Monday, August 1, 2016



Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn
(Pantheon Books, New York +, 1990)

Prefatory Note: I had originally planned to write an analysis of Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters.  But the comments on her text, nearly thirty years old, are well-rehearsed.   Commentators, all of them more insightful me, include: Elaine Kim (on Hagedorn’s poetry, 1982); Lisa Lowe (1996); King-Kok Cheung (1997); Rachel Lee (1999); Vicente L. Rafael (2000); Viet Thanh Nguyen (2002); Allan Punzalan Isaac (2006). This list is by no means exhaustive.  Instead, I chose to engage with her in the hopes of enticing the reader to read her works, many of which continue to grace college syllabi today.

Jessica Hagedorn’s Kundiman

Kundiman” is the title of the last chapter of Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters.  A song of love to the (m)other/land, or so the title suggests, but the chapter itself is no love song.  The song is in the form of a prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, but where the masculine form should be, the (M)other replaces Him: “Our Mother, who art in heaven.  Hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” And while it is seemingly a prayer, the chapter, in fact, anathematizes the (M)other: “Thy will not be done.  Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom never came.  You who have been defiled, belittled, and diminished.  Our Blessed Virgin Mary of Most Precious Blood, menstrual, ephemeral, carnal, eternal.” The writer, ostensibly a voice removed from the rest of the novel, apostrophizes the (M)other and continues the recitation, “Dammit, mother dear.  There are serpents in your garden.  Licking your ears with forked tongues, poisoning your already damaged heart.  I am suffocated by my impotent rage, my eyes are blinded by cataracts [. . .] I listen intently for snatches of melody, the piercing high-pitched wail of your song of terror.[1]

I sing my own kundiman song to Hagedorn, though my song is one of gratitude to her and her work.  Like her, I was an immigrant during my formative years.  At the tender age of twelve, my mother, sister, and I left my father to seek a better life in the United States.  Perhaps it was my own naïveté that allowed me to put on a mask amidst a sea of white faces.  I knew then what many scholars of Philippine American studies have said, that “Americanization” for Filipinos in the United States, begins at home.  The comment hints at war, the Philippine American War—dubbed by scholars as “America’s first Vietnam”; at colonialism and all its brutality; at Hollywood’s reign in the Philippines, successfully exporting the “American” way of life; of neocolonialism and the “McDonald-ization” of Manila, all of which are major themes in Hagedorn’s novel.[2] In many ways, the U.S. has had a hand in the making of the Philippine nation and its citizenry.[3]  Nevertheless, to think myself “Americanized” then is quite a naïve thought.  My accent belied my command of the English language; my clothes revealed the class of a new immigrant.  Our migration, after all, had much to do with the economic instability in the corrupt and dictatorial Marcos regime.  Though I spoke the language well enough, I was lost in its idioms.  As soon as I opened my mouth, people thought I was odd: my speech betrayed a learned, not a vernacular, language.  Unusual, to say the least, of a twelve-year-old.  As “Americanized” as I thought I was, I was experiencing culture shock.  And so I turned to books.  I know this is where my love of reading began.  But at that time there were few books about people of color, by people of color.[4]  And the few that were published then I didn’t know about until my early thirties, when I finally entered college.  And so I identified with the characters in my novels based on my gender and my class.  When I finally had the resources to consider college seriously, not just a semester here, a class there, as I worked to help support my family, I knew I wanted to be a literature major.  I would teach literature at the college level, I thought.  I loved to read and I loved to talk about what I’ve read.  And the author I enjoyed reading most: Dickens.  I would be a Victorianist, I thought.  A Dickens scholar, perhaps.  That was the plan until I took an undergraduate course in Asian American Literature and I read Hagedorn’s Dogeaters.  I thought I recognized myself in the pages of her novel.  This is where I belong, I thought.  This is my people.  This is my history.  By the time I graduated college I had written a thesis on two Asian American texts, one of which was Dogeaters.  But her novel continued to haunt me throughout graduate school, where I continued to write about her work.  To say that she has changed my life isn’t the least an exaggeration.   

            Published in 1990, Hagedorn’s Dogeaters continues to attract a wide readership today.  The play, which is based on the novel and first published in 2003 for readers, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1998 and at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival in 2001.  From New York to California, Hagedorn’s play, like her novel, continues to attract a wide patronage.  San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, in fact, produced the play early this year.  It enjoyed a tremendous success that Magic Theatre extended its run.  Perhaps it was the campaigns for presidency in the Philippines that brought a re-emergence of the play, as one of the candidates, Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos, Jr., otherwise known as “Bongbong” to his compatriots, ran—unsuccessfully—for the Vice-Presidency.  A roman-a-clef about life in the dictatorial regime of the late Ferdinand Marcos, the play and the novel seemed a timely reminder and a cautionary tale of what another Marcos government might bring.  Scholars, journalists, writers, and other commentators, most of whom were alive during the Marcos presidency, decried the younger’s qualifications and bid for the Vice Presidency.  And though there may be some who still believe that novels and plays are an aesthetic form, “palpable and mute / As a globed fruit,” as Archibald McLeish would say of a poem in his “Ars Poetica,” (though surely no readers in this forum) and though Dogeaters’ literary aestheticism is indubitable, revealing the writer’s craft, even her musicality (as poet, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and bandleader, Hagedorn is also known as a multimedia performance artist), it is without question a trenchant criticism of colonialism, neocolonialism, nationalism, the oligarchy, and the oppressive treatment of the working class, women and LGBTQ.  As the scholars Elaine Kim and Rachel Lee once said, literature elucidates social history and is thus in the service of social change.

            Whether it’s the novel or the play, it isn’t any wonder that Hagedorn’s Dogeaters remain popular today.  The jaded may say nothing’s changed, corruption still reigns; I would argue that Bongbong’s unsuccessful bid is an indication of the Filipino/as’ growing political awareness.[5]  Whether the literary arts is responsible for such an awakening—whether we can even call it an awakening—is hard to say.  Dogeaters continue to be relevant today because we continue to wrestle with the knotty issues Hagedorn had set forth nearly thirty years ago. 

[1] For all quotations in this paragraph: Hagedorn, Jessica.  Dogeaters.  New York: Penguin Books, 1990.  250, original emphasis.
[2] My use of quotation marks around the term “American” is to emphasize the ways in which the term participates in and perpetuates the myth of American exceptionalism.  In this case, “America” is a continent that includes many nations but is used to only designate the United States, thereby rendering other sovereign nations invisible.  In addition, the myth of American exceptionalism expounds, among other concepts, the belief that the U.S., unlike other nations, never colonized other nations.  The U.S. history of its treatment of Native Americans, its history of war against Spain and the consequential ceding of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba; the putative “Cold War” fought in Korea and Vietnam—putative because it was never “Cold” but very violent in certain geographies—that established the U.S. as a world power all belie the notion that the U.S. is unlike other countries with a history of colonialism.
[3] At the same time, Filipinos in the U.S. dating back to the turn of the 19th century have had a hand in the making of the U.S. nation state.  Several writers, Carlos Bulosan among others, chronicle this history in their literatures. 
[4] “Is there a ‘Filipino American literature?” Oscar Campomanes begins his seminal essay “Filipinos in the United States and Their Literature of Exile.”  In Reading the Literatures of Asian America.  Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling, Eds.  Philadelphia: Temple UP; 1992.  49-78.
[5] The novel itself is replete with metaphors of sleeping and waking.


Sheila Bare is an independent scholar and a life-long student. Lately, she has been studying Buddhism. When her nose is not in a book or in a cooking pan, you may find her on a yoga mat or out for a run. And there are those days when she tries to write. Best to stay away from her during those times. Unless, of, course you bring with you a good bottle of wine and talk about books. She was raised by two parents and now lives somewhere on planet earth.

No comments:

Post a Comment