A way with myths
'I'M INTERESTED IN people and what happens to them,' says Jessica Hagedorn, sitting at a table at the trendy restaurant Pastis in Manhattan's meatpacking district. 'That's what engages me - human motivation. What draws some people into the forest and others out of it?'
It's an apt question to ask on the paperback release of her third novel, Dream Jungle (Penguin). Using the jungle of Hagedorn's native Philippines as the backdrop, the novel centres on the 'theme of cultural mythmaking,' she says.
The myths spring from two real events that were seminal for the Philippines. In 1971, a wealthy Filipino claimed to have found a lost tribe in the Mindanao rainforest. A few years later, Hollywood came to the Philippine jungle to shoot the Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now. As in Hagedorn's two earlier novels, the non-linear plot of Dream Jungle grows out of her offbeat characters' experiences.
'Everyone put their own spin on it,' Hagedorn says of the tribe. 'As for the movie, it's about who's controlling the images we're going to see. We have the making of a big Hollywood movie a couple of years after the war has ended in a country that looks like that country, but isn't. A movie can provide a very distorted view of the world.'
Both the tribe and the movie, she says, raise issues of 'cultural authenticity' - which she explores in her first and second novels, respectively, Dogeaters (1990), nominated for a National Book Award, and The Gangster of Love (1996).
'I was fascinated by our need to have these things in our lives, our need as people to believe in myths,' says Hagedorn, 55, a petite, animated woman, who is a mother and a teacher.
Wearing jeans, a black button-down shirt and sandals, her streaked dark hair pulled back with a bandana, she looks simple and chic. 'I don't care if the tribe is real or not,' she says. 'That doesn't interest me. I like the grey areas. I'm not interested in the truth of things.'
Those grey areas have resulted in a life as eclectic as that of her characters. In 1962, when she was 13, Hagedorn's parents separated after her father had an affair with a beauty queen. She left Manila with her mother and two older brothers, settling in San Francisco, where her mother worked odd jobs. Her father, who ran an import-export business, stayed in Manila.
The young Hagedorn immersed herself in books and began writing poems to escape the loneliness and strangeness of her new surroundings. When she was 15, a friend of her mother's sent the poet Kenneth Rexroth some of her poems. 'He invited my mother and me to meet him,' Hagedorn says. 'He lived in our neighbourhood, the Haight. He said, 'If ever you want to come over and read my books, do so. Treat my home as if it were your library.' I took him up on it. Kenneth was also very involved with Beat poets in that area - he'd take me to poetry readings. If I'd never met him, my life might have gone a different route.'
Rexroth included her work in a collection of poetry by three other young women poets that he edited.
At 18, Hagedorn became an American citizen. With a Filipino-Spanish father and Filipino-American mother - as well as Chinese, German and Irish blood - she felt she fitted into America's diverse culture. 'I'm connected to my past and roots, but that culture is a hybrid culture, so the American experience isn't so foreign to me.'
Deciding she 'didn't need' college, Hagedorn enrolled in a programme run by the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, taking acting classes and working in plays with professional actors at night. She worked part-time jobs writing songs and performing in a rock band called the West Coast Gangster Choir and creating performance-art pieces.
'One doesn't do anything that isn't connected to something deep within you,' she says. 'I feel like everything feeds off everything else. I'm not a typical writer - I have educated myself, and it's been a very eclectic experience. I chose to go into a theatre school because that also interested me as a form of expression. I also like to write for the stage. I feel all of that makes sense for me.'
In 1978, her performance pieces attracted the attention of New York's Joseph Papp Public Theatre, which invited her to collaborate on a show. As a result, she decided to move to New York. 'I felt like it was time for a change and that it would be good for me,' Hagedorn says. 'I thought it would toughen up my writing. It's a tough place, and audiences and readers demand more from you.'
In New York, she ran a reading series of young Asian American writers for the Basement Workshop, an early incarnation of the Asian American Writers' Workshop. Her interest in cultivating young Asian writers led to the publication of two anthologies of Asian writing, Charlie Chan is Dead (Penguin, 1993), and a follow-up, Charlie Chan is Dead II, published in February. In the mid-1980s, she was living in Greenwich Village, was married to a Chinese-American media producer named John Woo and had a baby daughter, Paloma, now 21 (another daughter, Esther, is 13). After years of writing poetry, a novella, performance pieces and song lyrics, she was ready to tackle a novel.
Dogeaters, a derogatory term for Filipinos, was published. A patchwork of interwoven stories set in the Marcos era, the book traces the struggles of disinherited and disillusioned characters in a world still traumatised from the effects of colonisation. Among the accolades, New York Newsday called it a 'brilliantly scattershot story'. The New York Times said it's 'as sharp and fast as a street boy's razor.'
Nonetheless, 'it was very difficult to sell the book to a publisher', Hagedorn says. 'We were turned down by a lot of people. The publishing industry has a certain type of myopia. Who's going to be interested in the Philippines?'
As she does in Dream Jungle, Hagedorn suggests in Dogeaters that Hollywood and other purveyors of dreams are the most potent and dangerous colonisers of all. They lay claim not just to land, but to people's imaginations and aspirations, holding the common 'dogeater' and the powerful dictator equally under their sway. The novel's mixed-heritage teenage character Rio - who emigrates to the US and announces, 'I'm going to make movies, not act in them!' - sounds a lot like Hagedorn.
She says the book's inspiration is 'my own growing up, and the relationship of America to a place that's colonised like the Philippines - that kind of love-hate relationship in which the influence of the dominating country is keenly felt long after that country's gone.'
By contrast, The Gangster of Love - which traces the adventures of a female Filipino-American rock band leader in the US, again bearing a resemblance to the author - received mixed reviews. Some found it disjointed and shallow. 'I think they wanted me to stay on a turf I'd claimed, which was exotic to them,' Hagedorn says. 'It's the second-novel problem. When you make a big splash and then try to do something different, there's a certain disappointment. But I wanted to grapple with a story largely set in the US. It's about music and the making of culture and the kind of life one has to lead to make music. I really love that book. I think that book is going to last.'
Dream Jungle, which came out in hardcover last year, re-established Hagedorn as a critics' darling. Influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the novel's lush, feverish writing brings alive a harsh landscape made sufferable only by dreams. 'Latin American writers have a shared history of colonialism - that kind of conflict and contradiction,' says Hagedorn, who first revisited the Philippines in 1974 and has returned regularly to visit family and research her novels.
'We get cultural myths out of popular culture,' she says. 'The making of Apocalypse Now becomes its own legend: the director has a nervous breakdown, the excess that went on ... There's always going to be a mix of revulsion and admiration.'
Hagedorn is working on her fourth novel, which, she says, will have something to do with the September 11 attacks. She saw the towers come down from her home. 'No one knows how to confront it,' she says. 'But I think you should at least try, because even those flawed confrontations are important.'
In addition, she's working on two plays (her diverse oeuvre also includes several short films and one abstract feature film, Fresh Kill, about the effects of pollution). One of the plays, about five characters grappling with memory and mortality, will be staged by the theatre company Campo Santo in San Francisco this February. The other, a musical, is inspired by Filipino-American Andrew Cunanan, whose 1997 killing spree ended in designer Gianni Versace's death.
This spring, Hagedorn will also teach in the graduate writing programs at Yale and Columbia universities. Will her hectic schedule allow time to visit her homeland - figuratively and literally? 'Now that my father has passed away, there's less reason to go back,' she says. 'I'm not done with the Philippines, though.'