Moment to moment excavation, investigation, remembering

Community News & Features Apr 12, 2019 at 4:35 pm
Award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and  multimedia artist  Jessica Hagedorn reads an excerpt from Dogeaters during her first visit to Toronto March 23.  Photo: Marites Sison

Award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and multimedia artist Jessica Hagedorn reads an excerpt from Dogeaters during her first visit to Toronto March 23.
Photo: Marites Sison

Dogeaters author Jessica Hagedorn:

By Marites N. Sison

Filipino-Canadian writers should stick to their vision, resist the urge to follow trends and not attempt to reconcile their identities as Filipinos and Canadians, said Jessica Hagedorn, award-winning Filipino-American novelist, poet, playwright and multimedia artist, during her first visit to Toronto Saturday, March 23.

“Don’t reconcile a thing. [Your writing] should always be about tension and contradictions. Come on, there’s no reconciliation about any of these. You want all that collision — that’s what’s going to make the work exciting. And, it’s got to be about your collision,” advised Hagedorn, author of Dogeaters, which won the American Book Award in 1990.  “Don’t try and use writing to solve a problem. You’re going to use it to keep asking questions to grow…It’s about moment to moment excavation, investigation and remembering. One thing doesn’t have to neatly lead into another. That’s not how to live. Anything too neat or tidy, avoid.”

About 60 people gathered for “A Reading and Conversation with Jessica Hagedorn” at the Ontario Institutes for Studies in Education’s Nexus Lounge. The event was part of “Beauty, Brutality, and the Neocolonial City,” a set of gatherings held at the University of Toronto March 22-23, which brought together international scholars and critics “to explore the complexity, dynamism and significance of Manila within and beyond Asia.”

Hagedorn read excerpts from Dogeaters and some of her poetry, shared her experience as a writer who moved to the United States with her family in 1963, at the age of 13, discussed her collobaration with other artists and talked about her current work during the gathering.

In advising writers to trust their instincts, Hagedorn shared her own experience with Dogeaters and how she resisted her editor’s suggestions to change some parts of the book. “She was a really wonderful and smart editor and she had her ideas and I could have cowered. I thought, ‘maybe she’s right,’” she recalled. “But I also thought, this was too important to me. So, know that you are the writer of the work.”  (Set in Manila, Dogeaters — which was also a finalist for the National Book Award — is a satirical novel that captures the turbulent period under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.)
While a writer must be convinced of the merits of her work, she must also be prepared “to take the crap that’s going to come with it, too,” said Hagedorn.

Dogeaters-by-Jessica-Hagedorn-book-coverShe recalled how she had to deal with the controversy that came with the publication of Dogeaters. While it received praise from mainstream media, including The New York Times, which hailed it “as sharp and fast as a street boy’s razor… a rich small feast of a book,” a lot of Filipinos were upset about the title, which Hagedorn had intended to be a metaphor.

As hard as it was to deal with the scorn of some people, Hagedorn said, “at least it was my work. I didn’t compromise it. So, if somebody said to me they hated it, I was ok with it.”

Writers must not crave affirmation from readers, she added. “Don’t want to be loved. That’s a killer for an artist,” she said, a remark that drew laughter from the audience. 
Hagedorn said Dogeaters dealt a lot with class struggle in the Philippines, “from the obscenely rich to the very poor.” She had written the novel in the thick of Martial Law, when she was going back and forth a lot to visit her father and her brothers, who had moved back there from the United States. “It was a fertile time for me as a writer because I saw a lot of stuff. That’s something Manila does to you — it’s loud and it’s in your face,” she said.

Hagedorn also urged Filipino-Canadian writers and artists to go beyond their comfort zone and learn from the work of other cultures. She said that she learned how to write by writing and by being mentored by innovative African-American writers, including Ishmael Reed. Before she found other Filipino-American writers, Hagedorn said “I was already being helped by a generous group of writers who didn’t have to do anything for me. They invited me to read with them. Their work showed me how to do my work.”

She added: “It’s good to not just keep yourself in a niche, not to just be with Filipino Canadians.” Honing one’s craft should be “a conversation with all the other Canadian writers,” she said. “‘Why are you over there, Margaret Atwood. Hello, come talk to me,’” she added, much to the audience’s laughter and delight. “You have something to say, she has something to say. She has a vision, you have a vision.”

Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, associate professor at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Department.  Photo: Marites Sison

Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, associate professor at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Department.
Photo: Marites Sison

In a Q&A with Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, associate professor at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Department, Hagedorn talked about her early influences as a writer.

“I really drew on  sort of a sense memory of what I had left behind in the Philippines,” said Hagedorn of her early poems. “They became more urgent the older I got and the worse the politics became in the Philippines…I was old enough to start to understand what was happening around me and how I was a product of that.” Prior to this, she said, she had never questioned the way she and her family lived when she was growing up in Manila.

Growing up with only radio as a fixture in the house, as well as reading a lot and using her imagination helped shape her as a writer, she said. “I was trying to recreate that in San Francisco as a poet,” she said, adding that she had also wanted to share the Filipino culture, which wasn’t as mainstream then as it is now in the United States. “I wanted to say, ‘Hey, my background is as rich as yours and as cuckoo and full of stuff,” she said. “It was also about me having to undestand my relationship to the U.S. and my family. It amped up as I got older and the work became more mature.”

As much as she enjoys writing fiction as a solitary art form, Hagedorn said she is drawn to theatre because of its collaborative nature. Before she became famous for Dogeaters, Hagedorn had  moved to New York to work as a playwright and musician for Where the Mississipi Meets the Amazon (1977), and later produced her first play, Mango Tango, in 1978. She mounted other productions, including Tenement Lover, Holy Food,  Teenytown and Most Wanted. Dogeaters has also been mounted as a play in the U.S. and in the Philippines.

Hagedorn is currently working on a possible musical — an adaptation of Felix Starro, a short story by Filipino American writer Lysley Tenorio. Tenorio’s work appeared in a book Hagedorn edited, Manila Noir, an anthology of writings about Manila. 
Hagedorn’s other novels include Toxicology, Dream Jungle and The Gangster of Love. She is also the author of Danger And Beauty, a collection of prose and poetry, and the editor of other anthologies: Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction and Charlie Chan is Dead 2: At Home In The World.

She has won honors and prizes, including a Gerbode, Hewlett Foundation’s Playwriting Award, a Philippine National Book award, a Lucille Lortel Playwrights’ Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fiction Fellowship, a Kesselring Prize Honorable Mention for Dogeaters, as well as fellowships from the Sundance Playwrights’ Lab and the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab.

Robert Diaz Photo: Marites Sison

Robert Diaz
Photo: Marites Sison

Robert Diaz, who organized the event, noted the importance of Hagedorn’s debut in Toronto. “The conversations around the literary, artistic and political work that we’ve been producing are knowledge that shape who we are,” said Diaz, who is assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Women and Gender Studies Institute.

Burgos, author of Puro Arte: On the Filipino Performing Body, said she was indebted to Hagedorn “not only for her creative work that has taught me and provoked me to think about home, memories, language, voices, belonging, homecoming and fraught returns” but also for her own generosity as an artist. “I’m indebted to her for her guidance, the people she’s introduced me to. She’s incredibly influential in the way I see Manila.”

The New College Initiatives Fund, David Chu program in Asia-Pacific Studies, School of Cities, and the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies co-sponsored the event.

Audience at “A Reading and Conversation with Jessica Hagedorn.” Photo: Marites Sison

Audience at “A Reading and Conversation with Jessica Hagedorn.”
Photo: Marites Sison