Jessica Hagedorn: Focusing on cultural representation can limit your humanity

Iconic Filipino American author Jessica Hagedorn will discuss history, memory and the artistic imagination at a Berkeley panel celebrating Filipino American History Month. (Courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

In mainstream media, art and literature, there is a lack of American representation and recognition of the Philippines. But Filipino American writer Jessica Hagedorn says that artists who make their work solely about their own culture and history put themselves in institutional “positions” that “limit your humanity.”

The award-winning Filipino American author will lead a virtual panel on October 5 to discuss how history, memory, and literature are connected and how Filipino writers are tackling these complex issues. The event is one of several celebrations UC Berkeley is hosting to mark Filipino American History Month in October.

Jessica Hagedorn with the Gangster Choir

Hagedorn with her New York funk/punk band The Gangster Choir. The band disbanded in 1985, when Hagedorn began writing her first novel. (Courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

Hagedorn’s writing, which spans nearly 50 years, will also be featured in an online Bancroft Library exhibit launched today that focuses on Filipino and Filipino American history. Her archives include drafts and notes from her work as a novelist, poet and playwright, public relations material and correspondence dating back to 1976.

The Berkeley Ethnic Studies Library also has a solo exhibition — “An Unfinished Revolution: Filipino Transnational Activism in the 1970s” — on display at the library through the end of October.

Dogeaters cover

(Courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

Born in Manila, Hagedorn moved to San Francisco in 1963 when she was 14 years old. Her writing examines the influence of American imperialism and pop culture on the development of Asian American and Filipino identity. Hagedorn’s many honors include the 2021 Rome Prize for Literature, a Guggenheim Fiction Fellowship, and a Philippine National Book Award.

Her award-winning book, Dogeaters, was published in 1990 and captured life in the Philippines during the martial law era of Ferdinand Marcos. The novel won the American Book Award and has been adapted for the stage and performed in venues across the country.

Berkeley News recently spoke with Hagedorn about her time as a “young activist writer” in the Bay Area and how writers can transcend the identity positions institutions have placed them in.

Berkeley News: The Berkeley campus will celebrate and recognize Filipino American History Month this year. Are these “identity month” recognitions important to recognize?

Jessica Hagedorn: Yes, I think it is for students of color. But why did it take so long for UC Berkeley to celebrate and recognize Filipino Americans? Kind of ironic.

I am friends with many distinguished Filipino scholars and artists who came from Berkeley, and it is very encouraging for me to hear that this recognition is happening now after so long. I don’t even think many people at Berkeley know that my files are in their library and have been for years.

Do you think the achievements and influence of Filipino literature and Filipino American writers are often overlooked by institutions?

Yes. I think that’s why I’m trying to be vocal and public about this situation, because I feel like I’ve been privileged to have a bigger platform.

Charlie Chan Is Dead, an anthology of contemporary Asian American fiction that I edited and first published by Penguin in 1990, featured pioneering Filipino writers such as Bienvenido Santos and NVM Gonzalez, along with emerging writers such as Gina Apostol and R. Zamora Linmark.

We’ve been around for a long time!


Jessica Hagedorn and the West Coast Gangster Choir launch into their first number, a jazz-funk riff with a poem called “Dancing,” on October 30, 1975, in Studio 1 at San Francisco State University.

There are many literary foundations that have awarded funding to writers, including yourself, to help them continue to produce literature. Would it also help if writers from the Filipino American community got more of that financial pie?

Support is critical. We all need money to live and continue making our art. And sometimes these prizes and awards can be a kind of validation.

But money and awards don’t mean the work you produce will be good. Sometimes these distinctions actually get in the way. Slow times are often when good things happen. So let’s not get attached to fame and money.

Dogeaters mask with Imelda Marcos on it.

Dogeaters was adapted for the stage in 1998. This swag shows the face of former Philippine first lady Imedla Marcos, one of whose characters was loosely based. (Courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

Write like you’re on fire, be fearless, dream and explore.

Some of your writings reflect specific moments in Philippine history. Is it important for Filipino/Filipino American storytellers to focus on Philippine culture and history in their work?

No. You should feel free to write whatever you want to write.

We don’t make art to represent. This should be done organically. Filipinos are not a monolith. People are not monoliths. We all have different experiences and must write the different identities we have. As artists, we should be free to write about a wide range of complex characters and themes.

Don’t just limit yourself to what you know. But definitely do your homework! Being a writer is hard work.

So, in a sense, are you saying that focusing solely on your identity and/or cultural history can limit your imagination and creativity?

It depends. It can limit not only these things, but it can limit your humanity. And that’s something that Gina Apostol and I hope to talk about at this event on Wednesday.

How are history, memory and literature related? How do different writers deal with these complex issues? Is it all political? What is our role in the world?


Hagedorn was featured in this Kearny Street Workshop/Balay virtual story series that explores the cultural impact of the Filipino and Asian American arts activism community in San Francisco.

These are questions that many students at Berkeley may be asking themselves at this point in their lives. What is your advice to them?

When I was a young activist writer in the Bay Area, I thought I had all the answers. Sometimes I was right, and many times I was just ignorant and wrong. There were some positive things that came from my impatience, energy and anger: I dared to do things with my artistic partners that had never been done before.

We got together in writing collectives to make books because most writers of color weren’t published at the time. We didn’t know how to publish, but we learned how to guerillaize it. We organized readings, performances and concerts, made posters and came out to support each other.

We brought the noise. And he did.

It all comes down to that old cliché: believe in yourself. Trust your creative vision and the power of your distinctive writer’s voice.

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