A novelist, poet, multimedia and performance artist. Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn had been in the United States for only three years (after moving from the Philippines at age thirteen) when her poems caught the attention of Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth, a San Francisco-based artist, encouraged her to hone her writing and edited the book that first featured her poetry, Four Young Women (1973). Forged in the heat of the early 1970s ethnic revival, her early forays into poetry, playwriting, and short fiction employed the psychedelic and rebellious idioms particular to that period. Anthologized in Mountain Moving Day (1973), Third World Women (1973), and Time to Greez! (1975), she soon produced her first collection of poetry and fiction, Dangerous Music (1975).
While in San Francisco, Hagedorn took acting lessons and subsequently developed an interest in the performing arts that was to steer her into multimedia work. Her experience as a lyricist for a band configured her poetry as one of effect and rhythm, proving congenial to her interest in interpretive readings and theater, After Joseph Papp produced her collaboration with Thulani Davis and Ntozake Shange, Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon (1977), she moved to New York to work as a playwright and musician, involvements that stamped her poetry with distinctively performative strains. Papp produced her first play, Mango Tango, in 1978. She then mounted a score of productions in New York, from Tenement Lover (1981) to Holy Food (theater: 1988; radio: 1989), as well as one in San Francisco, Teenytown (1990).
Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions (1981), a novella that incorporates a surreal vignette and seven musical poems, distinguished her as an eclectic and highly experimental artist. It won her the American Book Award for the same year and helped her secure Macdowell Colony Fellowships in 1985 and 1986. Another Macdowell fellowship in 1988 allowed her to complete work on Dogeaters (1990).
Pet Food clearly contained the seeds for Dogeaters; this accomplished, hilarious, and hyperreal, novella is driven by two memorable cinematic moments. A starlet recounts the sordid sequence of her newest skin flick in which a virtuoso pianist plays "A Moonlight Sonata" while she performs sex with an anteater and five West Indians on top of a grand piano. George Sand, the youthful but hardbitten protagonist-poet, gives form to her morbid desire for patricide and suicide in cross-cut images of Filipino guerillas slaughtering her politically powerful father and her alter ego. Character sketches for the top, middle, and bottom "dogs" that populate Philippine society in Dogeaters inhabit this novella's world of maladjusted migrant youths and social deviants. What one critic described as "the cinematext of a Third World scenario that might be the Philippines" in Dogeaters is first seen in this ensemble of deftly-spliced "rushes."
The cinematic metaphors are apt since Hagedorn has acknowledged Manuel Puig as an influence and has now moved into video- and filmmaking. Included in sixteen anthologies of women’s, ethnic, and third world writing since 1975, Hagedorn made her debut as a screenwriter with Wasteland (the title was subsequently changed to Fresh Kill), a feature film produced and directed by Shu Lea Chang.
See also: Robert Rydell, Visions of Empire (1984). "Interview with Jessica Hagedorn," Dispatch 6, no. 1 (Fall 1987): 14-18. Epifanio San Juan, Jr., "Mapping the Boundaries: The Filipino Writer in the U.S.A.," Journal of Ethnic Studies 19, no. 1 (1991): 117-132. Shirley Geoklin Lim et al., eds., The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology (1989).