans were automatically citizens, even if they were born in a foreign country. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires destroyed municipal records, many young men purchased the birth certificates of American citizens of Chinese ancestry born in China and then claimed they were citizens in order to enter the United States (Lai, Lim, and Yung 1980). Leon had exchanged five thousand dollars and the promise to send Grandpa Leong's bones back to China for a “paper son” identity. After Grandpa Leong dies, and his bones remain in the United States, Leon attributes the misfortune of Ona's death and all the losses to this unpaid debt. Contemplating the contents of the suitcase—Leon's affidavit of citizenship, remnants of travel and migration (maps, currency, cookbooks) and of work lives (pay stubs, diaries), along with receipts, photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings—Leila remarks: “I thought, Leon was right to save everything. For a paper son, paper is blood” (61). The paper in the suitcase is the residue, the trace of the “conversion” of Chinese into “Americans.” The conversion can never be completed, and like the “blood” in Dictée, it retains “the physical substance of blood as measure, that rests as record, as document” (Cha 1982, 32), becoming an integral part of the contemporary present. The paper archive, like Grandpa Leong's bones, is figured as the material trace of early Chinese immigrant life: a trace that paradoxically testifies to a loss of history yet simultaneously marks the production of “community” that commences with the investment, through memory and narrative, in that loss.19

The Chinatown represented in Bone is a recalcitrant space that cannot be wholly or univocally translated. Its heterogeneity is not assimilable to the capitalist logic that would organize the ethnic ghetto for production; its contemporaneity does not yield to the gaze that seeks to exoticize it as antiquated artifact. The tourist, the voyeur, the immigration service may enter, but they are all deceived.

From the low seats of the Camaro, I looked out. …

… I thought, So this is what Chinatown looks like from inside those dark Greyhound buses; this slow view, these strange color combinations, these narrow streets, this is what tourists come to see. I felt a small lightening up inside, because I knew, no matter what people saw, no matter how close they looked, our inside story is something entirely different.

(Ng 1993, 145)

In discussing blood as ground and figure of representation in Dictée, gossip as an antifiguration of narrative in Dogeaters, and Chinatown urban space as a disruption of overdeveloped temporalization in Bone, I have suggested that these Asian American novels displace the orthodoxies of both historical and novelistic representation and excavate the material histories that have been subjugated or erased by these aesthetics. Engagement with the “past”—as catastrophe, as memory, as space—forms the core of all three projects. The three novelists do not through their respective engagements seek to find and represent an essential authenticity, to articulate the past “the way it really was.” Rather, like Walter Benjamin's historical materialist, they “seek to brush history against the grain” (1969, 257). If historical narrative is, as Benjamin suggests, a narrative that has “empathy with the victor,” the material memory of the unvictorious is not simply repressed by that narrative; it returns dialectically, to pressure and restructure precisely the regimes of uniformity that seek to contain it as representation. In this sense, Dictée, Dogeaters, and Bone each suggest that the project of writing as a subject who remembers is not merely a matter of finding better modes of representing or renarrating the “histories” of colonialism, modernization, underdevelopment, and immigrant displacement from a posterior point; it is not exclusively a matter of projecting and narrating a new subject of history. Rather, such writing reconstructs a relationship to the past that embodies a contradiction between representation and the violences that are part of representational institutions themselves.


  1. See the following studies for further explorations of the interpellating function of the novel in the production and management of the individual, the family, the nation, and the empire: Armstrong 1987; Reid 1993; Bhabha 1990b; Sharpe 1993; and Said 1993.

  2. Colonial education in Abeng is discussed further by Niranjana 1992a.

  3. On the teaching of “English literature” as an apparatus of the British colonial project in India, see Viswanathan 1989; Loomba 1992.

  4. See Lowe 1995.

  5. Aihwa Ong (1991) has argued that contrary to the literature on Fordism that predicted the increasing adoption of mass-assembly production, since the early 1970s, subcontracting firms and sweatshops have come to typify industrialization in Asia and Central America. As corporations attempt to remain competitive in a global arena, new patterns of “flexible accumulation” have emerged, relying especially on the use of Asian female labor.

  6. By “racialization,” I am referring to the theorization of the construction of race in the United States in Omi and Winant 1986.

  7. Elsewhere, I have argued that Orientalism, neither monolithic nor stable, is a heterogeneous discourse whose diverse articulations have been engendered differently by material circumstances that were located within national contexts and specific historical crises, and that we might better understand both the “West” and the “Orient” as contested categories by giving attention to the heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity of Orientalist objects, whose contradictions and lack of fixity mark precisely the moments of instability in the Orientalist discourse founded on such a binary. See Lowe 1991a, 1991b.

  8. I have learned from Winifred Woodhull's critique of French poststructuralism in terms of its reiteration within some Francophone postcolonial writing. See Woodhull 1993.

  9. Other discussions have differentiated “postcolonial” or “third world” texts and contexts from “postmodernism”: see Sangari 1990; San Juan 1991; Chow 1992.

  10. For accounts of Japanese colonialism and Korean nationalist opposition, see, for example, Robinson 1982-83; Cumings 1984.

  11. For a fuller discussion of Dictée, see Kim and Alarcón 1994.

  12. While I want to underscore the potential access to historical understanding that texts like Dictée, Dogeaters, and Bone provide, I do not men to privilege the Asian American “literature” over Asian American “history.” The discussion of historical narratives would need to take place elsewhere, but it might be said here that just as Asian American literature emerges out of the contradiction between, for example, racialization and U.S. narratives of citizenship, so too do Asian American histories. This contradiction expresses itself in the historiographical work by John Kuo Wei Tchen, John Cheng, or K. Scott Wong, for example, on Chinatowns, immigrant labor history, and community life, which provides alternatives to univocal, totalizing historical modes.

  13. On Filipino American identity, see Bonus 1994. Bonus's work explores the important part played by Filipino immigrant nostalgia and longing for the “homeland” in the construction of ethnic and national group identity.

  14. In their analyses of peasant revolts in India, subaltern historians emphasize the phenomenon of “rumor” as a means of communication that proved powerful in peasant mobilization precisely because it was popular, unstable, and unmediated by dominant codes. See Guha and Spivak 1988; Rafael 1991.

  15. By “hybridity,” I do not mean simply cultural or linguistic mixing or “ambivalence” but rather a material form that expresses the sedimented traces of a complex history of violence, invasion, exploitation, deracination, and imposed rule by different colonial and neocolonial powers. On Philippine hybridity, see Joaquin 1988.

  16. On the function of the figure of woman in official and unofficial discursive systems, see Spivak 1988b.

  17. On decentered insurgent movements in the Philippines, see Guerrero 1979.

  18. In thinking about how immigration and naturalization laws have affected Asian American women's labor, I have benefited from reading Neil Gotanda (1995).

  19. In relation to German history and the Holocaust, Eric Santner (1990) associates mourning with the historical “task of integrating damage, loss, disorientation, decenteredness into a transformed structure of identity, whether it be that of an individual, a culture, or an individual as a member of a cultural group” (xiii). Though the ostensive narrative drive of Bone appears to be the mourning of Ona, it seems important to recast that representation of individual or familial mourning as an echo of the “community” mourning of the loss of Chinese American history, of which Grandpa Leong's bones are the emblem.

Many ideas in this essay were born in the fertile space of teaching graduate students: I wish to thank George Lipsitz for the seminar we taught together in the fall of 1993, and to appreciate the outstanding graduate students with whom we have the opportunity to work. Portions of this essay were presented at Cornell University, Clark University, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Riverside, U.C.L.A., the University of Iowa, the University of Southern California, and the Association of Asian American Studies. I would like to express my gratitude to generous interlocutors and discussants at these sites, particularly Satya Mohanty, Gary Okihiro, Oscar Campomanes, Parminder Bhachu, King-kok Cheung, Geeta Patel, and Vincent Cheng. My special thanks to Deidre Lynch for her most remarkable gifts as an editor.

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Leonard Casper (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6592

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 little attention, however, has been paid the counter Filipinization of these influences, through adaptations in religion, government, architecture, the culinary arts, and similar spheres of daily life.2 A century after Commodore Dewey's one-day defeat of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay (May 1898) and the subsequent arrival of American ground forces, and half a century after formation of the Republic of the Philippines (1946), Americans arriving in Manila still have the immediate impression that the Philippines is simply an extension of Stateside multiculturalism, and “little brown brotherism” remains intact. The tourist is in transit too suddenly to discover what lies beneath the facades of Manila-Makati or behind the “California” shapes of suburban enclaves. As for U. S. embassy officers, they have been assigned virtually a permanent mission to keep the Philippines in a satellite position to American national interests in UN forums and in ASEAN regional politics.

Long before the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo made moot the stalled negotiations over extending America's military presence at Clark Field and Subic Bay, President Reagan's permissiveness toward President Marcos' subversion of both human rights and an economy that should have matched the best in Southeast Asia rallied massive numbers of Filipinos against the “conjugal dictatorship” at home and its mindless support from abroad.3 Ever since the first Philippine Republic was declared in 1898, the several national constitutions have always been a composite of nativist and European models. Nevertheless, certain elements of American influence also recur; and it is a pleasant irony, among Filipinos, that their democracy to which the United States had contributed ultimately asserted itself against outside interference when, after a negative vote in the Philippine Senate, the bases abruptly were abandoned, not phased out, in 1993.

A similar irony can be observed in the rise of Filipina writers' use of the English language to expose the sociopolitical excesses imported into the archipelago by the same nationals who offered these authors English both as language and literary forms. That irony in turn is enhanced by the fact that the Americans, early in the twentieth century, unwittingly restored to Filipinas their historic role as babaylans (priestess-prophets) of which Spanish machismo had deprived them for centuries.4 Furthermore, the works of such writers as Jessica Hagedorn, Ninotchka Rosca, Cecilia Manguerra-Brainard, and Linda Ty-Casper have often managed to appear in the very country which, despite long-term claims of “special relations” with the Philippines, rarely has bothered to know intimately the culture and history of that Asian country and to correct errors of misunderstanding.

Even ultranationalists in the Philippines have sometimes failed to see parallels between the strategy of these authors and that of nineteenth century national hero, Jose Rizal, who though trained as a doctor is most remembered for his two novels, Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891). Along with other Propagandists, founders of La Solidaridad in Spain, the purpose of his fiction was to appeal not for political independence but for reform, in the language of those Spaniards more liberal than their officials in the colony. When his novels, involving violent insurrection in Manila, were blamed for actual rioting there, he was returned to his homeland and, late in 1896, executed by firing squad. He had hoped for reconciliation; his death helped provoke the Philippine Revolution that same year. The motive of this master of Tagalog for writing in Spanish—enlightenment of potentially friendly, but ill-instructed minds, on the inalienable right to equality—has sometimes escaped cultural critics in the Philippines.

As a result, they occasionally have condemned the literary use of English as acquiescing to continuing colonial imposition and therefore as an obstacle to nativist development.5 Only the national language, they argue, can properly express the subtle, innermost feelings and traditional Filipino values: extended-family loyalty, humility before God in nature, and honesty before one's fellow man. However, eight major vernaculars have long competed with one another in the islands, even after President Manuel Quezon at the beginning of the Commonwealth decade in 1935 asked that a composite national language be developed. A number of major writers, cosmopolitan in their largely urban access to world cultures and often familiar with other nations' mindsets through personal travel or study overseas, have developed a modified English as the mode of international sharing of local experiences. The literary forms used also reflect, selectively, the complexity of their Malayan reticence as well as their multicolonial heritage.6 In a half century of seeming to imitate American culture slavishly, they have more completely discovered and redefined themselves through an ongoing process of indigenization.

The collateral phenomenon has been the return to prominence of distinguished writing among Filipinas. Women have long experienced every kind of equality, except sexual equality, with their husbands and brothers as controllers of family resources either at the level of the lowly tienda or as dynastic partners of hacenderos and industrialists. Americans naively thought of Corazon Aquino (Time magazine's 1987 “Man of the Year”) as a homemaker accidentally thrust into the presidency by her husband's assassination. However, her campaigning earlier for her husband Benigno as governor and senator, as well as her detailed conversations with him during his long imprisonment, had instructed her in the ways of politics. If during her six years as the Philippines' first woman president she accomplished far less than the people had hoped, her limitations were due not only to irreparable damage done by Marcos to human rights and to a once burgeoning economy during two decades of Marcos' rule but to her sugar landholding family's identification with upper-class allegiances which prevented her from seriously pursuing essential land-distribution reforms, after the persuasive example of Taiwan.7

The most successful women writers have not been distracted by such class privilege and affluence as Aquino's. Though each is bilingual, they have chosen English so that their voices can more readily be heard abroad, among former colonial powers. Their intent is, finally, to set straight various records about “American benevolence” and the “gifts of Spain” which helped to corrupt ancestral ideals of mutual dependency, ritual kinship, and shared honor.


Dogeaters (1990), Hagedorn's first novel, has been called a “mural of words” because of its alternation of narrators. Its complex sense of spectacle, high-intensity activity, colloquial monologues and use of personal letters presumably is indebted to her response to being born in the Philippines but having to discover herself as a Filipino-American writer in California in 1973. By then she had begun to establish herself as a “performance artist,” playing her poetry against the music of her Gangster Choir Band; later, in 1978, she moved to New York where her multimedia theater pieces were presented at Papp's Public Theater and elsewhere. Several small volumes of lyrics, reprinted with narrative additions in Danger and Beauty (1993), reinforced that image of life at the edge, vibrant with a current unevenly alternating between coalescence and collision, expressing a desire to be defined in terms other than that of the Filipino-as-derelict or nondescript.

It is the same excitement of multiple problematics that drives Dogeaters: both the revolving profusion of media techniques, and the clusters of imagistic variations on the tropical abundance of food (though the wealth of Philippine food exists largely for wealthy Filipinos only). Hagedorn's pages overflow with avalanches of food described, prepared and eaten by a class so privileged that they take for granted their right to be exclusive consumers of others' labor, though they themselves are not producers of anything substantial. Their mindless appetites replicate those of their colonial ancestors or of the “colonial mentality” which they choose to imitate. Hagedorn has difficulty concealing her scorn for the dog-eat-dog greed not only of the power-hungry military but of the Gonzaga principals desperate to satisfy normal appetites out of control. Senator Domingo Avila, the rare incorruptible, is assassinated for his outspoken critique of society.

Traditionally the Philippine Dream has been communitarian. Despite tribal conflicts and factional betrayals, the basic notion of shared equality extended through compadrazco (godparenthood) or compensated for through patronage has long been held as the moral imperative which all Filipinos are bound to observe, however imperfectly. But Filipinos have been conditioned to feel culturally inferior and to identify instead with fantasy figures on Philippine radio serials or in over-romantic movies of rapture and violence, until reality itself is sacrificed. Avila's daughter Daisy is gang-raped to the background sound of soap opera drama. “Madame” (Imelda Marcos) is mocked for thinking she has been cursed by her spectacular beauty; and for saying, “What would life be without movies? Unendurable, di ba?” (In fact, she was celebrating the third Manila International Film Festival in 1983, the year that Benigno Aquino returned from exile in a Boston suburb and was assassinated, thus causing the “good times” to stop.) Yet Madame is different only in degree, not kind, from most of the characters in this novel. Rio and her cousin Pucha revel in vacuous tsismis (gossip); and when the former finally “escapes” to the United States with her “Rita Hayworth” mother, they remain a continent apart; and Rio, who has said that she hoped to make movies, not act in them, as an expatriate does neither. Instead she creates a “movie” in her mind only—of a history she is forced to invent for herself, filled with “facts” which Pucha denies are accurate.

Underclass figures in Dogeaters seem infected by the same malaise. Joey, a young junkie and male prostitute, the illegitimate child abandoned by an absentee G.I. and a Filipina whore, seems to want to be a sympathetic figure, especially (in one of the novel's few plot developments) after he becomes the hunted object of Senator Avila's killers who consider him a likely eyewitness. Yet Joey's dreams too are puerile if culturally illuminating. He longs for an imaginary lover who will take him off to Las Vegas. Like the recurrent symbols resonant in Dogeaters—food/the media/cosmetics/gossip—which imply a persistent obsession with image rather than with reality, escapist dreams like Joey's abound.

Jessica Hagedorn understands the Filipino's post-colonial need and right to dream. An opening, underdeveloped society invites ambition; relies on it; but where models of success distort the traditional Filipino Dream and when such imported models are not widely available in a society still excessively feudal, the result in insensitivity, illusion-immersion, and complacency. Given her history as a mestiza “performance artist” in mixed media, Hagedorn may have experienced such temptations of escapism (into a lost Beat Generation, for example) herself. What is important however is the critical attitude which she implicitly directs toward the self-destructive element in certain kinds of ambition. That conclusion is clear from the nightmare violence of so many daydreams. The author quotes Rizal who, a century ago, said that the Filipino people must be awakened—gently, if possible. Dogeaters can be read as entertainment—the bizarre behavior of foreigners; but in that longest tradition of Philippine literature, it is intended as a cautionary tale.

As a result of Dogeaters' commercial success, in 1993 Hagedorn published both Danger and Beauty (reprinting items from her 1971 Dangerous Music and 1981 Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions) and her edited anthology of Asian American fiction. Meanwhile the Marcos regime's paranoia had spread beyond imprisonment (and murder) of his principal political rival, Benigno Aquino, to violent confrontation with an entire generation of younger demonstrators.


For several months under martial law in the early seventies, Ninotchka Rosca was held in military detention, along with hundreds of other dissidents. Despite the nom de guerre assigned her, Rosca presented no imminent danger to the dictatorship forming. Yet as contributor to and associate editor of Graphic magazine, she had joined the critics warning the administration that its promise to remove the entrenched oligarchy clearly had meant only converting their properties and power to the use of Marcos' own small circle of relatives. Marcos was depending on what he called “constitutional authoritarianism” in order to establish and maintain a system of abuse to which others would give the name “crony capitalism.” Rosca's connection with the New People's Army—some of them her former classmates and friends—seemed to border on radical chicness. Nevertheless her detention gave her a cachet which previously she had lacked. It also allowed her to point out that although the Communist Party of the Philippines had only recently reorganized, to replace the Huk movement left over from the second World War, and that its military arm, the NPA, was too minuscule to be a threat to society, the real danger lay in Marcos' plundering the national treasury in order to be reelected in 1969. The ironic result was that as impoverishment escalated, so did the numbers drawn to Communism. When American funds sent to Marcos as military aid, out of gratitude for his providing Civic Action troops in Vietnam, were diverted to Marcos' personal uses, the bunker psychology of the outgunned military prompted even more widespread violent revolt.

Even as a college student, Rosca had identified with “intellectuals” who demonstrated outside the American embassy less from passionate outrage than as an exercise in high spirits. The same was true of the stories in Bitter Country (1970) which complained about the dilettantism of the “educated elite” on Manila campuses and in adjacent Quezon City, while the workingman image in her prose was largely absent except as a vague abstraction on the mind's horizon. Because external details are also severely limited, these early stories express social engagement largely at the level of ideology, so that while Rosca focuses on the “vague yearning emptiness which characterizes the floating world of the uninvolved and ‘nonaligned,’” she seems to be summoning herself as well as her contemporaries to action. Her polemic prose, as a result, is tentative; its prescriptions, vague. Perhaps mirroring her own ambivalence, Paulo in “The Seventh Circle” vacillates between dedication to social uplift for the people as a whole and love/compassion for his own wife.

In contrast, the stories in The Monsoon Collection (1983), which she declares were “conceptualized in the Camp Crame Detention Center in 1973,” are provided more adequate realistic detail and a moral—not just aesthetic—order whose implications are instructive. Nine tableaus of life in detention alternate with nine tales of desperation in society at large. The smaller and the larger prisons therefore converge in the funnel shape of woven fish traps common on the rivers and in the bays of the Philippines. Although despite their truncated lives the characters are more accessible because more fully realized than those in Bitter Country, the ratio of self to society recognized as a problem in the earlier stories remains in the penultimate vignette of The Monsoon Collection. During open house in the detention camps men and women are allowed to mingle. “We had each other,” the narrator says, “and that was enough. Of course, it wasn't.” Freedom is far more important, she reveals, even if it means freedom to leave one's beloved. Naturally, the relationship of one to the other(s) has no single formula; its variables further increase with time. And that relationship has always been complex in a communitarian society such as the Philippines ideally is. For Rosca (as “Ninotchka”) it is made even more complicated by the anonymity sometimes imposed by Communism or by a politburo's readiness to manipulate the “masses” for political ends. Does the individual have a right to exist? To what degree; to what purpose?

Ferdinand Marcos approached that question of balance by maintaining the feudal system inherited from Spanish colonialism, while merely changing the personages in power. And Rosca found it easier to use Marcos as her point of attack against neocolonialism in native garb than to deal philosophically with all the ramifications of “I-Thou” interrelations. By 1977, Rosca had already gone into political self-exile among relatives in Hawaii, and later she moved to New York City. After Marcos' forced flight from power in February 1986, she returned briefly to Manila and later, with Endgame: The Fall of Marcos (1987) made a minor contribution to the list of distinguished reportage on the phenomenon of Marcos' reign.

In 1988, she published her first novel, State of War, in-progress for a number of years. With Marcos epitomizing colonial corruption so deep that even the native-born could adapt its tools of tyranny, Rosca moved a few interbreeding families through whole centuries of Philippine history, suggesting the chronic intrusion of foreign powers into the nation's lifestream. The climax, a frustrated assassination attempt of the Commander (Marcos) during a traditionally wild festival of unabated singing and street dancing on a Visayan island, stands for all the years that Filipinos have been locked in a state of war against military, economic and cultural invasions ever since Magellan's attempt to circumnavigate the globe ended with his death after he intervened in island tribal affairs. Amid all the massing of authentic detail, the din of celebration, the confusion of bloodlines, a pattern does slowly emerge—of sexual abuse, of illegitimacy, of infidelity, of interracial heterogeneity, of aggressively upward social mobility. Underneath the elaborate choreography, humorous caricature, and graphic description, major motifs stir: how foreigners and their collaborators, the criminally rich, despoil the natural goodness of these islands; why the search for the “true father” inevitably appears in Philippine literature's struggle to make lineages selectively compatible; how well the masked participants in this mad festival represent the assigned or assumed disguises of Filipinos unsure of their real selves; the casual interconnectedness of Philippine families and the intricate web of obligations in such a culture.

Rosca's second novel, Twice Blessed (1994), puts aside the fireworks and flash natural to the Festival in State of War and relies on comic parable. Thematically, it shares with the first noel a concern for “a nation struggling to be born.” Even if its method of indirection is less confrontational than State of War's, the sibling rule of Katerina and Hector Basbas in a tropical Pacific country is reminiscent of what several commentators have called the “conjugal dictatorship” of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Katerina's attempts to forget her humble beginnings resemble Imelda's well-publicized delusions of grandeur8; and the collapse of a heavy crane on the roof of the inaugural structure seems inspired by the fatal collapse of the Manila International Film Festival building in 1983. Furthermore, Imelda not only was actually considered Ferdinand's replacement, if his health failed, but in fact ran (unsuccessfully) as a presidential candidate in the 1992 election. Regardless of whether or not Twice Blessed is read as a roman a clef, it does depict the protective instincts of the wealthy to preserve their socioeconomic power through arranged marriages; and does expose the one Filipino “contribution” to postcolonialism—the development of a military devoted no longer to protection of the nation but to satisfying the whims of the president-in-power. In part, Twice Blessed has to be considered critical also of the failure of President Corazon Aquino to detach herself from class interests and perhaps is critical even of her chosen surrogate, General Fidel Ramos, a professional soldier turned politician who became president in 1992 when the constitution prevented Aquino from replacing herself.


Although a resident of Southern California for twenty years, Manguerra-Brainard's driving motive is reconstructed nostalgia. Her memory/imagination regularly returns to the Visayas of her birth, out of respect for the long-suffering, resilient rural people whom she or her parents recall. Woman with Horns and Other Stories (1987) demonstrates that her training in writing documentary scripts makes the literary equivalent of film clips symbolic of Filipino reserve. The result is typical rural understatement as she describes vivid moments in the life of the town of Ubec (Cebu, spelled backwards), across the twentieth century. Her narrative style, unlike Hagedorn's or Rosca's, is almost peasant-simple, undercutting excessive sentimentality as well as violent motifs—seduction, war, cannibalism, torn loyalties—that might have encouraged melodrama. Enough characters reappear that it can be said of this sequence that it barely conceals a secret ambition to become a novel.

In the novel that did follow, Song of Yvonne (1991), reprinted in America as When the Rainbow Goddess Wept (1994), Manguerra-Brainard once again but more deliberately serves as the traditional, female, tribal memory and song-bearer. Though born after the second World War, through her father (a guerrilla engineer at the time) and other elders she has been able to reconstruct the consequences of the invasion of the middle islands. In her preface she laments the fact that “Unlike Filipinos, the Japanese are very good at immortalizing injustices to them”: they commemorate Nagasaki and Hiroshima, while Filipinos forget their own numerous dead, their own cultural as well as material wounds. Especially the postwar generation to which she belongs is expected, out of gratitude for gifts and loans from the financial giant that Japan has become, to forget the Japanese Occupation. But, she implies, to encourage amnesia would be to permit a new “economic imperialism” just at the moment that American influence has been tempered. Yet her principal motive is not to authenticate the earlier victimization so much as to dramatize the “triumph of the Filipino spirit over foreign oppression.”

She does not flinch from describing atrocities: rape, torture, massacre, mutilation. … Yet by using a girl not yet in her teens as the sole narrator, she provides a story of innocence/naiveté gradually tested but never wholly shredded by a violence foreign to Ubec's close, simple family life. Adults are making war. When Yvonne experiences her first menstruation by the time of liberation, what is quietly symbolized is the fact that blood, so recklessly shed in ambush and torture chamber, also signifies life and the promise of continuity. Though Yvonne understands that the prewar world can never be wholly regained (the “lost eden” theme common to much of Philippine literature), in the midst of change she senses the need to conserve/restore constancy drawn from the indigenous culture's narratives of faith: epics from the oral tradition. From the family cook she learns that the chanter of epic tales must surrender self-image to folk-feeling and need. Manguerra-Brainard attempts to become Yvonne, just as Yvonne has to learn to commemorate a people at their best, in times at their worst. Yvonne's personal story, therefore, is alternated with folktales and popular legends. Yvonne has become the spine and flesh of her people. They are her song. She is the future; the past recreated, recovered; the spirit of healing, the resilience of tribal/national memory that will not let essence die. A growing girl's plainsong is united with both the Skyworld and choric folk echoes, in one irrevocable voice.

Manguerra-Brainard's 1995 collection of sixteen stories, Acapulco at Sunset, does not try for the same intensity as her novel; but the stories' controlled pace, the predominantly plain language, the uncomplicated sentences all convey equivalents of easily accessible folklore. As “half-told tales,” they seem open to the listeners'/readers' inclination not just to understand but to participate communally in extending the stories' meanings, to provide what is missing. Often they seem linked to the Filipino conversational art of tsismis, spontaneous sharing of neighborly information. (One story remarks that because Ubec is small, births, deaths, and marriages are noticed and given importance by everyone. Several motifs recur, connected with the experiencing of distance—relocation becomes dislocation. The difficulty of overcoming distances parallels and at times intersects with the theme of waiting while action is suspended. A sense of loneliness, of loss (particularly of father figures, as in “Killing Time,” “Melodee,” and “Almost Forgotten”), of isolation and incompleteness make the characters more vulnerable to life's abrupt ambushes. Solidarity so highly valued by Filipinos, is never quite complete, even between husband and sons or between the new expatriate and Old Timers much admired for their endurance and intact integrity.


In a 1986 interview in Points of Departure, Linda Ty-Casper explained how, while finishing her LL.M. at Harvard, she read books about the Philippines at Widener and was astounded to find gross inaccuracies in them. It was then that she decided to put aside practicing or teaching international law and to become an advocate for her people by writing historical fiction, regardless of her characters' class or political designation. Her motive was reinforced by a grandmother who, having lived through the Philippine Revolution of 1896, the Philippine-American War of 1899 and the Sakdal uprisings in the 1930s, said, “Write a story of new life.” On another occasion, having lost everything, she said, “I have no jewels left to give you but these stories.”9 Ty-Casper's narrative sense in turn was influenced by her mother who had written exempla for the Bureau of Education in Manila and by Harvard Law's case history method of intensely detailed probes. At first she planned only one novel, but by 1997 had published ten, along with three collections of stories.

The Peninsulars (1963) became the first Filipino novel about eighteenth century Spain in the islands and how divisiveness between government and church officials made possible the British occupation of Manila, 1762-1764, while revolt among the Filipinos was kept on a small scale because formation of an interisland nation had regularly been suppressed.

In 1979, with The Three-Cornered Sun's reenactment of the 1896 revolution against Spain by elite and peasantry alike, she continued the history of how Filipinos increasingly asserted their right to self-determination in their struggle to define what being a Filipino might mean. Unfortunately rivalry between factions weakened their effort, which ended in the truce of Biak-na-Bato and the exiling of General Aguinaldo to Hong Kong. By then Ty-Casper had researched the Philippine-American War of 1899 but put aside her drafts as the threat to democracy from Marcos and his New Society began to crystallize.

Three novellas about the growth in Marcos' dictatorial power appeared: Dread Empire (1980), Hazards of Distance (1981), and Fortress in the Plaza (1985). The first in this series had to be published in Hong Kong; and the last, which focused on the Plaza Miranda massacre of 1971 in which many of the opposition party were either killed or maimed and after which martial law was declared, nearly cost the Philippine publishing house its government license. Fortunately the next two novels, Awaiting Trespass (1985) and Wings of Stone (1986), were accepted in London by the director of Readers International, formerly connected with Amnesty International.

By then, after the death of Benigno Aquino, the massing of ordinary people's opposition to Marcos literally filled a major highway in Quezon City, but presidential troops refused to fire on the crowds. American rescuers escorted Ferdinand and Imelda from Malacanang palace to Hawaii. That sequence of events and its outcome finally allowed the author to return to Ten Thousand Seeds (1987), set during the outbreak of the Philippine-American War when American “liberators,” under orders from President McKinley, decided to “civilize and Christianize” the Filipinos until such time as the United States determined that the people were ready for independence. Ty-Casper's decision to complete The Stranded Whale, third in the series about the turn of the century frustration of Philippine independence, was delayed by one last novella, A Small Party in a Garden (1988), still concerned with the havoc created by the Marcoses. By the time of her Montenegro interview Ty-Casper was obliged to say, with regret, that the terroristic outlawry in Small Party “can just as truthfully be set under Aquino now,” because of Aquino's permissive attitude toward vigilantism. So she put aside The Stranded Whale one more time, to finish DreamEden, about the last days of Marcos and subsequent coups against Corazon Aquino.

DreamEden was released in Quezon City on the tenth anniversary of EDSA, and its American edition appeared in Seattle one year later, in 1997. Even before EDSA, street demonstrations by students, workers, and ordinary citizens had borne banners indicating America's role in sustaining the Marcos dictatorship. Claims of late-colonial interference were based not simply on the Philippine Communist Party line but on well-documented public proof. Although other American presidents for years had maintained a patronizing alliance with the Philippines, Ronald Reagan's personal friendship with Marcos, developed during his California governorship, was known to have blinded him later to the way that Marcos converted to his own family's advantage American taxpayer funds intended to support military action against the New People's Army when the domino theory still dominated Southeast Asian policy. Ironically that Army grew from modest numbers to virtual control of many provinces. As late as the Epifanio de los Santos uprising in 1986, responding to the government's subversion of a presidential election, the date for which Marcos himself had boldly advanced, Reagan claimed that there had been improprieties by all the contending forces. But the candidate-widow of Ninoy Aquino had been democratically chosen by the people, who guarded the ballot boxes with their bodies; and these same thousands, virtually unarmed, attacked Malacanang palace, until even Reagan advised exile for the Marcoses.

The business moguls of Makati-Manila, afraid for their holdings, rarely showed serious resistance to martial law (rule by fiat continued in fact even though martial law officially ended after the papal visit of 1981), until the nation's financial resources were drained by the incompetence and corruption of administration cronies. Only then did the wealthy join the common tao assembling in the avenue between Metro Manila's two major military camps.

In order to convey the cross-sectional complexity of Filipinos involved in EDSA and to illustrate what People Power really meant, Ty-Casper included a variety of professions, classes, ages, genders, and attitudes among her characters. The epic magnitude of the event lives in their flesh. Each is sufficiently individualized, to guard against their being lost in too generic a concept such as “the masses.” Nevertheless, true to Philippine traditions, their lives overlap. When the uncertified lawyer, Ben Hur, having been brought to the point of commitment (as his conscience measures itself against a Carmelite nun's), instinctively risks—and loses—his life for an ordinary laborer, he is replaced by a soldier who serves the national interest despite his orders and career expectations. Even the bauble-blinded wife of a government hanger-on is moved by the dedication of her growing sons to the cause of liberation. “Family,” especially among the poor, is extended to include unconditional neighborliness. Not an American image of heroism, based on superior armament and the violent use of endless supplies, is the one projected by this novel, but bayanihan service, which is the wealth of the Filipino poor and their gift to one another. Indirectly, DreamEden becomes one more model for the mystery of how an archipelago can dream itself into becoming a single nation.

Despite her awareness of history-in-the-making and unmaking, Ty-Casper has rarely introduced into her fiction the prominent names normally associated with history books. She often says that history is a country's biography; fiction, its autobiography, because it describes in intimate detail all persons of whatever disposition as they cause history and affect one another. Official histories need to be known, in order not to falsify their facts, but the larger truth, the full dimensioning of both landscape and mindscape, is the responsibility of the serious writer of true-fiction. An anecdote recalled in the Montenegro interview reveals much of the author's quiet respect for her characters and the unobtrusive manner of her presenting them. “We knew a farmer's wife like Sepa, who, for me, stood for an old way of living and yet an honorable way. She would come and bring whatever she had to sell. She would pass by our house first, and my grandmother would wait for her. Sometimes she would bring just three pieces of fruit or a gourd or a squash. And then they would talk, and it seemed as if it weren't selling that was happening; it was a way of visiting.”

In conversation with Roger Bresnahan, Ty-Casper reiterated what several of her fictional characters have also said on the meaning of memory. “Writing is responding to what has happened to you or someone you know and writing it down because the moments pass, because otherwise it might happen grievously to somebody else. Or the joy of it might be unrecognized forever.”10 To paraphrase one of her characters: People die twice if forgotten. It is important to her that all voices be heard, in contrast to what has been called the el supremo syndrome which recognizes only number-one in any group (even among those who presume to be the exclusive spokesmen for “the masses”) in the Philippines. But it is equally crucial that memory not remain mere undifferentiated observation of curious behavior. Always it carries the burden of implied instruction or at least thoughtful meditation that might contribute eventually to a colloquium of concern. Women writers have assumed this intention as part of their role as providers of regenerated cultural continuity.

Paul Johnson has asserted that “Colonialism's Back—and Not a Moment Too Soon” because, as the subtitle to his 1993 essay claims, “Let's face it: Some countries are just not fit to govern themselves.”11 Although his examples are taken primarily from Africa, there is nothing cautious or restrictive about his generalizations. He overlooks the demonstrable fact that often the colonial powers have been responsible for encouraging or even reinforcing the very tendencies now being decried, tendencies which behind the screen of artful rationalization might well be repeated were re-colonization to occur. Typically, colonial powers have served their own self-interests first and forever thereafter. To that end they have sought out nativist structures with interests that mirror their own. Island communities in the Philippines before the intervention of Spain were noteworthy in Asia for having a high degree of cultural similarity but no sociopolitical center that could be described as promising national unity. The “cross and crown” policy of the Spaniards required that the indigenous people resettle within sound of the church bells, so that they could be more easily managed in matters of taxation and servile labor. Across the centuries a (limited) sense of nationalism in fact grew from resistance to foreign domination, though there were always Filipinos content to accommodate colonial desires when these allowed their own continued prominence.12

Even though the America which, early in this century, decided to retain the Philippines as a possession was relatively liberal, the feudal arrangements of society survived the introduction of general education and the new electoral democratization. American authorities, culturally remote from understanding the people for whom they became responsible, tried to use the islands as a showcase for western ideals and thereby consolidated the patronage system by which poverty in the islands had long been regulated. General MacArthur's postwar repositioning of the same few powerful families at the apex of society ensured that the new Republic would retain all of the faults of elitist rule. The momentum of power retention, throughout centuries, from datu to hacendero/cacique, to the Commonwealth constitution supportive of a strong executive president, to Marcos' dictatorial substitution of one oligarchy for another swept counter movements aside with a show of inevitability. President Reagan's obsessive search for real or alleged allies against Communism finally converted the Filipino's image of the American from well-intentioned, if badly informed, friend to coconspirator against all attempts at self-determination.

Writers such as Hagedorn, Rosca, Manguerra-Brainard and Ty-Casper represent forces too experienced with alternative ways and with the history of their birth-country to be fatalistic or regressive. They understand the self-congratulatory aspect of once colonial powers still attempting to justify errors made and faults strengthened by perpetuating their “big brotherly” role. Undoubtedly, were the request put forward, such authors could propose more truly altruistic “special relations” that could have been/might still be attempted between the Philippines and the United States: relations protective and advisory, rather than interventionist and supervisory. Where the latter tendency still obtains, postcolonialism is difficult to distinguish from more subtle forms of neocolonialism, and pre-colonialism is too rarely studied or considered in the search for a viable meld among all identifiable heritages. Marcos is a corrupt example of “indigenization.” By calling a dictatorship “constitutional authoritarianism,” he used Reagan's fear of “the evil empire” of world Communism, as well as Congressional lip service to world democracy, against an American leadership which thought that it had made Marcos their lapdog/tuta.

As writers principally of fiction rather than of editorials, the four Filipinas address the same issues of colonialism and neocolonialism by fleshing out the impact on ordinary people of these forces of usurpation; by utilizing fiction's indirection, which requires imaginative participation and the sharing of experience, from readers (who therefore experience the democratic attention due them); by reasserting the function of women as caretakers and prophetic babaylans, true ilustradas, enlighteners; and by genuine indigenization through which English, a once colonial but now international language, can be drafted to dramatize not simply the historic problems of the Filipino people, but their strengths as well. The resilience of so many of their characters, in the midst of ominous mishap, can only signify courage and faith in the survival of the humaneness deeply implanted in the cultural soil of the Philippines.


  1. Typical examples: John Leddy Phelan's The Hispanization of the Philippines (Madison: University Wisconsin Press, 1959); Nicholas P. Cushner, S. J., Spain in the Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo University Press, 1971); Frank Golay, ed., The United States and the Philippines (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966); Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines (New York: Random House, 1989).

  2. Scattered references can be found in Antonio G. Manuud, ed., Brown Heritage; Manuel D. Duldulao, Contemporary Philippine Art (Manila: Vera-Reyes, 1972); Gilda Cordero Femando, ed., The Culinary Culture of the Philippines (Quezon City: GCF Books, 1976).

  3. See especially Raymond Bonner, Waltzing with a Dictator (New York Times Books, 1987); Sandra Burton, Impossible Dream: The Marcoses, the Aquinos, and the Unfinished Revolution (New York: Warner Books, 1989).

  4. Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Woman Enough and Other Essays (Quezon City: Vibal, 1963). See also Garcia, Lanot, and Santiago, eds., Filipina 1 and Filipina 2 (Quezon City: New Day, 1984 and 1985 respectively).

  5. See E. San Juan in Two Perspectives on Philippine Literature (Manoa: University of Hawaii Press, 1981): linguistically chauvinistic, yet San Juan typically and unrestrainedly writes prolifically in English. For far broader consideration of the various dimensions involved, see conversations recorded in Andrew B. Gonzalez, ed., The Role of English and Its Maintenance in the Philippines (Manila: Solidaridad, 1988).

  6. Perhaps no one epitomizes this variety and inventiveness more fully than Nick Joaquin, novelist, playwright, poet, journalist. See the author's “Nick Joaquin: The Many Manilas” in Robert L. Ross, ed., International Literature in English: Essays on the Major Writers (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991), 681-690; his “introduction: Writing in the Vernacular,” Joseph A. Galdon, ed., Salimbibig: Philippine Vernacular Literature (Quezon City: Ateneo University Press, 1981), 14-15; or comments passim in his Sunsurfers Seen from Afar (Pasig, Rizal: Anvil Press, 1996).

  7. Besides books by Bonner, Burton, and Karnow identified earlier, see also Sterling Seagrave, The Marcos Dynasty (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).

  8. Best documented in Carmen Navarro Pedrosa, Imelda Marcos (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987). For publishing a similarly candid biography in 1969, The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos, Pedrosa was driven into virtual exile in London.

  9. David Montenegro, ed., Points of Departure: International Writers on Writing and Politics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 149-171.

  10. Roger J. Bresnahan, ed., Conversations with Filipino Writers (Quezon City: New Day, 1990), 157.

  11. New York Times Magazine, April 18, 1993, 22, 43-44.

  12. See Alfred W. McCoy and Edilberto C. de Jesus, eds., Philippine Social History: Global Trade and Local Transformations (Quezon City: Ateneo University Press/Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1982).

Lisa Lowe (essay date 1998)

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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.

—Dilip M. Menon1

Sex is always political. But there are also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized. In such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated.

—Gayle Rubin2

In Jessica Hagedorn's 1990 novel Dogeaters, a Filipina immigrant in the United States remembers life in the Philippines during the Marcos era, where traces of three centuries of Spanish rule and the subsequent U.S. colonization are everywhere still in evidence. Heterogeneous and class-stratified, neocolonial Manila is evoked in different episodes arranged as if in a collage: Dogeaters places together discontinuous, simultaneous first- and third-person narratives about characters as different as a general, a senator's daughter, movie actors and actress, a mixed-race callboy, “bakla” hairdressers, and a department store salesgirl. Characters, languages, and milieux collide and overlap: the 1898 of President William McKinley justifying the U.S. invasion of the Philippines is juxtaposed with bits of popular radio melodrama, scenes from Hollywood movies, quotations from advertisements, or snippets of talk show or tabloid gossip. Over the course of centuries, the history of the Philippines is one of serial colonial regimes and emphatic local survivals; episodic, metonymic, and scandalous, Dogeaters allegorizes this long brutal encounter with colonial modernity through the memory of the objects, expressions, traces, and popular archaeology that condense and allude to this longer history.

Hagedorn has now written a stunning play based on the novel. During its premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, September 8-October 11, 1998, it vibrantly brought the work to life as a theatrical event. Rather than a direct scene by scene translation of the novel to the stage, Hagedorn instead thoroughly appreciated the difference between performance and narrative, and rewrote Dogeaters as a new work that made use of the three-dimensional dramatic genre: characters whose narratives formed a series of juxtapositions were on stage together and speaking simultaneously; imagined dramas were visibly spectacular, what were literary allusions to crowds, speed, sweat, and music were vividly and sensually staged. In the play, spatial arrangements, uses of sound, timing, and embodiment became parts of a different vocabulary that transformed the key elements of the novel. Dogeaters, the stage play, is a reworking that captures the “spirit,” rather than rendering the “letter” of the original; in the process, characters and social spheres that were marginal or continguously linked in the novel emerge dramatically as “central” to the memories of colonialism and the performance of alternatives.

In order to specify better the distinction I'm observing between the stage performance and the novel, I want to focus on one brilliant scene from the play, in which three couples and two praying women form almost a cross on the stage. In this scene, embracing couples are nestled in the sections of a set of risers: on the left, Joey, the son of an African American G.I. and a Filipina prostitute, is kissing his German filmmaker lover Rainer; at the top right, unemployed yet aspiring actor Romeo Rosales is making love to Trini Gamboa, an employee at the Sportex factory. The center stage is occupied by cousins Pucha and Rio on a bed practicing adolescent kisses in imitation of Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows. This triad of various lovers is accented by two praying women: situated at the center of the top riser, Daisy Avila, the senator's daughter prays for herself and for the leftist insurgents; at the center foreground of the stage, Leonor Ledesma, the general's wife, kneels at her daily alter reciting prayers with her rosary. This scene combines and juxtaposes religious devotion, revolutionary politics, and sexuality in a simultaneity that not only asserts their inseparability, but thematizes how the sexual, political, and religious orthodoxies that are the mainstays in neocolonial Manila culture are learned from the romantic heterosexual emplotments of American film, reiterated in local Filipino media, and displaced both clumsily and deliberately in embodied practices. Joey is watching the television when Rainer leans down to kiss him, Romeo blurts the name of movie star “Lolita Luna” to inspire his passion for Trini, and Rio purses her lips to ready herself for Pucha's kiss, saying “I feel like … Kim Novak.” Almost everyone wants to be a beauty queen, the heroine of a melodrama, a movie star, a movie's star's lover, the virgin Mother, a Mary Magdalene. But as the scene suggests, there is no “original” heterosexuality or heterosexual gender but rather various forms of imitation or repetition that are at different distances from the modern romantic genre imported by colonial rule.

Indeed, in Dogeaters, the ritual performance of gender is a central allegory for submission to colonialism and its gendered social regimes. The ritual performance of masculinity is associated with the paradoxes of the colonized Philippine oligarchy. In another scene, Senator Avila, General Nicasio Ledesma, Lieutenant Colonel Pepe Carreon, and tycoon Severo Alacran are playing golf on Alacran's private course, and their sharp rhetorical slings and arrows enact the witty masculine combat among the ruling elite. Yet the scene remarkably evokes the paradox and hysteria of their colonial masculinity: generals and tycoons playing golf and calling each other by their nicknames “Chuchi” and “Nicky”—at once powerful enough to senselessly crush others and yet hypersensitive to and infantilized by the ability of American geopolitical power to crush them.

In this sense, 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. Hollywood film and Filipino radio melodrama are key media through which Filipinos identify and disidentify with the romantic narratives of the colonial power, and the romance is itself the quintessential colonial genre; within this, the ritual performance of masculinity and femininity are thematized as forms of colonial subjectification. Thus, finally, in Dogeaters, it is the hyperbolic performance of iconic femininity in the “drag” culture of queer, transgendered Filipino community that embodies and produces the alternative to the ritual submission to colonial culture. Perlita, Chiquiting, and the “bakla” and drag queens, do not passively submit to ritual gender roles, but rather they perform the extravagances of femininity in ways that are thrilling and derisory. Perlita, the drag queen, is really the only alternative to the “bad fathering” that every character on stage—from Joey to Rio—endures. The drag queens are glamorous and triumphant, not tragic martyrs, and as such, their joyful excess becomes an allegory for a part of the revolution that moves beyond and beneath the dialectic of oppression and reaction. In Dogeaters, it is their dancing and laughter that we remember, it is their alternative that survives.

Yet like the novel, Dogeaters the play hardly suggests a utopian resolution to the violent predicament of neocolonialism. In scene after scene, gay, bakla, and transgendered communities are spatialized themselves within the complex stratifications and distinctions that are the legacy of colonial and neocolonial subjugations; the class, region, and racial distinctions between Perlita, a member of the wealthy Alacran family, and Joey Sands, the mixed-race, bastard son of an American soldier and a Filipina prostitute, mark clearly the uneven access of “queer” subjects to the privileged mobilities of “drag.” Indeed, in the linking of Joey with Daisy and the guerillas in the final scenes, the play ends not with an exclusively sexual politics, but situates sexuality as “political” within the context of the conditions for popular and democratic struggles in a broad anti-colonial social movement.


  1. Dilip M. Menon, “Caste and Colonial Modernity: Reading Saraswativijayam,Studies in History 13:2 (1997), 291.

  2. Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger, Carol Vance, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1984), 267.

Maria Damon (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5570

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 with which their own social formation interrupts the discourse of Nature. … the cultural discourse of the Peoples of the Sea attempts … to neutralize violence and to refer society to the transhistorical codes of Nature. Of course as the codes of Nature are neither fixed nor even intelligible, the culture of the Peoples of the Sea expresses the desire to sublimate social violence through referring itself to a space that can only be intuited through the poetic, since it always puts forth an area of chaos. In this paradoxical space, in which one has the illusion of experiencing a totality, there appear to be no repressions or contradictions; there is no desire other than that of maintaining oneself within the limits of this zone for the longest possible time, in free orbit, beyond imprisonment or liberty.

—Antonio Benítez-Rojo 16-17

Who can stay crazy
under all this pressure
it makes you wanna wear a short dress
n hang it up …

—Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, Danger and Beauty 56

Early colonial maps of California showed it as an island, because the conquistadors, coming upon Baja west of Mexico, saw only a body of land beyond a bay so long they didn't know it ended. And subsequent conceptions of California have continued to portray it as somehow sequestered from the rest of the continent, as if its specialness depended on lack of contact. However, conventional concepts of insularity—islandness and island consciousness—contrast with what I know of California poetry, which is that it is highly interactive, generative, and exportable to the rest of the world. There is an emergent understanding that island, peninsular, and coastal cultural expression is particularly dynamic and complex, constantly stimulated and changed by cross-traffics and pollinations from afar; books by Antonio Benítez-Rojo, Robert Wilson and Wimal Dissenyake, and Sylvia Watanabe, among others, are theorizing this already intuitively well-established observation. One might say, to hazard a conflation of two recent buzzwords, that coastal communities are both what Mary Louise Pratt has termed a “contact zone” (a phrase she in turn borrowed from sociolinguist Ron Carter; Pratt 6-7) and what Hakim Bey has called a “temporary autonomous zone,” or TAZ. A coastal or insular community is a temporary autonomous contact zone.

In this essay I want, however sketchily, to hypothesize a perspective that might be useful to considerations of regional poetries and of the relationship between poetries and specific social and/or antisocial orders, conditions, and practices. Thus, if we consider poetry as the region in this look at regionalism—specify it as an insular or peninsular region, revise our understanding of that topos, and grant the antidiscursive potential (Karlheinz Stierle writes: “La poésie lyrique est essentiellement anti-discours” [Stierle 431]), if not actuality, of poetry—we can begin to understand the Bay Area of California in the 1970s as, paradoxically, a poetic realm beyond time-space that permits its poets voyage thereto for briefer or longer stays, on condition that those poets stay in contact with the nonpoetic non-Bay Area. Furthermore, I would suggest that such a coastal environment, in its “becoming” and devolving, fluidly unstable nature, may permit a wider scope of cultural experimentation on the part of folks who have been traditionally “dispossessed”—in the context of this essay, women, and more specifically the women of color in Northern California who came to artistic maturity in the relatively open years preceding the Reagan era. An implicit archipelagic permission to “mix it up” is healthy for arts communities, and can make for unpredictable challenges to hurtful hierarchies (witness the relatively early success of the Haitian revolution under Toussaint L'Ouverture, compared with similar uprisings on the U.S. mainland). I will be drawing most of my citations from the work of Jessica Hagedorn and Ntozake Shange, though I will also include a partial catalogue of the “Third World” (as they then called themselves) women and men who made up the rich fabric of creative activity that nurtured these two now better-known writers and performance artists.

Poetry is a coast, a liminal discourse between the culture of cosmopolitan harbor cities and the wildness of the ocean, between the seeming stability of land and the seeming fluidity of the sea, between the semantic, semiotic, and sonic worlds, spirit and matter, body and breath. People pass through poetry as through a port of call, they're called into poetry and out of conventional discourse—that is, they are extra-pellated rather than interpellated. The Kozmic Doowop Commune multicultural art scene of the Bay Area 1970s—the ostensible topic of my essay—was a poetic time-space that took from and gave back to its participants, and sent them further into the world to continue their cultural guerrilla work.

California, and Northern California in particular, has since the nineteenth century been a haven for nonconformists of all kinds self-exiled from straight society, and for people oppressed in most other national contexts: antisemitism, for example, was relatively unheard of there until the Klan's revival in the 1930s, and many Jewish families, such as Gertrude Stein's and Alice Toklas's, moved there for that reason (see Rosenbaum). It was outside of the North-South division of the Mason-Dixon line and thus did not have a tradition of anti-Black institutions. It has also been the landing place for people forced to leave their homelands due to poverty (one could consider the desperation of the gold rush in this context, as well as the overseas immigration from other Pacific areas), political crises, or other social catastrophes; and it is the original homeland of people who did experience slavery and ethnicide at the hands of missionaries and who, if they did survive, were made to feel like strangers in their own place. In the early to mid-twentieth century, the Bay Area developed a strong anarcho-pacifist community and spirit that continued into the present through various incarnations, and the longshoremen's strike in the 1930s crystallized a strong sense of workers' importance. This sense of heterogeneity and motion continues. The constant confluences and meetings of these individuals and these groups are precisely what prevent California from ossifying into the stasis implied by conventional metaphors of insularity. It is this characteristic that makes it a place for fruitful and unusual collaborations, intellectual and cultural cross-pollination, and lively heterogeneity. And while I want to distance myself from the dramatically romanticized bifurcation of nature from culture on which Benítez-Rojo's passage relies, I nonetheless find fertile the suggestions that “Peoples of the Sea”—immigrant cultures, island cultures, coastal and ocean rim culture—may participate in a heightened sense of the poetic, and this in a cosmopolitan, liminal way.

This liveliness has become particularly meaningful to me since my move from California seven and a half years ago, to the Upper Midwest, a region whose traditional progressive populism is negatively counterbalanced by and in fact is dependent on a faith in sameness, ascetic stoicism, and aesthetic minimalism; Upper Midwestern democracy is fundamentally a belief that everyone should act, speak, and look the same in order to merit equal access and representation. The land of ten thousand lakes can't compete with an isle, which etymologically combines land and sea (terra in salo < insula = in salt water); Minnesota's limnality doesn't compensate for the borderland and coastal liminality of California—life in the mainstream is not in a stream at all but stuck in Main Street, the heart deprived of the arts of movement, of the oxygen necessary to circulate, of the ecstasies of heterogeneous language and the play of pain, difference, and flamboyant joy. The word lake has a direct ancestor that means a “depression filled with water”; a recent NPR interview with the Coen brothers about their film Fargo, which was filmed in Minnesota, described the opening scene of the movie as a “shot of pure, flat whiteness.” Unh-hunh. In short, my experience in the stolid Midwest has sharpened my understanding that California (and New York, a city composed of several islands) represents the worldly antithesis of all that is implied by the word isolation, and that those connotations could be far more accurately derived from a good long look at the centrum.

Island culture—when rescued from intimations of remoteness and properly retheorized—is in fact a useful paradigm for tracing some of the dynamics of California aesthetics. Californian poetry can and has traveled and become cross-germinal for and with other movements and other locales, rather than allowing its eccentricities or specialnesses to implode and self-devour à la Uroboros.

Islands—Hawaii, the Caribbean, Manhattan, the Philippines, the Cape Verdes—have historically been sites of cross and intercultural traffic, hybridity, mobility, diaspora—all the terms contemporary academic humanists are pleased to deploy to convey a heightened sense of movement and indeterminacy. A famous palindrome—that self-contained island of letters—speaks to the undoing of empire through insularity: able was I ere I saw Elba. Home to unmoored discourses of ecstasy, islands are also vulnerable to natural change through volcanoes, tidal waves, hurricanes—their existence, defined by movement, reflects the global shifts of plate tectonics—they speak to submerged routes of travel such as the Aleutian chain, linking what we have constructed, in our disciplinary desire to compartmentalize and categorize, as different and separated continents that presumably contain entirely unlike peoples, cultures, flora, fauna, terrains. Islands are traces of bridges and continuities, traveling poetic archipelagos, which phrase is meant to realign gently the assumption of out-of-touchness. We are all no doubt familiar with the new ethnographers' (and especially James Clifford's) emphasis on the traveling and mobile nature of cultural production and its producers, and of the many and constantly shifting modes of consumption and distribution as well. Paul Gilroy's conception of the “Black Atlantic” helps us to imagine cultural and counter-cultural communities and continuities across oceans; the phrase Pacific Rim similarly evokes the ocean as central rather than peripheral to cultural development; and the converse: that a land-mass's centrum—the Midwest, again, forming my most recent experiential reference point—should not necessarily figure centrally in theorizing cultural mobility. The etymologies of words for islands—islands, isles, archipelagos, and so on—reveal the extent to which the ocean determines our understanding of the land we refer to: archipelago, for example, used to mean the Aegean Sea itself, then it came to signify the islands in it, then any cluster of islands. Isle, as I've pointed out, truncates in salo, but the noun terra is implied, not stated, while the ocean's salt is explicit. What's important in all of this is that context determines identity—here, the sense of travel over water, nearness to constant rhythm, and immersion in air so rich that just to breathe is to dance with an invisible lover. What's also important in this is the desire to translate social violence into a fertile chaos of crosscut rhythms and colors, sound and movement that is the heart of poetry.

Of course California is not literally an island, nor is it metaphorically, in the sense of being sequestered from the commerce of culture; but it is a border, with the Pacific on one side, Mexico to the south, and the Sierras forming a dire pioneer zone of mythic cannibalism. As a literally—and littorally—liminal space California shares with literal islands this stopping-point sensibility, this proximity to constant movement and rhythm of the sea, of migrant and diasporic populations, of Peoples of the Sea. This peculiarly wonderful ornate border has produced communities of letters, from George Jackson's prison letters (whose title, Soledad Brother, resonates richly with that of Bob Kaufman's first book, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness) to City Lights's pocket-book series designed to travel easily with those who carry no excess baggage.


Contrary to what I believed when I started working on this piece, there was no actual household known as the Kozmic Doowop Commune; in Jessica Hagedorn's words, it was a state of mind. There were, however, many such cooperative households of poets, dancers, musicians, lovers, and collaborators, households born of economic necessity as well as artistic affinity. Halifu Osumare, Nashira Ntosha, Paula Moss, Ntozake Shange, Kitty Tsui, Thulani Davis, Janice Mirikitani, Jessica Hagedorn, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Janet Campbell Hale, Carol Lee Sanchez, Nina Serano, Avotcja, and Alta, as well as David Henderson, Norman Jayo, Ishmael Reed, Al Robles, Alejandro Murguia, Roberto Vargas, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Papoleto Melendez, Luis Syquia, Serafin Syquia, Lawson Inada, and countless other artists helped to build an infrastructure of creative expression that was far from parochial. Partly this was because they came from many places—the Philippines, St. Louis, Harlem, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, China—partly because even when they left California they didn't leave each other, so that that web of verbal and bodily kinesis has continued to expand and become ever more fluid and mature, and partly, of course, because of what Hagedorn refers to as their “rich and complicated ethnicities” and what Shange calls “lotsa body and cultural heritage” (Hagedorn ix; Shange Nappy Edges 38). Some, like David Henderson, still maintain dual households; lower Manhattan and Berkeley provide his pieds-à-terre. Ntozake Shange now lives in Philadelphia, after sojourns in New York (as a theater person) and Houston (as a professor of creative writing); she speaks of her Bay Area period as a blessing and a gift, unparalleled in her subsequent experience. Despite the quasi-Columbian “discovery” by Joseph Papp of her choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” its production at various women's and bohemian bars in the Bay Area before its triumphant debut in New York City had already ensured its passage into the creative nervous system of the English-speaking world. Hagedorn, who now lives in New York City, continues to invoke her Bay Area period as crucially formative. These artists' names appear in each other's poems and essays, in the litanies that now preface some of the better-known poets' newly collected works.

The nickname Kozmic Doowop Commune itself well articulates the ethos of the milieu. Kozmicity gives a playful, streetlike spelling to the union of hybridity and artistic order: the raza cosmica has, since a book of that title appeared in 1925, been a term used to describe the special, avataric intermingling of (native) American, African, and European people in Latin America and the Caribbean into the “race of the future.” While this vision aims at harmonious synthesis rather than continued indeterminate heterogeneity, it can easily be re-envisioned as a process rather than a static order at which the social world must arrive. Cosmos is also, in similarly dialectical vein, the etymological antonym of “chaos,” though we now understand through “chaos theory” that this also is an overly rigid conceptual binary—that the cosmos is shot through with chaos and that chaos is, in turn, not really all that chaotic. The chaos of Benítez-Rojo's island society is intercut with the orders of nature and art, and of human interaction itself (commune). Doowop, the Black popular music of the 1950s and 1960s, owed its distinctiveness to an a cappella feel (if not always an exclusively vocal arrangement in fact), harmonies that had elements of both gospel and vaudeville (voix de ville, the urban people's voice), and characteristic vocables (“nonsense” syllables that nonetheless convey important emotional and stylistic information) such as, of course, “doowah,” “oowah,” “dit dit dit,” and so on. It's considered a relatively light-hearted, youthful music, with permission to play with language in recognizable harmony, less cerebrally outré than bebop or scat but clearly related: bop's kid sister. Commune? The legacy of the 1960s, with its ethos of freewheeling, humane, boho-anarchistic social relations which aimed at equality and fluidity, a direct challenge to the nuclear family and nuclear politics, which had never been espoused by nor had it originated in, minority cultures. Global and local, harmonious and disruptive, familial and unorthodox, the Kozmic Doowop Commune was indeed a state of mind, but it was more than that as well; it was a lived artistic and social creed—not a binding dogma but a shared ethos.

History as well as geography was important in midwifing this scene. Coming on the heels of the Black nationalist movement, which was being decimated by government assassinations, imprisonments, and other repressive mechanisms, and of the related Black arts movement of New York and Chicago, to which it looked as inspiration, and dovetailing with the growing raza consciousness and its concomitant emancipationist interventions in labor practices, especially in California and the Southwest, the kozmic doowop, or, as Ishmael Reed called it, the “dittybop school” aesthetic, was no less political than these—Roberto Vargas and Alejandro Murguia fought in the Sandinista revolution—and some of the African American participants had been active in New York previously. The feminist movement also had its influence; women's presses, women's studies programs (Shange taught women's studies at Sonoma State College while performing, writing, and dancing in Berkeley-Oakland), and women's collectives within the Third World Communications group, as well as the informal but indispensable sisterly support the women artists gave each other in surviving a masculinist scene—these all helped to nurture the movement. Special opportunities were opened if not guaranteed for women in this temporary autonomous contact zone characterized by flux and social destabilization. The emerging feminist consciousness of the 1970s in the culture at large enabled women poets of color—who already supported each other in extended-family-like relationships and communities antedating the terms consciousness raising or feminism—to receive mainstream recognition and support, the fruits of which can be seen now in the careers of Kozmic Doowop “alumnae” such as Shange, Hagedorn, and Berssenbrugge. I don't want to contrast the Bay Area scene with more nationalist cultural movements to the detriment of the latter; rather, I want to point out the special heterogeneity and fluidity of the San Francisco incarnation of politicized ethnic art. The California scene was eclectic and multicultural, much like its present-day New York counterpart, the NuYorican Poets' Cafe.


How is the excitement of island ocean border poetry conveyed in the poetry itself? Through thematic and rhythmic invocation of communities, oceans, rivers; through a linguistic trying on of each other's vernaculars and identities, mixing and matching; through remaking ethnic traditions in present circumstances. Many of these poems practice orthographies of ecstasy and new punctuations, like Dickinson's dashes, conveying unspeakable interruptions in discourse; new collaborative forms evolved—the choreopoem, for example—as did recombinations of traditional styles like blues and doowop rhythms, sea-changed in the time-space of cosmic doowop consciousness. Shange's poem for saxophonist David Murray, “Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon,” describes an erotically and artistically charged love relationship in terms of an aquaspace beyond geography—the poetic, of course, which transcends but preserves difference:

you fill me up so much
when you touch me
i cant stay here
i haveta go to my space …
… … … … … …
a land lovin you gives me …
there's a point where the amazon meets the mississippi
 … … … … … … … … … …
there's a bistro near the pacific
& the pyramid of the moon is under my bed
i can see the ferry from trois islets to rio
 … … … … … … … …
my space is a realm of monuments and water
language and the ambiance of senegalese cafes
where the nile flows into the ganges …

(Shange, Nappy Edges 28-29)

This poem, or a piece with the same title, was performed in New York by Shange, Jessica Hagedorn, and Thulani Davis, the so-called satin sisters of the cosmic doowop scene. In another poem, “several propositions in the middle of the nite when i'm travelling between virginia & nyc & i don't know where you are but i'm working on it,” Shange speaks in tongues of French, English, and Spanish to delineate the rapture of her emotions, though her orthography continues to insist on an African American vernacular sensibility (Nappy Edges 37). Her poem “Lovin You Is Ecstasy to Me” blends mythic and actual people; this snapshot of a birthday party in one of the cosmic households achieves the status of mystical communion with vivid human-divine beings in lush domestic rituals—all to the rhythmic intoxicants of the Shirelles, the Blackbirds, and other African American doowop groups:

hey hey hey/the bay bridge becomes dorothy's tornado in kansas and
i fly to a new oz/
moreno y dulce/ … laying up w/ de pinoy princess of the avenues …
ifa is manifest in furtive greens …
the empress singes opium over de stove
norman didn't bring his drums
kapuenda is embroidered with cornelians …
sheoli leans upon the kitchen sink/
she is radiant and strawberry almond bread
tastes of her love/
ms jazz-a-belle glistens over boilin pots …

(Nappy Edges 31-33)

Thulani Davis invokes liminal outlawry with the phrase that titles her essay on performance poetry, “Known Renegades: Recent Black/Brown/Yellow” (Davis 68); the preface to Hagedorn's Penguin volume, Danger and Beauty, refers to her peers and mentors in “the funk mystique of Oakland” as “loup garous, gypsies, sympathetic cowboys, and water buffalo shamans” (ix). The exuberance and euphoria of the times comes through in the breakneck speed of the lines, the extravagance of the language, the love of dangerousness, subversions, and edges of all kinds, the larger-than-life power and charisma attributed to these friends and colleagues.

Jessica Hagedorn, a Filipino writer who came to the United States at age eleven, writes her debt to and alliance with other writers of color by using African American vernacular—“they so fine,” she writes about poets so powerful that their beauty is a crime, “they break your heart / by making you dream / of other possibilities” (“Sorcery” 23). Elsewhere she thematically celebrates Latin dance music, and she shows the ways in which prejudice and ignorance at the mainstream level (in her fiction, Filipino characters are repeatedly asked, “What are you,” Chicano, Brazilian, or what [“The Blossoming of Bongbong” 44]) translates into complicitous and delicious subversion at the street level of friendships and artistic affinity:

in new york
they ask me if i'm puerto rican
 … … … … … …
i …
chant to iemaya
convinced i'm really brazilian …

(“Song for My Father” 36)

To read or hear this poetry is to know that one is watching a “scene” but without that left-out voyeuristic feeling that leads to resentful misappropriation. It's a scene that aims at the democratization of poetry; thus it preemptively resists its own co-optation.


The land is a great, sad face. The sea is a huge tear, compassion's twins. If there is a god beneath the sea, he is drunk and telling fantastic lies. Poets who drown at sea, themselves become beautiful wet songs … At the ends of the water, the holy marriage of the horizons.

(Kaufman, The Ancient Rain 49)

This last section is, though hypothetically the most significant, also the shortest, because the task of theorizing poetry and social violence is one that, properly speaking, would compose an exemplary life, like that of Antonin Artaud, rather than a book chapter. Nonetheless, because I don't want to leave this topic as subtext only, I want to note the politics of that scene, and this one. The puns littering the earlier part of this essay take their cue from the playfulness that typifies the West Coast aesthetic, though, as we so often read and write in book prefaces, any infelicities of style or content are my own and not theirs by whom I'm inspired. This occidental playfulness, which can be traced in current developments in Language Poetry, the new mestizaje writings, and the queer writing scene, all of which vanguards have traditions rooted in the ocean air of the Pacific, should not obscure the serious politics at work in the creative project I've tried to sketch out.

To return to the Benítez-Rojo passage, it is not hard to see that I have been, up to this point and in the interest of creating a celebratory encomium, selectively blind to the many qualifiers and disclaimers embedded in his prose. Here I foreground them:

… the culture of the Peoples of the Sea is a flux interrupted by rhythms which attempt to silence the noises with which their own social formation interrupts the discourse of Nature. … the cultural discourse of the Peoples of the Sea attempts … to neutralize violence and to refer society to the transhistorical codes of Nature. … (this culture) expresses the desire to sublimate social violence through referring itself to a space that can only be intuited through the poetic … In this paradoxical space, in which one has the illusion of experiencing a totality, there appear to be no repressions or contradictions; there is no desire other than that of maintaining oneself within the limits of this zone for the longest possible time …

These words indicate the degree of strife/striving involved in creating a rhythm of ludic chaos. They do not indicate any degree of success or failure, though the words illusion and appear suggest that this blissful undulation in the nurturing space of creative community requires an element of active fantasy, which in turn suggests the overwhelming social violence for which it would compensate.

There is (sonically if not etymologically) a resonance between the term shanty (derived from the French Canadian chantier, and ultimately from a Greek term meaning a “pack ass,” or beast of burden), a rough, makeshift worker's dwelling, and the term chantey (derived from the French chanter, to sing, and ultimately from the Latin cantere), a worksong used by nautical laborers to mark the rhythm of the toil. When the material conditions are derelict, one lives in song, poetry, language (“I Live in Music,” chants Shange dreamily to jazz accompaniment, “I live on c-# Street …” [I Live in Music]). Moreover, Bruce Franklin, basing his observation on the research of Hungarian musicologist Janos Marothy, has suggested a connection between sea shanties and North American slave songs (Franklin 95-96). Even without this specific musico-historical link, one could point out that the working conditions of sailors (who were often indentured servants) were comparable to those of unpaid and brutalized workers (slaves); until 1915 sailors were de jure as well as de facto treated as wards of the state deemed incapable of taking intelligent responsibility for themselves (Nelson 20 ff.). And in ports of call, nautical culture made its mark through the transient, tinged-with-scariness allure of Sailortowns, such as the Combat Zone in Boston, which bore some of the same stigmas and stereotypes as other, more stably populated neighborhoods of the urban poor or of racial/ethnic or sexual minorities. San Francisco, in fact, became a “gay mecca” in part because of the large population of men discharged from the area's naval base after World War II (D'Emilio 31).

In addition, as global migrants, sailors often had experiences that taught them cultural relativism (for example, Black seafarers had the opportunity to see how different race relations functioned in Africa, Asia, or Europe); their relative worldliness added to the openness and unpredictability of the mix, the sense of possibility that things could be different here, founded on the lived knowledge that things are different elsewhere. That this counterculture/subculture was overwhelmingly male in origin makes the place of women, and particularly women of color, charged and volatile: a hot spot within a hot spot—a sun-spot. The Doowop women, at least, flourished, though not without pain (Shange's “wow … yr just like a man!” [Nappy Edges 13] details the fury and frustration of having to negotiate a legitimate place in a world of male artists); plumes of fiery color, extravagantly wild expressions of creative self-engenderment spiraled out from this decentered center of activity.

To invoke again Antonio Benítez-Rojo's formulation, the culture of the Peoples of the Sea, in this case the Bay Area's multilingual, multiethnic, multiracial arts community, survives in and on the desire to transform—to sublimate—social violence by jumping discursive tracks, as it were, by living in the poetic, the oceanic state of consciousness. This is what Hagedorn means when she valorizes “staying crazy” under the massive pressure of social violence trained on people of color in the United States. To remain in a vast universal polyrhythmicity—kozmic doowop—where rhythms pulsate in eternal but unpredictable flux, not in competition but in concert—commune—is a political strategy for these artists, a means of psychic survival. To be beyond imprisonment or liberty is to encompass both in the same experience, the holy marriage of the horizons, the thin liminal seam of the poetic, the systematic alteration of normative insight. Shange has a poem entitled “This woman thinks we're de beauvoir and jean-paul / never forget / i'ma spic and yr a colored girl” (Nappy Edges 35). The rending and mind-bending double consciousness of being intellectual comrades and erotic lovers like Sartre and de Beauvoir, on the one hand, and, on the other, being objects of contempt, violence with impunity, and the assumption of subhumanity in a social situation of state racism, can destroy young artists of color. It can also spur them to seek out that horizon, that marriage of land/sea, to dwell in those contradictions with fierce grace and gratitude, and at the risk of sounding banal, community and contact can make the difference between self-destructive implosion and extravagant creative explosion. The poem concludes:

whatta unlikely wonder is we/
lovers in a seaport kinda way …
the way we wrap up in the mornin/ is
all our world
we're entitled

(Nappy Edges 36)

Poetry can't offer an alternative to social violence—that would be insultingly naive and optimistic, and as teachers of literature we surely know better. But poetry—and I hope I've given some examples above—can intervene actively in a world of social violence. Shange's lines

i found god in myself
& i loved her/i loved her fiercely

(For Colored Girls 63)

have become virtually doctrinal to some feminists. “Staying crazy” means cocreating continued active resistance—through making words and taking words in—to normative discourse. This I would say is the key difference between island culture defined as remote and claustrophobic, and island culture defined as contactual, generative, and unbounded. If California's insularity is an imperialist trope (that Eden end we can use any means to get to—and they did) California's liminality makes it an appropriate launching pad for experiments in cultural politics that have profound repercussions for the rest of the country's social and aesthetic self-understanding.

Finally, we can learn from these artists how to be of use to ourselves. In investigating the depths of these communities of vanguard artists and allowing our soundings to filter into our own academic labor—which we and our students so often experience as alienated, solipsistic, isolated—we can enrich and liminate our own professional and poetic lives, rewriting literary studies from the ground—at sea level, in salo—on up.

Works Cited

Artaud, Antonin. Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, 1976.

———. Artaud Anthology. Ed. Jack Hirschman. San Francisco: City Lights, 1965.

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Durham: Duke UP, 1992.

Bey, Hakim. Temporary Autonomous Zones. New York: Autonomedia, 1991.

Clifford, James. “Traveling Culture.” Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992. 96-112.

Coen, Joel and Ethan Coen. Interview with Noah Adams. All Things Considered. Natl. Public Radio. 8 March 1996.

Davis, Thulani Nkabinde. “Known Renegades: Recent Black/Brown/Yellow.” The Poetry Reading: A Contemporary Compendium on Language and Performance. Ed. Stephen Vincent and Ellen Zweig. San Francisco: Momo's, 1981. 68-84.

D'Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Franklin, H. Bruce. Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist. Westport, Conn.: Hill, 1978.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Hagedorn, Jessica Tarahata. Danger and Beauty. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1993.

———. Dangerous Music. San Francisco: Momo's, 1975.

Jackson, George. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. New York: Coward, 1970.

Kaufman, Bob. The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. New York: New Directions, 1981.

———. Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965.

Marothy, Janos. Music and the Bourgeois; Music and the Proletarian. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1974.

Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen and Unionism in the 1930s. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Colonialism. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Rosenbaum, Fred. Free to Choose: The Making of a Jewish Community in the American West (The Jews of Oakland, California). Berkeley: Judah L. Magnes Memorial Museum, 1976.

Shange, Ntozake. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf: A Choreopoem in Three Acts. New York: St. Martin's, 1974.

———. I Live in Music. Audio cassette. Watershed Intermedia, 1984.

———. Nappy Edges. New York: St. Martin's, 1978.

Stierle, Karlheinz. “Identité du Discours et Transgression Lyrique.” Trans. Jean-Paul Colin. Poétique 32 (Nov. 1977): 422-41.

Third World Communications Publishing Collective, eds. Time to Greez! An Anthology of Third World Writing. San Francisco: Third World Publishing Collective, 1974.

Watanabe, Sylvia, ed. Into the Fire: Asian American Prose. Greenfield, N.Y.: Greenfield Review Press, 1997.

Wilson, Rob, and Wimal Dissenyake. Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Imaginary. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Rachel C. Lee (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17898

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.

—Ishmael Reed

Dogeaters begins in the air-conditioned darkness of Manila's Avenue Theater where the American release “All That Heaven Allows” plays in Technicolor and Cinemascope. Like the narrator, Rio, and her cousin Pucha, Hagedorn's readers sit enthralled to the movie's “perfect picture-book American tableau, plaid hunting jackets, roaring cellophane fires, [and] smoking chimneys” (3). Not until the second paragraph is the reader momentarily interrupted by the sound of noisy lovers stealing kisses in the theater's darkness; yet quickly the focus returns to “Jane Wyman's soft putty face, Rock Hudson's singular, pitying expression … [and] the virginal, pastel-pink cashmere cardigan draped over Gloria Talbott's shoulders” (3). The screen stretches across the audience's imagination until Hagedorn pans back to remind them that they are also voyeurs in this scene—both observers of and participants in the seduction of American film.

It is this enticing quality to Hagedorn's narrative reproductions of American film that critics of Dogeaters find both captivating and irksome: the representation of American movies—symbols of the United States' colonial legacy—ought to instruct the reader on the continued cultural imperialism being effected in the Philippines rather than delight him/her with reproduced, spectacular details. In so effectively portraying the allure by which cultural imperialism operates, Hagedorn's text itself undergoes scrutiny as to whether it is “Filipino” or “American” (Gonzalez 1991, 191), expression of indigenous talent or the rearranged debris of an American entertainment industry. The author's emigration to the United States (in 1961) almost three decades before Dogeaters's publication fuels charges that she misrepresents Manila by overemphasizing a colonized mentality and by not portraying a nonbourgeois nationalist counterculture adequately.1 One might answer such critiques on the grounds of representation alone: while the author's putative subject is Filipino society during the Marcos regime, her book might be better read as a creative document from a Filipino American perspective that emphasizes America's cultural dominance on the islands in order to critique that dominance, even as the author reinscribes it. Yet, I would further argue that it is through the attributed “weakness” of Hagedorn's novel that her narrative conducts such a powerful critique of neocolonialism and late capitalism. By illustrating the seductiveness of American film, Hagedorn challenges her audience to sympathize with the journey toward political “awakening” and the colonial mentality that both precedes and coexists with it. Like Fanon, she refuses to rank her Filipino characters according to their degree of revolutionary consciousness and instead legitimates the perspectives of colonized peoples in their various aspects (i.e., in their rejection and embrace of Western artifacts and technology).2

Moreover, for Hagedorn, “revolutionary consciousness” in a postcolonial context involves not only nationalist but also feminist and gay awakenings.3 Yet critics of Hagedorn have left unremarked the fact that Hagedorn depicts the Marcos years, not from the perspective of elected officials and their military henchmen, but from the perspective of these leaders' mistresses, sisters, daughters, and wives. (The large exception to this rule is the gay male character, Joey Sands, a half-“black American” prostitute.) That such stories are deemed repetitive rather than radical has implications for our assessments of radicalness on the whole.

In this chapter, I survey the specific debates around Hagedorn's novel and place these debates in the context of the postcolonial, feminist, and spectatorship theories which they inform and by which they are informed. First I explore the issue of Hagedorn's style of narration, specifically how critics have negatively responded to what they construe as the novel's regressive politics by focusing on her “postmodern” writing practices—that is, her nonrealist mode of narration. A major plank of my argument is that a gendered subtext underlies these representational critiques, especially those that find fault in Hagedorn's “repetitive” aesthetic. Therefore, I deconstruct the multiple (feminist and gay) subject positions that lend “originality” to Hagedorn's “cinematext of the Third World” (San Juan 1992, 118). In placing women at the center of her narrative, Hagedorn contributes to an evolving tradition of literary works that detail Asian/Pacific feminine postcoloniality, such as Wendy Law-Yone's The Coffin Tree, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée, Ninotchka Rosca's State of War, Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, and Sara Suleri's Meatless Days. The final part of this chapter attends to Hagedorn's portrait of the constrained choices offered to postcolonial female subjects, whose sexual desires are too often channeled into programs of good citizenship. Hagedorn probes the ways in which the unruly sexual desires of Filipinas are nationally disavowed.

With this discussion of Dogeaters, I also shift focus somewhat toward a work set beyond official U.S. territorial borders—yet not beyond the reach of American and Asian American imaginings. While Bulosan's, Jen's, and Hagedorn's novels are all ostensibly concerned with cultural institutions exemplifying “Americanness,” they nevertheless differ quite substantially in their choice of settings and forms of political critique. Both Bulosan's and Jen's novels alert their readers to the perils of exclusion on a domestic terrain by critiquing, to varying degrees, the gendered and racial terms of the United States' social, political, and cultural institutions. By contrast, Hagedorn's narrative concerns itself with the perils of “inclusion,” so to speak—of U.S. territorial encroachments upon sites outside its borders. Becoming legitimate members of the U.S. nation-state is not necessarily the goal of postcolonial subjects.


Though Dogeaters ostensibly portrays Filipino society during the Marcos regime (c.1965-1986), its recollection and restaging of American cinema suggests that the author's concern is not so much with the varied and complex communities inhabiting the Philippines as much as with a particular encounter between U.S. popular culture and Manila's metropolitan society. In this respect, the novel appears to underscore city resident Paul Dumol's sentiment that “the strongest single influence on the Philippines is that of mass culture. … We are the province, the outlands for the big city which is across the Pacific” (Denton and Villena-Denton, 180).4 The encounter that both Dumol and Hagedorn describe, rather than overtly condemn, is one in which Manila residents take pleasure in and identify with icons of U.S. popular culture.5 In that identification, Filipinos alter the significance of these iconic acts, making it difficult to determine where the American cultural markers end and the Filipino ones begin.

That blurring of Filipino and American identities has a genealogical corollary in the ancestral backgrounds of the novel's first-person narrators, Rio Gonzaga and Joey Sands. American bloodlines and the persistent allure of the U.S. entertainment industry overdetermine both their identities. For instance, the opening chapter introduces Rio's maternal grandfather, an American named Whitman Logan. Almost an icon of the United States, Rio's grandfather sports the famous American poet's name and hails from the heartland of that nation, the Midwest. However, Rio knows relatively little about her grandfather and has to “invent [her] own history” from a mosaic of Hollywood clips (259). When her comatose grandfather yells in his sleep, “Chicago, Chicago, Chicago,” a “movie projector goes off in [Rio's] head. … June Allyson descends from a winding staircase, wearing a ball-gown made of gold-flecked, plastic shower curtains” (16). Through cinematic iconography, Rio makes sense of her familial relations. Scripts of American entertainment thus provide Rio with a syntax—an enabling and constraining structure—with which to understand her midwestern past.

Joey's American ancestry likewise reminds the reader of the United States' lingering presence on the islands. Only by indirection does the narrative reveal Joey's paternity. The German filmmaker Rainer inquires of the narrator: “‘Your father—he was a black American, yes? Andres told me.’ ‘Andres talks too much,’ I say, though I don't really mind. ‘He was stationed at Subic Bay—that's all I know about him. Not his name. Not anything’” (146). Only half way through the novel does Hagedorn reveal that Joey's father is a guardian of the U.S. military bases on the islands. This textual submergence of the militia's presence mimics the subdued infiltration of the islands by an American neocolonial presence.

Though Joey knows little about his paternity, he strives against national anonymity by proposing his own American last name. When Joey's former lover Neil returns to the United States, he sends Joey a postcard from the “Sands” Hotel: “That's where I got my last name. … ‘The Sands.’ A casino in Las Vegas” (72). The choice of surname both memorializes Joey's relationship to Neil and represents a prospective avenue of escape: “It's gonna be good. I know how to get to Neil. He'll send for me: We can live in Vegas or L.A.” (77). Naming himself after a monument of American entertainment, Joey locates his origin and destiny in U.S. celluloid space.

As these examples indicate, Rio's and Joey's ties to the States are both “real” and imagined. “Reality” seems to inhere in the body—in one's bloodline. Imagination, by contrast, remains a surreal exercise in recalling and repeating what are themselves reproduced images—postcard photographs and movie clips. Yet in accepting these labels unquestioningly, one is in danger of locating the “real” in America and of privileging a Western site of “production” over and against an Asian (and Asian American) site of “reproduction.” The fixing of the “real” in bloodline suggests that reality rests in an (American) patriarchal dissemination of national identity. Reality springs from Western seeds rather than from native self-invention. That both practices yield an American(ized) identity illustrates Hagedorn's use of the West as determining text of her novel (i.e., after colonialism, there is no “outside” to the text of Westernization). Yet, the difference lies in whether reality is to located in a Western implantation of genetic material—in a historical past—or whether it is to be located in the native's interpretation and performances of Western images—in a postcolonial, performative present.

Hagedorn tacitly questions the reductiveness of oppositional politics that couch any signs of Americanness as evidence of the ethnic, minority, or Third World subject's co-optation (that measures resistance in terms of “pure” native identity, or by the purity of one's native sources). The Americanness of her protagonists' identities is something they cannot avoid, making their desire for America all the more complex. Does this desire indicate their consent to dominant ideologies, or is it an inevitable effect of their ancestry? Clearly, for the two first-person narrators of American extraction, the United States, its cinematic imports, and its cultural modes for ordering the world are concepts they cannot entirely reject. But even for those characters not directly descended from American stock, the narrative suggests an overwhelming magnetism toward the brutality and seduction of America. As one character, Senator Avila, puts it, “[We are] a complex nation of cynics, descendants of warring tribes which were baptized and colonized to death by Spaniards and Americans. … [We are] a nation betrayed and then united only by our hunger for glamour and our Hollywood dreams” (101). America is not only an enticing entertainer but also a possible, though suspect, ground for the collective identity of Filipinos. That is, the commonalty of American “betrayal”—violent conquest, that is—is one definitive experience that the disparate archipelagic peoples share.6

If, in Bulosan's narrative, America was the promise of brotherly equality and the reality of capitalist exploitation, and if, in Jen's text, America is the promise of an economic and subjective limitlessness that is undergirded by gendered violence, then, in Dogeaters, America is both the imperial power that colludes with native leadership and the cultural wash that forms Filipino/Filipina subjectivity and desire. It is this contradiction—that America can comprise both an oppressive enemy as well as a formative component of Filipino identity and desire (most emphatically through the influence of Hollywood film)—that fuels much of the controversy surrounding the novel as to whether it “sets back the race,” misrepresents and exoticizes Filipinos, cleaves to a regressive socioeconomic message and style, or even tells a well-written story.7 In fact, it is oftentimes difficult to separate critical disdain directed at the entertainment industry and, by extension, at Hagedorn for peopling her novel with celebrity personas, from political critiques aimed at the novel's supposed exoticization of Filipinos that might also be derivative of Hollywood stereotypes. I take as a fundamental premise of this chapter, then, that in the assessment of several of Hagedorn's critics, scenes, tropes, and stylistic innovations borrowed from the American film and broadcasting industries are integrally linked to—even serve as synecdoches for—the evils of the United States (i.e., in their readings, “cinema” stands in for imperial dominance and/or capitalist ideology).

In his review of Dogeaters, Leonard Casper expresses an implicit desire for a more realist narrative that hinges on believable characters and narrators that will demonstrate class conflict in Philippine society so as to propel and resolve the narrative in an affirmation of the ideal of “communitarianism” (Casper, 153).8 The literary critic objects to the superficial wash of dreams, desires, and images that comprise Dogeaters's style and that, moreover, parallels a thematic focus on “loss of memory, a loss of destination and direction, and then … a loss of reality altogether” (Casper, 153). Both Casper and E. San Juan Jr., two critics vastly different in their political stances, share a highly critical view of “postmodern” writing of which Hagedorn's novel is only one example. From an aesthetician's perspective, Casper comments on Hagedorn's risking “what many a postmodern author risks: negligible characterization; discontinuity, in place of causality” (157), “the impression of drift and shapelessness” (154), and a puzzling “lack of accurate, sequential chronology in the narrative” (154). Despite his quarrel with Dogeaters's flaws, Casper avoids dismissing the narrative's politics wholesale, as San Juan does in his Marxist evaluation of the novel's repetitive style, upon which I will elaborate.9 Both critics seem to desire a greater degree of realism, if by realism one means a style of writing committed to the representation of contemporary social issues, where “characters develop in relation to entrenched institutions and the struggle between classes” (A. Kaplan 1988, 2), as opposed to a tradition of romance, where “the creative power of the mind [shapes] its own reality within the limits of moral ambiguity rather than the field of social relations” (A. Kaplan 1988, 4).10 In tracing the historical context of this literary movement in America, Amy Kaplan characterizes realism as an idiom or cognitive principle of ordering a world made somewhat “unreal [by] intense class conflicts which [produce] fragmented and competing social realities, and [by] the simultaneous development of mass culture which [dictates] an equally threatening homogenous reality” (A. Kaplan 1988, 9). Thus, realism confronts a chaotic (unreal) world of social upheaval by promising a transparent vision of the material world and a spectatorial position from which one can “control and produce the real world by seeing it without being seen in turn” (7; emphasis added). Though Kaplan is describing a body of texts and mode of writing particular to turn-of-the-century America, her observations on realism's politics that lie precisely within its representational capacities can be most illuminating to the type of narrative mode that Dogeaters violates and that critics of the novel hold up as an implicit standard of comparison.

Dogeaters's postrealist style is not “post-” because it avoids limning social relations but because it defies conventions of objective recording. Rather than conveying the upheaval of the Marcoses' rule through a panoptic, godlike vision, Hagedorn steeps her narrative in questionable recordings and skewed looks. She continually highlights the subjective viewpoint from which one observes an event, constantly switching perspectives and, in doing so, suggesting that social relations also inhere in who looks, who writes, who represents—determinations that are plural rather than singular. Several critics have remarked on Hagedorn's calling into question the veracity of the primary storytellers' narratives, those of Rio and Joey, through the contesting voice of Pucha Gonzaga in the penultimate chapter of the book (Balce-Cortes and Nguyen). Pucha demurs, “Rio, you've got it all wrong. … You like to mix things up on purpose. … I'm no intelektwal as you've pointed out loud and clear, but my memory's just as good as anybody's.” (248). Pucha insists on the legitimacy of the nonintellectual's perspective, the perspective of those who are often the observed rather than the official observers, those whose memories are characterized as too subjective or to be valuable.11

Rather than adopt a third-person “intelektwal” narration that constructs an observing subject position that is not observed, in turn, by others, Dogeaters proceeds from narrative perspectives that stress the positions of both the anthropological “pure native” who is habitually seen through the lens of Western expertise (see Trinh 1989) and the urban “native” or Third World celebrity constructed by media reports and gossip, whose reality is part lived, part made up, but always under view. Both types of “natives” share the quality of “to-be-looked-at-ness,” a phrase coined by feminist film scholars to describe the spectatorial position women occupy on the screen (Mulvey, 33). Hagedorn takes seriously the perspectives of the watched, the gazed upon, the icons of spectatorial pleasure (and contempt) who offer counternarratives to the official “information” produced about Filipinos by political and intellectual authorities such as the nineteenth-century French traveler Jean Mallat and the American president William McKinley. Rather than offering a single perspective on “reality,” Hagedorn presents several conflicting and simultaneous narratives that exist in a horizontal relationship to one another.

Narratives like Pucha's effectively jolt the reader, taking him or her out of the story and into a consideration of who is telling the story, whether the story is “true,” and what economic and political ends motivate the story's construction. The “jump-cuts” from one perspective to another that Hagedorn employs effectively halt the narrative—a strategy, as detailed in the last chapter, that opens that narrative up to critical reflection. The impression of “discontinuity” that Casper discerns in the sequential unfolding of events might register precisely this critical awareness in the narrating subject not just of seeing but of being seen, a pause where the speaker considers his or her subjective space and its difference, as well as relation to those other social actors and forces in view. Rather than dismissing this discontinuity as an aesthetic glitch in the story line, we might consider it a critical juncture, allowing one to question the ideological narrative by which one unconsciously operates, whether that be faith in Western progress or faith in transparent discursive access to the “real.”

It is this innovation of reproducing well-worn screen images from the position of the nonintellectuals, those people “to be looked at” rather than thought also to be looking back, that critics of Hagedorn's postmodern style seem to miss in their dismissal of how it recycles cinematic staples. The novel's style of narration—its heterogeneous presentations of an event from one perspective and then picking up the story from another perspective—comes under direct criticism from E. San Juan Jr., whose review of Hagedorn's novel is part of his broader enunciations of Filipino identity politics and U.S. racial politics.12 Driving the essay is San Juan's critique of liberal pluralism and its celebration of cross-cultural contact and hybrid identities. Emphasizing the imbalances of power that structure such exchanges, San Juan claims that one cannot define hybrid identities, such as “the Filipino American subject-position” without “elucidating what the problematic relation is between the two terms which dictates the conditions of possibility for each—the hyphen or nexus which spells a relation of domination and subordination” (San Juan 1992, 125). In other words, transnational, hybrid identities such as the exiled Filipino or the American-born Filipino, must be articulated as a problem, a vexing allegory of international policies and America's global hegemony, rather than a dual heritage that can be remembered with pride. While agreeing with San Juan's critique of a facile pluralism and identity politics, I would demur from several other of his points, most emphatically the leaps his argument takes from pluralism to postmodernism to Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters, in order to condemn the latter two through guilt by association. Three sentences testify to these leaps, but I quote the preceding sentence for clarification:

[It is easy to take] pride in the fact that we are beneficiaries of both cultures, East and West, and that our multicultural awareness, our cosmopolitanism, enables us to partake of the feast of humanity's accomplishments—from Egyptian funerary art and Plato's ideas to the latest IBM computer. This is in fact the fashionable axiom of postmodern theorizing. The postmodernist technique of pastiche, aleatory juxtaposition, virtuoso bricolage carried to its logical culmination, is what presides in the first part of Dogeaters—a flattening of heterogeneous elements approximating Las Vegas simultaneity—until the introduction of Joey Sands, symbol of what is actually meant by “special Filipino American relations,” forces the text to generate a semblance of a plot (cause-effect sequence, plausible motivation, etc.) whereby the scenario of sacrifice—Joey's slaughter of [the dog] Taruk, iconic sign for the surrogate father who also functions as castrator/betrayer, and for all the other patriarchs upholding the code of filial piety—is able to take place and the discourse to end in a prayer to the Virgin “mother of revenge.” But that vestige of the traditional art of storytelling, in which irreconcilable victims of a neocolonial regime end up in a revolutionary camp plotting retribution, finds itself embedded and even neturalized by a rich multilayered discourse (exotic to a Western audience) empowered by what Henri Lefebvre (1971, 1976) calls the capitalist principle of repetition.

(San Juan 1992, 125)

I would first contest San Juan's characterization of liberal pluralism (i.e., “our multicultural awareness …”) as “the fashionable axiom of postmodern theorizing.” San Juan focuses purely on formalist symptoms of postmodernity rather than connecting discursive tools such as “bricolage” and “pastiche” to the political critique of which they are a part. By contrast, David Harvey paraphrases this “positive” account of postmodernism given by the editors of the architectural journal Precis 6:

[P]ostmodernism [is] a legitimate reaction to the “monotomy” [sic] of universal modernism's vision of the world. “Generally perceived as positivistic, technocentric, and rationalistic, universal modernism has been identified with the belief in linear progress, absolute truths, the rational planning of ideal social orders, and the standardization of knowledge and production”. … [By contrast,] fragmentation, indeterminacy, and intense distrust of all universal or “totalizing” discourses (to use the favoured phrase) are hallmark of postmodernist thought.

(Harvey, 8-9)

“Fragmentation,” which Dogeaters exhibits in quantity, is not merely the sign of Hagedorn's “virtuoso” writing skill, but an expressive tool through which the author contests absolute truths and narratives of progress such as they are exhibited par excellence in McKinley's speech justifying the “taking” of the Philippines as an act of Godly inspiration (71). In other words, Hagedorn's novel, though sharing some stylistic hallmarks of postmodernism, might be better characterized as “‘decolonizing’ writing,” as defined by Lisa Lowe: “‘[D]ecolonizing’ writing, which may include features associated with postmodernism (such as nonlinear, antirepresentational aesthetics), emerges not from a terrain of philosophical or poetic otherness within the West but out of the contradictions of what Bipan Chandra has called the ‘colonial mode of production’” (Lowe 1996, 108). Hagedorn's thwarting of traditional linear, realist narratives that purvey the “truth” stylistically parallels her text's thematic critique of U.S. imperialism.

Digging deeper into San Juan's rhetoric, one discovers the critic's reluctant concession of “a semblance of a plot” that stars the hero, Joey, symbolically killing the father and then joining “a revolutionary guerrilla camp plotting retribution.” Leaving aside the argument that “killing the father” cleaves to its own principle of repetition, one might raise an eyebrow at San Juan's finding the only residual plot in the story that features one of Hagedorn's few male protagonists. The dozen or so story lines that feature female protagonists clearly do not qualify as “semblances of plots.”13 Moreover, in San Juan's estimation, Joey's narrative isn't quite “plausible” until he becomes an enemy of the state (i.e., when he is forced to become part of the underground resistance movement). Thus, the narratives of Joey's homosexual desire, his objectification by Western johns, and his capitalizing on Western tourists' curiosity about native sexuality are also merely distractions from the “traditional art of storytelling.”

A gendered subtext drives San Juan's critique of Hagedorn's “repetitious” narrative: the traditional story featuring a nationalist politico is “embedded” and “neutralized” by the pastiche of the novel's first part, which precisely focuses upon female desires and homosexuality. Gender and sexuality mediate for San Juan what counts as a story and what registers as “trivia” (118). His critique of Hagedorn's pastiche, then, remains blind to the revisionist qualities of her several stories: they may be re-limning the frame of a postcolonial, transnational culture but they are doing so from the perspective of the perpetual nonsubjects of history. Dogeaters thus retells the story of the Marcos years, not from the perspective of political and military leaders, the Western press, or subaltern historiographers, but largely from the viewpoints of Filipina mistresses, sisters, daughters, and wives. (Thus, turning Jen's strategy on its head, Hagedorn text returns to women quite literally, placing them in the protagonist roles.)

That the predicament of such women cannot be “resolved” solely through native, nationalist liberation becomes clear upon examining Hagedorn's portrait of bomba star, Lolita Luna. Though she is the object of mass audiences' adoration, Lolita Luna possesses relatively little power and agency over her body as “exploded” to watchers around the nation. In his article “Patronage and Pornography,” Vicente Rafael examines the circumscribed role of the bomba star by correlating her emergence with the rise of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos's politics of spectacle. According to Rafael, bomba—literally meaning “bomb”—became synonymous with impassioned political rhetoric where the speaker would “reveal something about another politician that the latter would have preferred to keep secret (291). Associated with scandal, bomba came to refer to the spate of soft and hard-core pornographic films produced in the Philippines during the late sixties and early seventies. The bomba star, like Imelda, represented a new sort of ambitious female who aspired to what seemed a powerful position in the limelight. However, according to Rafael, these women were the vehicles through which government leaders and film producers “taught” the viewing audience to enjoy their passive recipient position. Attending campaign rallies became an opportunity to hear Imelda's singing performance rather than to assess Ferdinand's political promises. Women thus emerged as both a lure and a tool through which male agents could enact their “larger intentions.”

Though a leading actress in Manila's celluloid industry, Lolita Luna, clearly suspecting her circumscribed lot, desires “her own ticket out of the country” (177). This ticket presents itself in two highly suspect forms: Lolita can appeal to her sexual patron, General Ledesma, to secure her a visa to the States; failing his help, Lolita “has one more option”—to accept an offer to star in an “experimental art film” which “would involve lengthy close-ups of Lolita Luna's vagina … teased by the gleaming blade of a knife, for example, or perhaps a stubby black pistol” (177). “Beauty” excuses the explosion of bodies on screen as it later justifies the implosion of bodies off screen. That is, this aestheticized violence repeats itself in the form of Imelda Marcos's beautification campaigns designed to make the country more hospitable to tourism and cinematic culture. In her efforts to render Manila a mecca for filmmakers, the First Lady announces the construction of a privately supported thirty-five million dollar cultural center. When the partially erected structure caves in, the Iron Butterfly orders the building to continue: “More cement is poured over dead bodies; they finish exactly three hours before the first foreign film is scheduled to be shown” (130).14

Whereas colonialism designates an era of overt violence that ostensibly “ends” with the withdrawal of occupying troops, “imperialism lingers,” as Edward Said suggests, in the bodies of formerly occupied peoples:

Imperialism … lingers … in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as in specific political, ideological, economic, and social practices. … Although that era [of empire] clearly had an identity all its own, the meaning of the imperial past is not totally contained within it, but has entered the reality of hundreds of millions of people, where its existence as shared memory … still exercises tremendous force.

(Said 1993, 9, 12)

The most obvious aspect in which empire lingers is through neocolonialism, a repetition of imperialist strategies by “native” agents. Thus, violence, economic exploitation, and civil rights abuses, though condemned when perpetuated by foreign powers, become sanctioned as necessary components of a native nationalist program. In the same way in which art-house directors recuperate pornographic violence in the name of “art,” neocolonialists reframe violence as necessary to the interests of nativism. These recuperations of violence leave women somewhere in the middle; their bodies become the terrain across which colonizers and neocolonialists alike ruthlessly represent themselves.

Who is the enemy and who the savior, then, between the art-house producer and Lolita's lover, General Ledesma, highest-ranking member of the nation's military cadre? The former wishes to confer her greater currency in the European market, while the latter wishes to confine her to his personal use at home. At the mercy of the cinematic imperialist on the one hand and the nationalist military leader on the other, the bomba star bears a striking resemblance to Gayatri Spivak's subaltern woman. Describing the symbolic use of women around the issue of sati (widow immolation), Spivak writes “the abolition of this rite by the British has been generally understood as a case of ‘White men saving brown women from brown men.’ … Against this is the Indian nativist argument, a parody for lost origins: ‘she wanted to die.’ The two sentences go a long way to legitimize each other. One never encounters the testimony of the women's voice-consciousness” (Spivak 1988a, 297).15 In the imperialist portrait, women are the objects of male protection. In the native nationalist's description, women are indeed the subjects of the sentence but only by virtue of their sacrificial capacities (i.e., they come into subjectivity only by embodying native tradition). In neither discourse are women speaking.

Lolita Luna, by contract, does speak, and given Spivak's formulation, she is not properly subaltern. However, one might characterize her as sharing the postcolonial female subject's peculiar position—caught between two patriarchal discourses (the imperialist's and the nationalist's). Both narratives take her up as a symbolic banner while depriving her of subjectivity.

When politics is conceived in terms of a struggle between the nation and its imperialist invaders (or its variant, the nation versus transnational corporations), women's issues run the risk of being marginalized as subordinate points, or of being curiously evaporated (only symbolically attended to) through the mechanism above, whereby women are both seemingly present yet apparently absent(ed) from nationalist and imperialist agendas. The problem becomes how to acknowledge that the nation is a suspect category in a transnational age, while not losing sight of issues regarding gender and sexuality.16 While these imperatives are not inherently incompatible they are often ranked in importance, with gender and sexual oppressions configured as a subset of the more salient and widely appealing subject of postnationality.17 If one doesn't remain vigilant against this binary framework of nation and empire, then one risks interpreting events that dispute national rhetoric—or that critique the exclusions of women from native, nationalist programs—as efforts to augment a new transnational imperialism. Such vigilance in Hagedorn's case translates into her local practice of constructing narratives of what might seem inconsequential quotidian events (watching movies, having dreams, gossiping, having sex) that are clearly imbedded in national and transnational frameworks and that simultaneously focus upon female and gay subjects.

In the depiction of Lolita Luna's domestic relations (her affairs with General Ledesma and, before him, an Englishman with “colonial obsessions” [170]), the novel further suggests that in the most intimate of spaces and the most mundane of life's events (e.g., who one chooses as a lover), one finds the traces of a political history that is simultaneously gendered and (trans)nationally mediated. Getting the scoop on Lolita's boudoir activities offers anything but a retreat from politics; rather, claims upon her “vagina” by nationalists against imperialists and vice versa show politics writ large on a zone of femininity no longer separate from public power regimes, if it ever was. In focusing on the daily lives of her characters and the arena of gender relations, domestic interactions, and sexual intimacy, Hagedorn's narrative commits itself to topics, spaces, and times conventionally thought to be trivial and shallow—decidedly, outside the realm of grand, “intelektwal” schemes and narratives for either changing or mapping (dialectical) changes in the world. As we have seen in the case of Gish Jen's work, focusing on the daily lives and domestic spaces of her characters corresponds to a blurring or setting out of focus grand historical events, such as “kingdoms [rising] up, kingdoms [collapsing]” (Jen 1991, 22). Hagedorn takes a slightly different tack. Though the preponderance of Hagedorn's narratives are about women as sexual subjects, she also wishes to tie those stories to a particular moment of national crisis, hence the roman-à-clef references to Marcos's regime and the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983. As Casper points out, the novel does not explicitly unfold during the time period of Marcos's rule (both Rio and Pucha set the narrative in the fifties), even as the novel's incorporation of events from that turbulent period of martial law would suggest otherwise. Where Casper finds this a lapse in chronological consistency, I would construe it as a further development of Hagedorn's negotiating with her stories of gendered and sexual subjects at the same time she wishes to highlight how the lives of female and gay characters intersect with “world events” such as decolonization, the siting of international military bases, tourism, and trade agreements. In other words, these chronological slips might be the trace of Hagedorn's choice both to link her stories of female embodiment to national questions (as in the story of Daisy Avila, upon which I will elaborate at length) and yet not to concede all forms of topical legitimacy to questions of nationalism and national allegory. Rather, she also explores as a bona fide political theme in itself the issue of women constrained within wombs/tombs (Dolores Gonzaga) or in country clubs—sites supposedly of protective wealth, revealed as sites of violent homosocial bonding (see my later discussion of Girlie Alacran).

Ultimately adopting a narrative strategy quite different from the one employed in Typical American, whereby the chronology of the family overshadows historical time and whereby spaces of politics are quite hidden and separate from domestic spaces of the house and suburbia, Hagedorn's novel continually stresses how politics—the legacies of colonial power relations, machismo, and patriarchal sentiment—impinge upon the intimate venues of sex, seduction, and family, and the narration of those part-public, part-private events over time. For instance, in Joey Sands's narration of the sexual overtures of his American lover, Neil, Hagedorn reveals a thorough embeddedness of sexual relations in global politics and culture:

“Call me Neil,” he said. …

“NEIL. What kind of name is that?” I loved making fun of him.

“Good sport,” he'd laugh with me, jabbing at his own chest with one of his large hands.

I spit on the floor in contempt. “Man, you don't have to talk to me like I don't know anything! Puwede ba—good sport,” I mimic, rolling my eyes. “What do you think this is? The Lone Ranger and Tonto? … Man, I'm no savage.”


A simple pick-up line, hallmark of daily life, becomes an occasion mediated by global cinema and marked by a history of American imperial violence. That Joey uses a film reference makes this instance particularly illuminating, not only for Hagedorn's endorsement of politics as inseparable from the erotics of the everyday, but also for those critical concerns over Hagedorn's postmodern, cinematic representational style. That is, Joey throws into the American's face the image of both Neil's and America's colonizing obsession—the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Joey capitalizes on the offensive image to violate Neil's Western superiority, even as he, himself, enters a relationship (most likely one of explicit hustling) that effectively reinscribes him as sexual servant. The filmic allusion thus provides the colonized with a means to signify on and radically reverse the colonizer's position; yet it also dangerously normalizes this imperial relationship for easy (and unconscious) imitation.

This repetition of cinematic references speaks to Hagedorn's own practice. In denouncing their illusions is the author inadvertently reinforcing these movieland tropes? To respond in the affirmative is to ignore the oppositional effects inflecting repetition. While the relationship between the Lone Ranger and Tonto is encoded as a model of race relations to be emulated, Joey decodes and redeploys the couple's iconography to other ends. No longer does Tonto accompany the Ranger because of the latter's beneficence and civilized superiority or because of their interpersonal friendship. Rather, what holds the pair together is a commodified sexual transaction. Colonial ideology has been stripped bare of its lofty trappings to reveal its essence in bodies and trade.

In the foregoing instance, then, Hagedorn illustrates the translation of media images and challenges notions of direct, unmediated communications. As an alternative to the linear model of sender/message/receiver, Stuart Hall describes mass communications as a process “sustained through the articulation of linked but distinctive moments,” where the translation of the media image into some form of social practice is necessary to the completion of the communications circuit (Hall 1980, 128). Hall also emphasizes the discontinuities between the moments of “production and reception of the television message [which] are not … identical, [even as] they are related. … What are called ‘distortions’ or ‘misunderstandings’ arise precisely from the lack of equivalence between the two sides in the communicative exchange” (Hall 1980, 130-31). In the example above, we can think of Hall's “social practices,” then, as Joey's translation of the Tonto image. He reproduces the stock character to remind the American of several fictions, most formidably the fiction of the brown man as savage, as well as the fiction of amicability between colonizer and colonized. Clearly, the Lone Ranger and Tonto hold oppositional possibilities despite their producers' intentions.

Hall's revised notion of mass communications requires our further reassessment of the role of Hollywood iconography in Hagedorn's text. Certainly the pervasiveness of Tinseltown images testifies to the United States' cultural dominance in the Philippines. Yet, the fact that Hagedorn exposes cultural imperialism does not then imply that she portrays Filipinos as passive recipients of American artifacts, who, furthermore, lack a culture of their own. In this respect, my argument diverges from Rafael's analysis of spectacle, wherein viewing remains an exercise in passivity. This is indeed the common mistaken perception of Hagedorn's book—that it mutes its revolutionary potential by repeating Western cinematic images. Such an argument both ignores that moment of transformative possibility on the reception side of mass communications and denies the capacity of oppressed peoples to transform the possibilities of their oppression. It also limits the appropriate content of oppositional texts to “pure native” materials. Yet as Hall's analysis suggests, the degree to which a text is resistant is not just a matter of assessing how culturally or politically pure a particular discursive material is, but of seeing that assessment, itself, as moot because the process of reception always already “taints” or transforms the “original” material.18

The transformative effects of decoding are redeployed by Hagedorn herself. Not only does she show her characters reworking the intended effects of various exported narratives, but the author herself uses the penetrating force of cinematic gaze to reverse the usual power relationships between spectator and spectacle. I would recall here Laura Mulvey's characterization of classic cinema as the male gaze taking pleasure at the female space of the screen. Out of this conception emerges the “feminist” possibility of only disavowing pleasure, for instance through the filmmaker's use of fragmented narratives and disynchronous sound and visual effects designed to thwart the male gaze. However, critics of Mulvey suggest that cinematic illusion “should not be thought of as the exclusive property of dominant codes, serving solely the purposes of ‘oppression’” (De Lauretis, 68). Such critics wish to dislodge illusion and pleasure from their immediate associations with falsehood and to interrogate instead how illusion and pleasure take hold of their spectators.19 Such a dislodgment, in Rey Chow's formulation, would also lead to a retheorizing of the ethnic spectator; instead of condemning the ethnic, in her case Chinese, spectator for experiencing viewing pleasure at Western, orientalist film images, one would have to examine how such persuasion works, and how cultural artifacts—that may not be pure or that may in fact sustain normative oppressions—are transformed by native agents.20

Hagedorn's transformation of Western artifacts, then, are not in the last instance circumscribed by Mulvey's disavowal of pleasure. Instead, the author dissects cinematic seduction by scrutinizing spectacle as a social relationship wherein the spectator's pleasure rests on the disavowal of the commodity transaction. In her narration of two types of live “sex shows,” Hagedorn zooms in on this disavowal. Both scenes depict the Westerner's desire to see native “savagery,” and the subsequent breakdown of the native as useable, visual object in this setting.

The first episode begins with the German filmmaker, Rainer's, interest in the “shower dancers,” which elicits a somewhat exasperated response from Joey, his “native informant” and prostitute for the evening:

“What are shower dancers?” he wants to know. They all want to know. Then they want to see it for themselves. … [I] tell Rainer about Boy-Boy and his job at Studio 54. … Hungry young boys crowd the stage, lathering their bodies with soap while an audience watches. …

“Are they hungry or greedy?” Rainer asks. I look at him, perplexed by his question. “There's a difference, you know,” he adds, gently.

What a pain in the ass. “Hey, man. How should I know? Boys are hungry, so they perform. Audience pays to sit there, greedy to watch—” …

“Do they do it slowly? … Are they hard? Do they come onstage? … What about your friend, Boy-Boy? Does he like it?”

I hope I'm getting paid for this interrogation.


The dynamics of spectatorship, in this instance, are displaced. Rainer doesn't actually watch the shower dancers, and Joey mostly recounts this performance through what Boy-Boy “has told [him]” (142). Yet Rainer's questions drive home what is at stake in this exchange: who gets to represent the “native's” desire. Is that desire to be construed as extravagant or as necessary?

Sau-ling Wong's thematic survey of Asian American literature along the paradigm of necessity and extravagance proves instructive here: “The terms Necessity and Extravagance signify two contrasting modes of existence and operation, one contained, survival-driven and conservation-minded, the other attracted to freedom, excess, emotional expressiveness, and autotelism” (S. Wong 1993, 13). Extravagance remains associated with privilege, yet also with autonomy, agency, and self-determination. Necessity, by contrast, remains the condition of the nonautonomous, the underprivileged, the native rather than the imperialist, the woman and slave rather than the man and master. Returning to Joey's and Rainer's assessment of the shower dancers, then, one sees the double-edged effects of stressing extravagance in the context of neocolonial relations. If the native extravagantly has pleasure, his desire exceeds the framework set up by the gazer. This pleasure, as testament to the native's self-sufficiency, has dual implications with respect to the spectator. First, the onlooker might be relieved at how this pleasure appears to absolve him of guilt. That is, the possibility that the shower dancers enjoy themselves—that is, ejaculate, have pleasure—implies a complicity in their own commodification. Secondly, the spectator may fear the native's pleasure unrelated to his gaze (i.e., the native doesn't need the Western audience to fulfill his desires). These dual implications suggest the perils and liberations of pleasure, not unlike the mixed benefits Hagedorn and the reader get from cinematic images.21

Both a titillating fear and a desire for absolution, then, inspire Rainer's question “Are they hungry or greedy?” Joey's perplexed response underscores Rainer's formulation as too simplistic to account for the issues of spectatorship at hand. Even though he counters that the shower boys are hungry and the patrons the ones who are greedy, Joey cannot shake Rainer's verbal voyeurism and more importantly, this verbal voyeurism as a way to deflect Rainer's own guilt at having watched or wanting to have watched. Seeing pleasure absolves the spectator of his pleasure at seeing, which becomes the very means through which the commodification of the native is transacted. Pornographically, then, the represented pleasure cancels the violence of objectification, and the spectator does not have to acknowledge the humiliating effects of his own gaze. By focusing so intently on the native's body (in the questions, Is he hard? Does he come onstage? Does he do it slowly?), Rainer avoids looking at himself. He highlights the content of the spectacle rather than the context of the gazing. He therefore denies the power differentials and sexual exploitation that produce such conditions for gazing.

Significantly, the verbal voyeurism ends when Joey says, “Shit. You wanna go there and see for yourself? I can arrange it” (143), an invitation which Rainer declines. If he hadn't, one could imagine the spectacle playing itself out along the lines of an earlier narrated “live show,” where Joey, upon request, takes two American tourists to see a boy and a girl copulate on a dance floor: “When it is over, the young man looks up at the white men while the girl tears off some toilet paper, dabs it in alcohol, and wipes herself off. ‘Okay, boss?’ the young man asks eagerly, grinning at the stunned Americans. ‘You want us to do that again?’” (75). Greedy or hungry? The questions are almost superfluous in this scene, where the commodity relationship between gazer and gazed, Western tourists and sexualized natives, overdetermines the entire encounter. The sex show becomes a representation, not of the pure sexuality of natives, but of what money can't buy—the erasure of the imperial relation.

Hagedorn, then, does not negate pleasure as much as multiply it by reflecting and refracting pleasure back upon itself as in a hall of mirrors. Her feminist practice involves scrutinizing the gaze that is not just male, but imperial. In effect, Mulvey's gaze theory and its progeny are decoded or hybridized by Hagedorn and transformed into a critique of the colonizer-colonized relationship that has taken on a new “spectacular” form in the dynamics of tourism. At the same time, Hagedorn's special attention to specularized bodies allows the author to place at the center of her narrative the predicament of entertainment workers, beauty queens, bomba stars, prostitutes, and mistresses—in short, subject positions often, though not exclusively, associated with women. These positions are often silent images, ones looked at rather than looking back. Yet, in Dogeaters, these objects of touristic and male gazes take on lives of their own, becoming the privileged perspectives from which multiple stories are narrated.


While the gendered dynamics of looking-relations has emerged as a focal point for much of feminist film theory, the imperial dynamics of looking-relations has had its own elaboration in the field of postcolonial studies.22 Yet until recently, the temptation in this latter field has been to discard the term “feminist” because it tends to prioritize a collective identity that cuts across the colonizer-colonized divide.23 Despite the pressure to shy away from the term, I have found it strategically necessary to name Hagedorn's practice as feminist. This naming, while informed by my own commitment to antisexist politics, more importantly identifies the novel's deconstruction of gender oppression made ever more remarkable by the text's simultaneous assertion of a postcolonial nationalist agenda.24 As Cynthia Enloe notes, nationalism—often central to decolonization efforts—rarely takes “women's experiences as a starting point for understanding how a people becomes colonized or how it throws off the shackles of that material and psychological domination. Rather, nationalism typically has sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope. Anger at being ‘emasculated’—or turned into a ‘nation of busboys’—has been presumed to be the natural fuel for igniting a nationalist movement” (Enloe, 44). Though the putative goal of nationalist movements is to recover native manhood, the immediate agenda of such movements often involves policing women's behavior.25 Thus, Muslim women's wearing the veil or Indian women's practicing sati become signs of nationalist devotion to an extent unparalleled by similar male practices.26

Clearly, feminism has a stake in exposing the male bias of nationalist agendas. This exposure has often taken the form of condemning nationalism on the assumption that the oppression of women is immanent to nationalism. To a certain extent, Dogeaters puts forth such a gendered critique of nationalism, representing neocolonial elite society as offering few choices for Filipinas. Yet, at the same time, Hagedorn takes another route. She also constructs a nationalist, feminist subject-position through her portrait of Daisy Avila, who comes into her nationalism through feminism. This path toward politicization stands in stark contrast to normative notions of postcolonial identity, where one typically subordinates women's issues to the primacy of anti-imperialist causes.27 Instead, Hagedorn presents a character who first comes into her feminist consciousness, and from this political awakening she proceeds to become a nationalist leader. Moreover, it is under her leadership that Joey, San Juan's nationalist hero, is introduced to the guerrilla brigade camped in the hills.

Daisy represents a feminist alternative within nationalism, which counters not only the obvious military nationalism of General Ledesma but also the implicitly masculine “opposition” of her father, Senator Avila. Whereas Daisy's father attacks the government's collusion with the West, Daisy herself criticizes the Marcoses' leadership from a different perspective. She upbraids the president and his wife, not because of their devotion to American movies and televisual culture, but because of their systematic deracination of women to serve male-agented ends. Moreover, her counterhegemonic practice relies upon the very broadcast media that have sought to treat her as a visual object.

Having won first place in the national beauty contest, Daisy convalesces at home, overcome by a great depression. The postponement of her “whirlwind tour of the provinces” and the canceling of her cameo appearance in a feature film have cost the sponsors of the pageant “millions of pesos” (106). The First Lady responds to this national crisis by appearing on the TV show Girl Talk, where she announces that “Daisy Avila has shamed me personally and insulted our beloved country” (107). The telecast media remains crucial to the construction of the national drama: the camera closes in on “the First Lady's anguished face … [She] sobs. She blows her nose. The camera discreetly pulls away” (107). Viewing this spectacle, Aurora Avila calls out to her older sister, “Daisy! Come out and see! You're going to hell for sure—you've made the Iron Butterfly break down and cry!” (107). Yet Daisy has only hidden away in her family home, refusing to be seen by reporters.

The media's reaction to Daisy's behavior, while seeming out of proportion to the event, hints at the salience of the beauty queen's actions. Her reclusion becomes a national crisis because it defies the traditional role of the Filipina to serve her country through self-exhibition. The First Lady's actions, by contrast, exemplify this unquestioned tradition. Even as Imelda's dramatic appearance fosters a critique of the beauty queen's behavior, it also puts itself forth as a model for Daisy's future emulation. Through her own televisual display, the president's wife both verbally indicates and visually performs women's “patriotic duty” to be a spectacle for national viewing.

Daisy's “insult to the nation” thus centers upon her refusing to be seen. However, this refusal only fuels nationalist fervor: the Iron Butterfly successfully recuperates Daisy's obscene (literally, off-scene) actions into her own visual display of patriotism. Daisy's only choice is to become a spectacle herself, even as she uses the televisual apparatus to subversive ends. On a nationally broadcast talk show, she denounces the beauty contest as “a giant step backward for all women”: “She accuses the First Lady of furthering the case of female delusions in the Philippines. The segment is immediately blacked out by waiting censors” (109). Censorship indicates the failure of the First Lady's efforts to win Daisy over to the presidential notion of feminine patriotic duty. The coercive overtones of censorship suggest that the Marcoses govern less through popular consent than through oppressive strategies. Daisy's dissent from the ideology of women's duty, however, requires her strategic consent to be an object for national viewing. Thus, her actions contesting women's oppression also affirms, even exploits, the hegemony of the televisual apparatus and the way in which it exacerbates a hunger for spectacle.

While contesting the national government's collusion with the West, Daisy's father, Senator Avila, fails to oppose as vigorously the state's representation of itself through women's bodies. The narrative underscores this blind spot in the Senator's oppositional stance by decrying the “supreme irony,” whereby “an otherwise wise man [such] as the Senator allows his gullible daughter to participate in a government-endorsed beauty contest run by the First Lady” (101). It is as if the beauty contest is too frivolous a matter to demand the senator's attention. Yet the beauty contests, and more importantly, the gendered ideology that relegates women to be objects for display, circumscribes the female subjects of Hagedorn's text; their patriotic function is to serve as symbolic embodiments of the nation or as helpmates to male, nationalist leaders. Instead of recognizing the integral function of beauty pageants in staging national unity, the senator ignores the political stakes of such contests. Thus, in his overall project to undermine the Marcos government's authority, Senator Avila overlooks the importance of framing women's subordinate status as a nationalist issue.

His daughter Daisy, by contrast, who Hagedorn also portrays as a traditional nationalist heroine (i.e., preparing for battle in the hills), critiques the underlying logic of these pageants, which relegates women to a symbolic effect. Daisy precipitates a country-wide crisis by exposing a national reliance upon the objectification of women. In doing so, Daisy successfully negotiates between nationalist and feminist agendas and counters the notion that they remain mutually exclusive political commitments. By reasserting a feminist component to nationalist movements, Hagedorn responds to two myths: on the one hand, the fiction that women's concerns are not indigenous to emerging nations (but only an import from the West), and on the other, the myth that Western feminism is the only originator of antisexist theory and practice. As Enloe puts it, “Coming face to face with a Vietnamese feminist of the 1920s not only makes it less possible for British or American women to imagine that their foremothers were the creators of feminist ideas; it also subverts nervous local men's attempts to write off Third World feminists in the 1980s as nothing more than unwitting dupes of foreign imperialism” (Enloe, 61). Hagedorn thus creates nationalist guerrilla characters (Daisy and Clarita) who come into nationalist consciousness through feminist awakening. It is through these characters that Hagedorn crafts an identity that conjoins feminist and nationalist commitments.28

At the same time, Hagedorn doesn't render her novel a complete national allegory,29 where every tale of female embodiment becomes a parallel commentary on national questions. Only in the two instances cited above does Hagedorn make her stories centrally about female embodiment congruent with a postcolonial nationalist narrative of liberation. Hagedorn also depicts women whose preoccupation with their own female embodiment (oftentimes articulated as bodily disgust mixed with bodily vanity) is homologous with a neocolonial nationalist narrative (the First Lady) and with a lesbian/queer liberation narrative that has a tenuous standing in both neocolonial and postcolonial nationalist agendas (Rio Gonzaga).

To illustrate, the First Lady uses her own good looks and the tropes of Western cinema to offer a fatuous proof of her husband's “just” regime:

People talk about corruption. … Okay, you say. We are a corrupt regime—a dictatorship. Dios ko! … I wouldn't look like this if I were corrupt, would I? Some ugliness would settle down on my system. You know the common expression—‘ugly as sin?’ … There's a truth in common sayings, di ba? If I were corrupt, I would look like that other movie, Dorian Gray. Di ba, he got uglier and uglier because of all the ugliness in his life?


Again, encouraging spectatorial interest in herself, the First Lady asserts the bodily health of women under Marcos—herself as exemplar—and, by extension, the health of the nation. That the First Lady, and not the president, himself, offers such a proof (however unconvincing in its particulars) ought to alert the reader that, though the major players in national politics during this era are men, Hagedorn is committed to exploring how women mediate and yet do not remain the primary beneficiaries of this power.

In addition to this vignette where the First Lady comments expressly on a national question—the ethics of her husband's government—the narrative depicts scenes from the First Lady's imaginative life that are more disconnected from public policy, though still concerned with gendered and sexual embodiment. For example, the chapter entitled “The President's Wife Has a Dream” recounts her pleasurable fantasies about the Pope, her “[opening] her legs” just as the Pope metamorphoses into “her Ilocano husband leering at her with those painted lips she's enraged by his intrusion” (123-24). The unpunctuated narrative, mimicking the sudden mutations in dreams, associatively connects the “intrusion” of the president's gaze with a startling change in the tenor of the entire dream: “[S]omething's wrong. … [S]he sits up in terror. … [S]he is aware of the weight of her pendulous breasts” (124). The dream ends with the First Lady's unfocused rage at her husband's playing a trick on her (124). The narrative's devotion to depicting such scenes askew from national questions suggests that textual interest in the Iron Butterfly derives, not first and foremost from her position in national politics, but from her role as a gendered social actor whose function is “to be looked at” both by the voting populace and in the not-so-private realm of her bedroom and her dreams. In short, Dogeaters's narratives about gendered subjectivity do not always intersect with nationalist narratives of saving the postcolony.30

Those narratives of nationalism, themselves, have undergone much critical scrutiny as to whether they apprehend the global, transnational systems in which nationalist politics are embedded. For instance, Arjun Appadurai urges readers to think “beyond the nation” (Appadurai, 411), while also considering the residual and resilient appeal of the nation as a collective form of postcolonial mobilization. He describes growing up under this persuasion:

For those of us who grew up male in the elite sectors of the postcolonial world, nationalism was our common sense and the principal justification for our ambitions, our strategies, and our sense of moral well-being. Now, almost half-a-century after independence was achieved for many of the “new” nations, the nation form is under attack, and that too from many points of view. As the ideological alibi of the territorial state, it is the last refuge of ethnic totalitarianism. As important critiques of the postcolony (Mbembe 1992), its discourses have been known to be deeply implicated in the discourses of colonialism itself. It has frequently been a vehicle for the staged self-doubts of the heroes of the new nations—[Sukarno, Kenyatta, Nehru, Nasser]—who fiddled with nationalism while the public spheres of their societies were beginning to burn. So, for postcolonial intellectuals such as myself, the question is, Does patriotism have a future? And to what races and genders shall that future belong?

(Appadurai, 412)

Initially conceived as a tool to liberate colonized people from foreign domination, nationalism emerges as an excuse for ethnic-driven violence and lapsed political leadership.31 Moreover, as Appadurai makes clear in his limning of the personal appeal of nationalism, only a specific gendered class of society primarily benefited from political programs claiming the primacy of the nationalist movement, namely, the male elite sector of the postcolonial world. Though Appadurai queries “to what races and genders shall [a postnational, patriotic] future belong,” his focus is less on the ambivalence with which women are ensconced in nationalist movements and more on the prospects for imagining a “language” to encompass nonterritorial, exilic identities (418).

Hagedorn, by contrast, is also concerned with the violence undergirding nationalism, but she focuses on the peculiar predicament of women in the postcolony who have not been the prime beneficiaries of nationalism yet who have nevertheless been implicated in its violence. Particularly, Hagedorn explores how a fiction of autonomy traps women in a prison of neocolonial complicity from which there is no escape (i.e., where escape itself is deemed co-opted or the terms of escape are so self-violating as to be no escape at all). In her portraits of Girlie Alacran, Leonor Bautista, and Rio Gonzaga, Hagedorn questions the presumptions of autonomy underlying these characters' choices, by revealing their constrained roles in a sex/gender system of which they are neither the beneficiaries nor the “partners.”

These issues are most overtly taken up in the narration of Girlie Alacran's dream. In this subconscious vision, Girlie imagines an uprising of the serving class (the golf caddies) against their elite Filipino rulers (the golfers):

When they attack, the caddies are armed with golf clubs. … “I GONNA KILL YOU WID YOUR OWN SHIT! …” the dark boys roar in unison. The leader grabs Girlie by the hair. … “You must be mistaken,” she says, meekly. … “I don't even like golf!”. … An even younger caddie … threatens her with a set of Ben Hogans. “It's my brother you want!” she cries. “Not me! Not me!” She is a coward and a traitor, she doesn't want to die. In a final pathetic attempt at saving herself, Girlie arches her back and thrusts her hips in the air, offering her body to the surly boys.


The passage highlights the offering of sexual services as a normative survival strategy for women in a sex/gender economy that “trafficks in women,” to use Gayle Rubin's phrase. According to Rubin, this traffic in women underpins kinship networks, which are not “list[s] of biological relatives” but are “system[s] of categories and status markers which often contradict actual genetic relationships” (Rubin, 169). Kinship between men, that is, their social organization beyond the family unit, is secured by the exchange of women as gifts. Yet as gifts, women are not partners to the “quasi-mystical … social linkage” created by this exchange but only “a conduit” through which men solidify their relations with other men—relations that have as much likelihood of being antagonistic as of being friendly (Rubin, 173-74). Thus Rubin lists as examples of such traffic “women given in marriage” and “[women] taken in battle” (175; emphasis added). Though the essay focuses more on the reciprocal side of this equation, Rubin's argument might well be extended to account for the position of women in hostile interactions. Just as women are not partners to the social linkage established in friendly trades, they are likewise not the parties uncoupled in a hostile breach, though such a rupture would likely involve unauthorized “takings” of women. Girlie's nightmarish anticipation of rape reminds the reader of her status as a (sexualized) transactor of male relations—the vehicle through which male rivalry or alliance is expressed.32 Any discussion of complicity, then, must take into account the difference between being a partner in an exclusive club and being impressed into serving as a conduit for the formation of that club.

Despite her graphic powerlessness in this dream sequence, Girlie interprets her actions as treacherous and scandalous: she betrays her brother, naming him as the real golfer, the one who impresses the caddies into service; and she entertains being raped as a means to save her life. Escaping death requires her self-violation, her consent to be a sexual object. Yet Girlie cannot ultimately “escape” in this fashion not only in a literal sense (the caddies “aren't interested”) but also in a more critical sense: this escape requires her acceptance of constraints that render her an object; hence it is no escape at all.

Girlie's dream is juxtaposed to a waking nightmare in which she lounges at the country club with four male peers, observes their ogling other women, and hears them telling of their sexual and military exploits. She stands both inside and outside these accounts of appropriation: her “unspoken contempt for what [the men have] said” suggests an observable distance, but her being groped under the table by one of the conversants, Tito Alvarez, insinuates how easily she might slip from being an auditor to being a theme of his tale (182-83). Despite her “disgust” and “fear,” Girlie finds it is difficult to “just get up and leave. … [I]t is as if her body has grown heavy with fatigue and become part of the chair; she cannot move” (183). As with the earlier image of her bound and blindfolded by the president and his wife, Girlie finds herself stuck, wanting to escape yet knowing that running away will also confirm her male cohorts' power.33 She is merely a tolerated presence, acceptable in her capacity to register the salience of sexual machismo.

When Girlie finally exits, the golfers must look for another object through which they can bond. Erotic encounters with tortured bodies provide the alternative premise for male collusion:

Boomboom Alacran is happy, content to listen to his friends brag about real or imagined exploits. He hopes the afternoon goes on forever. The identity of the man who confessed, the confession itself are inconsequential to Boomboom. All Boomboom craves are the details: the look on the man's face as Pepe's meticulous agents or Pepe himself prodded and probed in their search for answers, the exact number of seconds, minutes, or hours before the man finally succumbed.


The language her mirrors the substance of the men's earlier boasts regarding their speed and frequency in getting women to sexually “succumb.” The combination of disgust and fear immobilizing Girlie might be understood, then, as a semiotic sedimentation of a feminized vulnerability to be prodded and probed—to be treated as a carcass or prize trophy.34 In contrast to the homosocial pact of Bulosan's depiction that is threatened by the presence of sexualized women, the homosociality to which Hagedorn alludes requires sexually violable bodies, both male and female. The elite male bonding of Boomboom and his friends counterpoises itself not solely to sexualized women (who succumb) but to an impoverished class of men and women who contest Marcos's neocolonial rule.

The men's violent partnership depends upon sexualized scenes of objectification, such as the one quoted above, where the smallness (inconsequentiality) of the exchanged woman's and prisoner's worlds wins for the male partners and torturers their “swelling sense of territory” (Scarry, 36). Detailing the structure of torture, Elaine Scarry calls attention to the inverted logic whereby pain becomes power:

Within the physical events of torture, the torturer “has” nothing: he has only an absence, the absence of pain. … [T]he absence of pain is a presence of world; the presence of pain is the absence of world. Across this set of inversions pain becomes power. The direct equation, “the larger the prisoner's pain, the larger the torturer's world” is mediated by the middle term, “the prisoner's absence of world”: the larger the prisoner's pain (the smaller the prisoner's world and therefore, by comparison) the larger the torturer's world.

(Scarry, 36-37)

It is through such inversions, then, that “interrogation is … crucial to a regime” (36). Interestingly, it is through a dreamlike sequence that Hagedorn narrates General Ledesma's torture of Daisy Avila, which is both the narration of her gang rape and the spectacle of a previously tortured man (perhaps her husband), whose testicles have been mashed, eyes gouged, and brain replaced with a Styrofoam cup (215). The loss of bodily integrity speaks for the loss of the prisoner's world and self, a loss unquestionably not of the prisoner's making even though the prisoner's “confessions” insinuate his or her self-betrayal (i.e., a mock consent or admission to purported crimes).35 The extreme deprivation of the situation clarifies how consent, which presumes an autonomous position, cannot make sense (or only perverts the sense) of the prisoner's relation to violence. The tortured person's proclamations are exacted from him or her; codes of necessity rather than extravagance determine the prisoner's “confessions,” which cannot be read as autobiography—the assertions of an autonomous self. The confession merely confirms the loss of autonomy that extreme pain (or necessity) induces.

The stickiness of female consent to male violences is amplified in Hagedorn's depiction of the general's wife, Leonor Bautista Ledesma. Her religious piety, expressed through tortuous acts of self-privation, simultaneously blinds her to and relieves her of her spouse's failings:

A former piano teacher and distant cousin of the General, Leonor Bautista was forced to marry Nicasio Ledesma by her elderly parents. After much initial resistance and the intervention of her parish priest, Leonor Bautista succumbed and married the General. …

Every few months, the General's wife retreats to a Carmelite nunnery in Baguio for rigorous silence. The General encourages her spiritual odysseys and asks her to pray for him. “The Lord Listens to you and only you,” he tells her. “Beg the Lord's forgiveness on my behalf.”

(67-68; emphasis added)

When not in Baguio, Leonor locks herself in a narrow room, “fasting on water and praying prostrate on the cold cement floor” (68). Her self-torture would seem a surrogate payment for the tortures conducted by her husband. Not unlike how filmic, feminine beauty “excuses” pornographic violence, Leonor's spiritual asceticism, her prayer and masochism, expiates the General's perversities. In this scenario, where one female bodily violation (Leonor's self-privation) pays for another (Daisy's torture), the general remains the only beneficiary. Both sides of the equation are expendable to the underlying condition that enables and requires this equivalence—a specifically masculine power to violate.36

The question of Leonor's complicity in the general's neocolonizing oppressions is further complicated by the fact that she is forced into her marriage. Like Girlie, she is kept in the dark regarding her husband's violent exploits and has no idea who the strangers are that “frequently troo[p] in and out of her house” (68). As the narration of her banns suggests, Leonor has been unable to “just get up and leave,” although she has put up “resistance.” She therefore gets “as far away from [her husband] as possible,” even though she remains within the “fortress” (read prison) of married life (68). The only escape for Leonor is death, also construed as heaven—the utopian site of opulence and perhaps feminine self-determination: “[S]he waits for death to claim her every night. This yearning … is her most selfish desire, her greatest sin. Father Manuel has warned her about this many times in confession” (70). Female escape emerges as an extravagant “sin” for so much depends on women's remaining in the economy of exchange. As Father Manuel will not let Leonor fulfill her suicidal desires, so General Ledesma will not allow Lolita Luna's “escape” to that imaginary heavenly place, America.

One female protagonist who does escape is Rio Gonzaga, and in this final part of the chapter, I will examine how native nationalist suspicion of the “transnational class” contributes to the construction of this escape as “sinful.” My analysis focuses upon Rio's transnationalism (her escape from native nationalist constraints) as the simultaneous realization and suppression of other “sinful,” transgressive identities. I have already rehearsed the gendered, nationalist trap whereby women's emigration to Western geographies is seen as a betrayal of nativity and nation. Under this thinking, the alluring “freedom” seemingly open to women in these sites is merely a false temptation—the white man's plastic carrot. The barb of betrayal, then, lies not so much in female election as much as in foreign men's appropriation of native men's possessions. A presumed heterosexuality, it would seem, presides over this “threat” of women's transnational passage.

Dogeaters frustrates the language of women's betrayal, first, by crediting the United States as a place where women can more easily move about, uninhibited by chaperones.37 Film, once again, mediates this gender-specific notion of American freedom, with Jane Wyman, as cast in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1956), seeming to embody such female independence:

The cashmere scarf is gracefully draped around Jane Wyman's head to keep her warm. In her full-length, mahogany sable coat, she drives her dependable dark green Buick, the color of old money. It is how I remember the movie: a determined woman alone in the winter driving a big green car on a desolate country road, on the way to see her young lover. Pobre Rock, indeed. A woman like Jane Wyman baffles Pucha. Why does she choose to drive her own car, when she can obviously afford a chauffeur? Pucha wants to know.


Douglas Sirk's film focuses on the sterility of social conventions that would doom a wealthy widow (played by Wyman) to lifelong celibacy.38 Interestingly, the part Rio remembers from the movie is the suggestive scene where Wyman escapes her tomblike household for the promise of sexual fulfillment. The young narrator's fascination with this scene expresses not only her desire for Wyman but her desire for sexual control and sexual choice.

In contrast to Wyman's driving alone to meet the lover of her choosing, Rio sits, watching her cousin Pucha being ogled by a gang of teenage boys. One of them, Boomboom Alacran, “starts making kissing sounds with his fat lips. I am disgusted by his obscene display and the giggling reaction of my flustered cousin. … His friends are laughing. I am powerless” (5). Rio longs to exit this scene circumscribed by the noises and needs of Boom-boom and his cronies. Hagedorn constructs the United States as the site for women's escape from this male authoritative gaze.39 Jumping ahead in time, the first chapter reveals Rio's mother leaving her husband for North America, as well as Cousin Pucha's pronounced intention to get “a US divorce” from a husband who “beats her frequently,” Boomboom Alacran (6-7).

It is not just the place (geography) and society of America but the very apparatus of Hollywood film that tempts Rio. She aspires to the camerawoman's position rather than to that of a desired screen object like La Luna or Wyman. For instance, Rio announces to Tonyboy Sanchez, “When I grow up, I'm moving to Hollywood”:

[Tonyboy replies with sarcasm,] “I can see it now … giant billboards in Quiapo advertising Inday Goes to Hollywood, starring Rio Gonzaga. We'll get Tito Severo to produce it as a musical—” We are slow-dragging expertly. … Tonyboy makes a clumsy attempt to fondle my nonexistent breasts. I slap his hand. “Stupid—you don't believe me? I'm going to make movies, Tonyboy. Not act in them!” I look at him angrily.

“What an imagination!” Tonyboy laughs, sticking his tongue in my ear.


Rio differentiates, here, between acting and making—participating in a spectacle whose terms are already set by someone else—that is or possibly changing the terms of spectatorship. Her statement thus underscores the United States as a place where women's desires might exceed the terms set up by male producers and where women can both produce themselves and inappropriately choose their lovers.

The narrative constructs Rio's long history of challenging her proper (hetero)sexual place in the sex/gender system. These challenges are as much about same-sex desire as they are about resisting a sex/gender system where women are exchanged to fortify male alliances. The impropriety of Rio's desires is figured quite early through her “homospectatorial looks” aimed at Hollywood actresses (Fuss 1992).40 For Rio, the appeal of Jane Wyman and Gloria Talbott remains unquestionable and direct, in contrast to her cousin Pucha's distaste for these female stars as mediated by projections of male (heterosexual) preference:

[Pucha and I] compare notes after the movie. … “I don't like her face,” Pucha complains about Jane Wyman, “I hate when Rock starts kissing her!” “What's wrong with it?” I want to know, irritated by my blond cousin's constant criticisms. …

“What about Gloria Talbott? You liked her, didn't you? She's so …”—I search frantically through my limited vocabulary for just the right adjective to describe my feline heroine—“interesting.” Pucha rolls her eyes. “Ay! Puweda ba, you have weird taste! … [I]f you ask me, prima, Gloria Talbott looks like a trapo. And what's more, Kim Novak should've been in this movie instead of Jane Wyman. Jane's too old, Pucha sighs. “Pobre Rock! Everytime he had to kiss her—” Pucha shudders at the thought.


Comparing the cousins' reactions reveals their differences of desire. While Pucha fawns over “Pobre Rock” and wants to know what new heartthrob plays Jane Wyman's spoiled son, Rio finds the latter actor “completely forgettable” (6). Instead, her attention is all for the “strange and interesting” feline heroine and the details of Jane Wyman's figure.

The impropriety of Rio's sexuality spills out in other ways. The scene with Tonyboy is narrated with other accounts of “romantic” interludes that, by contrast, culminate in heterosexual validation—marriage. Rio's brother Raul marries his first love, Belen Garcia, and Pucha weds Boomboom in a “storybook” ceremony (241, 243). The absence of such confirmation in Rio's case becomes noticeable. Furthermore, Rio's desire for Wyman and Talbott, her practicing tongue kissing with Pucha (236), her close-cropped haircut that makes her look “like [the cross-dressing] Joan of Arc” (236), and her blushing assertion to Pucha that “[Audrey Hepburn] is beautiful” (237) all hint at this impropriety. Though neither Rio's homo- or heterosexuality is clearly delineated (in contrast to Joey's), one might further read Rio's Western drag (Audrey Hepburn-style haircut) as a Third World lesbian expression of “acting out.”41 Yet the prescriptions of nationalism encourage us to overlook such an interpretation. If Rio remains in the nation, she either risks being complicit in the exploits of her male cohorts or is in danger of being tortured and raped. If she escapes these double binds by subversively “acting up” and “acting out” in Western masculine drag, she betrays her nation, emasculates its men, and commits a “sin.” These formulations return one to the dilemma of defining a subversive practice for the Third World woman whose conditions of necessity (her abjectest of abject identities) take her out of “radical” consideration. That is, female subjects moving from necessity to extravagance are not considered to be making a “radical” choice but are considered passive objects moved by constraining circumstances. Extravagant and gendered notions of autonomy that underlie the mechanics of radicalness thus collaborate to produce the co-optation of female pleasure, agency, and desire.42 And it is precisely because of this dilemma that Hagedorn negotiates with the (nationalist) structures of violence by crafting a feminist and heterosexual nationalist protagonist and by displacing “queer” radicalness onto the gay nationalist character, Joey, rather than by wholly embodying it in her transnational female subject, Rio. Though queer subjectivity is seemingly allotted a privileged space in Hagedorn's text, I would assert that it is only gay male subjectivity that enjoys this privilege. The language of nationalism cannot brook Rio's lesbian identity but validates Joey's gay identity, and then, only briefly. That is, once Joey becomes a nationalist hero, his homosexuality also goes “underground.”43

One could also make a similar case that Hagedorn renders the nationalist overtones of the novel compatible not with female identity in general but with heterosexual female identity in particular. Though Daisy and Rio both respond to the strictures of the neocolonial elite society that offers few choices for Filipinas, their pathways toward liberation diverge precisely over the centrality of female embodiment. In becoming a nationalist leader, Daisy appears to transcend her concerns with a specifically feminine vulnerability, attempting to build a nationalist underground movement despite being raped and continuing to receive threats of being raped. Rio, by contrast, renders her gendered and sexually desiring body the very site of her revolution. She refuses to give up her “sinful” bodily inclinations to fight the nationalist cause, since the prospects of her benefiting from the success of that revolution is questionable. Will nationalist revolution allow her to make movies about self-determining women who desire other such women? This is perhaps a question that Hagedorn indirectly poses to her readers who, in their determinations of this novel as a betrayal of Filipino progressive nationalism, only prove that this is not the case. Ultimately, Hagedorn both negotiates with nationalist constructions of hero(ine)ism, through her portrait of Daisy, and exposes the way in which that same nationalism affords limited opportunities for the expression of female sexual desire, through her portrait of Rio.

Thus, even while capitalizing on nationalist narratives and popular American curiosity about Marcos's rule to garner interest in her tales of gendered subjectivity, Dogeaters carefully refrains from portraying nationalism as the definitive balm for all Filipinas. The novel's multiple and heterogeneous tales of female embodiment, though individually and sporadically intersecting with nationalist issues, as a whole, exceed those frameworks. This critical insight importantly amends foregoing evaluations of the novel that have dismissed as politically trivial the gender and sexual content of the novel or have taken those matters seriously only when they can be renarrated as a national allegory:

[O]ne steady inference from Dogeaters is that the typical Filipina, well-fed, well-dressed and housed, well-educated, has betrayed Filipinas-the-nation and the pre-Spanish tradition of the babaylan priestess, by being so vacuous. Marriages in the novel … are rarely durable. Even under colonial rule, Filipino women had more rights, more empowerment, more equality (outside the sexual double standard) than their European and American counterparts. But the descent of conversation … into endless tsismis [gossip] is indicative of the infertility, the immaculate contraception, among these female characters. … Communitarianism is lost to “What will people think of me?” … There is little evidence of fulfillment, of health restored, even in [the novel's] several exceptional females; they are escapees, more neutered than counterforceful.

(Casper, 156)

Though apprehending the importance of Filipinas to the narrative's plots and themes, Casper gauges these characters by the degree to which they revitalize the nation. Moreover, the implication that Filipinas cannot invigorate the nation except through their fertility and heterosexual attachments to men leaves no way to conceive of either a postcolonial or neocolonial nationalism that would suffer childless women, lesbians, or gay men.44

Casper's criticism does capture well the novel's refusal to offer an unambiguous avenue of salvation for either Filipinas or “Filipinas-the-nation.” Hagedorn suggests that there is no singular place of “return” to female/national wholeness, assuming that such a utopian site or subjective state existed in the first place. And this may be partly a function of the multiple varieties of Filipinas—some, whose gendered awakening will coincide harmoniously with the role of heterosexual revitalizer of the nation, and others, whose sexual desires and identities will place them out of any such notion of national healing. Moreover, to assert the earlier point, Hagedorn remains less concerned with positing a way for women to mint anew a widely discredited nationalism (to give nationalism a shiny new gloss) than to focus on the peculiar predicament of women in the postcolony.

Circling back to my initial characterization of Dogeaters, then, I would recall the pair of first-person protagonists, Rio Gonzaga and Joey Sands, whose cross-referenced stories provide the scaffolding for the narrative's multiple plots. If one were to schematically summarize “what happens” to Rio and Joey, it would be easy to produce two narratives of liberation, one tailored for Filipinas, the other for Filipinos: Rio, the daughter of an elite, mestizo family escapes to the utopian site of female self-determination, the United States; Joey, a “hungry” male prostitute (also of mixed American ancestry), escapes the hustler's life for the utopian site of male self-determination, nationalist politics. Both plots overlook the narration of these characters' sexual identities and therefore cannot being to account for the subtleties, whereby queer subjectivity “goes underground” when Joey escapes to the hills and lesbian desire—because it is attached to and allegorized by transnational feminist subjectivity—cannot “out” itself in a nationalist context. Thus the dichotomous frameworks of colonized/colonizer, nation/transnation, and to a certain extent masculine/feminine fail to narrate postcolonial women and gay men as desiring subjects. Yet in that failure to narrate (as elaborated in chapter 2 of this book), one finds the seeds of a differently defined “radical” practice that subscribes, not to a positivist counterhegemonic representational strategy, but to a negative critical practice that clears the space for alternative, as-yet-unrealized identifications to emerge.

By refraining from a style of transparent transmission, Hagedorn's narrative operates on a metacritical level, in which aspects of transmission and communication (the pleasures of watching, the production of movies, the redeployment of film images) are framed and reframed. Instead of seeing and being persuaded of, or won over to, a universalizing hegemony cemented through the dissemination of Western film, the readers witness the differentiated social strata, the “impossible fragment[ation]” of the nation, and the multiple locations (gendered, sexual, economic, racial, national/transnational) of Asian American postcolonial subjects. In effect, Dogeaters points to the ways in which simultaneously operating hegemonies impinge unevenly upon various subjects, requiring an array of counterhegemonic responses that are, likewise, multiple and uneven.

One hegemony in critical practice that this chapter aims to disrupt is that of reducing the gendered and sexual content of the text to a singular national allegory. Hagedorn's novel takes as its primary topic the desires of Filipinas. Its “semblances of plots” do not rotate on the epiphany of nationalist awakening but on the constraints of female embodiment (e.g., Baby's sweating; Lolita's and the First Lady's spectacular bodies “to be looked at”; Girlie's nightmarish rape; Leonor's asceticism; and so forth). At the same time, Hagedorn offers individual hero(ine)s, such as Daisy and Joey, whose political awakening as a function of their gender and sexual identities is portrayed in harmony, rather than at odds with, a Filipino, postcolonial, national, and communitarian mission. Because Hagedorn does not propose one way to save the world, the novel ultimately does not propose female or gay leadership as the only avenues of collective salvation. Rather, the novel highlights that leadership as legitimate as any other, even while never endorsing this leadership as the final word, the one and only path toward liberation. That stance against the final word—assigning a totality of righteousness on behalf of any segment of the population—is the radical revisioning that Hagedorn offers to her readers, as Viet Nguyen has persuasively argued. However, equally important to that ultimate concession to no single vision are the particular counternarratives (or nonhegemonic narratives) that Hagedorn steers her readers toward considering as equally legitimate alternatives to those hegemonic ones of male leadership, Western imperialism, and native purity. That the subject formation of a female rape victim and a gay son of a prostitute can be in harmony with collective anti-imperial struggle is the radical counternarrative that Hagedorn has her audience consider and upon which her ultimate deconstruction of representational truth hinges.

What many critics implicitly seem to desire of Hagedorn's novel is an affirmative ending—either one that poses a revolutionary solution or one that affirms, at the very least, the representational truths of its foregoing narrative. However, Dogeaters refuses to offer such realist affirmations, refraining from positing a harmonious collectivism or a reassuring vision of representational and spectatorial capacity. Moreover, it is questionable whether positing such utopian possibilities fosters, rather than quells, social change. Contemporary reevaluations of realism's utopian impulses argue the reverse: “[R]ealistic novels often share an impulse with their utopian counterparts to project into the narrative present a harmonic vision of community that can paradoxically put an end to social change. Realistic novels have utopian moments that imagine resolutions to contemporary social conflicts by reconstructing society as it might be” (Kaplan, 12). Hagedorn's novel resists this utopian impulse, perhaps subscribing to the philosophy that immersing the reader in outrage—in an unfulfilled desire for justice—serves social change to a greater degree than a conflict that has been resolved through fiction. Significantly, Dogeaters does not portray either Daisy's successful revolution or Rio's “acting out” abroad. Leaving these as moments of desire, Hagedorn places them outside her audience's (re)view, thus outside the space of critique. Ultimately resisting the scopic framework of spectatorship, Dogeaters encourages our yearning for the revolutionary movements headed by Daisy and Rio—movements to which we can remain enthralled precisely because they have not yet come.


  1. Alluding to the general tenor of this criticism, Nerissa Balce-Cortes writes, “[Dogeaters] has also been criticized by some Filipino critics in Manila as a racist and fetishistic project of a Filipino-born writer claiming exoticism for her acceptance into the U.S. literary mainstream” (Balce-Cortes, 102). Balce-Cortes further attributes these critiques to the high representational demands made of Filipino American literature: “[T]he burden on these breakthrough novels to be ‘perfect’ or ‘authentic’ vehicles of Filipino ethnicity and culture will continue to be great as long as there are so few of them” (Balce-Cortes, 102). As for charges that Hagedorn's novel does not represent a postcolonial counterculture adequately, I would point out that the novel does in fact portray nationalist guerrilla characters, and one might argue, moreover, that they are the heroes and heroines of the novel. Acknowledging their presence, E. San Juan Jr. directs his critique of Dogeaters at its “capitalist principle of repetition” (which he equates with postmodernist aesthetics) that effectively “neutralize[s]” the novel's subversive “storytelling” (i.e., the representation of revolutionary forces) (San Juan 1992, 125).

  2. I am thinking here specifically of Fanon's characterization of radio in Algiers—its first being rejected as an instrument of the oppressor and its later crucial function in forging and mobilizing a native nationalist movement. (See Fanon's A Dying Colonialism, originally published in 1959—the fifth year of Algerian revolution, two years before liberation.)

  3. In a moment of self-characterization, the author states, “[I]dentity for me is not only racial, but sexual. I cannot think of myself as addressing the multicultural issue without including gender culture within the framework” (Hagedorn 1994, 178).

  4. Another Manila resident, Girlie Garcia, expresses similar views on the influence of American pop culture; she claims that “because of the mass-media, because of the foreign things coming in to the Philippines, the youths, they're very inclined to go American, you know. … You look around you and you have Madonnas and Cindy Laupers walking around on the streets. And I think every Filipino's dream is to go to America and just to see the place because we've heard so much about it” (Denton and Villena-Denton, 180).

  5. Hagedorn has made clear her intentions to avoid any overtly didactic content: “What is literature for? … You don't go to literature and say I need to feel good about my race, so let me read a novel.” She adds, “I hate preaching. It puts me to sleep.” (Sengupta, C1).

  6. Lowe underscores the complex racial and national sedimentation of Filipino society that renders questions of purity and authenticity virtually unresolvable: “In a country with seventy-one hundred known islands and eighty dialects and languages spoken, as well as a cultural and racial hybridity that has mixed Spanish, Malayan, Chinese, Arab, Hindu, North American, and others with ‘native’ groups over the course of four centuries, the distinction between the ‘authentic’ and the ‘inauthentic’ may be less salient than the turn around different kinds of ‘seeming,’ the cultural, racial, and linguistic admixtures that are the contemporary expression of a history of colonial and commercial encounter in the Philippines” (Lowe 1996, 118).

  7. Hagedorn herself has commented on the controversy her novel inspired (Sengupta). See also Casper, San Juan (1992), and Gonzalez for critical views of Dogeaters's social-political practice and aesthetic accomplishment.

  8. Realism has so many charged meanings, as Amy Kaplan points out, that it is imperative to note that Casper never explicitly uses the term. However, Casper does express his desire for Dogeaters to cleave more to qualities of narration that the realist narrative enshrines, such as an emphasis on character, on social relations, and on a utopian resolution wherein some common ground between divided classes is posited (see A. Kaplan 1988).

  9. Casper never definitely states, but does suggest, that Dogeaters cannot be “written off as a negligible scrapbook of colorful eccentricities and absurdities” (Casper, 155).

  10. Realism, however, has had a changing fate in literary criticism, as to determinations of the degree of its resistance or collusion with capitalist forces: “Changes in the historical understanding of realism have accompanied the reevaluation of realism's political stance, from a progressive force exposing social conditions to a conservative force complicit with capitalist relations” (7). Realism might “[express] consumer culture” and be a “form of social incorporation” rather than a call to arms (Kaplan 1988, 7).

  11. For instance, Casper finds fault with Rio as a narrator, calling her teenage perspective “defective”; moreover, he finds her later mature recollections also lacking: “[H]er capacity for critical understanding has not grown” (154). Casper finds fundamentally flawed Hagedorn's lack of adult narrators with intellectual capacities for “critical understanding”; adolescents and street persons and other nonintellectual types, in this estimation, cannot narrate to either aesthetic or political effect.

  12. The review of Dogeaters appears in the second half of San Juan's essay entitled “Beyond Identity Politics,” which has divisions “A” and “B,” the latter subtitled “Toward the Production of a Filipino Racial Discourse in the Metropolis.” Because the notes for Part A appear at the end of that part, and not after the conclusion of both parts, one might be encouraged to view “Beyond Identity Politics” as two distinct essays, rendering Part B more of a review essay than a contemplation of Filipino racial discourse in the United States. However, because San Juan links the two “halves” under a single title, it becomes impossible to read his review of Dogeaters without contemplating Part A's account of a symposium where Asian American writers and critics came head-to-head over who could speak of and for Asian American collective identity. By San Juan's account, writers “found themselves privileged … as the fountainhead of answers to questions of Asian American person/collective identity,” while critics were eschewed for using theory and for being ensconced in elite institutions (San Juan 1992, 104-105). San Juan laments the event's missed opportunity to scrutinize problems of racial representativeness in preference for “a theater of naive and pathetic self-congratulation … another day swallowed up in the mise en abime of ghetto marginality and ethnic vainglory. Liberalism and identity politics have conquered again” (San Juan 1992, 109).

  13. Out of fourteen story lines in Dogeaters, three feature male protagonists and eleven feature female protagonists. I have distinguished story lines based on the number of first-person and third-person over-the-shoulder perspectives through which Hagedorn narrates events. See appendixes.

  14. There is a factual testament to this aestheticized violence: as part of her beautification campaign, the First Lady hosts “an International Film Festival for which the Folk Arts Theater was hastily built at the cost of many workers' lives” (Evangelista 1993, 52).

  15. For further discussions of sati, see Lati Mani (1990a and 1990b) and Rajan.

  16. Both Masao Miyoshi (1990) and Arjun Appadurai (1990 and 1993) delineate the limited usefulness of “nation” as a category of analysis, proposing transnational and postnational frameworks in its stead.

  17. See the introduction for a more detailed account of the ways in which issues of gender and sexuality take a backseat to debates over the nexus of nationalism-transnationalism in Asian American cultural critique.

  18. Along similar lines, Hagedorn critiques narratives of “pure” identity by depicting Rio's father's rejection of his mestizo ancestry. Freddie Gonzaga, to the chagrin of his wife, Dolores, decodes his bloodline as Spanish rather than Filipino: “I don't understand,” she exclaims. “You are definitely Filipino! A mestizo, yes—but definitely Filipino” (8). How Freddie's genetic material is encoded remains decidedly less important than how he “feels” (8) (i.e., how he narrates his ancestry). Moreover, that decoding—however false or contested—has more influence on the way in which Freddie lives his life than does the supposed genetic codes he inherits. The transformative effects of decoding, then, can be subversive (as in Joey's reversal of the Tonto stereotype) as well as nonsubversive (as in Freddie's translation of his bloodline into pure Spanish stock).

  19. According to Gaylyn Studlar, Mulvey's theory of spectatorship and much of feminist film theory that follows in its wake are based on male psychic mechanisms “which inscribe pleasurable (and power-laden) patterns of looking between spectator and screen” (Studlar, 2-3). As an alternative to this model, based on the psychodynamics of the castration complex, Studlar investigates “pleasures of male spectatorship that are beyond mastery,” that are based on the psychodynamics of the oral (mother-centered) phase where pleasure is associated with submission, passivity, and dependence—with masochism, in short. Studlar goes on to define a “masochistic aesthetic,” based on suspended desire and linked to strategies of concealment, that remains the hallmark of film: “Masochism obsessively recreates the movement between concealment and revelation …, seduction and rejection, in emulation of the ambivalent response to the mother who may either abandon or overwhelm the child. In masochistic fantasy, seduction offers the promise—and the danger—of symbiosis” (Studlar, 21).

  20. See chapter 1 of Chow's Woman and Chinese Modernity, especially pp. 19-25.

  21. I will return to this discussion of necessity (dependence) and extravagance (autonomy) in the final part of this chapter. For more on the politics of pleasure, see the volume edited by Jameson, Formations of Pleasure.

  22. To cite but a few such studies, I would refer the reader to Said (1979); Alloula; Li; and Moy.

  23. Feminist interventions into postcolonial studies owe a great debt to the work of Gayatri Spivak who critiqued the shunting of women aside in subaltern revisionist histories (see Spivak 1988b). Other critics interrogating the masculine bias of postcolonial nationalism and the Western bias of feminist studies include Chandra Mohanty, Jenny Sharpe, Trinh Minh-ha, Deniz Kandiyoti, Sara Suleri, Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan.

  24. This is not to suggest that feminism and nationalism are inherently at odds. Rather, it is to acknowledge the way in which “national identity [has] serve[d] the interests of patriarchies in multiple locations” (Grewal and Kaplan, 22).

  25. The manhood to be “recovered” by nationalist leaders is thus a specific brand of masculinity premised upon phallocentric notions of male dominance over women.

  26. Enloe finds the issue of Muslim women's wearing the veil remarkable precisely because of the importance men in these communities assign to it: “One is hard pressed to think of an equally heated debate in any national community about men's attire—or diet or linguistic style—in which women have had so predominant a role to play. Sikh men's wearing of customary turban is important to Sikh communal solidarity. … Yet one doesn't see Sikh women acting as the chief proponents or enforcers of this male ethnic practice” (Enloe, 53-54).

  27. See Enloe (60) for a deconstruction of this “not now, later” tabling of women's issues by nationalist leaders.

  28. There are several Filipina nationalist political groups that precisely work to dismantle both the obvious neocolonial structures (military bases, transnational corporations, single-crop plantations) and the less obvious oppression of women upon which such foreign exploitation rests (as witnessed in the prostitution around military bases, the cheap female labor servicing transnational industries, and the gendered division of labor and wages in farm work). See Brenda Stoltzfus on GABRIELA, a Filipina organization that joins “the struggle for justice as Filipino people with their struggle for justice as women” (Stoltzfus, 310). See also Lilia Santiago, for a history of the women's movement in the Philippines since the Spanish colonial era.

  29. In 1986, Frederic Jameson coins the term “national allegory” to describe Third World texts, those emanating from countries that “have suffered colonialism and imperialism”: “[T]hird-world texts … necessarily project a political dimension in the form of a national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” (Jameson 1986, 69). Aijaz Ahmad critiques Jameson, in short objecting to the reduction of all Third World texts into a unitary response to (capitalist, Western) imperialism.

  30. As the portrait of the First Lady reveals, the multiform expression of female embodiment to which Dogeaters gives voice are cross-cut by class privileges. Only women of the upper classes survive in the narrative, either through escape, or through joining the nationalist guerrilla movement, or through adopting the position of the neocolonial exploiter. By focusing on the spectatorial gazes to which all women and gay men are subject, Hagedorn does, indeed, understate the class stratification amongst these varied “objects to be looked at.”

  31. Appadurai's (1992) response to the many “attacks” on nationalism is to call for the construction of a “language” that will encompass nonterritorial, exilic identities (418).

  32. Moreover, the threat of rape and torture comes from both sides of the class struggle—the male elite and the “dark, barefoot boys” (the caddies), though opposed in economic and nationalist matters, have in common this trafficking in women.

  33. Clearly preoccupied with the issues of class privilege, women's complicity, and the consequences of escape, Hagedorn crafts a similar scene in her 1981 novella Pet Food. In this earlier work, the Filipina protagonist, George Sand, envisions a group of guerrillas coming to her father's house and killing everyone but her grandmother: “I hear them in the next room, killing the nurse. … I lie in my bed, sweating and staring at the door. Should I try to escape?” (Hagedorn 1993, 108).

  34. Biddy Martin both emphasizes the association of the feminine gender with “subjection to a bodily vulnerability” and the ways in which—in a U.S. context—“the construction of race as subjection to a body” coexists with this gendered vulnerability (Martin, 117). In Hagedorn's novel, gendered vulnerability coexists not so much with racialized vulnerability but with class vulnerability, with the impoverished more likely to be buried beneath hastily constructed buildings. My main argument, however, is that in their defensive reactions to gendered vulnerability, Hagedorn's Filipina characters are too often construed as betraying their country—escaping to the United States and so forth. In the terms of this argument, resisting gender subordination is seen as a revolution of lesser importance, even a fractious uprising that must be put down, in order to wage the main war against imperialism and neocolonialism.

  35. Scarry also reflects upon the idiom of “betrayal,” where the tortured person is made to assume responsibility for his/her own destruction (i.e., pain). Scarry counters “world, self, and voice are lost, or nearly lost, through the intense pain of torture and not through the confession as is wrongly suggested by its connotations of betrayal” (Scarry, 35; emphasis added).

  36. Interpolating Deleuze, Studlar remarks on how “rituals of suffering show the masochist's contempt for the superego's expectation that punishment could prevent forbidden pleasure” (Studlar, 17-18). Since the superego's punishing logic is coded male—that is, the superego represents the internalization of the father's law held in place by the threat of castration—then this masochistic contempt might be construed as a feminized resistance to the punishing male order (i.e., it refuses punishment as punishment, thus transcending its logic). As Studlar claims in a later section, the fantasy goal of masochism is “expiation of the father and the symbiotic reunion with an idealized maternal rule” (Studlar, 26). One might view Leonor's masochistic suffering, then, not merely as sign of her circumscribed position but also as sign of her perversion of punishment—her contempt for the general's torturing tactics.

  37. Hagedorn herself has commented on the “profound sense of ‘freedom’ as a woman—a freedom of movement and choice” that she associates with Western culture, particularly in her recollection of arriving in San Francisco and being able to “ventur[e] out … alone,” without older relatives or paid chaperones (Hagedorn 1994, 175).

  38. In an interview with Jon Halliday, Sirk characterized the picture as “about the antithesis of Thoreau's qualified Rousseauism” (Halliday, 99). Elaborating on the film, Halliday writes, “[I]t is a tough attack on the moralism of petit bourgeois America. Within the story, and the [melodramatic] genre (and the cast), Sirk has constructed a film which historicizes the lost American ideal of Thoreau and situates the barren ideology of bourgeois America in class terms. He does this by showing the relations between people whose roles are already specified—for example, at the country club” (Halliday, 10). Also commenting on Sirk's use of melodrama, Michael Stern states, “Sirk more frequently turned to family structure or small-town stratification as a microcosm of the broader issues [such as the failing social order]” (Stern, 26). Like Sirk, Hagedorn uses the petty tragedies of quotidian life in order to comment upon the national and transnational social forces inscribing Filipinas' everyday politics which include sexual choice and sexual desire.

  39. In this respect, Hagedorn's novel appears to abide by “the classic tenets of dominant Euro-American feminism,” to use Inderpal Grewal's words. Such feminism privileges the “antagonism between men and women as the primary source of exploitation” and naively celebrates Third World female protagonists' becoming “‘free’ individual[s],” with “the West as the site for such ‘freedom’” (Grewal, 63). Yet, only Rio's story follows the trajectory preferred by Euro-American feminism. As noted earlier, Daisy challenges Western feminists' presumptions that the West is the sole site of feminist liberation.

  40. The phrase is Diana Fuss's, from the title of her article “Fashion and the Homospectatorial Look.” However, my allusion to this phrase is indebted to Kim Rowe's excellent undergraduate paper, in which she deconstructs the formation of Pucha and Rio's gendered subjectivity—their learning how to be women—through “homospectatorship”: “When they are older, Rio is the only one comfortable with the underlying homosexual meaning of that construction [of womanhood]. Pucha affects a heterosexual identity, while Rio more accurately sees the effects of female homo-spectatorship on the construction of gender” (Rowe, 104). My thanks to Katheryn Rios for bringing the essay to my attention.

  41. I allude here to works by Apter, Boone, and Sedgwick (1992) that record the way in which Western enclaves of gays and lesbians at the turn of and early part of the century used Oriental drag to perform queer subjectivity. Yet one cannot simply read the native's crossing into Western identity and space as sign of a similar (queer) performance, since such crossings are often the result of necessity and constraint. One might question, then, the Western exclusiveness of “acting out” and the Orientalism it perpetuates in its celebration of a specifically Occidental queer strategy against a likewise Occidental compulsory heterosexuality.

  42. Autonomy and self-determination are themselves privileged notions which spring from Enlightenment philosophies regarding the natural rights of rational men—claims that did not extend to emotional women or superstitious savages. This is not to suggest that women and dark-skinned peoples are irrational, but that the idea of rational autonomy is produced through the (en)gendering of its (female and dark-skinned) Others. See Cora Kaplan for her explication of Enlightenment rationality as disabling to articulations of female pleasure and desire.

  43. I am indebted to Viet Nguyen for helping me clarify this nuance. In a previous draft of this chapter, I implicitly argued that Joey's nationalism renders him the only gay hero; however, as Viet argues persuasively, once Joey becomes a nationalist, “[his] sexuality is erased—he either becomes heterosexual or his sexuality is erased as an issue” (personal correspondence).

  44. I would further contest the gendered nationalist message that Casper attributes to Hagedorn: that women betray the nation. While Hagedorn most emphatically does focus on Filipinas (and on their at times unendurable marriages), as well as on the compromised nationalism of the Philippines, she does not link them causally in the way that Casper suggests.

Jessica Hagedorn and Emily Porcincula Lawsin (interview date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6090

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 Library. Every day after school, my parents used to force my brother and me to go to the library near our home until one of them could return from work. I hated reading back then because of this routine. One day, I browsed down an aisle of poetry collections and came across a simple black cloth-bound book with a black-and-white photograph of a burning guitar pasted to the front. The cover read “Dangerous Music by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn” (Hagedorn 1975). I loved music, and, as a Catholic schoolgirl, I was naturally intrigued by this concept of danger. There were so few Filipino writers published in those days that I read the book over and over every time we went there. A few years later, I had so many overdue books that I couldn't check out any more, so I used to hide it in different sections of the library. I would come back the next day, and there was my fellow Filipina friend, secretly waiting for me.

Now, twenty years later, Jessica Hagedorn has emerged with so many more books and projects that you can no longer get away with hiding them in obscure parts of the library, hoping that no one will notice that they're missing. Her other poetry and prose collections include Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions (1981), Danger and Beauty: Poetry and Prose (1993), and Four Young Women: Poems by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, Alice Karle, Barbara Szerlip, and Carol Tinker (1973). Her first novel, Dogeaters, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1990 and was voted best book of the year by the Before Columbus Foundation. A well-known performance artist, poet, novelist, and playwright, Hagedorn was also a commentator on Crossroads, a syndicated weekly magazine on National Public Radio. She studied theater arts at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and has written numerous plays for the stage (Mango Tango, 1978; Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon, with Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis, 1978; Tenement Lover: no palm trees/in new york city, 1981; Teenytown, with Laurie Carlos and Robbie McCauley, 1988; Airport Music, with Han Ong, 1993), for television (Chiquita Banana, 1972; A Nun's Story, 1988), and for radio (Holy Food, 1989). In 1992, she completed the screenplay Kiss Kiss Kill Kill, which later became Fresh Kill, a movie produced and directed by Shu Lea Cheang. She performed with the bands West Coast Gangster Choir (1975-1978) in San Francisco and Gangster Choir (1978-1985) and Thought Music (1988-1992) in New York. In 1993, Hagedorn edited Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction. Her second novel, The Gangster of Love, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1996.

Since those library days, I've been fortunate to have met Jessica in person many times and in many places: in Seattle, where her two daughters' grandparents live; in New York, where she resides; and in Los Angeles, where I interviewed her during a recent literary festival. Her interview reflects the notion of movement, through her perceptions of home, choices, and changes in the physical and literary landscape. She is always as vibrant and animated as all the characters in her novels are.

[Lawsin]: Can you tell me about the place where you were born?

[Hagedorn]: I was born in Manila in 1949. The house that I remember was the one I lived in until we moved to this country. It was in Santa Mesa, a wonderful old section of Manila. Some of the buildings are still there—it's amazing how Manila changes so much every time I go back. I loved this neighborhood. At that time it included an old church and a lot of houses that had survived World War II. There were these big, old, crumbling houses—the kind we lived in. Ours had this garden, which to me as a child was huge, although, when I went back to look at it, it wasn't at all. There were lots of trees (a mango tree, a guava tree, a giant acacia tree), overgrown foliage, great for a kid's imagination. It had a dark, foreboding atmosphere.

I went to one of those schools run by nuns. Most people I grew up with went to these segregated schools. My brothers went to Ateneo, which is run by the Jesuits, and I went to the Assumption Convent, a very privileged school. Looking back, I had a really good education because those nuns were so strict about everything. On another level, it was incredibly repressive. I don't know what it's like now, but back then the academic standards were very high. We could write and read really well. It's quite amazing now that I'm an American, my kids go to public schools, and it's like, “Oh, God!”

How long did you stay in the Philippines?

I lived there until I was fourteen, and then we moved. My family split up. My mother had two sisters in California, so she was drawn there. It was sort of the obvious place to go. We went first to San Diego, and we lived there for maybe four to six months. My mother went on to San Francisco and looked for an apartment because she liked San Francisco. I'm glad she did because she then sent for us and said, “Let's stay here, let's make this our base.” My brothers stayed for two or three years, but they never liked it in America, so they went back to Manila, where they still live. It just never clicked for them.

In San Francisco I finished high school at a public school called Lowell. I was very lucky. We didn't know anyone, but we stumbled onto the fact that there was this great public high school, with very high standards, where you weren't required to live in the neighborhood. If you had a high grade-point average, or if you passed their entrance test, you would get admitted, and I did. Because of the education I had in the Philippines, I was way ahead of others my age. It was quite a trek for me because we were living in completely the other part of town, but I liked the independence. Even though that's not how I had been raised in the Philippines, my mother had no choice but to let me take public transportation to school. My life really changed once we hit this country, a whole other life.

Can you tell me how any of this influenced your writing or your choice to be a writer?

I'd always known I wanted to be a writer since I was a child because my grandfather, whom I was very close to, had been a teacher and a writer, also a cartoonist. He had been interned in the Santo Tomas Camp by the Japanese, and, while he was there, he actually wrote this book with cartoons about the camps that was smuggled out, so he had a very big influence on me. There were a million other things I wanted to do, but I was very clear about being a writer.

Moving here definitely made the writing more of a necessity because I was so isolated. I began writing a lot more, just out of loneliness and the need to express my confusion about being here in this strange environment. My mother gave me one of those little typewriters. I would just start typing away little stories or poems. I didn't know what I was doing, but I just did it. I was reading a lot because I really didn't know anybody my age. I had always been a bookworm. So, once I had access to all these books in America that were cheaper and in paperback, I'd buy books all the time. San Francisco, I discovered, had all these great bookstores. It was a real adventure for me. Reading contemporary writers really inspired me. It was a scary time, too. Intellectually, I was like, “Oh, what is all this I'm finding?” It was unfiltered: I suddenly had access to all kinds of literature. My mother was encouraging. I was allowed to read anything. That was very instrumental in my development.

If I had stayed in Manila, opening up my mind would have been a slower process because I didn't have access to everything. You could get only certain books, especially in those days. You were not being hit on the head with as much stimulus. I don't want people to think that I'm speaking of the Manila that exists today. A lot more books are available there now than when I was a young child. Now there are excellent publishers that promote the Philippine writers. It's a different time there, filled with a lot of literary activity.

Have you been published there?

I'm in an anthology of women writers that came out in 1992, called Forbidden Fruit. There's this wonderful writer and editor there named Tina Cuyugan and this press, Anvil Press, that publishes the younger writers that are coming up, more experimental writers. I was really happy to be in a book that had writers writing in both Tagalog and English.

How has your family taken your fame as a writer?

Well, my parents passed away in the last two years. They were pretty philosophical about my writing; they didn't make a big issue out of it. They were used to me traveling a lot. I think they were discreet about it. For example, when the novel Dogeaters came out in the Philippines, they didn't tell me if it disturbed them that some people weren't too thrilled with the novel. They're [pauses] so civilized.

Why didn't these folks in the Philippines like the novel?

There are always people who don't like your work. The name Hagedorn is not that common in the Philippines or anywhere else. So I knew my brother would immediately get asked, “Are you related to that writer?” I could just see him rolling his eyes because he's a very private person.

I think that, politically, the book was controversial. The title is very controversial. It's not a book that paints a pretty picture. Sometimes people think that literature is supposed to reflect an unreal world where everybody's noble and wonderful. My book doesn't do that, although I think it's full of love. Some people don't know how to read it; they misinterpret it. I think it hit some people in the Philippines a lot more passionately than it would people here because it's a book that hit home. My family's used to my “madness.” I had already been doing stuff that's unconventional, so it's not like all of a sudden this book came out and, “Oh, God.” It was more like, “Well, here we go again.” My immediate family has been, for the most part, very supportive.

You talk about censorship a lot. If Dogeaters had come out any earlier than it did, do you think it would have been censored in the Philippines?

You mean if Marcos had still been in power? It probably would have been even more fascinating. I wish it had come out a little earlier, but I think things come out when they're ready to. It might have been censored.

Were you worried about that when you were writing it?

It occurred to me that there might be some kind of reaction that wouldn't be too healthy. I talked to my family a little bit about it because I didn't want them to be surprised. After all, they live there. They have to live with the consequences. I don't live there anymore. I come and go, so I'm in a position of privilege. So I figured that, by letting my family know what I was up to, I could at least give them some sort of warning. I did think that, with all the problems that people have to contend with back there, the least of it is this novel. It is fiction, after all.

You once said, “It was a deliberate choice on my part to have one of my central characters [Joey] in Dogeaters be a male prostitute who is half-black, half-Filipino.”1 Can you elaborate on this?

I decided to create a hybrid character because I grew up in a kind of mestizo society in Manila and you write about what you know. The obvious thing would have been to create a character who is mestizo, torn between two worlds, half white, half brown. But that's not so interesting to me. What happens to all the other mixtures that are never talked about, that are not looked on so favorably? I thought about all the kids that I've seen on the streets who are the products of one-night stands. How do they survive? I'm interested in survival and endurance and how people get through very difficult situations. For me, Joey's the hero. He is noble. Other people might say, “Well, you sure picked a very negative kind of image,” but I don't think so. In the face of a lot of setbacks, he manages to adapt and move on. It was a challenge to me as a writer to not go the easy route and to try to create a complex character who has a lot of obstacles confronting him. He's unwanted, his mother's dead, he doesn't even know who his father is. He's poor, he's a black American, so that's already, “Uh-oh.” He's not going to become a movie star in the Filipino movies because they're not interested in that. His beauty is not the beauty that Filipinos aspire to. What does he have to do in order to survive? He becomes a hustler.

Of all your characters, with whom would you say you most identify?

I identify with Joey. I have the two main characters in Dogeaters, and they're both first-person narrators. There's the schoolgirl Rio, of course. Everybody goes, “Oh, is that you?” But Joey's interesting to me because he's less reactive. He acts out of necessity, so to me he's an unpredictable and exciting character. Rio's life is a life I knew, but, for me, she's more of a detached narrator, whereas Joey's the one that the immediate drama centers on. But of course all my characters are dear to me. You fall in love with all of them. That's why you create them. But, if I were forced to choose, I think I was the freest with Joey.

At the end of the novel, Rio stays anxious and restless, “at home only in airports.” How does this relate to you as an Asian American writer?

In Charlie Chan Is Dead, I wrote an introduction, and Elaine Kim wrote the preface. She talks about cultures that fly back and forth all the time. You have this new generation that is comfortable going home to Korea or coming back to Los Angeles and living more than one culture. Perceptions are altered. People are constantly in transit, moving all the time. I've been moving all the time since I was a child. My life was disrupted early. Before that, we traveled a lot for pleasure. We were a family who liked to go places. I always loved the sheer movement of it and meeting people in other countries or in other towns or villages in the Philippines.

So this thing about being at home only in airports is a question I bring up a lot. It was a question I brought up in the theater piece Airport Music. Where do we live now—here or there? The feeling of home and the definition of it do not mean necessarily my apartment in New York City. Home is in my head and includes forever that house in Santa Mesa. It also includes the different homes in which we lived in San Francisco as I was growing up. We moved a lot. That shaped my whole life. I was in all these different frames of mind in different neighborhoods in San Francisco. You change with each neighborhood. It affects you if you're living in the Mission or if you're living in the Sunset District, then suddenly you're in the Haight. That's like, “Whoa!” Those are little universes within the city.

I have a sense that I'm almost happiest, in a cosmic way, in an airport, in between flights. The sense of a million worlds meeting in an airport. Miami, for example—that airport to me is amazing because it's one of those major airports, what do you call those?


Hub. It is a hub, where you're hearing all kinds of languages on the intercom and people are coming and going. There's a lot of crazy energy spoken in different tongues; it's this great babble. I love it. It fuels me. I'm neither here nor there. But I am somewhat rooted now that I have a family.

Let's talk a little bit about your moves and that era of the sixties and seventies.

I moved to New York in the late seventies. For me the formative years as an artist were spent in San Francisco in the Bay Area. They were very important. I was delighted by the sheer—perhaps there's no such thing as an accident—but, by sort of accident, I met all these writers and artists.

Yesterday, I ran into one of the poets who is also a filmmaker, who used to live in the Bay Area. She lives here in LA now. Her name in Geraldine Kudaka. She was saying that back then there wasn't all this separation of mediums. We weren't as self-conscious; we were getting together and “collaborating” naturally.

I got exposed to Filipino American writers and artists who were cropping up in the Bay Area—and that was like coming home. Suddenly, I wasn't so isolated; suddenly, there were people who shared a similar sensibility. The Filipino American artists taught me a lot about the history of Filipinos in California—for example, what happened there with the Manongs—things that I was totally ignorant about because back in Manila my education didn't include the painful history of Filipinos in America.

A lot of the Bay Area artists and writers are my friends for life: Al Robles, Russell Leong, George Leong (who now works in films), Oscar Peñaranda, the Syquia brothers (Lou and Serafin), Shirley Ancheta. We were part of the Kearny Street Writers' Workshop, my first exposure to Asian America. Here were these Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Korean Americans getting together and forging this other, bigger identity. I was elated by it because at that time there were a lot of alliances being forged—black studies, Chicano studies—and that Asian American tag was politically important for us then. Cultures that don't necessarily get along are suddenly sitting in the same room, writing poems. Probably the concept of multiculturalism evolved out of this.

That was a very exciting time. Then, when I came to New York, I discovered Basement Workshop, which was the equivalent of the Kearny Street Writers' Workshop. We didn't have much funding in those days, so a lot of this creative work was done because you just wanted to do it.

Can you tell me how life has been for you on the East Coast compared to that on the West Coast?

It's quite different. When I moved to New York in 1978, Filipinos weren't as visible there as they were in San Francisco. I think that was one reason my mother was into living in the Bay Area, where she felt at home. Things have changed. Now you can go to Queens or Jersey City, and Filipinos are visible, and they're becoming a force to contend with, culturally and politically. New York, of course, has an incredibly diverse population, but Filipinos were never as present as they are now. I used to complain about such a basic thing as, “Where can I go to eat Filipino food?” Now you can go to such places.

Also, there's a tight-knit community of Filipino artists in Manhattan. We share the same ties to the motherland. We embrace a dual identity. When we say home, you're never sure if we mean America or the Philippines. Within that group, which includes actors, dancers, radio people, writers, directors, painters, and filmmakers, there are Filipino Americans who were born in this country and so have another perception. There's a difference. Maybe, on some level, I can communicate with their parents more because we're from “over there”; we're immigrants, and they're not.

When I moved to New York in 1978, there was nothing like that going on, except for Basement Workshop, which was largely a Chinese American and Japanese American arts organization. They invited me to work there, and I started a reading series. We never had any money to bring in writers from the West Coast, so it was difficult for me to present any Filipino artists because we didn't have the resources to fly them to New York or to put them up. I would always have to work with this tight budget and just invite artists who were from the New York area. But then Ninotchka Rosca, who's a novelist, an essayist, and an activist, moved to New York City. It was a start.

Why did you choose to move to New York?

It was more exciting to me in terms of theater and film and the publishing industry. For me, New York City is the cultural capital of the Western Hemisphere. It's not a city you move to for an easy life because it's pretty harsh. But art thrives there, even in the face of obstacles. People are competitive. Audiences are more jaded and critical, so you are compelled to do your very, very best. You can't get by with as much bullshit. New York toughened up my writing.

Can you talk about how your work has been received among different communities?

What's wonderful for me is that the reception for my work has always been cross-cultural. I was glad that Dogeaters, for example, was read by a lot of different people. That's the way I would like to function as an artist, that my work can reach out or that it is open to a lot of people's interpretations. It's one thing when Filipinos read the book. I don't have to sit there and explain. We have one kind of communication about it. There's a lot less mystery. I'm talking not just about the language but about the perceptions of our “goofiness” and our mysticism. You don't have to explain it. Why is it that we “get it” somehow when we read War and Peace or Shakespeare, for God's sake? See, I don't buy into the notion that we can read and appreciate only our own people's work. That's why sometimes I feel that, while labels like Asian American literature may serve to identify a certain kind of immigrant narrative, in a way they can hinder us. I'm not real comfortable with the term Asian American writer. But sometimes labels are necessary as marketing tools.

If you were to choose a label for yourself and your writing, what would it be?

I wouldn't. I'm a writer. But I can't deny my gender and my ethnic identity, either.

In the introduction to Tenement Lover, you said that you're concerned with the idea of revolution. Having said what you said about labels, do you feel that there's a sense of social purpose in your work?

Yes, I do. I don't think I sit down with a political agenda hanging over my head. I'm not particularly plot driven; I'm character driven. The characters I'm drawn to as a writer are invariably characters who are underdogs, and on some level there is a social purpose there. Social purpose just sounds so clinical.

Let me put it another way. Do you feel you write “art for art's sake”? Or do you feel there's another aspect to why you write?

I write because I have to write. I do believe that everything is political, but I also believe that what makes it powerful is if it's personal and human. You have to dig deeper than journalism, see the soldier as a human being who is probably kind to his mother but can turn around and torture prisoners. This same man goes home to his family and is tender with his child. That to me is the challenge. If the writer concentrates on the specifics and complexities of human beings, the politics will resonate. It's not enough for some writer to say, “My God, the horrors in Guatemala,” because I get that message from the New York Times. How does an artist elevate journalism to art? A mistake a lot of didactic artists make is thinking that it's enough to tell you, to report that this tragic event occurred. We know this because we live in a media-crazy world now. In the fifties when I was growing up, all you had to do was show me a violent image. The Vietnam War—the first war we watched on TV—turned the tide on how we “look” at things. People are bombarded with horror every day. What is my role as an artist?

You were talking earlier about Airport Music. One line that's repeated a lot in this play is the “sad jazz of displacement.” Is that you or someone else?

In a way that's Han Ong talking about his parents' displacement. Airport Music is a collaboration, and there are two writers speaking on the same subject. I know that sad jazz of displacement. When I first came to this country, that was the music I was hearing. Now my displacement is more positive; it fuels and inspires me. That phrase “sad jazz” is specific to Han's story, but it's also something that we all feel, even if we've come to America of our own choosing and we're “upbeat immigrants looking at this new land where we can have more opportunity.” There's still this sadness of “Hey, you've left home,” even if you've come here under the best possible circumstances. It's a beautiful phrase that we can relate to, all of us.

How did Airport Music come into being?

I had seen Han's work in New York. I'd heard that he was Chinese-Filipino and that he'd just come here recently, so I was intrigued. He was young and new in this country, and yet he was already such a presence in Los Angeles. So I went to see his one-man show at the Public Theatre, called Symposium in Manila. He performed as if he were giving a lecture and slideshow on multiculturalism. It was very funny. I thought, “Well, here's a kindred spirit.” He definitely has his own style, but the way he tackles themes is both familiar and refreshing. His writing is crisp, pop-culture influenced, and smart. I asked Han if he also wrote fiction because I was gathering material and was interested in finding new writers to include in Charlie Chan Is Dead.

Han said, “As a matter of fact, I'm working on a novel.”

I said, “Why don't you send me a couple of choices. Let me look at different excerpts.” He did, and I chose one. Han came back to New York to do another solo piece called Corner Store Geography, which was about Los Angeles. It was much more physical than his other work. I put it in the back of my mind that one day we'd have to do something together. I hadn't been doing any performance work, mainly because I was editing the anthology, I had a new baby, and I was trying to finish my second novel. To me, that was enough. But Akila Oliver from the LA Festival called to invite me to come and do a reading and panel. I thought, “Oh, I don't want to do a reading. Let me do something to challenge myself.” I proposed to do a work in progress. I hadn't written one; I hadn't even asked Han if he was interested in collaborating. But I said, “There's this writer who is based in LA I'd love to work with. Akila knew who Han was, and she was excited by the idea. I thought, “Oh no. Now I have to write it, and we have to rehearse, and I have to ask Han if he wants to do this.”

Well, it all worked out. I forced myself to return to the stage. Airport Music grew from being a one-night event in LA to a full-length piece at the Public Theatre in New York and then at Berkeley Rep in California. It's great fun for me because writing is solitary and performing is not. I hadn't performed in so long that it was a nice way to kick myself into coming back to the theater. It's a public way of dealing with your writing in a grander format. You have lights, music; you can “play” with props.

How much more will you add?

I don't know; I had this idea yesterday when we went to Russell Leong's party. These stories started happening, and I thought, “Oh, we have to add this.” Who knows? Things always happen to me at the last minute that we add to the show. It's part of the fun of it; it keeps it fresh. Like those jokes you heard that happened in the elevator that day, so we added them.

Which ones?

The one about the Yuppie. What is a Pilipino or Pinoy Yuppie? A Puppie!

This humor is in your second novel, The Gangster of Love.

Yes. The original title was Yo-Yo. It takes place largely in America, so the theme and landscape are different. It's a story of family and a friendship between two women artists who are very close to each other. It's also about making art and what that means in this particular time. Art is a very difficult subject to write about. Then it's about the yo-yo because I have this fascination with the Filipino yo-yo champions who used to do the exhibitions. Those guys were sharp. They were beautiful. To me, they were a kind of matinee idol, running around the country showing off. Yet, underneath, there was this horrible tension because they had to travel to places where segregation was imposed and they were attacked. The yo-yo's a metaphor.

I have an excerpt of it in Charlie Chan Is Dead. This particular chapter actually takes place in LA, in West Hollywood. I have a character who is an aging Filipino actor. The excerpt I chose was the one where his niece goes to visit him in Los Angeles and he reflects back on his career. He doesn't work a lot anymore, but I have him being one of the original dancers in West Side Story. Because he's Filipino, he's had the job of playing every person of color in every Hollywood movie. That's the only kind of work he can get, even though he's an accomplished dancer, a great singer, and a good actor. He's forced to play Indians. His name is Marlon Rivera. He names himself after Marlon Brando.

You were talking about moving from one culture to another and Marlon “passing.” Does that reflect you and your identity?

It's a source of frustration. I'm always appalled that people know so little about where I come from, literally and figuratively. Even if they know I come from the Philippines, most Americans have no idea what that means. Americans know so little about the culture and the landscape of one of their former colonies. It's an amazing thing to me because we always know so much about everybody else. I get disgusted and mad, but, other times, cultural confusions have been a source of liberation. For example, people from Mexico can accept me as a person who feels at home in their culture. There are a lot of connections that we have, even though Mexicans are different. I can enter the culture as a sister.

Sometimes the mislabeling of me has come, not out of malice, but out of assumptions about a certain way I look. It happens in the Philippines, too. When I start speaking Tagalog, people who don't know me go, “Where are you from? Are you Filipino?” And I go, “Yes. And I can look like this.” They have an idea of what you're supposed to look like if you call yourself a Filipino. I know I can get away with calling myself this mixed person, but I feel good identifying myself with the place I was primarily born and raised. Yes, I have some Chinese blood; yes, I have some white European blood in there; but that's not what nurtured and raised me. What are we going to do, measure these things? It's been a constant source of, let's say, mixed emotions for me, this “passing” for this and that. It's also amusing. When I first came to New York, there weren't that many Filipinos. Well, what's the next thing? People would look at me and go, “She must be Puerto Rican,” so I would find that very funny. Sometimes I'd say, “Sure!”

At Lowell High School in San Francisco I had a really good friend named Richard who was Filipino. He had no trouble identifying me as a Filipino. He walked right up to me and said, “Pinay ka ba?” I looked at him and said, “Yeah! How did you know?” I had already been so inundated by the other kids at Lowell, who were primarily Chinese and Jewish and always asked me if I was Chicana. There were maybe three Filipinos at Lowell back then. I was used to people asking stupid questions. Richard didn't. He must've smelled it or something.

If there's anything that you could change in your life, in your career, what would that be?

There's nothing I would change. In my life, there are things that I would change—there are people who died too soon or died tragically, and I wish they hadn't, but that's life. It's full of those tragedies. I would wish that they hadn't had to go that way. I would wish my parents were still alive, but perhaps this was a time when they had to go. My career—I have no regrets. If I had to do it over again, maybe Dogeaters would have been a longer book. I longed to keep writing it, but I was also impatient because I wanted the book out. If I had to do it over again, maybe I would have kept writing and said Dogeaters will come out when it comes out. There was more I wanted to explore, but there was also this sense that I could end it. So I did.


  1. Jessica Hagedorn, “The Exile Within/The Question of Identity,” in Asian Americans: Collages of Identities: Proceedings of the 1990 Cornell Symposium on Asian America: Issues of Identity, ed. Lee C. Lee (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, Asian American Studies Program, 1992), 25-29.

Selected Works by Jessica Hagedorn

Chiquita Banana. In Third World Women. San Francisco: Third World, 1972.

Four Young Women: Poems by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, Alice Karle, Barbara Szerlip, and Carol Tinker. Edited by Kenneth Rexroth. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

Dangerous Music. San Francisco: Momo's, 1975.

Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon. Written with Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis. Produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater, New York, 1978.

Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions. San Francisco: Momo's, 1981.

Dogeaters. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Teenytown. In Out from Under, ed. Lenora Champagne. New York: Theater Communications, 1990. With Laurie Carlos and Robbie McCauley.

Tenement Lover: no palm trees/in new york city. In Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian-American Plays, ed. Misha Berson. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1990.

Airport Music. By Jessica Hagedorn and Han Ong. 1993.

Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction. New York: Penguin, 1993. Editor.

Danger and Beauty: Poetry and Prose. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Fresh Kill. Directed by Shu Lea Cheang. Produced by the Airwaves Project, 1994.

Dan Bacalzo (review date December 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1017

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 aesthetic that draws from American movies, local radio soap operas, and a celebrity-driven political system. Hagedorn's own stage adaptation successfully transforms this mix into a vibrant theatrical landscape.

The author takes two minor characters from her novel—radio and screen stars Barbara Villanueva and Nestor Noralez—and transforms them into Brechtian narrators. Hagedorn ingeniously uses the book's preoccupation with movies and show business to create a purely theatrical method of telling the story. Played by Mia Katigbak and Ralph B. Peña, Barbara and Nestor become perky talk show hosts. They introduce key players in the drama, as well as provide historical background for those in the audience unfamiliar with the history of Philippine politics. An early segment features Barbara and Nestor talking with nineteenth-century French Jesuit priest Jean Mallat (Christopher Donahue), who is appearing on their show to promote his new book about the Philippines. The sequence is so absurd and playful that it overcomes any tendencies towards preachiness or heavy-handed didacticism. At the same time, it provides a critical introduction to the history of colonialism and imperialism that characterizes the Philippines' relationship with the West.

The play (like the novel) contains numerous characters and subplots, but ultimately focuses on two primary storylines. The first is the murder of Senator Domingo Avila (Joel Torre), an outspoken critic of the Marcos regime. There are, of course, direct parallels to the assassination of Filipino senator Benigno Aquino, gunned down at a Manila airport in 1983. The assassination within the play leaves behind a witness: a young Afro-Filipino hustler named Joey Sands, played with manic energy by the charismatic Hill Harper. Joey loses control over his life through no fault of his own, and gets swept up in political situations he does not fully understand.

The other major storyline revolves around Rio Gonzaga, a Filipina-American returning to her native land to attend her grandmother's funeral. This character seems closest to the playwright's own life. In a sublime costuming decision, designer Brandin Barón has made the actress playing Rio (Kate Rigg) resemble a young Jessica Hagedorn. Several of Rigg's vocal inflections and onstage mannerisms also mimic those of the playwright.

These two main narratives are only loosely connected to each other. Joey's tale is an action-adventure story, filled with danger, death, and revolution. Rio's is more meditative; she is forced to come to terms with her own presence as outsider in the nation of her birth. “Everything has changed,” she says, “And nothing is different.”

Hagedorn took great pains in her original work not to identify President Marcos and his wife by name, instead referring to them as simply the President and First Lady. Yet, in the stage version, there are numerous mentions of Imelda Marcos, as well as an exquisitely devastating portrayal of the character by Ching Valdes-Aran. The actress' chiseled features and regal bearing lend a powerful presence to the first lady. While she speaks in polite tones, an underlying air of menace permeates her presence. She need not do much to demonstrate her power; a pointed glance at Barbara Villanueva has the talk show hostess struggling to regain her composure.

Director Michael Grief (best known for directing the Tony Award-winning musical Rent) infuses the work with an energetic pacing, flavored with a distinctly rock and roll beat. The action flows seamlessly from scene to scene, with slide projections (designed by John Woo) helping to distinguish changes in locale. Greif also uses every inch of scenic designer David Gallo's set, which resembles an industrial catwalk with multiple levels. One scene has a young revolutionary work his way up and across the metallic scaffolding, as if climbing a balcony to meet his ladylove—who in this case happens to be Senator Avila's daughter.

Sex and sexuality are commodities within the world of the play. A gay disco even serves as one of the show's primary locales. The place is run by Andres “Perlita” Alacran, played with a campy charm by Alec Mapa. The actor performs a drag lip synch routine to Donna Summer's “Bad Girls,” that provides much needed comic relief. Another scene depicts a sexual underground where patrons can go to watch live sex acts. A young heterosexual couple are shown making love. Afterwards, the young man turns to those watching and says quite simply, “Okay, boss? You want us to do that again?” Sex is never shown as simply a pleasurable activity; it is used by the various characters in the play to make money, negotiate political favors, or demonstrate power.

The multiplicity of these power relations is what makes the play so fascinatingly complex. All the characters are caught in a web of socio-political machinations, and are at the same time attempting to come out on top. And yet, there are also moments of genuine affection and perhaps even love that are possible within this dog eat dog world. Towards the end of the play, Rio reunites with two friends of her mother's whom she has not seen since childhood. They embrace her warmly and welcome her home.

Although the play is undoubtedly semi-autobiographical and integrates real-life characters and events into the script, Hagedorn is not writing a documentary of either her life or the Philippines, and should not be taken to task for any historical inaccuracies. Dogeaters is an intriguing blend of fact and fiction, telling a moving story of political upheaval and personal growth. It is undoubtedly an ambitious work, but succeeds in painting a portrait of Filipino culture in the early 1980s—complete with its class divisions, social networks, and political intrigues.

Nerissa S. Balce (essay date 2001)

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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 National Book Award nomination in 1990.


A novel with more than forty vignette-like chapters set mostly in the Philippines, Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters challenges the norms of reading with its stylized, non-traditional form. The novel's structure includes different linguistic and stylistic registers that signal shifts in the narratives, giving the effect of a collage of lives or stories. The novel, then, can be read as a text without a single central narrator, since it consistently changes points of view and voice. The episodic scenes in the novel suggest a montage with a dreamlike textuality. The text also includes fictionalized and factual quotations from news accounts and historical sources on the Philippines, Hagedorn's former home. This feature of Dogeaters is important when we consider that illusion and reality, symbolized in artifacts such as news reports, gossip, and Hollywood movies, are major themes of the novel.

The novel's characters come from various socioeconomic backgrounds, and they lead disparate lives that are unwittingly linked and even mirror one another. The novel spans the late 1950s and ends in the mid-1980s, an important chapter in contemporary Philippine history capped by the fall of Ferdinand Marcos's twenty-year regime (1965-86). Marcos and his wife, Imelda, are fictionalized here in the novel as the unnamed President and the First Lady. The opposition leader Benigno Aquino, a Marcos critic from an elite family until he was assassinated in 1983, is fictionalized as Senator Domingo Avila.

The novel begins in Manila in 1956 as the country continues to rebuild from the ashes of World War II. The reader is first introduced to Rio, a young mestiza who comes from a wealthy Filipino family. Rio's father is half Spanish; her mother, half American—a heritage symbolic of the colonization of the Philippines by two empires, Spain and the United States (Campomanes, Afterword 146-47). The native elite collaborated with the colonizers, often marrying colonial officials to maintain their wealth and power (Anderson). Rio, as a product of these colonial-historical ties, represents the generations of mestizo ruling elites. The other mestizo characters in the novel, such as the Gonzagas and the Alacrans, symbolize the carnivorous relationship of the elite to the poor—that is, the rich as the eaters of the underdog. Indeed, Rio observes that the Gonzagas are “a carnivorous family” (Hagedorn, Dogeaters 91). The title of the novel, a pejorative used by Americans for Filipinos during the early 1900s, refers both to the elites who oppress the poor and to the poor themselves who have no recourse but to eat dog, considered a poor person's meal. The novel's title, then, implies both the contemporary and the historical representations of Filipinos. On the one hand, the elites and the poor are both dogeaters. On the other hand, the novel's reinscription of Philippine history recalls the racialized stereotype of the Filipino as backward and savage (Rydell 154-83).

The first chapter introduces Rio and her cousin Pucha (whose name is a Tagalog euphemism for the Spanish word puta or whore), both starstruck by Hollywood idols and the modern American life they represent. Later we encounter another important character, Joey Sands, who is also from a multiracial background but who is the antithesis of Rio in terms of access to privilege: Joey, a prostitute-junkie born of an unknown African American serviceman and a Filipino prostitute, is symbolic of the Philippines colonial history, “what is actually meant by ‘special Filipino-American relations’” (San Juan 125; Nguyen, “Writing” 220; Rachel Lee 76, 85-86).

Other characters in the novel include the powerful businessman Severo Alacran, who is a crony of the dictator; his homely and nervous daughter, Baby Alacran; the unlucky Romeo Rosales, who is framed for the death of Senator Avila near the end of the novel; and General Nicasio Ledesma and his fanatically religious wife, Leonor. These mininarratives are often very brief, and readers may wonder what has happened to some characters, such as the mestizo gay club owner Andres Alacran, the Igorot janitor Pedro, the starlet-junkie Lolita Luna, or the fortune-teller La Sultana. The novel is replete with inclusions and digressions that resist a linear or chronological storytelling. The interwoven narratives of disparate characters are Hagedorn's attempt to simulate the “chaos-order” paradox of a city under a military dictatorship. The novel ends with a bittersweet coda “played” for the suffering and insufferable homeland, a country invoked by the unnamed persona through myth and memory. The imagined city of Manila, the central character of the novel (Hagedorn, “Homesick” 327), is the site of memory and neocolonial history.


Hagedorn's Dogeaters was warmly received by the print media and by scholars of American and ethnic literature. It has the distinction of being the first novel written by a Filipino American to be nominated for the National Book Award (1990). While it was lionized in popular reviews by the New York Times Book Review (D'Alpuget), the Times Literary Supplement (Hussein), the American Book Review (Gordon), Amerasia Journal (Gonzalez), and MELUS (Evangelista), the novel received some negative criticism from both Filipino and American critics (Casper; Hau; San Juan; San Juan qtd. in Wong 15). Like Maxine Hong Kingston's critically acclaimed Woman Warrior, Hagedorn's Dogeaters is a novel that touches on issues of authenticity, histories, and cultures. Criticisms of the novel include its exoticization of Philippine culture (Balce-Cortes) and its celebration of an upper-class, apolitical, cosmopolitan identity (San Juan qtd. in Wong 15). Despite the mixed responses to the novel, it remains a popular text in college courses on multicultural literature, women's studies, and ethnic studies. Numerous papers at conferences on Asian American studies, ethnic studies, and women's literatures have studied the novel's focus on gender, memory, colonial history, feminism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and other issues. Critical essays on the novel have been published in academic journals (see Evangelista; Robert Lee 277-79; Nguyen, “Postcolonial State” 88-90; Balce-Cortes; Doyle). Hagedorn's novel, along with Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart, is a significant contribution to the growing field of Filipino American writing.


Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn was born in the Philippines in 1949 and moved to San Francisco at age thirteen. Her poems were first published when she was twenty-four, in an anthology edited by the poet Kenneth Rexroth entitled Four Young Women (1973). Her early writings were influenced by the 1970s ethnic consciousness movements. Moved by the political spirit of the times, her poetry, playwriting, and short fiction “employed the psychedelic and rebellious idioms” particular to the moment (Campomanes, “Hagedorn” 370) and are anthologized in Mountain Moving Day (Gill), Third World Women, and Time to Greez! (Mirikitani et al.). She published her first collection of poetry and fiction, Dangerous Music, in 1975. Since then, Hagedorn's writings have been included in sixteen anthologies of women's, ethnic, and Third World writing. She moved to New York in 1978.

An accomplished actress, musician, and performance and multimedia artist, Hagedorn has collaborated with American artists and writers such as Thulani Davis and Ntozake Shange. In 1977, Joseph Papp produced Where Mississippi Meets the Amazon, her collaborative work with Davis and Shange. In 1978, Papp produced her first solo play, Mango Tango. Her subsequent theater works, staged in New York, include Tenement Lover (1981) and Holy Food (1988; radio version, 1989). She staged Teenytown in San Francisco in 1990.

In 1981, Hagedorn's experimental novella, Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions, won the American Book Award. Hagedorn received a two-year MacDowell writing fellowship in 1985 and 1986. A third MacDowell fellowship in 1988 allowed her to finish the manuscript of her first novel, Dogeaters. In a radio interview, Hagedorn mentioned that her novel explores her “own” past and culture. The novel germinated from the one hundred pages of notes on “the contradictions and elements” of Filipino society that she kept while visiting Manila in the late 1970s (Lipson). In “Homesick” Hagedorn writes that Dogeaters, set in the “contemporary Philippines,” had been an “obsession” for her for over ten years (328, 327). Since the publication of Dogeaters, Hagedorn continues to read her poetry and perform her theater pieces in San Francisco and New York. She has edited a collection of Asian American fiction, Charlie Chan Is Dead (1993), and published a second novel, The Gangster of Love (1996).

For more information, see Oscar Campomanes's useful biographical profile (“Hagedorn”), from which this account is drawn.


The novel Dogeaters spans the period from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s. The setting of the novel is Manila, the capital city of the Philippines. The 1950s was a decade marked by efforts to rebuild the country in the aftermath of World War II. The United States increased military and economic support for the Philippines in exchange for American military bases. With the growing communist threat in Asia, it was crucial for the United States to maintain military bases in the region to ensure United States dominance (Schirmer and Shalom 87). The military bases and the mushrooming of American transnational corporations that followed became symbols of American domination in the Philippines during the 1950s and the succeeding decades (Schirmer and Shalom 87-103). To date, the effects of the presence of American military bases continue to be felt. Prostitution, drugs, environmental hazards such as toxic nuclear waste (see Toxic Sunset), and the plight of “Amerasian” children born to “bar girls” (prostitutes impregnated by American servicemen) are among the many legacies of the United States bases.

In the mid-1950s, some elite Filipino families, like the fictional Alacran and Gonzaga families, grew richer from their dealings with American and foreign investors. These families celebrated their revived wealth by throwing extravagant parties not unlike those described in the novel (Manapat 71). The disparities between the lives of the rich and the poor were underscored by the growing agrarian unrest in the countryside led by the Hukbalahap. The Huks, as they were called, were a peasant-based organization at the forefront in the struggle against the Japanese during World War II. After the war, the Huks continued their armed struggle by going against rich landlords and later the Philippine government. In Hagedorn's novel, we encounter the figure of Severo Alacran, a “wheeler dealer” who has done business with “Japs, GI's, guerrillas in the jungle” (20). The chapters in the novel set after the 1960s fictionalize the Marcos years and the period of military dictatorship. Alacran is portrayed as a crony of the unnamed President and First Lady, and later the novel details his close ties with the dictator, his wife, and military officials of the regime.

Dogeaters may be read as a retelling of martial law history. In 1972, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law to avoid the end of his second term as president and to combat growing resistance to his rule. He masked the power grab with the rhetoric of reform and promises of a “new society.” In truth, the Marcoses and their cronies plundered the nation's coffers (Manapat 83-96). Opponents of the corrupt regime were arrested, tortured, “disappeared,” and assassinated (Schirmer and Shalom 187-91, 221-23). The Marcoses were billionaire rulers of an impoverished country until they were brought down in a popular revolt in 1986.

Hagedorn's novel draws from this history through allusion and parody. Allusions to famous and infamous celebrities, historical persons, factual and fictive news clippings, disasters, murders, and other national spectacles are narrated in a seriocomic tone. The details in the novel take on surreal effects. A chapter in the novel that reports the discovery of corpses floating on a river, the bodies bearing the marks of torture, parodies a common occurrence during martial law: extrajudicial murders, commonly called “salvagings,” that were committed to silence the opposition (Schirmer and Shalom 298). The character of Lolita Luna is an allusion to the popularity of bomba or soft-core pornographic movies during the 1970s (see Rachel Lee 82-85). In Dogeaters, rumors of torture camps run by the military and gossip on the foibles of the rich and powerful circulate throughout the city, just as rumors were a principal source of “unofficial” (hence uncensored and credible) information during the martial law years and led to the debunking of the authority and credibility of the Marcoses during their final years (Rafael). The opening of an international film festival sponsored by the First Lady and the collapse of the film festival venue that buries alive numerous construction workers mirror the macabre disaster of the Manila Film Palace in 1984 (Dogeaters 130, 134-35; Manapat 51). The figure of Daisy Avila, the beauty queen who becomes an activist, may be read as a representation of the Filipina beauty queen Nelia Sancho, who later joined the anti-Marcos movement (Evangelista 47). The assassination of the nationalist senator Domingo Avila and the false arrest of an innocent man framed for the murder fictionalize the most famous “salvaging” committed by the regime: the assassination of Benigno Aquino. Hagedorn's novel thus reinscribes history by re-creating the famous, infamous, and anonymous citizens of a city under military rule.


Popular accounts of the fall of the Marcos dictatorship were published in the United States after 1986, the year Ferdinand Marcos and his family fled to Hawaii to live in exile and Corazon (Cory) Aquino, the widow of Benigno Aquino, was brought to power. Various books, along with documentaries and news features show on American television, examined the corruption of the Marcoses and the triumph of the “People Power” revolution (see Bonner; Burton; Buss; Ellison; Lyons and Wilson; Manapat; Rempel; Rosca, Endgame; and Seagrave). However, many such accounts, which attempt to write “history” through a journalist's lens, must be read critically. For example, Stanley Karnow's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines, attributes the successful revolt against Marcos to American democratic principles taught to Filipinos but overlooks the history of violence in the United States' colonial rule over the Philippines (see Campomanes, “1898”; Miller; Drinnon; Paulet; Williams).

In the United States, the large Filipino American community closely followed events in the Philippines. Articles on the Philippines were printed in major United States dailies. The euphoria following the 1986 People Power revolt was especially felt by anti-Marcos activists based in the United States. Many were educated professionals who had fled to the United States after the declaration of martial law and who continued to advocate an end to United States support for Marcos (Schirmer and Shalom 267-71). By the time Hagedorn's novel was published in 1990, Marcos and Aquino were recognizable names to the American public. Hagedorn's novel continues to fuel debates in various communities. Filipino immigrants and exiles, as well as a new generation of Filipino Americans, have either cheered or criticized the novel's stylized re-creation of a turbulent period in Philippine history.


  • memory and authenticity
  • corruption and innocence
  • blurring the lines between fiction and historical fact
  • the paradox of disparity and the similarities between the rich and the poor in a Third World city (separated by money yet united by the national condition of underdevelopment)
  • rumor and gossip as means of demystifying and challenging the rich and the powerful
  • Hollywood fantasies and Third World realities
  • megalomania and arrogance of the elite
  • “colonial mentality” or the racial stereotypes of Filipinos as a product of their colonial history
  • the city (“Manila”) as the site of memory and history
  • the travails of living under a dictatorship for the rich and the poor
  • colonialism and Catholicism
  • repression and resistance
  • nightmares and fantasies
  • ethnicity, sexuality, and colonialism
  • the hybrid culture of Filipinos and their colonial history


The novel's title recalls the pejorative used against Filipinos during the 1900s. The stereotype of Filipinos as “dogeaters” came into currency after a live exhibition of indigenous Filipino peoples at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis. A federally supported spectacle, the Saint Louis exposition presented the triumphs of manifest destiny and validated American overseas expansion, including the “acquisition” of the Philippine Islands and its so-called primitive peoples (Rydell 154-83, 195-96). By presenting the Filipinos as primitives incapable of self-government, the display supplied more justification for the cause of annexation and institutionalization of American colonial rule in the islands (Rydell 170).

The novel's multiple narratives are another focus of study. Critical essays on Dogeaters have pointed to the text's “antiform” structure and the nonlinear narration of the various subplots. The text's “formlessness” has been attributed to the dreams and nightmares that are the central metaphors of the novel (D'Alpuget 1; Casper). The nightmarish quality of the imagined city is significant when we consider “Manila” as a postmodern city where the psychic and physical traumas of late-twentieth-century life are relived (West; see also Balce-Cortes). Another critic describes the novel as “the cinematext of a Third World scenario that might be the Philippines” (San Juan 118). The cinematic metaphors are especially relevant here when we consider that Hollywood movies, along with other objects of American or popular culture, invade the “real” and the “reel” life of the characters. The overlapping boundaries of the real and the make-believe, and consequently of fact and fiction, are among the many themes of the novel.

It is also important to note that while the novel begins with the life of Rio, a young mestiza who migrates to America, very little information is given of her immigrant life and her years in the United States. Interestingly, many American readers often identify Rio as the central narrator even though the novel consistently changes points of view, voice, and plot. Rio's story cannot be the central narrative in a novel that has none. Her story and the stories featuring other characters—the prostitute Joey Sands, the beauty queen Daisy Avila, the aspiring actor Romeo Rosales, the flirty cousin Pucha, and so on—are really counter narratives. The different narratives compete for the reader's belief in the “truth,” in the authentic voice narrating the events. The novel ends with a kundiman, or love song, for the motherland. The song is bittersweet. The images of the motherland, both the secular and the religious, the sacred and the profane, mimic the ambivalence of the author toward her former home.

Lisa Lowe reads Dogeaters in terms of how official history writing is disrupted by the novel's competing, sometimes contradictory, narratives and by the circulation of tsismis, or gossip, among the marginalized inhabitants of Manila (112-20). Given its formal pastiches, cultural hybridity, epistemological instability, and multiplicity of perspectives, Dogeaters is often labeled postmodernist. (For debates surrounding the significance of postmodernist elements, see Hau and San Juan.)


Dogeaters is a novel that elicits different responses from students. For some, the novel's untraditional form may be confusing and difficult to read. Others, however, may have no difficulty following the various narratives and are drawn to the novel's experimental form. Teachers should address the form, or formlessness, of the novel at the onset. They may discuss the aesthetic of the contemporary novel and the way traditional and modernist ideas of realism, plot, chronology, and other structural forms of the novel have been challenged by contemporary writers.

Before assigning Dogeaters, teachers may find it helpful to discuss the concepts of memory, history, and fiction. The articles by Toni Morrison and Ketu Katrak are fine for this purpose.

Because America's role in the colonization of the Philippines is often suppressed or euphemistically presented in hegemonic accounts of American history, it is important for teachers to provide an adequate historical context for Dogeaters (see the suggested readings and videos given below).


With Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior: history and authenticity, the importance of memory, silence and telling, unraveling secrets, the motifs of food and eating.

With Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee: colonial history and personal history, violence and colonization, filmic textuality and fiction, official and repressed histories, vignette or episodic chapters and the function of the “fragment” aesthetic.

With Ninotchka Rosca's State of War: the legacies of colonialism and a dictatorship; colonial history and personal history; dreams, nightmares, and Third World realities; the Philippines as “other” of the United States; “Manila” as a Third World city where pervasive violence and American domination are symbolized in subtle forms and artifacts.

With Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits: fantasy, colonial history, and personal history; the importance of memory and telling; violence by the colonizer and the elite; the legacies of violence.

With Eric Gamalinda's Empire of Memory: official and repressed histories; violence, state repression, and resistance; the burden of memory; silence, censorship, and memory; the invisible and visible legacies of American colonization.


On American colonization of the Philippines at the turn of the century, see Oscar V. Campomanes's essays (“Filipinos,” Afterword, and “1898”) and the works by Gareth Jones, Walter Williams, Stuart Miller, and Kristin Hoganson. Robert Rydell covers the Philippine exhibit at the 1904 Saint Louis World's Fair. On American colonization, see Richard Drinnon; Daniel Schirmer and Stephen Shalom; and Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease. Ricardo Manapat gives a lively journalistic account of the excesses of the Marcos regime. The first two chapters can serve as an introduction to the martial law period, and there are useful endnotes on American news coverage of the Marcoses. On the fall of the Marcos regime, see Ninotchka Rosca, Endgame, and Vicente Rafael.

Readers who wish to study Hagedorn's poetry and fiction may read her earlier works, some of which have been compiled and republished under the title Danger and Beauty (1993). Hagedorn discusses Dogeaters and the notions of memory and history in “Homesick” and issues of identity in “The Exile Within/The Question of Identity.” Campomanes gives a useful biographical history of Hagedorn (“Hagedorn”).


Useful videos include Bontoc Eulogy, which contains archival footage on the Philippine Reservation at the Saint Louis World's Fair and deals with the themes of memory, history, and fiction, and Savage Acts, which concisely covers American expansion, especially the annexation of the Philippines and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).


Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Anderson, Benedict. “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams.” New Left Review 169 (1988): 3-31.

Balce-Cortes, Nerissa. “Imagining the Neocolony.” Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism 2.2 (1995): 95-120.

Bonner, Raymond. Waltzing with a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy. New York: Times, 1987.

Bontoc Eulogy. Dir. Marlon Fuentes. Perf. Marlon Fuentes and cast. Natl. Asian Amer. Telecommunications Assn. (NAATA), 1996.

Burton, Sandra. Impossible Dream: The Marcoses, the Aquinos, and the Unfinished Revolution. New York: Warner, 1989.

Buss, Claude A. Cory Aquino and the People of the Philippines. Stanford: Stanford Alumni Assn., 1987.

Campomanes, Oscar V. Afterword. “The New Empire's Forgetful and Forgotten Citizens: Unrepresentability and Unassimilability in Filipino-American Postcolonialities.” Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism 2.2 (1995): 145-200.

———. “1898 and the Nature of the New Empire.” Spec. issue of Radical History Review 73.1 (1999): 130-46.

———. “Filipinos in the United States and Their Literature of Exile.” Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992. 49-78.

———. “Hagedorn, Jessica Tarahata.” The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. 370-71.

Casper, Leonard. “Bangungot and the Philippine Dream in Hagedorn.” Solidarity: Current Affairs, Ideas and the Arts 127 (1990): 152-57.

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. Berkeley: Third Woman, 1994.

D'Alpuget, Blanche. “Philippine Dream Feast.” New York Times Book Review 25 Mar. 1990: 1+.

Doyle, Jacqueline. “‘A Love Letter to My Motherland’: Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters.Hitting Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism 4.2 (1999): 1-26.

Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building. New York: Schocken, 1990.

Elliott, Emory, ed. The Columbia History of the American Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.

Ellison, Katherine. Imelda: Steel Butterfly of the Philippines. New York: McGraw, 1988.

Evangelista, Susan. “Jessica Hagedorn and Manila Magic.” MELUS 18.4 (1993): 41-52.

Gamalinda, Eric. The Empire of Memory. Manila: Anvil, 1992.

Gill, Elaine G., ed. Mountain Moving Day: An Anthology of Women's Poetry. Watsonville: Crossing, 1973.

Gonzalez, N. V. M. “Dogeaters.Amerasia Journal 17.1 (1991): 189-92.

Gordon, Jaimy. “Frantic Entertainments.” American Book Review 12.5 (1990): 16+.

Hagedorn, Jessica, ed. Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction. New York: Penguin, 1993.

———. Danger and Beauty. New York: Penguin, 1993.

———. Dangerous Music: The Poetry and Prose of Jessica Hagedorn. San Francisco: Momo's, 1975.

———. Dogeaters. New York: Penguin, 1991.

———. “The Exile Within/The Question of Identity.” The State of Asian America. Ed. Karin Aguilar-San Juan. Boston: South End, 1994. 173-82.

———. The Gangster of Love. Boston: Houghton, 1996.

———. “Homesick.” Visions of America: Personal Narratives from the Promised Land. Ed. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea, 1993. 326-28.

———. Interview. Moveable Feast. Natl. Public Radio. New York, 1990.

———. Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions. San Francisco: Momo's, 1981.

Hau, Caroline S. “Dogeaters, Postmodernism, and the ‘Worlding’ of the Philippines.” Philippine Post-colonial Studies: Essays on Language and Literature. Ed. Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo and Priscelina Patajo-Legasto. Quezon City: U of the Philippines, 1993. 113-27.

Hoganson, Kristin L. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.

Hussein, Aamer. “Dogeaters.Times Literary Supplement 27 Sept. 1991: 26.

———. In Search of Marcos' Millions. PBS. 26 May 1990.

Jones, Gareth Stedman. “The Specificity of U.S. Imperialism.” New Left Review 60 (1970): 59-86.

Kaplan, Amy, and Donald E. Pease, eds. Cultures of United States Imperialism. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Karnow, Stanley. In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines. New York: Random, 1989.

Katrak, Ketu H. “Colonialism, Imperialism, and Imagined Homes.” Elliott 649-78.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Lee, Rachel. The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

Lee, A. Robert. “Eat a Bowl of Tea: Asian America in the Novels of Gish Jen, Cynthia Kadohata, Kim Ronyoung, Jessica Hagedorn, and Tran Van Dinh.” Ethnicity and Representation in American Literature. Spec. issue of Yearbook of English Studies 24 (1994): 263-80.

Lipson, Eden Ross. “Real Life, Imaginary Dictators.” New York Times Book Review 25 Mar. 1990: 38.

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Lyons, John, and Karl Wilson. Marcos and Beyond: The Philippines Revolution. Kenthurst: Kangaroo, 1987.

Manapat, Ricardo. Some are Smarter than Others: The History of Marcos' Crony Capitalism. New York: Aletheia, 1991.

Miller, Stuart Creighton. “Benevolent Assimilation”: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903. New Haven: Yale UP, 1982.

Mirikitani, Janice, et al., eds. Time to Greez! Incantations from the Third World. San Francisco: Glide-Third World, 1975.

Morrison, Toni. “The Site of Memory.” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Ed. Russel Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art and MIT, 1990. 299-305.

Nguyen, Viet. “The Postcolonial State of Desire: Homosexuality and Transvestitism in Ninotchka Rosca's State of War.Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism 2.2 (1995): 67-93.

———. “Writing the Body Politic: Asian American Subjects and the American Nation.” Diss. U of California, Berkeley, 1997.

Paulet, Anne. “‘The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian’: The Use of U.S. Indian Policy as a Guide for the Conquest and Occupation of the Philippines, 1898-1905.” Diss. Rutgers U, 1995.

Rafael, Vicente L. “Fishing, Underwear, and Hunchbacks: Humor and Politics in the Philippines, 1896 and 1983.” Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting. Chicago, 1986.

Rempel, William C. Delusions of a Dictator: The Mind of Marcos as Revealed in His Secret Diaries. Boston: Little, 1993.

Rexroth, Kenneth, ed. Four Young Women: Poems by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, Alice Karle, Barbara Szerlip, and Carol Tinker. New York: McGraw, 1973.

Rosca, Ninotchka. Endgame: The Fall of Marcos. New York: Watts, 1987.

———. State of War. New York: Norton, 1988.

Rydell, Robert W. All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

San Juan, Epifanio, Jr. “Mapping the Boundaries: The Filipino Writer in the U.S.A.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 19.1 (1991): 117-31.

Savage Acts: Wars, Fairs, and Empire. Dir. Pennee Bender, Joshua Brown, and Andrea Ades Vasquez. Amer. Social History Project, 1995.

Schirmer, Daniel B., and Stephen Rosskamm Shalom. The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance. Boston: South End, 1987.

Seagrave, Sterling. The Marcos Dynasty. New York: Harper, 1988.

Third World Women. Ed. Third World Women. San Francisco: Third World Communications, 1972.

Toxic Sunset: On the Trail of Toxic Wastes in Clark and Subic. Dir. Benjamin Pimentel and Louella Lasola. Natl. Asian Amer. Telecommunications Assn. (NAATA), 1993.

West, Cornel. “Postmodern Culture.” Elliott 515-20.

Williams, Walter A. “United States Indian Policy and the Debate over Philippine Annexation: Implications for the Origins of American Imperialism.” Journal of American History 66 (1980): 810-31.

Wong, Sau-ling C. “Denationalization Reconsidered: Asian American Cultural Criticism at a Theoretical Crossroads.” Amerasia Journal 21.1-2 (1995): 1-27.

Myra Mendible (essay date spring 2002)

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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

The following description of an Imelda Marcos “performance” during a 1965 political rally in Manila suggests the unstable boundaries between politics and spectacle, authority and image making, captivation and captivity:

Led to the microphone, she touches it, and prepares to sing her winning repertoire. […] She has lost weight considerably […] it is a slight and vulnerable back that rises above the scoop of her neckline. […] She knows the excitement of power—the crowd waits, like a trapped and unresisting prey, for Imelda to begin using that power. [… T]he old charisma, with its look of suffering, potent tonight as never before, the brilliance of beauty commingling with the brilliance of pain, the haunted, agonized, tragic look encircling the plaza and holding her audience in thrall.

(qtd. in Polotan, 59-60)

By playing on powerful images and myths produced and nurtured by a ruling elite, power represents itself to a spectator society in captivating and familiar forms. Spectators at these events willingly submit to political manipulation and control: Imelda's meticulous performance evokes images of feminine vulnerability and subjugation that both mediate and reflect (her husband's) political authority. Whereas Imelda's female beauty appears to deflect state power, her “tragic look” and “slight and vulnerable” body narrate the people's history of oppression. Imelda's performance is textualized to the degree that it is inscribed by a Philippine history of colonization and repressive regimes and loaded with patriotic (patriarchal) imagery. Her body is the locus of conflicting signs, both vulnerable and powerful; as the national text through which subjects reflect their own desires and authorize their own subjugation, Imelda lulled her “trapped and unresisting prey” into political slumber.

Set in Marcos-era Manila, Dogeaters reflects Jessica Hagedorn's attempt to “subvert, exorcise, celebrate” the contradictory myths and desires that play on the Filipino sensibility.1 The text offers a kaleidoscopic view of a Philippine society shaped by radically conflicting social, political, and economic interests. In this schizoid con/text, religious and cinematic images, folk myths, public displays, and private desires overlap and view for power. Mass-produced images provide the stuff of collective dreams, cultural memories, and political control. Hagedorn's cast of voyeurs and dreamers is caught in the spectator's bind that Debord has so aptly described: “the more [the spectator] contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires” (para. 30). In Hagedorn's spectacle-text, characters exist in a disjointed, irreconcilable, and insubstantial present where truths are constructed or altered at will, and the only nearly reliable source of information is the tsismis (gossip) disseminated by the locals.

Dogeaters reflects the conditions of its own production by incorporating postmodern features such as disruptive intertextual dialogues, temporal and causal dislocations, unreliable subjectivities, and historical pastiche. The story unfolds through an array of speakers, various textual fragments, and seemingly disconnected scenarios and events. These techniques make a display of the text's instability and artifice. Written on her own terms “in the English I reclaim as a Filipino: the English mixed with Spanish and Tagalog,”2 the text includes “fragments of overheard dialogue, newspaper clippings, found historical documents, soap opera plots, the script for a radio melodrama” (Conference 148). Hagedorn's representation dramatizes the confusion and complexity of a nation poised in the balance of postmodern and postcolonial conditions.

The narrative ironically posits the problem of representation in a cultural-political environment where that which is made visibly “true” is precisely most insubstantial and suspect. In so doing, Hagedorn comments on the socioeconomic agenda that underlies postmodern image production. Postmodernism signals the dissolution of prescribed social meaning into a vast playground of competing images; it dissociates cause and effect and concentrates “on the seductiveness of means and a concomitant disavowal of ends” (Polan 59). This disavowal signals the instability of the claims of knowledge at the present time, but more important, it insists on the temporary, provisional, and indeterminate status of all meanings and subjectivities. Revolutionary incentives thereby appear as insignificant (spectacular) gestures. The desire to (re)constitute or (re)present a coherent sense of self, history, or culture is dismissed as part and parcel of the world of the simulacrum.

In Hagedorn's Marcos-era Manila, the spectacle of culture actually preempts cultural recuperation: Dozens of Filipino construction workers perish constructing a theatre that will showcase a dictator's devotion to foreign films; an aspiring actor named Orlando who calls himself Romeo is randomly cast as subversive and assassinated; a male prostitute supports his heroin addiction by selectively playing out exotic stereotypes for his Western clientele; and impoverished women shed tears for the hapless heroine of a daily radio show.

While their dictators flourish on the world stage, Hagedorn's characters dream themselves to be actors in Hollywood movies, often confusing cinematic events with personal memories; they produce themselves in the image of another's desire, watch themselves reenacting a living performance, or attempt to read the shadows that inhabit their surroundings. In Hagedorn's spectacle-text, characters remain “happy and lost” in artificial memories and ill-fitting dreams sent from abroad, conceding power to those who run the show. They emerge as representations of a people set adrift without a decipherable cultural past in a nation “evolved from one of the world's longest spans of Western imperial rule” (Karnow 9); a nation where history is recounted by a popular saying: “Filipinos spent four centuries in a Spanish convent and fifty years in Hollywood.”

Although postmodern aesthetics tends to privilege spectacle over meaning, the production of spectacle assumes, in itself, an ideological function. For those Third World nations historically located on the receiving end of naming and signification projects, the adoption of a postmodern stance offers, in Dana Polan's apt description of spectacle, “an imagistic surface of the world as a strategy of containment against any depth of involvement with that world” (63). Still enmeshed in the various institutional, social, and epistemological mechanisms installed and sustained by a signifying system of Western supremacy, the Philippines exemplifies Stuart Hall's remark that “postmodernism is about how the world dreams itself ‘American’” (46). While Americans may be increasingly enamored of (our own) advertising images of exotic others as novelty ethnic commodities, neocolonial culture tends to import and internalize American images in lieu of producing meaningful Filipino models of identity and social change. The Philippines may have been shaped “in America's image” as Stanley Karnow proposes (a self-image that still undermines efforts to decolonize the Filipino psyche), but it exists in a Third-World economic reality where first-world images are indeed simulacra—models for which originals never existed.3

Hagedorn has remarked that she, like most Filipinos, “was brainwashed from infancy to look outside the indigenous culture for guidance and inspiration.”4

[We were] taught that the label “Made in the U.S.A.” meant automatic superiority, taught that Filipinos are inherently lazy, shiftless, and undependable. Our only talent, it seems, is for mimicry.

(Conference 147)

In her debut novel, Hagedorn exploits this professed talent for mimicry. While transgressing the limits of its genre, Dogeaters foregrounds the act of representation as both semiotic and mimetic activity. As a performance artist, Hagedorn brings to her work an attention to visual imagery that spectacularizes the “chaotic, hybrid, and exhilarating” culture of her homeland (Conference 146). The multiple narrators throughout the text are engaged in a process of self-creation that mirrors the act of writing. Their representations reflect the fictive nature of a postmodern moment that in Baudrillard's words is “dominated by images.” Consequently, they expose the shifting and unsteady bases of all representation and mimic the performative will of postmodern image making. The multiple narrators subvert the authority of any master script and offer their Western readers a fascinating and confusing display of “exotic” subjects. As self-conscious, authorized spectacle, the text mimics a postmodern gesture of deferred meaning. It represents the problematic status of social critique in a postmodern environment where “oppositions between surface and depth, the authentic and the inauthentic, the imaginary and the real, signifier and signified seem to have broken down” (Rogin 9).

Hagedorn sets the stage for the events in Dogeaters with an excerpt from Jean Mallat's authoritative (presumably factual) 1846 study, The Philippines. In a tone that recalls Trinh Minh-ha's description of anthropology as “a chatty talk. […] finally better defined as ‘gossip’” (68), Mallat explains that Filipinos “have the greatest respect for sleeping persons, and the greatest curse they can pronounce against anybody is to wish that he die in his sleep.” He confides to his readers that Filipinos “cannot abide the idea of waking a sleeping person.” With this opening remark, Hagedorn immediately sets in motion a critique of collective passivity—a critique that invariably comments on the political usefulness of pacifying spectacles. Mallat's confidential tone invites the reader's gaze: “They” are the object of scrutiny, the exotic spectacle presented for our information and knowledge, the natives as imagined (theorized) by the “nativist.” In this way, we are invited to attend the world of the text as spectacle.

Where should the story begin, then, but at the movies, where dreaming is a social event? The opening pages of the novel initiate and confirm this desire for collective dreaming: It is 1956 in Manila's “Foremost! First-Run! English Movies Only!” Avenue Theater. A girl named Rio sits in the balcony and watches All That Heaven Allows. She is captivated, along with her rowdy cousin Pucha, by this celluloid version of Americans in love: handsome Rock Hudson and rich Jane Wyman in Cinemascope and Technicolor, playing out their love affair against an enviably “perfect picture-book American tableau.” Rio confesses her fascination for Gloria Talbott, who plays Wyman's spoiled daughter—her “brash style” and “casual arrogance seems inherently American, modern, and enviable” (4).

As the first of three subjective narrators in the novel, Rio Gonzaga is both dreamer and spectator. She dreams that someday she is “going to make movies” rather than act in them (241). Yet throughout the pages of her narrative, she assumes the attitude of the spectator, observing but not acting on her environment. Her tone remains detached, matter-of-fact; she eventually leaves the Philippines and moves to America. Rio's descriptions move easily between the shadowy world of her family and the world of the cinema. She watches the spectacle of competing images that make up her world, the familiar actors on screen and off, and tells us what she sees. She sees her noncommittal father—adept in the politics of indeterminacy—acting according to the latest script of power, adhering to the belief that “adaptability is the simple secret of survival” (9). Freddie Gonzaga is an opportunist who “makes pronouncements but rarely lives up to them” (7), a Filipino who nevertheless “refers to himself as a ‘guest’ in his own country” (7). Rio's father has mastered the art of dissembling; he is a political and emotional chameleon, a mestizo who admittedly feels no connection or loyalty to his Filipino nationality. Like his brother, Cristobal, Freddie knows how to adapt his image according to the needs of the moment. Thus, his postmodern survival kit includes a belief “in paying bribes” and in “dual citizenships, dual passports, as many allegiances to as many countries as possible at any one given time” (7).

Rio also sees her “Rita Hayworth mother” constantly struggling to maintain appearances. On the one hand, Dolores Logan Gonzaga is a beautiful woman with “smooth skin the color of yellow-white ivory” (82), the sign of her privileged status. On the other, she is of mixed heritage, ashamed of her darker ancestry—the daughter of an American named Whitman and a small, brown-skinned Filipina peasant who is kept out of sight when guests visit the house. Dolores Gonzaga lives for her beautification rituals, which include cold creams, moisturizers, “daily naps with masks of mashed avocado, mashed sinkamas, and a red clay from France smeared on her face” (82). She fashions herself more or less on the image of Rita Hayworth and every couple of months has her black hair tinted with auburn highlights to keep up the illusion. Even Dolores's mysterious mauve-colored bedroom is designed so that “Whenever she looks in any of her mirrors it is always night and she is always beautiful” (84).

Rio's representation of her grandmother, however, conflicts radically with the pseudorealistic world of her parents. Her Lola Narcisa's domain is the past; she is a literal representation of the mysterious and repressed world of Filipino tradition. In Lola Narcisa's room, traces of an indigenous identity survive alongside colonial religious imagery. Next to the crucifix above her grandmother's bed, Rio tells us, hangs a framed painting of the Madonna and child: “The Madonna is depicted as a native woman wearing the traditional patadyong; the infant Jesus has the brown skin of my Lola Narcisa and straight black hair” (10). In her grandmother's room, Rio and the female servants gather to participate in a modern ritual: They listen and weep to the nightly episode of a radio soap opera. Rio cries “unabashedly” during these cathartic visits. “It's a delicious tradition,” she admits, “the way we weep without shame” (12). As Rio leaves the room each night, her Lola Narcisa remains, “[h]appy and lost in her radio reverie.”

Rio's narration takes the reader on a spectacular tour of her surroundings that focuses on the appearances and gestures of others with minimal commentary. In fact, Rio seems bound to experience life as a series of film clips: The familial, bourgeois world she describes is constantly intruded upon by flashes of cinematic images and projections. In this way, Hagedorn intentionally confuses and distracts readers, causing them to experience the conflicting imagery that informs and invades Rio's world. This technique also suggests that Rio fluctuates between a desire to create her own story and the impulse to retreat into the alluring projections of the spectacle. In one scene, Rio sneaks off with her cousin Pucha to see A Place in the Sun, a film condemned by the Archdiocese of Manila as obscene. Although she admits that they are “bewildered by the movie, which is probably too American” for them, Rio decides that “even if I don't understand it, I like this movie” (15). Rio translates the images she sees projected on the screen into textual imagery, conveying the magic of Elizabeth Taylor's “breathtaking face […] imploring a forbidden kiss” or “Montgomery Clift's shoulder in giant close-up on the movie screen.” Although she cannot make sense of these images in relation to her own surroundings, she explains to the reader that the lovers in this movie “are drunk with their own beauty and love, that much I understand” (16).

These free-floating images give way to her recollection of another scene in another movie:

Jane Wyman bends over a comatose Rock Hudson. She tells him she loves him, she will be with him forever in the rustic cottage by the frozen lake. He finally opens his eyes. [… T]he power of Jane Wyman's love has cured Rock Hudson and pulled him from death.


Most significant, Rio's representation of a representation then merges with the actual memory of her grandfather Whitman lying in bed at the American Hospital. She tries to reconcile the opposing images by envisioning “Lola Narcisa bending over my grandfather's bed like Jane, an angel of mercy whispering so softly in his ear that none of us can make out what she is saying” (16). Rio momentarily casts Lola Narcisa in the role of saintly mediator—empowered through her virtue to grant miracles. But Rio is unable to sustain this false representation of her grandmother, who despite a lifetime of self-abnegation modeled on radio soaps and Catholic dogma, will never achieve such status. Rio's images become progressively more ludicrous, incongruous, and disillusioning: “He barks like a dog, grunts and sputters like an old car. My grandmother wipes the drool from the corners of his mouth while my Rita Hayworth mother, Dolores Logan Gonzaga, stands as far away from her father's bed as possible. She seems terrified and bewildered by this image of her dying father” (16). Rio, like her mother, is confused by this contrast between the “pristine illusion” of the film and the real hospital room where “there is only our sense of foreboding, heightened by the grayness of bedsheets and medical uniforms” (17). The juxtaposition of images connoting American femininity and power (Jane Wyman as the “rich widow,” in Cinemascope) with visions of a “shriveled brown woman” solemnly awaiting her husband's death accentuates the disparity between image and reality—and the sway of one over the other.

In fact, before Rio's own referent for the experience of dying can be actualized (represented), she forces herself to confront the painful memory and resist the intrusive power of displaced images. The moment she decides to “shut [her] eyes and the movie projector goes off in [her] head,” Rio regains control of her narrative. Instead of a death accompanied by “[s]entimental music […] swelling to a poignant crescendo as the closing credits roll along” (16), there is an “ancient Philco radio […] hissing and humming to my Lola Narcisa, its dreadful music somehow soothing her” (17). The scene concludes with the horrifying shrieks of a dying old man—her memory of the actual event. In this way, the “truth” of the experience is realized and confronted: “His shrieks […] the way his body twists and jerks epileptically on the hospital bed, is unbearable.” But more important, Rio's text then grants her grandmother a voice that asserts, if only for an instant, Lola Narcisa's own authority: “DON'T TOUCH HIM!” my Lola Narcisa screams in English. […] Everyone stops dead in their tracks, stunned that the shriveled brown woman has so loudly and finally spoken” (17). It is interesting that both Rio and her grandmother ultimately choose to elude this “unbearable” reality and forfeit their claim to authority. Lola Narcisa's last words ask only that her husband be allowed to sleep: “If you wake him, he dies. […] Better to leave him dreaming” (17). Rio resumes the attitude of the spectator, bound to recall a mediated version of Whitman's death. In a later scene, she chooses to remember her mother's anesthetized description of the event: “He died in his sleep, she said. […] He never woke up. It was a good thing—he didn't suffer, she was sure of it” (57).

Rio's narrative is also interrupted by passages that encapsulate the latest episodes in the week's radio drama. These episodes invariably appeal to the impoverished female listeners who defer their own misery by vicariously experiencing the misfortunes of the gentle heroine. “According to my father,” Rio confides, “Love Letters appeals to the lowest common denominator” (11). In fact, the Gonzagas refuse to listen to Tagalog songs or attend Tagalog movies for the same reason: as traces of an indigenous culture, they are associated with what her Uncle Agustin calls the “bakya crowd.” These vestigial signs of Filipino cultural identity are classed with the inferior, the subordinate, the crude, the ingenuous, the effeminate. Accordingly, the episodes are always didactic, tragic, and predictable. “Just like our Tagalog movies,” Rio explains, “the serial is heavy with pure love, blood debts, luscious revenge, the wisdom of mothers, and the enduring sorrow of Our Blessed Virgin Barbara Villanueva,” the popular Filipina actress who stars in the show (12). This reference to the “blessed” Villanueva ironically conflates cinematic and religious influences: she is movie idol and feminine icon—both ideologically constructed figures to be worshipped and emulated. Through the spectacle of female suffering, these “didactic, tragic, and predictable” serial plots teach the rewards of suffering and endurance. They are aimed at a predominantly poor and female audience seeking their own redemption through a familiar iconography of female martyrdom.

In the Philippine context, these popular melodramas, like their cinematic counterparts, serve as allegories of neocolonialist, racist, or sexist oppression.5 In her discussion of Marcos-era cinema and popular culture, Gina Marchetti argues that unlike their Hollywood models, popular Philippine “romances, melodramas, or ‘women's pictures’” are expressions of political discontent and often give a voice to a marginalized audience. The female protagonists in those representations usually serve “as symbols of oppression, sacrifice, and perpetual victimization, while also acting as sex objects that reify relations of dominance and subordination” (25). In this way, political and economic power relations are reenacted through stories that appear to be “simple chronicles of women's miseries—ostensibly without allegorical significance” (25). What is most relevant to my discussion here, however, is Marchetti's analysis of several contemporary Philippine films that self-consciously consider the role of the film industry and the Catholic church in sustaining the dominant ideology and the power it represents. These films tend to explore the ways that both institutions generate emotions, values, and aspirations that “perpetuate the status quo by creating dead-end dreams” (29). In Marchetti's view, dissident Filipino film makers such as Lino Brocka recognize the power of ideology to limit and mold thought to such an extent “that oppression seems not only natural and inevitable, but desirable and ultimately fulfilling” (29).

Accordingly, Rio's intertextual narrative includes encapsulations of the weekly episodes of Love Letters. One story, for example, casts the Filipino icon of femininity, Barbara Villanueva, as a beautiful servant in the home of a wealthy landowner and his wife, “a haughty mestiza” (note the class and racial implications here). Inevitably, the young servant is seduced and impregnated by the master's son, Mario—who is conveniently shipped off to military school. After a series of mishaps and betrayals, the “beautiful young servant is cruelly thrown out of the house on a stormy night” (12). The episode concludes with the abandoned and scorned servant girl awaiting “the birth of her child, meekly resigned to the fact that Mario refuses to see her” (13).

Like others included throughout the text, this episode serves as a model for female submission and suffering. It articulates the dependent status of economically and socially disempowered women, particularly, and serves as a metaphor for other forms of class or racial exploitation. The female icon of subjugation, on the one hand, sanctifies and thus helps perpetuate the role of the victim. On the other hand, she provides the victimized and marginalized segments of the population a medium for their discontent—a referent grounded in their own historical and social conditions. In these woeful stories of seduction and betrayal, Rio sees her Lola Narcisa's own marginalization and rejection. As she watches her “rapt grandmother” leaning close to the radio each night, “as if by doing so she can prolong her precious drama one more second” (15), Rio understandably indulges with the other women in communal weeping and participates in a history of ritual behavior and patterns.

But as the opening line of the chapter entitled “Epiphany” tells us, “[The Philippines] belongs to women who easily shed tears and men who are ashamed to weep” (105). The radio soaps, like the idealized visions presented through film and religion, can have a soporific effect—producing a kind of collective political unconscious. It is therefore not surprising that Hagedorn juxtaposes an episode of Love Letters with a scene depicting the interrogation and subsequent rape of a young woman. In the chapter entitled “The Famine of Dreams,” Hagedorn's subtext (printed in bold face and enclosed in parentheses) consists of the “actual” events as recounted by a third-person narrator. The voices on the radio speak to the reader as the dominant text—distracting the reader from the “reality” of the event. Daisy Avila, the daughter of a liberal senator assassinated in the course of the book (a character modeled on the popular—also assassinated—Philippine leader Benigno Aquino) is detained for questioning by the sadistic General Nicasio Ledesma. As he prepares to question her, the general turns up the volume on the radio and asks Daisy in a patronizing tone whether she likes these “sentimental” radio dramas. In an ironic reference to the man he has had killed, General Ledesma tells Daisy, “Your late father and I shared a mutual respect for the remarkable culture of this country” (212). While a voice on the radio exhorts the benefits of an eyedrop that has been “a trusted friend for over twenty-five years,” a burly man enters the room and begins to question Daisy. As the announcer's voice returns to “remind listeners about Diet TruCola and Cherry TruCola, now readily available at supermarkets and sari-sari stores everywhere” (215), Daisy is shown photos that document, in the general's words, the “terrible, terrible fate” of recalcitrant detainees. The general takes pleasure in pointing “out the young man's mashed testicles, the close-up of his gouged-out eyes” (215). Again, the scene is interrupted by the ever-present, ever-sorrowful voice of Barbara Villanueva—playing the role of the meek and suffering Magdalena in that night's episode of Love Letters. The chapter finally concludes with images of Daisy's victimization—images that serve to implicate the reader in a complicitous spectatorship: As Daisy is repeatedly and brutally raped by the general's men, the general plays the role of spectator. He refuses “to participate, preferring to stand in one corner and watch” (emphasis mine 216). Nevertheless, during the rapes he whispers in Daisy's ear, describing the torture devices that he will use on her “after his men are through” (216).

This comment on the interactive and interdependent relationship between the spectacle and the spectator, the passive observer and the perpetrator forms the basis of Hagedorn's social and political critique of representation. The manipulation and control of image production has obvious political implications.6 In societies where political leaders are known and loved for their ability to perform—not in the sense of executing actual improvements in their function as leaders but in the sense of appearing to do so—no real changes need ever take place. Vicente Rafael's provocative essay, “Patronage and Pornography: Ideology and Spectatorship in the Early Marcos Years,” argues that the Marcoses and their image makers set the national stage to foster a spectator society—a nation of voyeurs who “did not have to articulate their interests but only had to be alert for the appearance of something that would show and tell them what they wanted” (284). Rafael's astute discussion demonstrates the ways in which the First Couple successfully “imaged themselves not only as the ‘Father and Mother’ of an extended Filipino family” but managed to reconstruct history “in relation to prevalent ideas about the circulation and display of power in postcolonial Philippine society” (283). These ideas, or more precisely, these “images” of power, relied exclusively on the spectacle of political form emptied of content. Lacking the means or desire to achieve the “new” and “stronger” Philippine nation that Ferdinand promised, he nevertheless projected its image—an image sustained by a spectacular display of wealth and by apparent compliance with (and approval from) American leaders. For her part, Imelda projected a stylish composure (modeled on Western fashions and tastes) and articulated a deference to Ferdinand (“Even if he asked me, I would never dare make a decision for him,”7) that appealed both to traditional notions of feminine propriety and to a more “modern” view of women.

Imelda's charm was […] able to instigate and feed the wish for a kind of depoliticized community—one that would make the hierarchy between leaders and followers seem thoroughly benign. Through a series of stylized gestures and a standard repertoire of love songs in the vernacular, she created an atmosphere of generalized melancholia. [… H]er charm compelled others to stop thinking and start looking.


The compelling image of a beautiful woman domesticated by male authority and power, Rafael concludes, “reduced the people to spectators. […] They looked at her while he spoke to them” (290). Political gatherings thus became “an occasion to become audiences in a spectacle in which the central figure was the First Lady” (289); the crowd was invariably more interested in Imelda's appearance than in the content of Ferdinand's speeches.

The Marcos legacy, however, did not feed solely on a locally sponsored image-making apparatus. Gayatri Spivak has noted that “Nowadays, instead of guns, the most effective instruments that aid in the production of the ‘Third World’ are the technologies of the media” (1987; 86). American press releases declared Imelda Marcos, for example, a woman “[c]ommitted to the finer things in life” (Karnow 371), a promoter of Filipino art and culture. Karnow points out that she “spent a fortune on a cultural center, a luxury the crippled economy could scarcely afford, and launched a film festival featuring porno movies (371). In this way, she actually endorsed the “bomba” (porno) film market in the Philippines, a market that thrives on the depiction of female humiliation and subjugation. Yet her image as patron of the arts was so widely accepted that dancer Dame Margot Fonteyn, pianist Van Cliburn, and actor George Hamilton visited her in Manila at her request (and expense). Imelda's performances for the American media were so effective, in fact, that after a visit to the United States in 1966, the Washington Post declared her “a blessing not only to her own country, but to the world” (Karnow 371). The blessed Imelda also regarded the United States as an icon to be emulated—though her idolatry was expressed in far less sanctifying imagery: On her return to Manila, she “erupted enviously to a Manila magazine, ‘Wow! In America, when they're rich they're really rich’” (Karnow 371).

These examples point to the role of mass media in sustaining what Debord refers to as spectacle—“the image of the ruling class.” In the chapter, “Bananas and the Republic,” Hagedorn suggests the complicitous relationship between repressive political authority and the sale and distribution of its various disguises. The president's wife (modeled of course on Imelda Marcos) has granted an American journalist an interview. As a passive observer and recorder of the event, the young journalist “scribbles everything she says in his notebook” (218). Referred to throughout only as “Madame” (a sobriquet rife with implications), the president's wife wears several “masks” or personas throughout the interview. While the journalist questions her about rumors of government-sanctioned torture and assassination, Madame skillfully assumes a variety of ideologically sanctioned “feminine” roles that serve to establish her “innocence”: beautiful martyr, compassionate servant of the people, proud wife to “the leader of an emerging and prosperous nation,” and “mother of such intelligent, unspoiled children” (220). She posits herself a woman wrongly accused of being “extravagant,” of owning thousands of imported shoes. She defends herself with visual evidence, pointing out “the worn heel” on her shoe, the wear and tear of “at least five years.” She then assumes a presumably patriotic stance, claiming to buy only locally made shoes, remarking that she is “a nationalist when it comes to fashion” (217).8 For the sake of her people, Madame implies, she is willing to accept an “inferior” product (“You know our famous expression, imported? It's always been synonymous with ‘the best’ in my country” 217). She even complains that she is “cursed” by her beauty: “They're all jealous, okay? My beauty has been used against me […] I've been made to suffer—I can't help it, okay! I was born this way” (218).

Madame conveniently conflates truth and fiction, adeptly drawing on cinematic and textual images as evidence to support of her actions. In an especially telling remark, she defends her innocence by comparing herself to a fictional character: “If I were corrupt, I would look like that other movie, Dorian Gray” (220). Although living in evident luxury, Madame insists that she “sacrificed everything” to serve her country. Yet she seems oblivious to the incongruity of her remarks and reveals her own penchant for artifice by confiding that her real calling was the theatre: “I could have been an actress in one of those romantic musicals” (224). Apparently missing the implications of such an admission, she remarks, “What would life be without movies? Unendurable, di ba? We Filipinos, we know how to endure, and we embrace the movies. With movies, everything is okay lang” (224). In fact, she indulges in a postmodern logic that denies that existence of any real social or political problems: “There are no real issues. Issues are conflicts made up by the opposition to further tear my country apart” (221).

During her spectacular and ludicrous display, the journalist finds it difficult to ignore “a whirl of images” in his mind that contradict Madame's representation: “grainy black and white footage of sobbing women, women kneeling over open graves, graves piled high with the corpses of mutilated men and children” (222). Although the disparity between Madame's images of national harmony and prosperity radically conflict with other representations depicting images of mass poverty, despair, and repression, the journalist opts to play by the rules of the spectacle. Sickened by the charade before him, he nevertheless reconciles himself to the idea that “[t]here is no war in [Madame's] mind—as there is no real threat that could possibly exist in her husband's mind.” The journalist sees through Madame's performance, but he becomes her accomplice, for he plans only to “construct from this [interview] an intimate profile of Madame, startling and amusing.” If, as Baudrillard put it, the “real is that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction” (54), then the journalist's “intimate profile” will be as “real” as any other. Reality, after all, is only a series of incoherent, contradictory, and ultimately meaningless texts.

Rio's own story remains inconclusive and unsubstantiated. She tells us that she eventually emigrates with her mother to the United States, but she remains “anxious and restless, at home only in airports” (247). She will never marry. Rio says that she stops going to church, but her narrative does not comment on whether she stops going to the movies—or, on whether she ever sees anything that resembles that projected image of the “rustic cottage by the frozen lake.” There is little to indicate that Rio will be able to make sense of her dreams in the American context, to finally shed the passive role of the spectator.

In a gesture of postmodern skepticism that implicates Rio in the spectacle by highlighting her role as image maker, Hagedorn follows Rio's last entry in the text with Pucha's conflicting version. In Pucha's text, Rio “got it all wrong.” Pucha actually accuses Rio of mixing “things up on purpose,” of trying to prove something by changing the past. Although Pucha admits that she “may not remember all the details” of the events, she takes it upon herself to deauthorize Rio's text. Pucha reprimands Rio and destabilizes her narrative, telling her that “this much is true, you'd better wake up and accept it: […] Your Lola Narcisa is dead. […] Your father isn't poor—how can you lie about such big things?” (249). She concludes with a remark that undermines Rio's “truthfulness” entirely and thus invalidates her view of the world. “Nothing is impossible with that crazy imagination of yours,” Pucha claims, “but if I were you prima, I'd leave well enough alone” (249).

The desire to “leave well enough alone” corresponds with a desire to forget history. By undermining or deferring the “truth” of any historical or cultural knowledge claims, postmodernism guarantees what Debord refers to as “a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance” (Comments 15). Debord argues that history's domain is the past, the remembered totality of events: “With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, unchecked statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning” (16). Thus, although creating a space for repressed or marginalized histories by destabilizing the epistemological bases of power, postmodern spectacle also denies those histories any credibility. Rio's narrative exemplifies this strategy: As it exposes the shifting and unstable foundations of all representation, her text deauthorizes itself. By implicating the narrative in a postmodern game of indeterminacy and duplicity, Hagedorn dramatizes the paradoxical nature of the postmodern stance. Hagedorn's critique of spectacle, in Craig Owens' description of deconstructive art practices, recognizes the “unavoidable necessity of participating in the very activity that is being denounced precisely in order to denounce it” (235).

Epifano San Juan, Jr. reads Hagedorn's text as an oblique commentary on the impact of U.S. imperial history on the Philippines. He refers to Dogeaters as the first novel that “seeks to render in a unique postmodernist idiom a century of U.S.-Philippine encounters” (118). In San Juan's view, the novel is “a cinematext of a Third World scenario that might be the Philippines or any other contemporary neocolonial milieu processed in the transnational laboratories of Los Angeles or New York” (118). Referring to the archipelago as America's once “fortuitous tabula rasa for the doctrine of market liberalism and meritocracy,” San Juan contends that “[s]uspended in a metonymy of dreams […] the Lacanian realm of the Imaginary, the Filipino cannot possess any identity worth writing about. […] He or she becomes simply a mimicry of the White American, a mock-image born of misrecognition” (123).

But as Roland Barthes has noted, “where politics begins is where imitation ceases” (154). Hagedorn's novel is not only a parodic reenactment of invasive and pervasive mass imagery in the Third World, but also more important, an indictment against collectivized passivity—a political reminder that, as Debord puts it, “Those who are always watching to see what happens next will never act: such must be the spectator's condition” (Comments 22). The text points not to the insignificance or the autonomy of the sign but to its role in the production and maintenance of power. In Hagedorn's text world, a postmodern delight for signification serves, not to resist hegemonic social and political forces but to captivate opposition. It furnishes a context in which spectacular signs of social and economic progress routinely take the place of material challenges and, more important, those signs are actually expected to mean nothing. What remain are a series of distractions—media events, lifestyle images, reenactments, political displays, simulated revolts.

Hagedorn has remarked that the colonizers were so efficient in the Philippines that she cannot honestly name what is indigenous, “except to say animism, paganism, matriarchy: what was long ago, before the Spaniards with their imperialist Christianity, and before the Americans with their [… [insidious media” (Conference 147). In the brief entry that concludes her text, Hagedorn's critique of signifying systems culminates in a feminist prayer that is both sacred and profane, a blessing and a curse. As its title suggests, the “Kundiman” chapter appeals to the power and spirit of woman.9 Conjuring up sacred images of woman as a figure of redemption and hope, Hagedorn usurps and exploits these dominant metaphors of Christian iconography to defame the name of the Father and impugn the rule of the patriarchy. These sacred images traditionally mediate female subjugation, but they also hold the promise of her empowerment. In Christian imagery, figurative representations of women glorify the virtue of passive suffering.10 In the symbolic order of the patriarchy, sacred images of woman articulate a narrative of sanctified oppression. Historical evidence suggests, however, that in the early phases of religious worship the female force was recognized as awesome, powerful, transcendent.11 With the institutionalization of patriarchy, that imagery was necessarily constrained and reconfigured.

Like her novel, Hagedorn's prayer is an oblique expression of conflicting impulses. It is an ironic condemnation that asks the “mother of revenge” to “forgive us our sins but not theirs” (251) and that juxtaposes images of despair, terror, and violence with visions of forgiveness, love, and redemption. On the one hand, Hagedorn revises Christian imagery so that the Garden becomes a female dominion, a realm blessed with “the fruits of [her] womb: guavas, mangos, santol, mangosteen, durian” (251). Images of death and destruction suggest the legacy of a militaristic patriarchal system: “Spilled blood of innocents, dead by the bullet, the dagger, the arrow; dead by the slingshot of polished stones, dead by grenades, hunger and thirst […] spilled blood of ignited flesh, exploded flesh; spilled blood of forbidden knowledge […]” (251). The female icon of “perennial sorrow” has eyes that “are veiled and clouded by tears, veiled but never blinded,” and her garden is infested with serpents. At the same time, the prayer is a confession of guilt and complicity, a collective appeal for the Mother to “bless us […] for we have sinned.”

Religious spectacles historically provided the means to govern, pacify, or captivate a colonized people. In the contemporary moment, ideological production is inextricably linked to image production, and spectacle remains a primary mechanism through which state powers project the appearance of consensual rule. Reconfigured as spectators, colonized subjects consent to another's vision of reality. In the Third World, decolonizing projects imagine viable alternatives and social action grounded in their own historical-economic realities. But as Hagedorn's text suggests, the spectators must not only dream but must act on their histories. Immobilized and silenced, they watch and wait to be represented and spoken for. Hagedorn's novel reenacts the cost of such a position in a Third World context, where real oppression and real terror so often provide raw material for the business of spectacular production.


  1. Jessica Hagedorn Conference presentation reprinted in Critical Fictions 148. Hereinafter cited as “Conference.”

  2. Hagedorn has noted that she “did not want to use a glossary” (Conference 148). Nevertheless, one reviewer complained that “it's a pity Ms. Hagedorn's editor did not insist” that she edit more of the “non-English expressions that pepper [her] pages.” To this reviewer, the “exoticisms become tiresome, more a nervous tic than a desire to make connection across the gulf of culture.” See Blanche d'Alpuget, “Philippine Dream Fest.” New York Times Book Review 25 March 1990: 1.

  3. Although Karnow does much to deconstruct various grand narratives used to defend U.S. imperial objectives in the Philippines, Peter Tarr criticizes Karnow's tendency to justify or idealize some of these without hesitation. See “Learning to Love Imperialism,” The Nation 5 June 1989: 779-84.

  4. Hagedorn's comments on the degraded status of indigenous languages in the Philippines are worth noting here: “We learned our native language, Tagalog, as if it were a foreign language. It was also the language used to address servants. English was the preferred language—expert, mock-English which everyone spoke mixed with Spanish slang. No one in my day ever thought to question why a so-called independent nation so close to China and Vietnam chose to conduct most of its schools, white-collar businesses, and even media in English” (In Conference, 147-48).

  5. For a discussion of the family as allegorical symbol for the nation in contemporary Philippine films, see Robert Silberman, “Was Tolstoy Right? Family Life and the Philippine Cinema.” East-West Film Journal. 4.1 (1989): 69-78.

  6. See Michael Rogin for an example of this relationship in the context of U.S. politics.

  7. Imelda Marcos quoted in Polotan 56.

  8. Stanley Karnow points out that after her escape from Manila in 1986, Imelda's three thousand pairs of shoes were found to be “mostly French and Italian” (373). Nevertheless, she later insisted to Karnow “that she had accumulated them to promote the Philippine shoe industry on her trips abroad” (373).

  9. A kundiman is a love aria. However, the word itself is etymologically linked to “cunt,” which is derived from the Oriental Great Goddess Cunti, or Kunda. In ancient writings the word “was synonymous with ‘woman,’ though not in the insulting modern sense” (197). Medieval clergymen deemed all pagan female-genital shrines obscene, so the word, like woman herself, assumed a degraded status. See Barbara Walker's Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.

  10. For an important review of the historical and etymological connection between image and ideology see David Downing and Susan Bazargan's introduction to Image and Ideology.

  11. See Lerner (particularly chapter 7, “The Goddesses”) for an informative account of this transformation.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill, 1977.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Debord, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Malcolm Imrie. New York: Verso, 1990.

———. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black, 1983.

Downing, David, and Susan Bazargan, eds. Image and Ideology. Albany: State U of New York P, c1991.

Hagedorn, Jessica. Conference Presentation. Ed. Mariani, Philomena. Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing. Seattle: Bay P, 1991. 146-50.

———. Dogeaters. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Karnow, Stanley. In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines. London: Century P, 1990.

Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Mallat, Jean. The Philippines. Manila, Philippines: National Historical Institute, 1983.

Marchetti, Gina. “Four Hundred Years in a Convent, Fifty in Hollywood: Sexual Identity and Dissent in Contemporary Philippine Cinema.” East-West Film Journal 2.2 (June 1988): 24-48.

Minh-ha, Trinh T. Woman, Native, Other: Writing, Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Owens, Craig. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” Ed. Brian Wallis. Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Boston: Godine, 1984.

Polan, Dana. “‘Above All Else to Make You See’: Cinema and the Ideology of Spectacle.” Postmodernism and Politics. Ed. Jonathan Arac. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Polotan, Kerima. Imelda Romualdez Marcos. New York and Cleveland: World P, 1969.

Rafael, Vicente L. “Patronage and Pornography: Ideology and Spectatorship in the Early Marcos Years.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 32 (April 1990).

Rogin, Michael Paul. “‘Make My Day!’ Spectacle as Amnesia in Imperial Politics.” Representations 29 (Winter 1990): 99-123.

San Juan, Epifano, Jr. “Mapping the Boundaries: The Filipino Writer in the U.S.A.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 19:1 (1991): 117-30.

Spivak, Gayatri. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1987.

Publishers Weekly (review date 4 August 2003)

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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 “conquistador without an army” can be. At around the same time, 10-year-old Rizalina, the sole survivor of a shipwreck in which her brutal father and twin brothers were killed, comes to live with her mother, who serves as loyal cook to Zamora at his grandiose Manila palace. A model student with an inquisitive mind, Lina is briefly happy, but when she is nearly 12 and Zamora takes an unseemly interest in her, she flees and ends up prostituting herself. A few years later, Vincent Moody appears, a captivating but aptly named film celebrity who abandons his girlfriend and son in California to star in a big Vietnam-era blockbuster, Napalm Sunset (think Apocalypse Now). When he stumbles upon Lina at a joint called the Love Connection, he falls for her and makes her part of the film's entourage. Meanwhile, Paz Marlowe, a Filipino-American journalist with social ties to Zamora's family, returns to Manila to attend her mother's funeral and to unravel the inconsistencies in accounts of Zamora's discovery. With the addition of each narrative thread, Hagedorn deconstructs Zamora's story, revealing the corruption of a regime capable of orchestrating the discovery of a new tribe as part of a public relations coup. Hagedorn hits some notes too hard, but her storytelling is sensuous and vivid and her characters are cunningly imagined; she offers a telling glimpse of the imposing American presence, both physical and cultural, in the Philippines.

Michael Upchurch (review date 5 October 2003)

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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.

Dream Jungle scrupulously documents its chosen time and place: the Marcos-controlled Philippines of the 1970's. But it also, more ambitiously, engages with the unreliability of the realities it depicts.

Could this whole Stone Age tribe business (based on the controversy surrounding the “gentle” Tasaday) be a fraud? Will the fake war (based on Francis Ford Coppola's filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines) make contact with the real hostilities nearby? Can Napalm Sunset—Hagedorn's perfect title for the film—do justice to the agonizing war that inspired it? What interference (or protection) can the filmmakers and anthropologists expect from the Philippine military and the Marcos government?

The book repeatedly zeroes in on the societal repercussions of heavily stage-managed creations, whether they be films, unlikely anthropological discoveries or the public face presented by a repressive regime to its citizens. But Hagedorn, thankfully, puts none of this down too baldly on the page. Instead, she intuits and insinuates her way around a dozen memorable characters and milieus, letting her concerns swarm beneath the busy surface of her narrative.

The result is her best book since Dogeaters, and a fine recovery from her flawed second novel, The Gangster of Love. Indeed, Dogeaters and Dream Jungle stand together like installments in a single panoramic Philippine historical epic, with just the right amount of cheesy delight in pop culture and tacky behavior to keep things from getting too pompous or ponderous.

Dream Jungle doesn't exactly have a plot, but it does have numerous plot points that allow the yearnings and fates of its pivotal characters to intertwine. Chief among these characters is Zamora Lopez de Legazpi, son of one of the five richest men in the Philippines, husband to an indolent “Teutonic goddess of a wife,” who pines for her native Munich, and father to two lackluster children, ages 10 years and 5 months. Until he's introduced to the Taobo in the wilds of Mindanao, Zamora's main interest is in seducing the household help and the occasional film actress. But becoming the “Spirit Father” to a group of cave dwellers threatened by “bandits, insurgent guerrillas” and “goon squads hired by greedy logging companies” gives him a newfound purpose in life—nicely summed up in a Manila tabloid headline: “Ex-Playboy Saves Our Cave Men!”

A second key player is Rizalina Cayabyab, the beautiful 10-year-old daughter of Zamora's cook. Sole survivor of a ferry disaster in which her father and brothers drowned, she becomes a servant in Zamora's mansion, where the master of the house is quick to note the headstrong curiosity and intelligence of “dear little blunt Rizalina.” She seems just feisty enough to hold her own against him.

Seemingly unconnected to these two—at least at first—is an American actor named Vincent Moody, a former child star who, at 26, finds his career languishing. Hired for a supporting role in the Vietnam War movie (“Risky,” his agent says, “but the buzz is unbelievable”), Moody prepares for his part by ditching his girlfriend and child in Santa Monica, flying to Manila and hanging out in a go-go bar called the Love Connection (nicely described as “a sad party waiting to happen”). Moody—“wan as a ghost, kind and strangely sweet, even when he was high or drunk”—has been cast as “a lovable kook who rides off into the napalm sunset.”

Anchoring the novel's latter half and linking its various elements is Paz Marlowe, a Philippine-American journalist freelancing for a magazine called Groove Rocket (read: Rolling Stone). Paz is back in Manila to persuade Zamora, who happens to be a family friend, to talk to her about the much-disputed Taobo, suspected by some skeptics of being hired actors. When Paz can't get the story she wants out of Zamora, she heads for Mindanao, where production of Napalm Sunset is in full swing.

Other principals include a Coppola-like movie director, Tony Pierce; his wife, Janet, a filmmaker documenting the production of Napalm Sunset; and a local powermonger, Mayor Fritz, a Marcos nephew whose dinners—unctuous, intimidating affairs—are feared and shunned by the film's cast and crew. Trust Hagedorn to make Fritz her Polonius, a corrupt voice speaking unwelcome truths: “Until our people learn to take the reins and lead themselves out of this cycle of dependency, mediocrity and despair, then we are truly lost.” The circumstances in which he makes this little speech are particularly sinister.

The paths of these seven, along with those of numerous other players, cross and recross in unpredictable ways, connecting in a tellingly tenuous manner. Characters assume and discard identities, change roles and change them again. Hagedorn follows some through to their ultimate destinies. Others—and this seems to be a point she is making—get lost in the shuffle. (That teenage druggie-groupie hanging out with the film's star? Gone! Maybe lost in the jungle, possibly abducted or murdered—no one can say.)

The novel's already broad scope is deftly expanded with excerpts from Antonio Pigafetta's classic chronicle of Magellan's landings in the archipelago and the occasional two cents from a pontificating academic who raises questions like: “Performance or real life? Is there a difference?” The narrative is also suffused with the polyglot, ethnic jumble of the Philippines, served up in prose spiced with Spanish, Tagalog and other local languages.

One suspects that, like Paz, the character in the book who most resembles her, Hagedorn is occasionally homesick for the “gaudy spectacles and contradictions” of the land she left for the United States at the age of 14. Certainly, she relishes the Philippines' cultural collisions and confusions. But she's also alert to the inferiority complexes that such contradictions can induce, as she notes the eagerness with which an island town embraces the arrival of an American film crew because it makes life there feel “less slow, petty and provincial,” or gently ribs the way that Filipina singer-actresses like Nora Aunor or the late Nida Blanca can thrill a young girl with their local glamour drawn from a Hollywood template.

It's possible that Hagedorn's collage method will strike some readers as too choppy and abrupt (although it's hard to imagine anyone not getting into the swing of it after Page 30 or so). And those who haven't seen Apocalypse Now will miss the fun of seeing how Hagedorn reinvents the whole film for her own sly purposes. (The simple remedy: go rent a copy.)

Whether you catch all of Hagedorn's allusions or not, there's abundant pleasure to be had from her vigorously staged set pieces: Zamora making a perilous helicopter landing on a wooden platform rigged at jungle-canopy level, a ghoulish misunderstanding concerning certain props on the set of Napalm Sunset, or 10-year-old Rizalina's sense of wonder as she enters a Manila supermarket for the first time: “A blast of cold air greeted us. Pretty music played in the background. The aisles were spacious and clean. The food didn't smell. The salespeople were dressed like doctors. We pushed our cart slowly, stopping to stare at the colorful jars of Tang and Kraft Cheez Whiz, in no big hurry to get back to the master's house.”

Ferdinand Marcos naturally looms on the margins of the book, at one point even making an appearance—not named, but simply identified as Mr. President. Indeed, he emerges as the novel's guiding spirit, shaping the distortions and perversions of character that afflict all those who populate its pages. From on high, he indulges in his threats, his tinsel glories and avid delusions—and Hagedorn, just as avidly, traces them as they filter down from one stratum of Philippine society to another, through dramas that unfold in stately homes and go-go bars, in stances struck on film sets and at the entrances of hidden jungle caves.

“Performance or real life?” That's the crucial question posed by Dream Jungle. But the difference between the two, Hagedorn implies in this slippery, masterly novel, is a riddle better savored than solved.

Further Reading

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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. Commentary 91 (March 1991): 52.

Iannone faults Dogeaters for its self-righteous tone and stilted narrative.

Moore, Susanna. “Danger in the Philippines.” Washington Post Book World 20, no. 14 (8 April 1990): 1, 7.

Moore compliments Dogeaters as an “imaginative” and “sophisticated” novel.

Additional coverage of Hagedorn's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Asian American Literature; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 139; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 69; Contemporary Women Poets; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.

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Jessica Hagedorn Long Fiction Analysis