THOUGH SHE HAD BEEN PUBLISHING fiction and poetry since the early 1970s through small and independent presses, Jessica Hagedorn's first career milestone took place with the publication in 1990 of Dogeaters. The first novel written by a Filipino-American author to be printed and distributed by a large mainstream press (Penguin Books), the book received high-profile critical acclaim — Robert Stone called it "the definitive novel of the encounter between the Philippines and America and their history of mutual illusion, antagonism, and ambiguous affection" — and it became a finalist for the National Book Award, securing Hagedorn's reputation as an important voice in Asian American letters. The narrative style of Dogeaters impressed readers as well as critics: a multiple-character point of view that wove American pop icons into the Filipino cultural fabric, it illuminated the chaotic and wondrous post-colonial Manila of the 1950s. At the center of this world is Rio, a young woman who absorbs everything she sees and hears and, as a new immigrant in the U.S., attempts to make sense of the rubble from afar, once the dust has settled in her beloved homeland. read more
Hagedorn's second novel, The Gangster of Love, appeared in 1996 and tackled the challenges of identity-formation in an increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural American society. In this case, Rocky Rivera, who arrives to San Francisco from the Phillipines in the 1970s, seeks orientation through her many loves — American rock music, her fellow band members Elvis Chang and Keiko Van Heller, and her crush, a Cuban-American sound engineer. But the more Rocky loses herself in the hipster scene of drugs and music, the more she's haunted by the familial ties that bind her to her home. Again, critics found it deft, serious, and elegant, and Russell Banks was moved to write that Hagedorn had "a first-class literary gangster's nerve."
In the stunning Dream Jungle (2003) Hagedorn returns to the Phillipines, this time in the 1970s, in the midst of martial law and the reign of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. The theater of dictatorship, disguised as civility, is mirrored by two plots loosely based on true events: the "discovery" of the Tasaday people, a primitive tribe hidden deep in the rain forest of the Phillipines (which turned out to be a hoax); and the making of Napalm Sunset, a film based on the production of Apocalypse Now that attempts to reconstruct embattled Viet Nam by exploiting the Phillipines's current social anxieties and political upheaval. (It is a widely-known fact that President Marcos provided the military equipment — the same he had used to suppress any attempts at insurgency among his people — for the filming of Coppola's movie.) These three books were praised by everyone from John Updike and Howard Bloom to Junot Diaz for their technical virtuosity and incisive social analysis.
In her newest book, Toxicology, Hagedorn turns her sights back to America, and the east coast meccas of Filipino migration, namely New York and New Jersey. The centripetal force holding together the multiple narratives in this edgy new novel is best articulated by one of her protagonists, Mimi, a middle-aged Filipina filmmaker and substance abuser living in Manhattan's West Village: "New York is my home...Fucked up as it is. Fucked up as I am."
Mimi is a bohemian, but one from an earlier era, before NYC's gentrification began to price out working artists and s...