| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Born in the Santa Mesa section of Manila in 1949,
Jessica Hagedorn traces her early inspiration to a mother devoted to painting
and a maternal grandfather who was an accomplished writer and political
cartoonist. Situated within a colonial heritage of Catholic schooling and U.S.
cultural hegemony, Hagedorn found herself drawn to Hollywood movies and Western
literary classics—but equally to melodramas and radio serials in Tagalog. This
predilection for crossing boundaries defines Hagedorn’s cultural productions,
which include poetry and fiction, theater pieces and performance art, and music
to San Francisco at the age of fourteen proved pivotal in shaping Hagedorn’s
consciousness. Although eventually attending the American Conservatory Theater,
Hagedorn attributes a substantial part of her artistic development to her early
exposure to San Francisco’s social and literary scene. The family’s frequent
moves through diverse neighborhoods contributed, along with her unimpeded
appetite for browsing bookstores, to her sense of multiculturalism. She cites
Bienvenido Santos, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Jayne Cortez, and Víctor
Hernández Cruz, as well as Gabriel García Márquez, Manuel Puig, and Stéphane
Mallarmé, as among her literary influences. No less vital was her participation
in San Francisco’s Kearny Street Writers’ Workshop, which introduced her to
Asian American history and literature and helped infuse her with the spirit,
passion, and social commitment of the late 1960s.
urban American experience also stimulated an abiding interest in music,
particularly rock, jazz, and rhythm and blues. Her poetry propels itself along
rhythms inflected by music and urban vernacular. In 1973 her poetry appeared in
Four Young Women: Poems, an anthology edited by Kenneth Rexroth. She continued
experimenting in Dangerous Music, a 1975 collection whose poetry occasionally
resembles a literal “dance” of words and whose offbeat prose fiction opens a
space for rewriting of immigration narratives.
in 1975, along with Thulani Davis and Ntozake Shange, Hagedorn formed a band
called the West Coast Gangster Choir, rechristened in 1978 in New York City as
the Gangster Choir. Upon moving to the East Coast, she participated in New
York’s Basement Workshop. Earlier experiments using dramatic sketches during
the pauses between songs contributed to the development of her performance art.
Following the production of several theatrical works and teleplays, in 1981 her
Pet Food & Tropical Apparitions appeared, which featured sexually charged
poems and in the title story took a hard but sympathetic look at the capacity
of inner-city culture to evince simultaneously an incomparable vitality and a
lurid self-destructiveness. Between 1988 and 1992, she participated in the
performance/theater trio Thought Music.
1990 Hagedorn produced her first novel, Dogeaters, a mordant exploration of
class and ethnic divisions, rampant commercialism, plutocratic machinations,
revolutionary insurgency, and the varieties of corruption in a country caught
in the grasp of a Marcos-like regime and laboring beneath the shadow of Western
colonialism. Nominated for the National Book Award and recipient of the
American Book Award, Dogeaters is also noteworthy for its stylistic daring.
Playfully splicing together book and letter excerpts, poetry, a gossip column,
dramatic dialogue, and news items into a conventional storytelling frame, the novel
explores the possibilities of combining postmodern narrative practices with a
postcolonial political agenda.
1993 Hagedorn edited Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian
American Fiction. Significantly, although the book included many well-known
Asian American writers, such as Carlos Bulosan, Hisaye Yamamoto, Maxine Hong
Kingston, Amy Tan, and Bharati Mukherjee, nearly half of the forty-eight
writers enjoyed publication in a major collection for the first time.
second novel, The Gangster of Love, appeared in 1996. It experiments with
shifting points of view and engages dream as a supplementary register of
narrative but otherwise tells a conventional story of a young woman from the
Philippines struggling to establish her musical and artistic career in America
and later grappling with the encroachments of age.
remains ideologically aligned with the radical 1960s politics that helped shape
her sensibility, but ultimately she is interested not in social realism but in
reinvention and the varities of liberation. Just as her work resists easy
categorization into “high” or “pop” culture, it seeks to cross conventional
boundaries of self and country and of writing and art.
California State University, Northridge
In the Heath Anthology
The Death of Anna May Wong
The Blossoming of BongBong
Pet Food & Tropical Apparitions
Danger and Beauty
The Gangster of Love
Anna May Wong film magazine
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
Biographical data, a complete list of works, and insightful analysis.
Jessica Hagedorn: Cultivating the Art of the Melange
A 1996 New York Times article about Hagedorn by Somini Sengupta.
Modern American Poetry
A biography, some poem etexts, a critical essay on Ming the Merciless, and other resources.
An excellent portal to Hagedorn web resources.