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Archive for Sunday, September 22, 1991

KU FESTIVAL DRAWS FILIPINO NOVELIST

September 22, 1991

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Despite her status as an expatriate, Jessica Hagedorn had many chances to observe her Philippine homeland during the reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda.

"A lot of what he did any president had to do," said Hagedorn, a novelist, musician and performance artist visiting Lawrence. "He seemed at first to be welcomed in. Crime was rampant, so the middle class and the upper class welcomed him.

"He also had a lot of personal charisma, and Imelda was very popular among the poor, because she had a Cinderella myth. She had come up through a beauty pageant. People identified with her. . . . It was only later that the corruption in Marcos began to surface.''

Hagedorn was in Lawrence as part of the Asian-American Festival at Kansas University. She read from her works Saturday night at Downs Auditorium in Dyche Hall.

BORN IN the Philippines in 1949, Hagedorn lived in Manila until she was 10, when her family moved to San Francisco. She now lives in New York.

Her latest novel, "Dogeaters," explores the darker side of the Marcos reign at its height. The New York Times gave it a favorable notice when the book was published in 1990, and Penguin released a paperback version last July. In the book, Hagedorn shows a society that still must cope with the legacies of colonialism.

"I think the (Filipino) culture is trying to find its voice," Hagedorn said during an interview Friday. "It's unfortunate (explorer Ferdinand) Magellan came out and claimed it for Spain. It was a collection of islands with tribes that didn't have much to do with each other. For hundreds of years we had first the Spanish and then the American influence.

"EVEN AFTER independence in 1946 we've been in the American grip. It's always been the situation that Filipinos have to grapple with.''

After leaving the Philippines, Hagedorn encountered a new culture in the United States that was all but devoid of fellow Filipinos. She ended up meeting one other Filipino at school, and they became fast friends. But she did encounter prejudice.

"That's the story of every minority," she said. "And then I would also be taken for a Mexican or Hispanic. People wouldn't know what I was. I've always been interested in shifting identities.''

In high school she developed an interest in the one profession that would allow her to shift identities regularly acting. She studied for two years at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. She also had wanted to write since childhood, and in the theater she found a place where words and actions meet.

"IT WAS a mainstream education," she said. "I still think that training was good even though they were teaching what I don't want to do. But I kept writing as well, and I decided that the only way to perform, since I wasn't Sandra Dee, was writing for myself and other people like me.''

Hagedorn went on to develop several performance pieces, including "Holy Food," "Teenytown" and "Mango Tango.'' In one piece, Hagedorn divided the stage with barbed wire. She sat in one half watching television, and other performers enacted a series of character transformations on the other half.

She also led an avant-garde band in both New York and San Francisco called Gangster Choir. Before and during the punk rock explosion, Hagedorn and company would perform alternative, poetry-like songs as well as deconstructed rock music. Before it broke up, Gangster Choir developed a reputation on the performance art circuit and fell in line with other New Wave bands such as the Talking Heads.

"WE WOULD be playing in a club, and people wouldn't know what was going on," she said. "Some of the work sounded familiar, but the form would confuse them. Then after David Byrne (of Talking Heads) came along, people began to expect the unusual.''

But much of her recent work has been in fiction; in addition to her novel she's written two collection of poems, prose and short fiction: "Dangerous Music" and "Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions.'' She's also writing a screenplay for filmmaker and video artist Shu Lea Cheang.

She also visits the Philippines frequently, where a host of her relatives still live. And, in the meantime, she's seen a large migration of Filipinos to the United States.

"Before the '70s in San Francisco, there wasn't a Filipino community," she said. "You had a farming community in Stockton (Calif.), but very few elsewhere. Now, since the '70s, there's a big population in San Francisco and New York.''

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