Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 1998
“Brutal title, brutal piece.” The author is talking about her own work. Jessica Hagedorn — poet, novelist, screenwriter, multimedia theater artist and playwright — is always painfully honest, in her conversations and in her writing. Her first novel, in an adaptation commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse, is about to take to the stage, under its original name: “Dogeaters” (September 13-October 11).
Hagedorn makes no excuses about the controversial nature of the title. “There’s anger in it, a sense of injustice. It’s not just a stereotype. The poorest tribes in the mountains of the Philippines still eat dogmeat. What’s to be ashamed of? For me, in that title is the feeling that things don’t get better for people that need it. The poor are always the poor. There will always be levels of injustice and intolerance, and that fuels my work.”
The best-selling novel, a sprawling, nonlinear epic published in 1990, was nominated for the National Book Award. Set during the Marcos regime, seesawing between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, during the Marcos regime, seesawing between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, “Sure, I take from my own life,” Hagedorn confesses. “ I was 14 when I left the Philippines in 1963, roughly the same time frame as Rio [the central character, from whose perspective we view most of the action]. I certainly took things from my parents, certainly a lot of my own mother. Many characters and actions are invented, but inspired by historical events.”
In the novel and the play, fictional characters like the stars of TV telenovelas and corrupt Army officers hobnob with real people like Imelda Marcos and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Greif’s multicultural cast of 15 (five UCSD students and ten Equity actors) portrays 34 characters.
“It remains a real challenge to convey the broad sweep of characters,” says Greif, “while helping the audience know who they do or don’t need to pay attention to…. But these people are all fascinating, even the most negative characters. You want to get to know them… I loved meeting what was to me a very new culture. I loved finding out about Filipinos in the Philippines and in America. And I loved the way American entertainment has influenced the Philippines. I think Jessica’s extraordinary. She has enormous vigor, freshness and originality. This is a wonderfully personal, intelligent political memoir.”
Hagedorn’s story wasn’t exactly like Rio’s. But, like her protagonist, she came to this country with her mother, who left a husband behind. They arrived first in San Diego, “but my mother thought it was a provincial Navy town, and we moved to San Francisco; she liked its bohemian element. We had lived in Manila, a very cosmopolitan port city. I was thrilled; it was San Francisco in the sixties. What a place to be a teenager!”
Hagedorn’s two older brothers came to this country, too, but after four years, they returned to the Philippines. She goes back every few years. “There’s always this connection,” she explains. “Like you live in two countries. You never really let it go.”
Hagedorn has raised her two daughters, age 7 and 14, biculturally. “I don’t force the language thing,” she says of her native Tagalog. “I try to make it part of the conversation.” The same is true in the novel/play, where the dialogue is peppered with Tagalog expressions. “It’s a very rhythmic and staccato language,” says Hagedorn. “A lot of Spanish terms are part of the vernacular. Like tsimis [pronounced CHIS-mes] which is just like “chismes”, gossip, in Spanish.”
It’s ironic that Hagedorn’s play should open in 1998, the 100th anniversary of the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines. But, she asks cynically, “Why celebrate? After the Spanish rule came roughly 50 years of American domination. The old regime is gone, but some things never change.”
Always politically sensitive and aware, Hagedorn has been called “irreverent,” “radical” and “rebellious.” The smart, funny, punk-looking 48 year-old Greenwich Village resident is flattered. “I think those are positive things. But what’s important to me is my humor, and I hope that doesn’t escape audiences.”
Hagedorn’s wry, satiric voice wasn’t missed by audiences at the Sundance Institute where she first developed “Dogeaters”, or at any of the workshops where she refined it: in New York, Los Angeles and Costa Mesa. Her book is popular with readers of the French, Spanish and Norwegian translations. And last spring, she wowed students at UCSD during her residency as Regents Lecturer in the Department of Literature, part of a National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group fellowship. She found that “Dogeaters” was part of the curriculum in Literature, Asian-American Studies and Women’s Studies. “I guess it has real crossover appeal,” she says humbly.
Hagedorn’s second novel, “The Gangster of Love” (1996), a romance set in the Philippines, was nominated for the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. She’s currently at work on a third novel, set in America, “but I don’t know where it’s going to end up.” Meanwhile, she keeps writing poetry, her first love, though she did train as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre, and she does think about directing, and she’s ready any time to work on a film of “Dogeaters,” “even if I have to produce the damn thing myself,” she says. “I love these characters. It’s really my favorite book, the book I always wanted to write. It’s now in its 14th printing. I guess it has a lot of lives. Maybe I should rename it ‘Cateaters.’”
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.