Jessica Hagedorn by Ameena Meer

BOMB 34 Winter 1991
034 Winter 1991
Jessica Hagedorn © 1990 Kate Simon.

Jessica Hagedorn © 1990 Kate Simon.

Behind Jessica Hagedorn is a crayon drawing with “MY MOM” written on the top. It’s a round-faced person with spiky black hair and dangling earrings. “She got the earrings right,” laughs Jessica, shaking her spiky head, the artist being her five-year-old daughter Paloma.

Despite having spent the first 14 years of her life in Manila, Jessica has no trace of a “foreign” accent. Like Rio, one of the main characters in her novel Dogeaters , Jessica Hagedorn grew up in an educated upper-class family in the Philippines and came to America with her mother as a teenager. Dogeaters is a kaleidoscopic story about transplanted and displaced cultures: Filipino, supplanted by Spanish, replaced by American. The results: DJs in gay Manila nightclubs, American movies, Tagalog radio soaps and a brutal dictatorship. Dogeaters is about the harshness of life from the streets to the grand mansions of Manila. The novel mixes characters so real you expect to bump into them on the sidewalk: beauty queens, hustlers, movie stars, politicians, and rich industrialists: people with personalities and nervous disorders that represent the problems of a postcolonial country struggling into the 21st century.


Ameena Meer Did the American soldiers call the Filipinos “dogeaters”?

Jessica Hagedorn I have read that, but I’m not sure it’s true, because other people have told me that it’s not necessarily derogatory. A lot of Filipinos were upset about that title. This sense of cultural shame came in. I had intended it as a metaphor. I should have fought the whole idea of trying to explain it, which they did on the book jacket. I didn’t want them to define it and I should have stood by my guns, because it’s been creating more trouble than necessary.

AM A metaphor for what?

JH For the brutality of the life there. Also, as a way of confronting the culture. I’ve said to people, “I don’t get the shame about eating dog.” Let’s look at that. Is it the savage coming out in us or what? There’s this real desire to hide that under the table. I knew it was going to be very controversial.

AM Do people eat dogs in the Philippines?

JH Certain tribes do. In the cities, you can find it. I’ve had it; they sold it as pork. It’s no big deal. But it’s not served in your finer restaurants, you know. The class thing is so heavy. It’s that shame.

AM Dogeaters switches between narratives and media clips: a radio play, movies, newspaper articles. Why do that?

JH A traditional narrative structure couldn’t do the culture justice. Filipino newspapers have their own over-wrought style, especially the ones in English. And the newspapers in Tagalog are completely sensational, they feature murders and very provincial news. It’s that class number again, they assume that people who don’t speak English are not interested in what’s going on in the world, so they feed them brutal crime—photographs of gory, gory things shown up close. That flavor had to be in the book. The found items helped describe the culture much more accurately than if I had tried to force them into a straight narrative—which I wasn’t interested in writing at all, anyway. I thought the novel as a form could use some sort of loosening up.

AM What “found items” did you make up yourself?

JH Some of the news items I made up and some are real. The gossip columns, I made up. But I was certainly inspired by their form, the English is so florid, and grammatically a bit wobbly, a Tagalog English. They try to be terribly highfaluting and very chatty, “Well, listen, honey, do you know who was seen at the Hilton, babe?” It’s completely overdone … I’ve always wanted to write radio melodrama, to evoke my memories of the radio shows I grew up with, in the ‘50s. We didn’t have television until quite late. Those dramas were very scary, horror stories with ghosts.

AM Are ghosts a big part of Filipino culture?

JH Yes, the supernatural is. Very deep belief in that. Despite the fact that I had a very Western upbringing, I did grow up with that. To my family, it was like insurance, “It won’t hurt us to believe, just in case it is true.” You had to be good to the spirits too: animus spirits, spirits that guard termite dwellings. You have to be very careful when you destroy termites’ dwellings, if you do it the wrong way, you might get sick and die. There are spirits in the trees, and you have to ask their permission as you walk by.

AM In India, when you use someone else’s hairbrush, you’re supposed to say a prayer over it so you don’t fight, because of your hair mixing. What struck me as incongruous in the Philippines is the transplantation of Christianity. It seems so specifically European to me. Asia is steeped in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, there Christianity feels like a cult …

JH In writing the book, I wanted to make religion as matter of fact as it was in my life. We never questioned Catholicism. You’d say, “Shit, fuck, shit,” and then, “Holy Mary, mother of God, forgive me.” Well, why not heaven or hell? That somehow made sense. And these stupid pictures of the Devil with the tail. Why didn’t I say, “What is this?”

AM One just accepts whatever images of religion one grows up with. Your character, Rio’s grandmother, has a brown image of Jesus Christ and Mary. Which is really how it should be. One should identify with one’s God.

JH I liked the grandmother’s spiritualism and I respected it. Religion’s all over the place in the book. Years and years ago, a friend of mine said that I was a raving Catholic gone mad and I said, “You’re nuts. I never even think about it. I don’t …” But now I think she might have struck something.

AM I can understand Catholicism, it has that passion in it, the heat, and the figurative representations of God. I saw this hilarious Filipino film called The Perfumed Nightmare, and got a sense of that passion in the film, when they’re flagellating themselves for the Virgin. There are Shiite Muslims who flagellate themselves. Religious ecstasy is something I can relate to, whereas my understanding of Protestantism seems to be as a very cold and distant religion.

JH My feeling is, if we’re going to do it, let’s get into it. I like all the rituals. I don’t like Mass in English, I prefer the Latin because it’s mysterious to me. Oh, listen to me, conservatives would love me. I hate the Pope.

Angel Shaw just shot a documentary in the Philippines: every year during holy week, this woman ritually crucifies herself. Angel went to her village for the procession which ends with the woman getting nailed to the cross. The only ones allowed to help her carry the wooden cross and nail her up are two twins who wear gold Centurion outfits—and wrap-around sunglasses and Nikes. This woman, a virgin, must be 30 by now. And they think Jesus lives through her. It’s incredible. The people go bananas.

AM It’s not considered sacrilegious that she’s a woman?

JH No, they believe she’s possessed by the Lord. All the women come and bathe her and dress her. What a culture! That, to me, is a certain madness and beauty, but it makes the culture so rich.

AM It reminds me more of Latin American culture.

JH It’s very close to that, rather than Asian. That was a big discovery for me as a writer. I always had dreamed of writing a novel set in the Philippines—what I knew of it. I struggled for years while I was writing poetry, thinking, one day I’m going to write this book. But in what voice? I read Malaysian writers and Chinese writers and Indian writers until I stumbled upon the Latin American writers and I realized that that was it: the humor, the fatalism, the passion and irony …

AM So, before the Spanish, if it’s possible to talk about that, who were the Filipinos?

JH Manila was created—first of all, there are at least 7,000 islands and there were zillions of unconnected tribes. So in came these exploiters, and they said, “This is ours,” and put all these people together. So, when you ask, what was there …

AM Like India before the British, a lot of different little states.

JH The whole southern part of the Philippines, for example, is Muslim. They’ve been fighting to secede. There are mountain people who look almost Andean and have their own lifestyle. Then we have the Aetas who were like the Pygmies … Marcos’ people are Ilocano, they’re the Tagalog people. My grandmother is a Tagalog. Imelda is a Visayan. She’s from another region. They don’t look too different, but they speak two completely different dialects.

AM Who is Jean Mallat, the author of the sociological sections you quote?

JH He was a French explorer. His book was published in 1868, but the English translation didn’t come out until 1988 in the Philippines. Those sections are an anthropologist’s point of view, an outsider’s point of view, looking at the Philippines through a magnifying glass. There are sections on the different racial characteristics of the tribes, there are columns: what they eat, height, hair texture, intelligence. It’s amusing and actually informative even if it is twisted: there is a lot of information including a list of the languages and their vocabularies. But there is some really racist shit alongside the well-meaning anthropological information. He’s not malevolent, but he’s got this superior attitude.

AM The Third World politics—the dictatorship, rulers running the country who are separated from the people—you have two characters strikingly similar to Imelda and Ferdinand.

JH Well, they were certainly an inspiration to me, especially Imelda. I decided to not stick to hard facts because if you get too specific the timelessness is lost. People will just think of Ferdinand and Imelda. I wanted to create the eternal dictator and the eternal dictator’s wife. People also assume that Senator Avila is Aquino and he’s not, there were many other people who were assassinated. I’m not denying that these real events touched off something in me or inspired those passages but they are fictionalized.

AM Romeo, or Orlando, the waiter, was accused of killing Aquila and thrown into prison, what did this character stand for?

JH He’s the the fall guy, the little man, the perennial loser, and a complete innocent. He’s a pawn in everybody’s game. I mean, the boy can’t even win a talent contest. He has no idea what’s happening to him. For me, yeah, he symbolizes every man whose life is manipulated by others, who has no control of the forces, who is shamelessly exploited and conveniently used by those who are in power.

But I had a lot of fun creating that character, I love losers. They have so many possibilities and I relate to their tragedy, their inability to achieve anything. No matter how hard he tries, and he does, the waiter dreams of a better life, but nothing seems to work out for him.

AM Where would you place yourself, in terms of the characters in your book, which one would you be closest to?

JH I felt closest to Joey, the half-black street kid and to Rio, the upper-class schoolgirl. Subconsciously, I made them my two eyes: they’re the two narrators. I didn’t plan that, but I came to realize that nowhere else do I have anybody addressing the reader from that perspective. I feel close to them because I grew up like Rio, but I am close to a lot of people who had Joey’s experiences.

AM I wondered how Rio—someone from the upper-class tends to be really removed from the people on the street—could have come in contact with someone like Joey.

JH Probably the schoolgirl character never would have if she stayed in the Philippines. But if she had left and come back, she might have found him in the underground culture if she looked a little deeper. It’s not like those people—the ones living on the edge or in shanty towns—would love to meet you, or seek you out. But they’re there and you can find them.

AM You left Manila when you were 14. Was writing about the Philippines so many years later difficult?

JH I had to do research so that I wouldn’t get things wrong, because if you are cut off, or have cut yourself off, then you might describe something sloppily, and get it completely wrong in the book.

AM In Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, there are certain social or cultural obligations that he’s not quite clear on.

JH Hanif Kureishi interested me because I felt a similar cut-offness about him, a decision made to be outside the ethnic pressures: at the same time, he seems to have an obsession with ethnicity. I wonder if that’s going to be a constant for me and whether my next book’s going to be about that because the obsession’s never left me, even though I’ve lived here for so long. I go back and forth to the Philippines, and I have family there, so there is a real connection, but I’m like a tourist. I’m like a tourist in my own birthplace. It’s very odd.

AM All the women characters in your book are quite self-possessed.

JH Filipino women are incredibly strong, they are the backbone. You can easily be fooled by these very beautiful, delicate and feminine women—they’re schooled in those traditions—but they’re strong bitches. And they run the house. I assume the Philippines were matriarchal before the Spaniards came over.

AM Daisy, the girl who wins the beauty contest, the daughter of the assassinated Senator Avila, ends up running a guerilla operation up in the mountains.

JH Daisy was a shaky character at first because she falls for all of this stuff and she should know better being who she is, but she’s dazzled by the other side. She has this liberated mother and progressive father, yet she looks towards beauty contests, which are a big deal in the Philippines. Life there without a beauty contest would be unimaginable. They start them young: Little Miss Manila, Feast Day beauty contests, the May Princess, the May Queen, it just goes on and on.

AM She starts weeping after she wins the contest. She cries for months.

JH It’s the emptiness, nothing’s changed, nothing’s going to change, even though she’s won. Weeping is very Filipino, a Filipino art form. In Filipino movies, there’s a lot of weeping. It’s interminable. That’s part of the catharsis. You can’t have a good tragedy without weeping.

AM The Sportex department store—that’s brilliant because it winds all the way through the book. Everyone goes to Sportex. Did that have a particular meaning?

JH Supposedly, there’s this big economic crisis and yet all the department stores in Manila are filled. Now some people say it’s because they have air conditioning, people are wandering around to get out of the heat, but I think they’re shopping. It’s very pleasant in there, this dream world with displays. Sportex has taken the place of the open air market which is still very vibrant but this is the modern day version. My Sportex is based on a couple of big stores in the Philippines. One’s called Shoe Mart, which is not just a shoe store any more. It’s this huge conglomerate. They have clothes, restaurants where you can buy Filipino food and delicacies, and toys and bags and t-shirts, and everything is reasonably priced. Obviously, if you have no money it will be expensive, but everybody goes to Shoe Mart. It’s an amazing phenomenon, we’d be driving down this crowded street and my daughter would look out the window, and see the SM logo through the palm trees, and scream, “SHOE MART!” The colors are very wonderful, pastels, they lure you in, and children love it. It’s egalitarian, the prices are lower. Anybody can shop there. Then there’s this other department store that carries Dior. It’s very la-la, called Roostan’s. And it’s owned by the Pantoco’s—oh, Mrs. Pantoco was involved in Imelda’s trial. She was the missing link. And they never found her. Her husband was made ambassador by Imelda. So I combined both Shoe Mart and Roostan’s, high-class and low-class, into Sportex.

AM Dogeaters ends with Joey killing Uncle’s dog.

JH I should have had him eat Uncle’s dog!

AM I actually half-expected him to cook him into dog curry or something. Especially because Uncle’s so worried about eating dog meat.

JH I thought that would be overkill. (laughter) Slaughtering him was enough.

AM In the Third World—even in New York now—the idea of pets seems so absurd to me: getting special food for your dog when there’s someone out on the street not eating. And Uncle keeps saying, “Don’t be mean to the dog.” What did you mean by that?

JH Exactly what you put together. Uncle is a lot more humane to the animal than to the young boys, to Joey, who was dependent on him. Uncle was willing to betray Joey. But he kept worrying about the dog. The dog is that metaphor again, for a culture. It is a powerful one because it can be viewed in so many different ways.

AM Killing Uncle’s dog is a very strong image. The reader sees Uncle through Joey’s eyes, at the beginning he seems a sweet old man. Then, you realize that he’s actually not Joey’s uncle, he’s a crafty survivor. He raises orphans so they can get money for him through prostitution, pick-pocketing, stripping. The only being he likes is his dog. When Joey kills the dog, it’s only half a step away from killing Uncle himself.

JH It was the strongest message you could accept. Through that part I got clearer and clearer about the metaphors I wanted to use and the way I wanted to show betrayal, revenge. Revenge is a theme that runs through Filipino culture. Revenge for betrayal of a person or an ideal. It’s a popular theme, a story of revenge …a passion.

AM What kind of reaction did you get towards your work from Filipinos?

JH I’ve read two reviews from the Philippines, that were lovely, but not uncritical. They pointed out that the book was from the point of view of someone who was no longer there. I have no quarrel with that, because it’s true. But the one thing that always bothers them is that fucking definition of the dogeaters. What was that? Why did that have to be there? But they were pretty supportive. I hear it’s being bootlegged, and there’s a course that’s supposedly being taught at one of the universities.

AM Can’t you buy it there?

JH I’d wanted to give away the rights to a publishing house in the Philippines so that people could have a cheap edition of it, because books there are very expensive. But it turns out that people are xeroxing it, which costs even more. Maybe they think I’m going to charge a lot for it, but I know they don’t have any money, so I’d just let them have it. But it’s circulating.

AM What are you doing now?

JH I’ve been performing my work and writing a new novel. A play I wrote called Holy Food, one version of which I recently co-directed and acted in at Cornell, which has some Tagalog in it. I find it very difficult—the act of speaking your sort of private language in public is too revealing and very spooky, like taking off all your clothes.

AM There was a Latin American writer, who’d written about home languages, and whether or not they should start teaching classes in the public schools in whatever the predominant community language is. He was against it, the reason being that it’s your private language, your family language.

JH It’s important to explore why we think it’s so private, because again, is it about shame, or is it about privacy? And, if it’s about shame, then we have to get rid of that. And it’s useful. Last night, I went to see a play and one of the actors in the piece is a Filipino friend of mine. Afterwards, I walked up to her at the bar and asked her something in Tagalog. We went through this litany—it was the only way to express ourselves at that moment, and then we went right back into English. I could have asked the same question in English, but it wouldn’t have had the same resonance for us. She knew why I said it the way I said it and what I really meant.

AM You don’t think it’s a good thing to teach it in the schools?

JH Oh, it’s really important. It’s best if you go out in the world knowing more than one language, I don’t care what the language is. It’s good for your brain to dream in another language. It gives you a clue, another perspective, a way of understanding, some compassion for other people—even if it’s just because you know how to joke in another language.

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A Pope-to-be gives the “No thanks” to the Vatican. Where’s Skywalker when you need him?

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Han Ong by Jessica Hagedorn
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Novelist, playwright, and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Han Ong has a lively discussion with Jessica Hagedorn about the marginalization of artists of color, his childhood in Manila, and his rapid rise to fame.

Originally published in

BOMB 34, Winter 1991

Featuring interviews with Romulus Linney, 2 Black 2 Strong, Jessica Hagedorn, Phil Hartman, Tod Wizon, Lari Pittman, Terrance Simien, Gran Fury, Raul Ruiz, Yuri Lyubimov, and Whit Stillman.

Read the issue
034 Winter 1991