Authors: Jessica Hagedorn

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Filipino-born American novelist, poet, playwright, and performance artist

Identity: Filipino American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Dogeaters, 1990

The Gangster of Love, 1996


Chiquita Banana, pb. 1972

Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon, pr. 1977 (with Thulani Davis and Ntozake Shange)

Mango Tango, pr. 1978

Tenement Lover: no palm trees/ in newyork city, pr. 1981

Holy Food, pr. 1988 (staged), pr. 1989 (radio play)

Teenytown, pr. 1990 (with Laurie Carlos and Robbie McCauley)

Black: Her Story, pr., pb. 1993

Airport Music, pr. 1994 (with Han Ong)

Silent Movie, pr. 1997 (as part of The Square)

Dogeaters, pr. 1998 (adaptation of her novel)


The Woman Who Thought She Was More than a Samba, 1978

Visions of a Daughter, Foretold, 1994


Fresh Kill, 1994

Edited Text:

Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, 1993


Dangerous Music, 1975

Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions, 1981

Danger and Beauty, 1993


When Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn (HAY-guh-dohrn) saw her first novel, Dogeaters, nominated for the 1990 National Book Award, it propelled her to prominence in American letters, but her status was the product of decades of gestation. She once said that she had “been writing pretty much all my life,” noting that her grandfather, too, was a writer and that she wrote four-page “little novels,” as she terms them, at the age of six and seven. Although she emphasizes that she always wanted to work in theater, as a performer, writer, or director, her early literary effort was directed toward poetry.{$I[AN]9810001860}{$I[A]Hagedorn, Jessica}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Hagedorn, Jessica}{$I[geo]PHILIPPINES;Hagedorn, Jessica}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Hagedorn, Jessica}{$I[geo]ASIAN AMERICAN/ASIAN DESCENT;Hagedorn, Jessica}{$I[tim]1949;Hagedorn, Jessica}

Jessica Hagedorn

(Nancy Wong)

Hagedorn emigrated to San Francisco in 1961. She expressed her gratitude to Kenneth Rexroth for his help and encouragement in her dedication to him of Danger and Beauty. An even more seminal influence at that time was the milieu of what she terms the “artists of color” in the Bay Area. She has singled out Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis as particularly valuable to her career development, as both a writer and a performer, and acknowledges the early work of Winston Tong and Ping Chong’s Nuit Blanche (pr. 1981). Because she wished to see family in Manila during the years of martial law, she visited the Philippines as often as twice a year. Her emotional ties to the country of her birth remain strong, constituting a marked cultural influence. To finish Dogeaters, for example, she returned to Manila for a few months in 1988.

Instead of attending college, she set out to realize her ambition to work in the theater by training with the American Conservatory Theatre. The regimen encompassed mime, acting, fencing, martial arts, and t’ai chi, a perfect program for Hagedorn, whose works’ prominent characteristic is eclecticism. She considers herself a performance artist rather than an actor or a musician, and her work displays the multifacetedness that the term “performance artist” suggests. She defines performance art as “a theater that remains open, drawing from many sources: vaudeville, stand-up comedy, rap music, confessions.” In the 1970’s she organized the West Coast Gangster Choir (the oxymoronic name itself an indication of her penchant for combination), a band with which until 1985 she performed in colleges and universities throughout Northern California. Her play Tenement Lover: no palm trees/ in new york city is an expanded version of a song; Teenytown was staged by the performance trio Thought Music, consisting of Hagedorn, Laurie Carlos, and Robbie McCauley. Another diversifying element in her plays, which are vehicles for protesting racism and sexism, is the presence of social message; here her feminism is particularly visible. Hagedorn’s work has been recognized by, among others, Joseph Papp, who produced Mango Tango in 1978, but both as a stage performer and as a writer of stage performances she has received mixed reviews.

With the exception of Dogeaters, Hagedorn’s books are composite genres, another reflection of her eclecticism. Dangerous Music has as its centerpiece “The Blossoming of Bongbong,” prose fiction featuring a character that recurs in other works as well. Yet some critics, among them Jessica Sakai, have singled out Hagedorn’s poetry, with its “rhythms as insistent and hypnotic as jungle drums,” as the volume’s highlight. Although Hagedorn made two important changes in her life in the later 1970’s–accepting U.S. citizenship in 1976 and moving to New York City in 1978–this did not radically alter her literary style. With Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions she again created an amalgam of prose and poetry, though one heavily weighted toward the former; the incongruity of the title is an indication of the book’s assorted contents. Yet Hagedorn welcomed the move to New York because, as she said, “living in New York is so tough,” and she was seeking to present her principal themes–“otherness, the idea of revolution on many levels, terrorism, dominant culture versus so-called minority culture”–with greater clarity and less sentimentality.

Danger and Beauty is largely retrospective, a sampler drawn from the series of poems entitled “The Death of Anna May Wong,” originally published in 1973 in Four Young Women Poets, Dangerous Music, and Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions. In its last section, however, “New York Peep Show: 1982-1992,” Hagedorn also supplies new material, both prose fiction and poetry. Danger and Beauty displays the maturation of her art over time. Reviewers pointed out certain aspects of her stylistic development, among them the loss of her early playfulness. Critics also noted the characteristic counterpoint of stylistic inclusiveness and thematic concentration.

BibliographyAncheta, Shirley. Review of Danger and Beauty, by Jessica Hagedorn. Amerasia Journal 20, no. 1 (1994). Indispensable.Bloom, Harold. “Jessica Hagedorn.” In Asian American Writers, edited by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1997. A very brief biographical essay, covering the highlights of Hagedorn’s life and career, introduces a sampling of critical extracts, most of which are disquisitions on Dogeaters, although one or two address Hagedorn’s poetry. In one extract, Hagedorn herself writes about Tenement Lover and its place in Asian American writing.Casper, Leonard. “Bangugot and the Philippine Dream in Hagedorn.” Pilipinas 15 (1990). Particularly valuable discussion.Casper, Leonard. “Four Filipina Writers: Recultivating Eden.” Amerasia Journal 24, no. 3 (1998). Hagedorn is one of four writers profiled; includes biographical information and an assessment of her work.Davidson, Cathy N., et al., eds. The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A succinct, yet encyclopedic, article.De Manuel, Maria Teresa. “Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters: A Feminist Reading.” Likha 12, no. 2 (1990/1991). Particularly valuable discussion.Doyle, Jacqueline. “‘A Love Letter to My Motherland’: Maternal Discourses in Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters.” Hitting Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism 4, no. 2 (Summer, 1997): 1-25. Doyle comments on Hagedorn’s portrayal of the “invention” of personal identities in the context of a Philippine culture whose colonial history is riddled with the omissions imposed by the Catholic Church and by Spain.Evangelista, Susan. “Jessica Hagedorn and Manila Magic.” MELUS 18, no. 4 (1993/1994). Discusses Hagedorn’s depiction of working-class teenage girls, beauty contests, and dreams.Hau, Caroline. “Dogeaters, Postmodernism and the ‘Worlding’ of the Philippines.” In Philippine Post-Colonial Studies: Essay on Language and Literature. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1993. Hau’s essay is a critique of Hagedorn’s first novel, calling into question the fact that the work, which focuses on a turbulent and controversial period of Philippine history, is the creative production of an Asian American writer, generated with the support of American institutions and funding agencies, read by an American audience, and favorably reviewed by American critics.Jenkins, Joyce. “Jessica Hagedorn: An Interview with a Filipina Novelist.” In The Asian Pacific American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and Arts, edited by George J. Leonard. New York: Garland, 1999. Hagedorn remembers her early mentor, Kenneth Rexroth, and his influence on her poetry and her development as a multigenre artist. She discusses Dogeaters and the “language of place” and remarks on how her writing has changed over the years. She comments on other Filipino American writers and their contributions to contemporary American literature.Lee, Rachel C. The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Hagedorn is one of several Asian American woman writers discussed in a study of gender, sex roles, ethnicity, and nationalism.Mendible, Myra. “Desiring Images: Spectacle and Representation in Dogeaters.” Critique 43, no. 3 (2002). Discusses Hagedorn’s representation of Filipino society and the practice of power in her novel.Quintana, Alvina E. “Borders Be Damned: Creolizing Literary Traditions.” Cultural Studies 13, no. 2 (1999). Compares Hagedorn with Hisaye Yamamoto and Sandra Cisneros in their representations of racialized women in the United States.San Juan, Epifanio, Jr. “Mapping the Boundaries: The Filipino Writer in the U.S.A.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 19, no. 1 (1991). Somewhat unsettled by Hagedorn’s refusal to identify clear boundaries between American culture and the Philippines, San Juan warns Hagedorn and other Filipino American writers that they might unwittingly be apologists for the United States and its materialistic culture by overemphasizing the Philippines’ colonial past as they negotiate the shifting borders between postcolonialism and postmodernism.Zapanta Manlapaz, Edna. Songs of Ourselves. Metro Manila, Philippines: Anvil, 1994.
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