Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn is a Filipina American poet, novelist, playwright, and multimedia artist. Born in Manila in 1949, she and her mother immigrated to the U.S. in 1963, setting up new roots in San Francisco. At 14, Hagedorn was already writing, typing poems out on a typewriter given to her by her mother, and living in San Francisco further cultivated her creative education. In time, she'd participate in San Francisco’s Kearny Street Writers’ Workshop and become mentored by Kenneth Rexroth, regarded by many as the father of the beatniks.
She has since authored over 20 creative works, from multiple novels and anthologies, to original plays and stage adaptations of her own critically-acclaimed novels Dogeaters and The Gangster of Love. She is currently developing an original musical based on the equally iconic Pinay-founded, all-women rock band Fanny called Play Like A Girl: The Amazing Life & Times of a Band Named Fanny, commissioned by Two River Theater.
In celebration of this prolific Pinay and the upcoming 30th anniversary of her debut anthology Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, here are five facts to get to know more about Jessica Hagedorn.
1. DOGEATERS RECEIVED PRAISE AND DISAPPROVAL.
A winner of the American Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Award, Hagedorn's debut novel has been studied extensively in the past three decades since its release, arguably becoming a novel against which other Filipino American novels have since been compared.
That said, the novel's title outraged many in the Asian American community upon its release, and possibly still today. In a 2020 interview with Noah Flora for The Nation, Hagedorn shares that she encountered the term during her research, from the book Little Brown Brother by historian Leon Wolff.
"As a kid, I knew there were these cringy jokes in the Philippines about how people think we eat dogs, but I didn’t know the root of all the shame around it," said Hagedorn of the term that she admits to Flora haunted her. "And when it came time to really make a decision, I had a long talk with some friends—these were African American writers who were part of my community—and they said, 'If you’re afraid of something, don’t shy away from it.' So the idea was to flip the word on its head and use it as a defiant title. My editor didn’t want it. She thought it was terrible."
Hagedorn later tells Flora that she's in awe of the novel's continued impact amongst all young writers of color.
"I’ve gotten letters from young writers who tell me that the book gave them a sense of not being alone, that they saw themselves in it. It made them feel like part of the conversation. And I think it’s important to stress that, because people get comfortable now and they think it’s all hunky-dory. It’s not. It’s the same, really," she explained to Flora. "There’s more access now, but it’s still very unequal."
2. HER ANTHOLOGIES CREATED PLATFORMS IN AMERICAN LITERATURE FOR VOICES OF THE ASIAN DIASPORA.
Hagedorn's anthologies Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction (Penguin Books, December 1993) and Charlie Chan is Dead 2: At Home in the World (Penguin Books, February 2004) brought a range of established and emerging Asian American writers to the forefront. Together, these volumes centered over 80 short stories spanning decades, including work from pioneering Asian and Asian American writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Carlos Bulosan alongside new and emerging writers of the time, such as Chang-Rae Lee, R. Zamora Linmark, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka.
Her third anthology called Manila Noir (Akashic Books, June 2013) is a collection of crime fiction stories set in Manila that presents a spectacular array of Filipino writers, including Lourd de Veyra, Angelo Lacuesta, Jose Dalisay, Rosario Cruz-Lucero, and Marianne Villanueva.
With each work, Hagedorn emphasizes alternatives to the racial tropes and stereotypes perpetuated by fictional characters such as Charlie Chan—a controversial figure in American media history.
"Life is not simple, and people can't be boxed into being either heroes or villains," said Hagedorn in a 2004 interview with Nizhen Hsieh for the online magazine A Gathering of the Tribes. "I don't know how you can change a reader's rigid mode of thinking, but you can certainly challenge it by continuing to present art and literature that is provocative, nuanced, surprising, more complex and profound than perhaps they are used to encountering."
3. HAGEDORN FRONTED BANDS FOR OVER TEN YEARS.
The West Coast Gangster Choir first performed in 1975 in Studio 1 of the Creative Arts Building at San Francisco State University, at an event organized and documented by The Poetry Center. Inspired by Sun-Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Hagedorn set out to create a self-described weird and ambitious performance style that author and educator Christine Bacareza Balance explained "might effectively synthesize poetry, music, and theatre" in her 2013 research article, "Dancing to Rock & Roll Poetry: Jessica Hagedorn and the West Coast Gangster Choir," published in Boom: A Journal of California.