InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Jessica Hagedorn
(b. 1949)

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 and screenplays.

Moving 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.

Hagedorn’s 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.

Also 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.

In 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.

In 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.

Hagedorn’s 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.

Hagedorn 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.

George Uba
California State University, Northridge

In the Heath Anthology
Filipino Boogie (1971)
The Death of Anna May Wong (1971)
The Blossoming of BongBong (1975)
Homesick (1992)
Vulva Operetta (1992)

Other Works
Chiquita Banana (1972)
Dangerous Music (1975)
Pet Food & Tropical Apparitions (1981)
Dogeaters (1990)
Danger and Beauty (1993)
The Gangster of Love (1996)

Cultural Objects
Image fileAnna May Wong film magazine

Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


Jessica Hagedorn
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.

Web Resources
An excellent portal to Hagedorn web resources.

Secondary Sources