VINCE GOTERA Reviews
Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn
(Pantheon, New York, 1990)
State of War by Ninotchka Rosca
(Norton, New York, 1988)
[First published in Pilipinas: A Journal of Philippine Studies No. 21, Fall 1993]
“The jeepney”—these words open David Joel Steinberg’s sociohistorical profile entitled The Philippines: A Singular and a Plural Place, second edition. “Decorated with tassels, bits of plastic stripping, foil, mirrors, paint, and virtually anything else that can be attached to the chassis,” writes Steinberg, “the jeepneys are a folk art extension of their individual Filipino owners.” Steinberg’s description is accompanied by a photograph: a jeepney emblazoned with a self-advertisement—“ROMANTICO”—and, in smaller letters, the name of the driver—“Roman Tiko.” Such delightful word play emblematizes Philippine culture and the national psyche: a baroque fascination with minutiae, balanced against a greatness of personal gesture. Such (re)doubling is exemplified in turn by Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters and Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War, two novels which, together, signify much about the Philippines as (in Steinberg’s words) “a singular and a plural place.”
In Dogeaters, Hagedorn’s character Senator Avila proclaims, “Food is the center of our ritual celebrations, our baptisms, weddings funerals. You can’t describe a real Pinoy without listing what’s most important to him—food, music, dancing, and love—most probably in that order.” The very title of the novel foreshadows Avila’s first item, but more interestingly, given the intricate co-penetration of everything American and Filipino in Dogeaters, Hagedorn’s title strokes the forbidden fruit—the food all Pinoys “stateside” disavow as primitive, pre-colonial, pariah.
Dogeaters is replete with lists and catalogs of all varieties and flavors: Rio, one of several narrators, recalls her mother’s “perfumes, her jars of creams and ointments, her gleaming tubes of lipstick in red and lavender shades, her jewelry boxes inlaid with pearls and carnelian, her tortoise-shell combs and brushes, the round boxes of scented talcum, and a black lacquered music box from Japan.” I quote at length here to point to Hagedorn’s minute and caressing attention to shapes, colors, textures—evoking the evanescent fragrances and ephemeral traces of memory.
The most exotic lists in Dogeaters are catalogs of food (as Senator Avila would aver) and these listings expose the multiplex connections of Hagedorn’s fictional world with precolonial Philippine life, with Spanish and American colonization, and with contemporary popular culture as a transnational fabric. Breakfasts of “scrambled eggs over garlic-fried rice, side of longaniza sausages and beef tapa, kalamansi juice, and fresh pineapple”; meriendas of “minced red salted duck eggs dabbed with vinegar [and] rice with crunchy dilis”; dinners of “peppery sweet lechon kawali, grilled bangus, and ... an Ilocano-inspired pinakbet with bitter-melon, squash, okra, and stringbeans stewed with cloves of garlic, bits of pork fat, and salty fermented shrimp bagoong”; secret midnight feast[s of] rice, lechon, kangkong adobo, and more leche flan”; even the folk invocation, “Asin, suca / get-teng, luya / bawang, lasona” ... “Salt, vinegar / scissors, ginger / garlic, onion.” I am reminded of a joke from my childhood in Manila: Elvis’s hit song “I’m All Shook Up” rendered as “Amoy Suca”—smells like vinegar (or, if one pronounces the second word sans glottal stop, vomit).
Hagedorn exquisitely modulates her food lists to reveal nuances of Philippine life. Rio’s grandmother, Lola Narcisa, for example, declares her (backstairs) identification with the provinces, with the bakya crowd, through her late-night snacks of dried fish, while her husband Whitman (to be read as “white man”) is fed “special astronaut food available only in North America’; we note here Hagedorn’s juxtaposition of racial and national influences, but once we know that Whitman’s “exotic miracle diet” is “priceless orange space food”—that is, Tang—we also realize the consummate ironies of genuine and fake which pepper the entire novel. When Hagedorn’s Imelda-figure, dreaming, sees “a box of chocolate seashells [on] her pillow” and hears of “Iguana stew,” we rediscover the veneer of colonialism laid over native wood. When street kid Joey Sands, hiding out from authorities, lives on “tepid cups of powdered Nescafé with plenty of condensed milk and too much sugar,” we know the despair of colonial oppression, of being choked with ersatz, with the fake and paltry. When the choice selections in Rio’s mother’s dinner party are “Del Monte De Luxe Asparagus Spears, ... Bonnie Bell Sweet Sliced Pickles, Jiffy Peanut Butter, packages of Velveeta,” et cetera, we note how far Philippine life has migrated from the natural, the primal, the simple. Throughout all these details, we marvel at Hagedorn’s panache and acumen in evoking grand themes through such quotidian minutiae.
Ninotchka Rosca, in State of War, uses a diametrically opposed narrative method—the sweeping, operatic gestures of ballet, the movement of symphonic arias and oratorios—a fictional equivalent to Steinberg’s jeepney labeled in luminous capital letters, “ROMANTICO.” Recalling Hagedorn’s hierarchical list of the Filipino’s favorite things, Rosca’s focus is on the subsequent items after food: music and dance. Like a sonata—or perhaps more properly, a suite—State of War is divided into three sections, or movements: an opening section which follows three young Filipinos at a Dionysian island festival during the Marcos years; a middle section tracing the three’s genealogies through four hundred years in the Philippines; and a third section to close the narrative frame, a reprise of the orgiastic festival and its explosive finale. Right from the start, Rosca weaves music and dance into the novel’s narrative fabric; Anna is irresistibly drawn into the festival mob dancing around the village plaza—“her feet found their niche in the drumbeats ... the intricate patter they wove on the asphalt, a pattern of small steps and halts”—and through her mind flits “the disquieting thought [that] she was dancing the pattern of her life.” Dance is translated into a metonym for the progress of one’s life, or since we are inside a novel, narrative.
Rosca stitches together the novel’s three movements by the use of an ostinato, a recurrent musical figure—Ferdinand Magellan, the crazy old coot; took five ships and circumcised the globe. This snatch of children’s song, appearing and reappearing throughout the novel, underlines the omnipresence of colonialism; the replacement of circumnavigated with circumcised is both obscenely humorous and indicative that the Filipino “grows up” via resistance to that colonialism. Another evocative ostinato is the recurring popular song “Skyboats” which describes “a boat in the sky bearing a woman who said no, she’d rather not, thanks but no.” This image initially refers to Anna’s grandmother Mayang, who becomes emotionally estranged from her husband, but later refers to Anna herself, as she joins the anti-government resistance and then endures police torture. The “boat in the sky” parallels the heavenly portents which appear throughout the novel, but also recapitulates the human connection with the heavenly, as in the night scene of the “poor folks’ festival,” where peasants carrying oil lamps like “fallen stars” watch the sky, believing that “angels parade up there ... with their own candles and torches.” When a meteor shower “describ[es] a slow parabola across the sky,” the peasants respond with song: “all the men and a women were singing and a river of melody flowed between sky and earth”; the sacred, contrapuntal bridge between human and heaven, therefore, is music.
While Hagedorn dissects the ordinary yet exotic minutiae of everyday life, Rosca paints a transcendent interpenetration of the cosmic and the commonplace, through her often dreamlike narration and the recurrence of omens. In the novel’s opening, Adrian’s grandfather dreams of “the sun and moon together, at the horizon. Both were in full strength—one red-orange; the other golden.” In an apocalyptic crescendo at the novel’s close (a section aptly titled “The Book of Revelations”), this dream-vision is literalized: at sunset, “the moon bodied forth from the sea, pale orange, full…. The sun and moon, nearly of equal dimensions, shoulder to shoulder at the horizon”—a dance of heavenly bodies hailed by various characters as “terrifying,” even “pestilential.” This image prefigures the novel’s explosive denouement, but more importantly, it highlights Rosca’s literary command of the miraculous: in the realm of science, the moon, as a reflective rather than incandescent body, cannot appear full and be simultaneously next to the sun in the sky, a near-eclipse, but in the context of the portent-laden cosmology of the traditional Filipino, such a conjunction is not only possible but expressive—a cosmic language, a grand signifier, a sentence in the sky which the initiated can read. In a novel revealingly entitled State of War, the music of the spheres melds with the cacophony of war, the heavens in significant harmony with the human.
Where Hagedorn focuses on the noun, Rosca concentrates on the verb. Hagedorn’s obsession with setting is paralleled by Rosca’s emphasis on plot. Sentence fragments emblazon Hagedorn’s style while the periodic sentence exemplifies Rosca’s. As Hagedorn delves into the real, Rosca flares into dream. Despite such stylistic and narrative dichotomy, Hagedorn and Rosca inevitably meet in the realm of surrealism, or perhaps more appropriately, magical realism. As might be predicted by the juxtapositional ironies which are the hallmark of both surrealism and magical realism, Hagedorn and Rosca are relentlessly postmodern: their characters are assailed on all sides by the crushing forces of society, the schizoid montage of late-twentieth-century life, the haunting, double-edged beauty of an endangered world. The Philippines, portrayed in both novels as darkly strange and aberrant, becomes a nexus of natural and social forces, a site wherein crisscross history, ideology, and story in an ontological and epistemological welter. Against such a tangled backdrop, the drama of these novels is embodied in questions of individual physical survival and, by extension, moral revival—questions which revolve around the person as well as the body politic, the singular as well as the plural (to recall Steinberg’s terms). Read widely as allegories of the Marcos regime, as historical or sociological parables, Dogeaters and State of War should be reconsidered, I propose, as simultaneously grotesque and graceful works of art that finally offer a glimmer of salvation, a hint of transcendence in the midst of contemporary decay and decadence. Returning to Hagedorn’s hierarchical list of favorite Filipino things—food, music, and dance complemented by love—what Jessica Hagedorn and Ninotchka Rosca are ultimately about is the potential of human integration and synergy within societal and natural fragmentation, the possibility of love among the ruins.
Humboldt State University
Vince Gotera is Editor of the North American Review and a professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. Recent poems appeared in The American Journal of Poetry; the HIV Here & Now poem-a-day countdown; A Prince Tribute (from Yellow Chair Review); Delirious: A Poetic Celebration of Prince; and Highland Park Poetry.