Nizhen Hsieh

Interview with Jessica Hagedorn

Interview with Jessica Hagedorn

(via email)

Nizhen Hsieh




      Jessica Hagedorn



Jessica Hagedorn is a widely acclaimed novelist, poet, playwright and screenwriter, as well as a National Book Award nominee. Born in 1949 and raised in the Philippines, she moved from Manila with her family to San Francisco as a teenager. It was in the late 70s when the San Francisco artistic scene began to plateau that she moved to New York to seek an artistic jolt in perspective. She is the author of three novels, Dream Jungle, The Gangster of Love, Dogeaters and of \Danger and Beauty, a collection of selected poetry and short fiction. She also wrote the theatrical adaptation of Dogeaters}. She is the editor of the first and second \work{Charlie Chan is Dead}, both anthologies of contemporary Asian-American literature. Ishmael Reed has described her as a "vanguard artist," a writer at the forefront crossing not just the boundaries of culture and race but of artistic mediums as well.


In Dream Jungle, you manipulate the linearity of colonial conquest by rendering history and space, tools we use to locate ourselves with, monumentally ambiguous. Moreover, in the updated anthology of Charlie Chan is Dead II,} it is also emphasised that being "at home in the world" is no longer a comfortable reclamation of cultural heritage as it is expected traditionally. The possibility of choice has now entered a new phase, the competitive necessity of choice. In other words, being "at home" in these times brings with it discomfort and confusion on an individual level. How do you think our definition of identity has changed since the turn of the 20th Century up till now?}


You answered your own question in the introductory commentary above ... when you state that "being at home in the world is no longer a comfortable reclamation of cultural heritage as it is expected traditionally ... " As you can see from many of the stories in the new Charlie Chan 2 anthology, being in the world can be both beautiful and unsettling. I don't think it's an either/or situation, ever. I think it's always a balancing act.

How do you think it shifted particularly after 9/11?}


Well, it's become even more complicated and messy. For example  --  what does it mean to be an American and a New Yorker at this point in time? Does it mean I am pro-Bush, or anti-Bush? Does it mean I am part of the liberal elite, that I applaud Michael Moore's documentaries? And so on, and so on. But life, as we know, is full of murk and moral ambiguities. 9/11 forced us all to think about gray areas.


In talking about Asian-American representation, there is always the underlying danger of obsessing over a politically correct cultural conception. How do you think we can change that rigid viewpoint?}


"Correctness" and rigidity in anything are attitudes which have never interested me. Life is not simple, and people can't be boxed into being either heroes or villains. I don't know how you can change a reader's rigid mode of thinking, but you can certainly challenge it by continuing to present art and literature that is provocative, nuanced, surprising, more complex and profound than perhaps they are used to encountering. Hopefully, their eyes open up to a whole new world of possibilities. Humor is essential. And a sense of irony.


 From a cross-cultural perspective, how do you think these issues concerning identity have helped contemporary fiction evolve to what it is now, as you say "beautiful and unsettling?"}


I don't know what issues concerning identity have helped contemporary fiction evolve to what it is now. All I know is that the range of voices that are being heard and published is a lot more diverse than when I was coming up. Finally, we are reading all sorts of stories being written by different kinds of writers! American publishers, who can be very myopic about this, are realizing that there is, indeed, a broad audience for our work.



{What are some of the non-fictional and fictional contemporary books you are currently reading? }


I have just finished Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin," a brilliant, moving, and hugely entertaining novel. Am skimming through Dale Peck's "Hatchet Jobs," a collection of his literary criticisms. Some of his essays are right on target and very funny.  I have also read Han Ong's latest novel, "The Disinherited," which is wonderful.


{In your experience with Asian-American Writers' Workshop and Basement Workshop, who were some of the writers you encountered that were exceptionally inspiring? And why?}


Both Basement Workshop in NYC and Kearney Street Workshop in San Francisco were important to my growing up as a poet and fiction writer. I met a wonderful community of writers such as Shawn Wong, Oscar Penaranda, Serafin and Lou Syquia, Al Robles, Geraldine Kudaka, Russell Leong, Kitti Tsui and many others in the Bay Area; at Basement, I met Fay Chiang, Richard Oyama, and a slew of actors, dancers, musicians and choreographers like Teddy Yoshikami, Jason Hwang. Tzi Ma, and visual artists like John Woo. At Asian-American Writers' Workshop, I have encountered some of the best and the brightest young Asian-American writers, poets and playwrights who are working today. Folks like Quang Bao, Derek Nguyen, Christian Langworthy, Meera Nair, Monique Truong, Timothy Liu, Philip Huang, Joel Tan, Gina Apostol, Bino Realuyo ... And we can't forget writers from Hawaii like RZ Linmark, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Darrell Lum, Marie Hara, Cathy Song, Wing Tek Lum, and Eric Chock, just to name a few. My goodness, I could go on and on. It's inspiring because the community has grown and matured, and I think we are in an exciting place in time.

{Are there any specific foreign writers that especially appeal to you, particularly those who write about the neo-colonial experience?}


I am looking forward to reading the Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, ... I love Garcia Marquez, Manuel Puig, Arundhati Roy, J.M. Coetzee, Cabrera Infante, early Rushdie ... my list of favorites is quite long.


{What is your perspective on your own post-colonial experience?}


I don't think that's for me to ponder. But I wonder if it's possible for me to write a novel that is entirely set in the U.S. and deals with the aftermath of 9/11. How post-colonial is that?


{What other mediums of art such as dance and musical performances, plays, photography/video installations and art exhibits have influenced your approach to writing?}


Music is very influential to my writing, as are theater and film. I love writing dialogue, and I think a lot of my writing is visual and very cinematic.


{Why has music been so influential? What particular genre of music and which musicians? }


From the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Sly Stone, Prince, Bjork, Macy Gray, The Roots, and what is going on today. The music of the world.


{What plays have you seen recently? }


A contemporary adaptation of "Antigone" with an Asian-American cast, and excerpts from a new play by Tony Kushner with Laura Bush as its main character, called "Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy."


{Who are a few of your favourite film directors?}


Pedro Almodovar is god. I love the Godard of "Weekend" and "Breathless," Wong Kar-Wai, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann. American film noir from the 40s and 50s. Also Alfonso Cuaron and the guy who directed "Amores Perros"  --  I believe his last name is Inarritu.


{You describe your writing as being both aesthetically "visual" and "cinematic." What is your purpose? Is it to provoke a more immediate and visceral response in the reader?  }


Probably. But I don't give it much thought. It just happens.


{Where did the idea for \work{Dream Jungle} come from?}


From an actual historical event which occurred in 1971. A so-called "Stone Age" tribe was discovered in the Philippine rain forest by a man named Manda Elizalde. Then, of course, there was the filming of "Apocalypse Now."


{Being of mixed parentage where you describe your roots as being "dubious," hybridity has always been one of the essential aspects of your art, how has that also influenced your writing? }


Hybridity keeps me from being rigid about most things. It has taught me to appreciate the contradictions in the world and in my life. I scavenge from the best.


{Why do you think it is important to utilize other mediums of art to express oneself?}


It opens you up to different ways of expression and the endless possibilities of creation.


{Do you ever consider returning to the Philippines, to impart the tools and skills you have learned here in America in crafting your art, back to the community  (specifically the youth), so that they may learn how to empower themselves through artistic expression?}


Your question makes me cringe. If people want to invite me back to share my experiences or writing skills, then fine ... I'm happy to share what I know. But the thought of going back on my own, to "impart the tools and skills" that I "have learned here in America" (as you put it) seems somewhat condescending. I try to resist that kind of missionary zeal.


{Let me rephrase the question. Having moved to the U.S. from the Philippines as a teenager and having acquired a cross-cultural artistic experience as a result of that transition, do you ever return to the Philippines to conduct writing workshops for young aspiring writers over there as you have done here? }


I've done readings and informal talks, but I haven't yet been invited to conduct a writing workshop.


{Name one comfort and one discomfort. (Explain.)}


Comfort: food. Food as cultural memory, food as sensory pleasure.


Discomfort: money. Never having enough. Anxiety.


{Do you think all this has bridged or deepened your own identity conflict? }


I have no idea.


{Has becoming a mother changed the way you express your cultural attitude? }


Becoming a mother has helped make me a tougher, stronger writer. Everything matters. Time is precious.


{Is there anything else you would like to add? }






"15 (Shiwu)"

New York Premiere at Asian American International Film Festival 2004

Director: Royston Tan

Producers: Eric Khoo, Fong-cheng Tan

Cast: Shaun Tan, Melvin Chen, Vynn Soh and Erick Chun

Singapore, 2003 | 93min 

Mandarin/Hokkien with English subtitles




review by Nizhen Hsieh





The film opens surrealistically with young boys dressed as cupids shooting burning arrows toward the sky except the barren landscape they are in emphasise the necessity of brotherhood over emotion e.g. love considered to be superfluous. The next shot jumps straight into a dose of documentary realism with the boys playing truancy from school. They open the sequence by singing the Singapore national anthem then subtly changing the words into a suicide chant. As the movie progresses, so does the teenage angst that then swells with a violence uncontainable. With the war in Iraq, there has been much focus on America's young fading fast in the foreign deserts. Men and women fighting needlessly against not terror as we know it or as politicians tell it, but a small screaming personal terror at being sacrificed for the greedy sake of economic agenda. In Singapore, our young are also being unacknowledged, in a war of literacy. And by literacy, I am not referring to just pure reading ability, but education and what that entails in a small island nation that gained its independence from the British a mere 39 years ago. The important concept of education can quickly morph into an ugly obsession with economic progress and competition. Children as young as 12 kill themselves because they can not make the grade.




Five fifteen-year-old boys are on a mission to make headlines, to wake Singapore up to who it has forsaken. From chain-smoking, lip-piercing and drug smuggling, to web pornography, these boys know no bounds, one of whom undergoes a quest to find the perfect 'skyscraping' building to jump off from. Throughout the film replete with rapid-fire mtv-type montages and dream sequences, one image remains the same, the boys stew alone in their anger while Singapore accelerates its prosperity with its growing city skyline. But the most gripping thing, these boys are no actors, they play themselves, actual public housing boys sick of making the grade to ensure their place in society. They'd rather die then carve a meaningless vaccinated identity which would explain the film's propensity for hyper-violence and sexuality, all of which are never spoken of but graphically flashed in your face, whether you like it or not, which is the film's basic premise: Fuck you and your expectations! Although the film did at moments grow tiresome in belabouring the point, it broke the basic attachments anyone has to anything, their country, their culture, their sense of self, that can grow sterile and meaningless with routine. In one scene, a brother offers to pierce the lip of another. His lip bleeds profusely and the blood spills onto his friend's hand armed with the needle. Alarmed, he begs his friend to go wash himself who needing no explanation, bends his head over to gently suck the blood from his lip, a shattering connection which transcends brotherhood to a momentary bout of homo-eroticism that is the closest thing the film admits, can come to the notion of love.


New York, July 26th, 2004