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.
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.
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.
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.