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Jessica Hagedorn: Focusing on cultural representation can limit your humanity

The iconic Filipinx American writer will discuss history, memory and artistic imagination on a Berkeley panel celebrating Filipinx American History Month

Jessica Hagedorn on the walk way

Iconic Filipinx American writer Jessica Hagedorn will discuss history, memory and artistic imagination on a Berkeley panel celebrating Filipinx American History Month. (Courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

In mainstream media, art and literature, there is a lack of Filipinx American representation and recognition. But Filipina American writer Jessica Hagedorn says that artists who make their work solely about their own culture and history are placing themselves into institutional “niches” that “limit your humanity.”

Jessica Hagedorn with the Gangster Choir

Hagedorn with her New York funk/punk poet band, The Gangster Choir. The band broke up in 1985, when Hagedorn began writing her first novel. (Courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

Hagedorn’s literature, which spans nearly 50 years, is featured in an online Bancroft Library exhibit released Wednesday, and centers on Philippine and Filipinx American histories. Her archives include drafts and notes from her work as a novelist, poet and playwright, public relations material and correspondence dating back to 1976.

Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Library also has an in-person exhibit — “An Unfinished Revolution: Transnational Filipinx Activism in the 1970s” — that will be displayed at the library through the end of October to honor Filipinx American History Month.

Cover of Dogeaters

(Courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

Born in Manila, Hagedorn moved to San Francisco in 1963 when she was 14. Her writing examines the influence of American imperialism and pop culture on the development of Asian American and Filipinx American identity. Hagedorn’s many honors include the 2021 Rome Prize for Literature, a Guggenheim Fiction Fellowship and a Philippine National Book Award.

Her award-winning book, Dogeaters, was published in 1990 and captured life in the Philippines during the Ferdinand Marcos era of martial law. The novel won the American Book Award and has been adapted for the stage and performed at venues across the country.

Berkeley News spoke with Hagedorn recently about the time she spent as a “young activist writer” in the Bay Area, and how writers can break through the identity niches that institutions have placed them in.

Berkeley News: The Berkeley campus will celebrate and acknowledge Filipinx American History Month this year. Are these “identity month” recognitions important to acknowledge?

Jessica Hagedorn: Yes, I think they are for students of color. But why has it taken so long for UC Berkeley to celebrate and acknowledge Filipino Americans? Kinda ironic.

I’m friends with many distinguished Filipino scholars and artists who came out of Berkeley, and it’s very discouraging to me to hear that this recognition is just happening now after all this time. I don’t even think many people at Berkeley know that my archives are in their library and have been for years.

Do you think the accomplishments and influence of Philippine literature and Filipinx American writers often get ignored by institutions?

Yes. I think that’s why I try to be vocal and public about this situation, because I feel like I’ve had the privilege of having a bigger platform.

Charlie Chan Is Dead, an anthology of contemporary Asian American fiction, which I edited and was first published by Penguin in 1990, featured pioneering Filipino writers like Bienvenido Santos and N.V.M. Gonzalez, alongside young writers like Gina Apostol and R. Zamora Linmark.

We’ve been around a long time!

Jessica Hagedorn and the West Coast Gangster Choir launch into their opening number, a jazz-funk riff with poem titled “Dancing,” on October 30, 1975, at Studio 1, San Francisco State University.

There are a lot of literary institutions that have awarded funding to writers, including yourself, to help them continue to produce literature. Would it also help if writers from the Filipinx American community got more of that financial pie?

Having support is crucial. We all need money to live and continue to make our art. And sometimes these prizes and awards can be a sort of validation.

But money and prizes don’t mean that the work you produce is going to be any good. Sometimes those accolades actually get in the way. The lean times are often when the good stuff happens. So, let’s not get fixated on fame and money.

Dogeaters mask with Imelda Marcos on it.

Dogeaters was adapted for the stage in 1998. This swag shows the face of former first lady of the Philippines, Imedla Marcos, whom a character was loosely based. (Courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

Write like you’re on fire, be fearless, dream and explore.

Some of your writing reflects on specific moments in Philippine history. Is it important for Filipinx/Filpinx American storytellers to focus on Philippine culture and history in their work?

No. You should feel free to write whatever you want to write.

We don’t make art to represent. That has to happen organically. Filipinos are not a monolith. Humans aren’t a monolith. We all have different experiences and need to write across the different identities we hold. As artists, we should be free to write about a wide range of complicated characters and subjects.

Don’t limit yourself to only what you know. But definitely do your homework! Being a writer is hard work.

So, in a sense, are you saying that focusing solely on your identity and/or cultural history can limit your imagination and creativity?

That depends. It can limit not just those things, but it can limit your humanity. And that’s something Gina Apostol and I hope to talk about at this event on Wednesday.

How are history and memory and literature connected? How do different writers deal with these complicated topics? Is everything political? What is our role in the world?

Hagedorn was featured in this Kearny Street Workshop/Balay virtual histories series that explores the cultural impact of the Filipinx and Asian American arts activism community in San Francisco.

Those are questions that many students at Berkeley may be asking themselves at this point in their lives, as well. What is your advice to them?

When I was a young activist writer in the Bay Area, I thought I had all the answers. Sometimes I was right, and a lot of times I was just plain ignorant and wrong. There were a few positive things that came from my impatience, energy and anger: I dared to do things with my artistic comrades that hadn’t been done before.

We came together in writing collectives to make books because most writers of color were not being published at the time. We didn’t know how to publish, but we learned how to do it guerrilla-style. We organized readings, performances and concerts, made posters and came out to support each other big-time.

We brought the noise. And got it done.

It all boils down to that old cliche: believe in yourself. Trust in your creative vision and the power of your distinct writer’s voice.