Our Love is Like a Cake
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Welcome to My Country
Winner of the 1995 Editor’s Prize for Essay.
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Andy Andy and the Wolfman
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Poetry Feature: Bin Ramke
Featuring the poems:
Pretty Words, Parabolas
As You Like It
Enter Celia, with a Writing
& The War in France
A History of His Heart
Dressing it Up
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An Interview with Jessica Hagedorn
Interviewer: Jessica Hagedorn, you’ve worked in such a variety of mediums: poetry, prose, theater, rock ‘n’ roll—with The Gangster Choir—and also film. What medium are you busy with right now?
Hagedorn: I’m preparing for a multimedia theater piece, Airport Music, that’s coming up in New York City. And I’ve just finished work on a film, Fresh Kill, I actually wrote a couple of years ago—you know how long it takes to make a movie-for an independent filmmaker named Shu Lea Cheang. It was based on a story of hers, so in that way it was a real collaboration. Most of it is shot in New York City, which was really a crazy thing to do but we lived through it. And now it’s making the rounds of festivals and looking for a distributor. And the theater piece which involves film and slides and soundtrack collages, I’ll be performing in as well.
Interviewer: Dogeaters begins at the movies. You seem to be fascinated artistically by film. Can you tell me why?
Hagedorn: Because the movies really shaped my life. Growing up in the Philippines, I loved all kinds of movies. We had a very healthy film industry there when I was a child. It’s now gotten very limited. They only make action movies and hard-core exploitation movies. Women get raped; men get shot. But in my childhood, they had all kinds of movies—to rival Hollywood’s really—musicals, dramas, comedies. They were wonderful. I would go see those movies faithfully every week. It was my big treat. And I’d go see all the Hollywood movies that would come to Manila. We didn’t have television until I was about eight years old, so it was either the movies or radio. A lot of radio drama. That was our television, you know. We had to use our imagination. So it was really those two things, and the comics, that I immersed myself in as a child.
Interviewer: In Dogeaters, you make delightful use on many different levels of Love Letters, the radio serial that Rio’s grandmother is so enamored with and that Rio listens to in the bedroom off the kitchen late at night while they eat rice with their hands. The servants come in too, and all socioeconomic lines are crossed.
Hagedorn: Right. There were also horror shows on the radio. Very terrifying and thrilling to me as a kid. They had all these creepy sound effects. They would come on at ten o’clock at night, and I just would scare myself to death.
Interviewer: Did they import any of the American ones like The Shadow, or was it all produced in the Philippines?
Hagedorn: We produced our own. The radio was, and still is, a real instrument of communication there because a lot of people, in the villages way out in the southern regions, for example, can’t afford TVs. There might be one TV per village, but with electricity being so scarce, the radio’s still used in the home, or the community will all listen in to the one radio. Politicians use it. When I covered the elections there two years ago, the radio was really used as a primary medium for political campaigning. Can you imagine that here?
Interviewer: You used that radio serial Love Lettersin several ways: to comment on the story that’s happening within the novel and just as a very blessed incident between the girl Rio and her beloved grandmother. Had you by any chance read Aunt Juliaand the Scriptwriter at that point?
Hagedorn: Yes. I had read it years before when it first came out, and I loved it. Did you notice the torture scene in Dogeaters, when the soap opera is used as foreground to a very painful happening in the background? That was the most difficult chapter to write for me. I think torture is so loaded, you know, that it’s hard to make it effective. And the radio drama was the way I managed to get through it. For me, it worked really well.
Interviewer: Absolutely. Vargas Llosa, too, in Aunt Julia uses the soap opera to great effect.
Hagedorn: Well, I have been definitely influenced more by Latin American writers than by any other type of writer. They are very close in terms of voice—their humor, their fatalism, their . . . well that over-used term “magical realism.” It’s a wonderful term that’s just been used so much we don’t know what it means anymore. But the way they can use language and visions and surrealism without being corny, and the humor that’s always there, is very close to a Filipino sensibility. More so than—now this is a completely personal perception—other writers from Southeast Asia.
Interviewer: What is your particular ethnic background? I would like to talk about that a little bit because the whole question of what it is to be Filipino runs throughout your work.
Hagedorn: I’m part Spanish. My paternal grandfather came from Spain via Singapore to Manila. On my mother’s side it’s more mixture, with a Filipino mother and a father who was Scotch Irish-French; you know, white American hybrid. And I also have on my father’s side a great-great-grandmother who was Chinese. So, I’m a hybrid.
Interviewer: Assuming that it is you talking in one of your prose pieces from Danger and Beauty, you’ve actualy described yourself this way: “I was born in the Philippines. I am a quintessential bastard. My roots are dubious.” Where does the bastard part come from?
Hagedorn: Well, there’s always a bastard in the family isn’t there? And certainly with the Spaniards, they left a lot of bastards around. I’m an underdog person, so I align myself with those who seem to be not considered valuable in polite society. I think for a lot of so-called post-colonial peoples, there’s a feeling of not being quite legitimate, of not being pure enough. And to me that’s the beauty and strength of the culture—that it is mixed.
Interviewer: Can you tell us a little bit about the basic mix of cultures. In Dogeaters, you refer in one section to eighty dialects and languages spoken.
Hagedorn: There are many, many tribes who speak their own dialect but who have no say in what’s going on in government, for example. So we have to think about that too. But people speak Tagalog, which is also known as “Pilipino” now—the nationalists claim it’s Pilipino. Many speak English, and some of the older generation still speak a very fluent Spanish, because that was part of the culture at one time, or a mixture of the three. For example, in my household sometimes a sentence could have all three languages in it at once. It’s not like sometimes we spoke the whole sentence in English and other times in Tagalog. No, it was all in the language. Like a “Tag-lish” or something. And there are many, many more languages. When the Spanish came over to do their colonizing, these islands with disparate tribes suddenly got lumped together. And not everybody necessarily got along. There was, according to some Filipino historians, a matriarchal society which was wiped out. Animism was practiced. Some of the people are highlanders; some are lowland peoples; some are Muslims because at some point in our history the Arab traders had come through there, so there is a very powerful Muslim faction in the southern region of the Philippines.
Interviewer: With all the backgrounds that you’ve said are prominent in your family, why is it that you identify yourself with the Asian experience?
Hagedorn: Because that’s been my experience.
Interviewer: Even though your father was Spanish?
Hagedorn: Yes, but he was Filipino Spanish. There’s a difference. When mestizos go to Spain, they are looked down upon. “Ah, you live in the Philippines.” You know, it’s a class thing, even if you’re rich. There’s always this motherland-fatherland bit, and then there’s the colonies. My identity is linked to my grandmother, who’s pure Filipino, as pure as you can probably get. And that shaped my imagination. So that’s how I identify. I also identify as a Latin person, a person who has Latin blood. Certainly, I’m exploring that now. And I’ve lived now in North America close to thirty years. In terms of my politics, I feel a political alliance too, with the Asian community here.
Interviewer: Can you tell us about the concept of “Kundiman” that you end Dogeaters on?
Hagedorn: The novel ends on an ambiguous, ambivalent note. There’s a lot of brutality inDogeaters, and I think that especially with the suffering that the character Daisy goes through and the loss of the senator and all the other people who die or are tortured, and just the daily suffering of the poor there, which is enormous, the Philippines is still a beautiful country and I wanted somehow to convey that. So I decided originally that the Kundiman section was going to be the grandmother’s prayer. I mean, actually, that was one of the titles I thought of, The Grandmother Prays for Her Country. But I thought, “No, I want to even lift it above a specific character’s voice, and maybe it’s my voice that speaks at the end. But how do I convey this sort of longing in this prayer, and the rage? There’s a lot of rage in the prayer.” So I decided on the Kundiman because it’s music in a ballad form. It’s very melancholy music. It’s a love song often sung, it seems to me, in a way or played in a way as if the love will never be satisfied.
Interviewer: And what tradition does it come out of?
Hagedorn: “Kundiman” is a Filipino word that describes this music. But I’m pretty sure around the time it became popular there may have been a Spanish influence on it. We have little orchestras calledrondallas and musicians play this banjo-like instrument called the banduria. When I finally went to Spain, I found out the Gypsies play it there and the Spanish have claimed it. But actually maybe the Arabs brought it, the Moors. And so maybe that’s how it came to the Philippines. Who knows?
Interviewer: How did you come to the shape of this novel, of how you wanted to present this material?
Hagedorn: It pretty much fell into place that way. It made sense as I was writing it. Whenever, for example, I’d come across a news clipping that really tickled my imagination I’d say, “Oh God! This really belongs here!” Rather than try to revise the clipping so that it would read as a narrative, I thought if it’s a news item, use it as a news item, you know. You can have a novel that is like a collage, which I feel Dogeaters is. A lot of the ten years thinking about Dogeaters I worried about the structure. How could the structure also tell that story? A lot of novels about the Philippines or set in the Philippines don’t cut it at all because they don’t capture the crazy-quilt atmosphere and the hybrid ambiance that occurs twenty-four hours a day. Things happening all the time, and noise and crowds and beautiful animals and amazing flora. At the same time, pollution and urbanization and sophistication and, you know, the jungle. How do you do all that? You can’t tell it in a traditional way because the language dies. And also the music of the language itself, the music of the streets. How do you convey that chaos? So, once I decided to go with it as I found it, I relaxed because at the risk of alienating some readers, this was the way the novel had to be presented.
Interviewer: You’ve described the “memory of Manila” as “the central character of the novel I am writing.” How much of the Philippines of Dogeaters, because you left at the age of fourteen, is the product of memory, as you’ve implied, and how much is the product of augmented memory and research?
Hagedorn: It’s both. I think it’s very important that it’s memory first because too much research and factual writing can kill a book. I wasn’t trying to write the absolute “real deal” story of the Philippines. I was only writing about a certain time frame and also about a certain group of people in a city, you know. This is not the quintessential Philippines novel. I mean, I don’t know who’s going to write that. There are many writers there who have grappled with creating the epic Philippine novel.
Interviewer: “I am the other, the exile within,” you have also said. Do you think that in some cases, or in your case, it was an advantage to be an outsider as it were, writing from memory, in order to deal with such a large subject?
Hagedorn: Having distance always helps. It gives you a certain overview that when you are right up against it, it’s very difficult to make certain choices.
Interviewer: How did you come to the characters that surely were not a part of your growing up in Manila at all, such as Joey?
Hagedorn: But they were. I mean I didn’t go to those bars when I was eight years old, but those people were always there. That’s why the book jumps back and forth in time. When I was old enough and going back to the Philippines more often, it was the time of martial law when it was very repressive on the surface. At the same time there was a lot of corruption, and pornography was part of life even though you had this regime that was trying to present itself as being squeaky clean. Well, it was the height of the worst moral decay. I was on my own then, so I could explore what I wanted to explore. And I already had the idea that one day I was going to write this novel, so I made myself open to a lot of different experiences and met all kinds of people. I wanted to get to that underbelly because I felt like those were the people who nobody cared about and nobody thought about and they were too easily dismissed.
Interviewer: Characters like Domingo Avila, who is assassinated, begs comparison to Ninoy Aquino. And Santos Tirador, the handsome guerilla, has his equivalent too. What kind of a challenge was it for you to work in a purely fictive way and yet know that readers were going to recognize some of these people?
Hagedorn: I hear that it’s a wonderful parlor game back home for people to go “I know who this is!” It’s funny to me because I really did combine people. Otherwise, it’s too easy. I thought that Avila was the most difficult because he was the good guy, and good guys for me are hard to write about without making them saintly and boring. I tried very hard not to make it too obvious. He’s killed in front of a hotel, for example, not coming off a plane. Anyway, there are so many people like him. That’s another reason I did not name the president and the first lady purposely. It wasn’t to be coy. It was that the Marcoses were symbols. They weren’t the only dictators we’ve ever had. They just happened to have been around the longest, and they were the most public and the most celebrated and the most reviled. But there have been many victims, many assassins, and many political assassinations. You just don’t hear about them because it’s part and parcel of politics there. Interviewer: Were you conscious at all of this novel being able, at least on one level, to be read as a dual coming of age novel? It’s Joey’s coming of age, and it’s Rio’s coming of age.
Hagedorn: Yes, but I didn’t plan it that way. I’m not a writer who works off an outline. I don’t do file cards. Some writers know where they’re going when they sit down to write a novel. I know there are certain things I want to include, but I’m character-driven and if the characters keep moving and living and growing on me, the story unfolds. It’s like a puzzle which starts falling into place. But I never know where I’m going when I start. I knew it was going to open in a movie theater. I knew it was going to be from this young girl’s point of view. I knew that sometimes the character of Rio, the young girl, would speak in the first person and sometimes she wouldn’t, but I didn’t plan for the character of Joey to be the only other character who speaks in the first person. Actually someone had to point that out to me. They said, “Oh, you have the two narrators.”
Interviewer: What do you think is going to happen to Joey after he finds himself up there in the mountains? Do you think about your characters that way at all?
Hagedorn: Yeah, I do. But I didn’t want to deal with whether he would become the good revolutionary or not. I think there’s been so much disillusionment that’s occurred with the left in the Philippines. And I could see that the point was that Joey is taught something. Then where he goes from there wasn’t my concern any more. It was going to be very ambiguous because he could turn into a really awful person once again. This new knowledge that he has about what’s going on around him doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s going to become a better person.
Interviewer: It seems that where we leave off the charcter of Joey, in that very ambiguity, you do have fertile ground for questions about the relationship between the personal and the political. What makes a person become a revolutionary in this world? There are any number of ways that can happen, and in Joey’s case it was being the product of a horrifically abused childhood.
Hagedorn: And then the accident of seeing something occur and realizing he’s been used. But I’m not so sure that he gets to understand it all. That’s why I wanted to leave it open. I did not want to go the easy way and make him go from anti-hero to hero.
Interviewer: Is it a uniquely Filipino thing, or just something particular to him, that Rio’s father is a person of Spanish background living in the Philippines for several generations and still feels like a visitor, that Spain was still really home? And, in fact, his mother does still live in Spain.
Hagedorn: His mother lives in Spain, but she’s not a Spaniard either. Is it a Filipino thing? I don’t know. I really don’t want to generalize like that because that’s where you start getting in trouble. It’s specific to this character, but there are many characters like him who are so caught up in the class garbage of feeling that they’re the colonials in their own country. It’s almost as if the Philippines is a stopping point and then life will go on once we get to the United States, get our visa and leave. Now, it’s no longer about going to Spain. That was a particular generation. Now, it’s like “We’re going to get our visas and split and come to the United States.” Because they have given up on the Philippines, they feel a certain hopelessness and despair, and they don’t want to stay and try to fight it. They feel it’s a situation that they have no power to change. Rather than even fighting or voting for someone else or something, they’d rather leave. So, it’s a comment on that-about living there and always feeling like a stranger. And maybe that’s a uniquely post-colonial condition.
Interviewer: What do you make of the contrast between Joey and Rio, of how they both end up not having any control over their lives?
Hagedorn: There are a lot of similarities between the two even though one came from pure poverty and the other comes from an upper-middle class background and has access, she thinks, to many other things in the world and to material goods. But even she has no control on one level. But there is a point where the two of them realize they might have some control over their lives. They do, in their souls anyway. And she starts to come to grips with that as the book ends. And he … Who knows? He’s a pragmatist. Joey is a survivor, that much I’m clear about. Whether he goes back and hustles for the rest of his life or he really changes. Maybe he gets betrayed again? Because, hey, the left, they’re not saints either. Or he may end up working for the telephone company. I based the Daisy character, for example, on a composite of several people, but one of them had been in the mountains, had fought, had really taken this idea of the revolution very seriously. But finally, she came down from the mountains, just got burned out and tired of being on the run. She was one of the most wanted people in the Philippines and by the time I interviewed her, she was working at a mundane job and seemed to be somewhat at peace with whatever compromise she had come to. It was completely bizarre because she had been somewhat of a legend.
Interviewer: People know who she is?
Interviewer: And nothing’s happened to her?
Hagedorn: Not anymore, no. She’s not living under an assumed name. It’s kind of hard to do that in the Philippines. The city itself, you know, they would know who you were, so she couldn’t do that. So, who knows, Joey could have ended up that way too.
Interviewer: You’ve written that at one point you scorned yourself and that it was only later, after you had left the Philippines “to settle in the country of my oppressor”—which you have also said you never thought of as being the oppressor back then—”that I learned to confront my demons and reinvent my own history.” First, what are the demons you’re talking about confronting?
Hagedorn: The demons of identity are certainly some of the demons I confront. God, I don’t have to list all my demons, do I Kay? But in that particular sentence I meant this sort of condition of who am I? I am of mixed blood. Where are my allegiances? Is there an easy answer? No there isn’t. I wanted to have clarity about what I was doing. Who am I as an artist, as a woman? Now whether or not I choose to answer those questions, I still get disturbed by them. Those themes permeate my work, so that’s part of the demonology of my life. And I think about issues of mortality and immortality. I’m starting to confront now living in the United States as opposed to living back in the Philippines. Why I’ve decided to do that. It’s important to me to know why, and would I die here? That’s my new question. Is this the country where I want to die and be buried? If so, maybe it’s because this is a country that allows you to reinvent yourself.
Interviewer: The two ideas are interrelated, are they not? Con-fronting your demons and reinventing your history in the sense of overcoming false things that are taught to you by the textbooks when you’re in school? I was intrigued by the sense of correcting history in your work. Is that what you’re getting at?
Hagedorn: Even revisionists can be cloudy when they revise history, so I’m very suspicious of that too. It goes back to memory. What we choose to remember is also colored, don’t you think? How, for example, I elevate the mother to this Rita Hayworth vision. And the father, who is a more troubled character, but still charming. The charming gangster. I have these archetypes in my memory. Even my memory is questionable, of course, but it’s the memory I live with. So, there are things from your childhood that are always with you, and perhaps they were always an illusion anyway but, yet and still, you have to be fueled by something.
Interviewer: At the age of fourteen, you were taken by your mother from Manila out of one very multi-ethnic culture into America, another multi-ethnic culture. What was that like?
Hagedorn: It was terrible at first. Luckily, she chose to live in San Francisco and not in someplace where we would’ve stood out. There was a multi-ethnic community and, luckily, there was Chinatown, for God’s sake, which we constantly went to. It was the closest thing to Manila we could find. I was at such a terrible age, so gawky and awkward, and I didn’t know whether I was grown up or still a child. So it was a weird time. Also exciting. I mean I had always fancied that I would travel once I was old enough, and live in many places in the world, so I had that adventurer thing anyway. It’s just that it happened a little too abruptly. And I was uprooted in the middle of my school work and I wasn’t ready to go then, it was not the time. Too many adjustments too fast. But I was also flexible and we all were tougher than we thought. It took a turn for the better when I realized that one of the positive things about it was that as a female person, I suddenly had a sense of freedom that I never had growing up in Manila in that over-protected colonial environment—the girl with her chaperones and everything that still goes on, that kind of tradition. And even though girls are not discouraged from going to school, they’re still expected to marry and have a family and that’s the subtext of everything. In America, suddenly I was free from those shackles. And because my mother was preoccupied with trying to make a new life for herself, reinventing herself at age forty, she could not control me as much as she would have liked too. So there was a pay off for me.
Interviewer: Was this when you started writing?
Hagedorn: I started writing seriously then. I had always written. As a child, I loved to read and I always thought of myself as a writer. You know, I was very dramatic. I would write little poems and I loved to make little comic books. I would illustrate them, four-page comic books, and thought of myself as a writer. When I was fourteen, my mother gave me a typewriter, thank heavens, and I guess she thought that would be a healthy way to keep me at home. I would type poems and read.
Interviewer: And then I’ve heard that somebody in your family sent them to Kenneth Rexroth? How did that come to happen?
Hagedorn: We had a family friend who knew a lot of what was going on in San Francisco. He would come over and I showed him my poems because he was a reader, so it was nice to talk books with him. And he gave them to a journalist friend of his who thought to send them to Rexroth. Kenneth at the time was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, I think, or The Examiner, one of those papers. He’d write about whatever he wanted, always about art and culture with a little bit of politics thrown in. He called up and said, “Why don’t you and your mother come for dinner?” He had a daughter my age, and it turned out he lived in the neighborhood. So it all fell into place. I found out that he was this wonderful poet and semi-controversial, which of course appealed to my rebellious nature and I thought, “Oh, yummy, you know. It’s not some corny old guy.” He became something like my mentor in that he had all these books, thousands of books. Poetry, novels. And he said, “Just come over here whenever you want. You can borrow books.” He would invite me out with his daughter to go to readings and to do all these beatnik things like go to a book store at nine o’clock at night, which I was just so thrilled by. And he’d get me books and he’d say “Here, you should read this.” He wasn’t didactic about it. He just said, “You should look at Mallarme. Look at the French surrealists. Look at this.” I guess he trusted my intelligence enough to know he didn’t have to lecture me. And I would sit in on his classes at San Francisco State.
Interviewer: Is there a reason why you didn’t go on to college?
Hagedorn: I don’t like academic settings very much. I find them oppressive. I like learning in a much more unconstructed way. I also was very interested in the theater at the time. One thing Kenneth showed me by turning me on to all these writers who were not much older than me, who were writing what to me seemed very exciting at the time, was that you didn’t need to have a college degree to be an artist. It was, you know, the sixties. So, I turned my back on it and went instead to the American Conservatory Theater, a two-year acting and theater arts program.
Interviewer: So you did go on to school. You went to a conservatory instead.
Hagedorn: Yeah. There were no degrees though. It was practical.
Interviewer: What about that, being practical? Did you think at all in terms of writing and theater as something you could earn your living doing?
Hagedorn: I was very naive. I always thought I would eventually make a living. And I had a very romantic notion of art, that it was a higher calling. I had all kinds of jobs. I worked at Macy’s. I worked at the post office. But I always sort of had faith that one day I would make a living off the writing or the acting or directing. It didn’t bother me. It was a great time when you could live with ten people in one room. It was wonderful.
Interviewer: So where did the fiction fit in to your work? Taking on a novel is a very daunting, long term task.
Hagedorn: What made me want to write a novel was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez. I was turned on to that by a friend from Mexico who gave me the book. It was like holy communion or something. I said “Yes!” Here is a novel that reads so lyrically and so poetically, and yet is a novel. It’s a wonderful story. You want to know what happens to these people. And at the same time I saw the connection for me. It was like the Philippines was something I was carrying around and I didn’t know what art form it would take to convey the story I wanted to tell, and I read that book and said, “That’s it. One day I’m gonna do it.” I started devouring all the other writers that were being translated at the time—Manuel Puig, Cortazar and others. I went on a frenzy. The early ’70s was the Latin American boom in translation. And I would buy them as they came out. And I stored all of that away.
Interviewer: Is there anything that you can identify that you bring from the poetry and from your love of music into the fiction?
Hagedorn: Rhythm. And I think the love of language, the sheer word play. I love words. The sound of words, and puns. It’s very Filipino too. Filipinos love puns and word plays and they love language, the intonations and the nuances. They take it seriously. They also play with it.
Interviewer: A subject that we’ve only touched on is the question of Hollywood and the movies, the American movie industry, on the culture that you grew up in. It seems as though the Philippines were really swept away by American movies in terms of expectations and a particular view of the world. And this has been noted as a phenomena that happened other places too, like in South America. And you’ve continued to have a great interest in the power of film.
Hagedorn: I think it was a great colonial tool. Even if it was entertainment, and it was, an industry that was begun out of a desire to entertain and to make money. Somewhat innocent in that way, crass but innocent. Yet, I think it’s a wonderful way to seduce the minds and the hearts of people. It’s a very powerful medium. You sit in the dark. Everything is larger than life. It tells a good story in a short amount of time. It’s very easy to be swayed by it. It’s as close to life as you can imagine. And yet, there’s something magic about it because everybody looks good. Everybody’s a giant. And it’s beautiful or it’s hyper whatever-itis. It’s hyper-ugly, hyper-violent, hyper-beautiful.
Interviewer: And it instructs us about how we are supposed to see ourselves and how we’re supposed to see the world? In speaking of this very factor inDogeaters, John Updike said, “A borrowed American culture [borrowed from the movies he’s talking about] has given Filipinos dreams but not the means to make dreams come true.” And that you as a writer are as good as anybody he’s ever come across in showing the impact of the movies on, as he put it “the young minds of the third world.” And you didn’t have any corrective, any North American corrective when you walked out into the streets of Manila afterward. Can you say how this shaped the generation you grew up in? Do you think that the American movie culture had anything to do with keeping people from seeing what was really going on around them?
Hagedorn: No, that’s sort of minor. I think we all need our escapes. But I’m not going to say that just because you can run into an air-conditioned theater for two hours out of the day to escape from the heat and the oppression and lose yourself that, you know, the movie musical is the root of our problems.
Interviewer: But is there a way in which Hollywood shaped Filipino cultural attitudes?
Hagedorn: In our notions of beauty, OK? These Gods and Goddesses of the West were constantly being fed to us. They didn’t look like us. We thought they were exotic. I remember the first time I saw a woman with red hair and blue eyes in the Philippines. I just couldn’t stop staring. And even in our own movie industry, the big stars of the time were the people with the more refined features. You weren’t going to get the pure Filipino look on the screen. They would always get the lighter mestiza. A lot of cultural shame is reinforced by these movies.
Interviewer: As a writer you have made film a central part of your esthetic.
Hagedorn: For other people perhaps it was something else that brought them to certain conclusions about their lives and their identities. But, for me, film was truly one of the more powerful sources of entertainment, enlightenment, disillusionment. So, I use it a lot. In the writing ofDogeaters, especially, the movies were there because they were absolutely part of the fabric of my memory. Once I found that key, all the doors started swinging open in my imagination.
Interviewer: In Charlie Chan is Dead, an anthology of Asian American literature that you recently edited, you wrote that you were “eager to subvert the very definition of what was considered fiction.” I’m interested in knowing what you meant by that. How do you feel your own work subverts the very definition of fiction?
Hagedorn: In Dogeaters, the easiest way to answer that one is the way I use what are considered factual documents. For example, the McKinley Speech is not a fiction, it’s a real speech he made in 1898. There’s also an Associated Press bulletin called “Insect Bounty” that’s real as well as a fiction that I made up. And there are fake newspaper items along with real newspaper items with real people’s names, and it all fits into this sort of novel form. I play with what is considered fake and made up and actual facts of history. I think, too, in the way I use language. In the fact that I use Tagalog without a glossary. The story is not linear. It doesn’t follow the traditional form of a novel, and the time frame isn’t clear. It goes around and around. I go back and forth between the fifties and the eighties, quite comfortably I think.
Interviewer: Is there any sense in which you are writing for a purpose, to correct stereotypes or to reinvent history in a way that corrects wrongs?
Hagedorn: If I were to write with that agenda in mind, then I’d destroy the writing. No, I write really because I have to and if the writing also destroys some of those myths and subverts forms and makes people question the very idea of the writer, the woman, the Filipino-American, the whatever, great!
Interviewer: Where does art have to come from to accomplish those kinds of ends? If you set out directly to accomplish them, you probably wouldn’t have writing that is, in your opinion, worth reading? So, where does it have to come from?
Hagedorn: It has to come from the deepest, deepest, deepest insides of your soul. And it’s got to be brutally honest. It’s like pornography. You know it when you are doing it and you know when you’re bullshitting. You know when you’re being self-conscious and contrived and forcing something to be there because you want to make sure that people get the point. You know when that’s happening. But if you just really listen to yourself and to your characters, you don’t go for the easy stuff.
Interviewer: The other major art form that we haven’t talked about yet is your involvment in the world of music. As I understand it, for a number of years you had a band called The Gangster Choir. Is that right? Can you tell us about that, and what kind of an influence this experience has had on your life as a writer?
Hagedorn: I formed the band in 1975 because I was a poet at the time, very active in doing live readings and starting to think about readings as performance. We didn’t have all of those terms in the Bay Area like “performance art,” which to me is a very East Coast kind of label. We just did it. But I knew there was something more I wanted to do than stand up there with a piece of paper or with a book and read. So I had an idea that maybe there was a way to work with a band. I had heard a little bit of The Last Poets, for example, who actually had a record. And I got very excited by the idea of the spoken word to music. So, you could call this rapping before its time.
Interviewer: How did the band actually come about?
Hagedorn: I called Julian Priester, a composer friend of mine, and asked him to help me get some musicians together. I didn’t really think the musicians would go for it, but they all showed up. We started rehearsing. Julian and I wrote three things that had chorus parts, so we included singers. It was such a wonderful experience I decided to just go for it. Whenever I could, if there was a performance coming up or a reading where they could actually have the entire band there, I would include them and we became sort of a fixture in the Bay area poetry-and-music scene. And the band in various forms grew to nine or ten people, full horn section, electric guitars, bass, back-up singers. You name it, we had it. It lasted for around ten years and when I moved to New York, a couple of the people moved with me and we re-formed again, dropped the “West Coast” from The Gangster Choir title and just called ourselves The Gangster Choir. And we worked in all the clubs. You know, there was the New Wave scene, CBGB’s, the Mudd Club, all that. And we had to become more musical. And I just figured, if Sid Vicious can sing, I can sing too. It was very liberating for me, and the band became more streamlined and edgy. It was an interesting time to be around with a band in the ’80s. Part of that will be covered in my next novel I hope, one I’m working on now.
Interviewer: But all this was while you were working on Dogeaters?
Hagedorn: My daughter was born in the ’80s, and I really wanted to begin working on the novel. Maybe having a child made me realize that I might be old enough to attempt a mature work. And there was a point where I said, “I cannot be everything and do everything and write a novel. Something’s got to go.” I knew the novel was going to be a big undertaking, and I had to be alone to really focus. So the band was disbanded. But I still work with music when the occasion is right. Last year, I went to San Francisco for a music festival and they asked me to put a band together. They gave me a budget to hire local people. It was great. So now from time to time I’d like to continue performing because it’s a different kind of high when you perform musically. It’s just such great fun, and with good musicians it can elevate the words to another level and enhance the poetry, and it’s marvelous!
Winner of the 1995 Editors’ Prize for Poetry.
my ally: wasn’t any drug could make me recall
not any could make me forget
this life backing me out death’s door
but—how can I tell you?—keeping me here
eg. a psychiatrist asked
what are your three greatest problems?
I lost my shoes.
What else? I lost both of them.
How did you get those scars on your legs?
Losing my shoes.
Cicadas cut through the muffle like a saw through sand
piling in on itself
I was sailing on the river, only sailing
a squall came on the horizon
I don’t remember
the horizon. I meet it here
horizontal to the next : at the foot of the bed
my father looked to my mother who looked to my father
But how, but why?
There is no sound for it
stuffed in the oxygen tent
There is only my breath, my body creating
space to let the air come through.
This much I knew
These hands bound mute
these hands round the tiller slipping
a slow fat-cat boat into the storm
the river was still
and I was glass
these hands bound and stuffed
the canvas sail in its bag hands coiled
the rope round itself
thirteen times I counted and once to bind the knot
fourteen years, these hands
bound the noose
slung from the landing
I slipped into
swung from the stairs
these hands hung
amnesia: the miracle
of a single clean moment
a vessel socked in the fog
involute horn brayed from her bow
She would blow in like wind
from the north—I would undress
like a beach in the south
Again and again naked to the tempest, tasting
Brinking one moment to the next
Wave under wave under her
though, the stupor of my health,
the healthy year
My numbed out fingers
clung in the oxygen mist as if
again I tried to dock the boat
I sat on my mattress, wobbled
in a heaving storm
darkness rocked me on her inland sea
Nothing… in the realm of necessity
Except what my hands could do*
I held the tiller coiled the sheets tossed
the bowline off her prow
my father from the doorway watched
me navigate and fall
back, I threw up
in my lungs
it was something
The sailboats move on the water
when I am alone in the room
I’ve lost count of the years I’ve been ill, I can remember,
If you had to die would you rather
freeze to death or burn? we used to ask
It was a casual question
Oh burn my sister said
It would be much quicker
I would rather freeze having been that way before
I slept in a tent up behind the house
without a sleeping bag
to see how much cold I could stand
a perfect integer
The mist a vapor between us, and I
for the first time saw
the mirror on the concrete wall,
morning still as nurses can hold it
still as stopped breath but I pushed
out of the oxygen tent,
shuffled to the sight of myself
My hands held my hands, held all I knew
looking through the child I was, only
pieces remained afloat
in the stillwater of an eye,
parted in the flood of an other
They pulled me back
alone to the clean air
tucked away with an image memory now
split wide the horizon, the bed against my body breaking
down the infinite, only the mist a vapor
At last they gathered round
no evidence in my veins
we’d all held life in our hands
They’d severed an artery, spilled its blood, filled it again
and opened wombs, lifted infants out
These interns with clipboards in studious rows
prepared to lift the veil and mark
across my throat the open wound
stretched like a grin
turned them to stone
in their stiff white coats
Late August the cat-boat sat
on the river, swung round her mooring
as the tide came in and out
*Adrienne Rich, “Integrity”
The Rules of the Lake
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