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from the November 2019 issue

“Languages Constantly Crackling in the Air”: A Conversation with Jessica Hagedorn

Novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and anthologist Jessica Hagedorn burst onto the literary scene with her first novel, Dogeaters (1990), a kaleidoscopic portrait of postcolonial Manila in the late 1950s under the Marcos dictatorship. Hagedorn grew up in Manila and came to the US in her early teens, and her work across genres engages with and reflects Filipino culture through the lens of diaspora, interrogating racism, the immigrant experience, and social and cultural clashes both within the Philippines and between that country and the US. WWB sat down with Hagedorn to discuss the multilingualism of the Philippines and her upbringing, the influence of this linguistic richness on her work, and the complex role of English in Philippines culture. This conversation has been edited and condensed.


Words Without Borders: You grew up in Manila and came to the US at fourteen. What languages were you speaking and reading in?

Jessica Hagedorn: At home we spoke a mash-up of three languages—English, Tagalog, and Spanish. My mother could curse in Visayan and Ilokano, and spoke OK Cantonese—having lived with my father in Hong Kong and Macao during the Second World War. Living with all these languages constantly crackling in the air was not only thrilling, but really opened me up to the world and shaped me as a writer. The books, local newspapers, and magazines we read as a family were in English. Of course there were Tagalog newspapers and magazines available, along with my favorite “komiks” (Tagalog comic books peddled on the street). But my colonial, class-conscious upbringing in the Manila of the 1950s and 1960s favored mastering the English language. English had replaced Spanish as the language of education, privilege, and power. My older brothers, for example, were sent to a Jesuit boys’ school where students were fined if they were caught speaking Tagalog. The amount would be equivalent to a nickel or a dime; it was never about the money, but about the humiliation. And Philippine literature wasn’t prioritized at all in these fancypants schools. But hey—it’s 2019 and Words Without Borders is (finally) featuring a bit of Philippine literature in Waray, Cebuano, Filipino, and even . . . English! Not the aspirational English of my long ago childhood, but English with a Filipino twist. Which is, to my mind, a BRILLIANT addition to this issue. 


WWB: How did those multiple languages—both of your home, and of the Philippines in general--shape you and your writing?

JH: Having access to all these languages and dialects enriched my already wild imagination and made me curious—about who I was, about the world, about the Philippines I knew and the many different ways I could tell a story. When I was writing Dogeaters, one of my goals was to capture the energy and music of multiple voices and cultures colliding/dancing/battling with each other. I sprinkled Tagalog and Spanish slang throughout the narrative in an attempt to evoke the noisy chaotic glorious Manila of my childhood. And when my editor suggested that we add a glossary, I said no. Quite emphatically, as I recall. I felt—and still do—that it’s OK for readers to be in the dark from time to time. I certainly was, growing up and reading the books that I did as a young writer. Everything was in translation! I learned to read and understand Shakespeare, Dickens, Marguerite Duras, James Baldwin, and Faulkner—by context. Sometimes I got it wrong, but a lot of times I didn’t. 


WWB: And the influence of that colonizing English?

JH: I’ve lived in the U.S. of A for decades, and have to embrace the fact that I am a writer who writes in English. So what does it mean to speak, write, and maybe dream in the language of your former colonizer(s)? To reinvent that language and make it your own?  And for Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano and Voltaire Oyzon to write in Cebuano and Waray in 2019? Is it a matter of cultural pride, a political act, or a bit of both? And what about Daryll Delgado and Tito Valiente, who choose to write in English?


WWB: How do you think that political aspect, and the interaction between languages, has shaped the literature of the Philippines?

JH: Philippine literature—just like the Philippines itself—is complicated, and can’t be easily described or pinned down. Over 7000 islands make up the Philippines, and over a hundred languages and dialects are spoken!  (Wiki-everything correctly states that those numbers depend on how languages are classified, and who’s doing the classifying.) The Philippines has also had a rich oral tradition that continues to this day. “Erlina’s Sugilanon,” the bawdy story-within-a-story by Tito Valiente in this issue, is rooted in the folklore and scary myths of my childhood. These stories are passed down, embellished and transformed, from generation to generation. And that’s just one aspect of Philippine literature. Then there are the ancient myths and poems which are chanted or sung in indigenous languages like Tboli, for example. So it’s complicated, and this particular issue is only the tip of the volcano. I look forward to more translations in the future—from writers in the Ilocos and mountain provinces, and the vast, diverse, southern region of Mindanao. Some of these indigenous languages and literatures are marginalized in the Philippines, but there are also many literary and poetic traditions Filipino scholars and artists are trying to keep alive. 


WWB: What common elements and themes do you see in Philippine writing? And what do you see in the pieces here?

JH: Yearning, and melancholy. Mordant humor, a certain kind of fatalism, love of the macabre and supernatural. A love of puns and a sense of irony. A reckoning with history and the colonial past.

WWB: Philippines literature is little known here, even though much of it is written in English. Why do you think that’s the case? Is there more involved than the typical challenges of publishing translations? 

JH: The publishing marketplace is still controlled by the West. And I have to agree with R. Zamora Linmark, author of Rolling the Rs and Leche, when he says: “When it comes to translating and publishing literature from Asia, the West has created a hierarchical structure largely confined to China, Japan, and most recently, Korea.” Not enough is known about the Philippines, period—Imelda Marcos, Rodrigo Duterte, caregivers and chicken adobo aside. But that’s usually the case, isn’t it? Most of us don’t pay attention to anything outside our comfort zones, until a wildfire or a war breaks out in our own backyard. The attention being paid to Fil-Am writers like Jia Tolentino, Elaine Castillo, and Randy Ribay is lovely, but doesn’t necessarily extend to writers who are based in the Philippines.  I just hope that this landmark Philippine issue highlighting the work of nine excellent poets and fictionistas stokes the world’s curiosity and hunger for more. And that’s what this conversation’s all about, right?


Jessica Hagedorn is the author of Dogeaters (National Book Award Finalist), The Gangster of Love, Dream Jungle, Toxicology, Danger and Beauty, and Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines (with photojournalist Marissa Roth). Hagedorn has edited three fiction anthologies: Manila Noir, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, and Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home in the World. Her work as a playwright includes the stage adaptations of Dogeaters and The Gangster of Love. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been widely anthologized, including in The Soho Press 80s Book of Short Fiction, Becoming American: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing, Rock She Wrote, and Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Her prizes and honors include the Guggenheim Fiction Fellowship, the Hewlett, Gerbode Foundation Playwriting Fellowship, the Before Columbus American Book Award, and the Philippine National Book Award for Manila Noir. 

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