Jessica Hagedorn Looks Back on the Legacy of ‘Dogeaters’

Jessica Hagedorn Looks Back on the Legacy of ‘Dogeaters’

Jessica Hagedorn Looks Back on the Legacy of ‘Dogeaters’

We talked to the author about the enduring influence of her now 30-year-old novel on life in Marcos-era Philippines.


On November 17, 1981, the scaffolding of the half-built Manila Film Center in the Philippines’ capital city collapsed, burying more than 150 workers in quick-drying cement. The country’s notorious then-president, Ferdinand Marcos, and its equally notorious first lady, Imelda Marcos, ordered a media blackout of the aftermath, but journalists who heard the news were quick to the scene. Grainy images showed human limbs and torsos protruding from a mass of still-hardening concrete. The cleanup effort was quick, and construction resumed just hours later. It remains unclear to this day whether all of the bodies were recovered from the wreckage; legend has it that some remain entombed in the building’s foundations.

By 1981, the Marcoses’ severe faces were already symbols of excess and corruption all over the world. Imelda conceived the First Manila International Film Festival, intended as the “Cannes of Asia,” as a way to rehabilitate their image. Her plans included the construction of the Manila Film Center, which would require 4,000 workers working around the clock for three months. In a rush to wrap up the construction before the opening day of the festival, work that was supposed to take six weeks was finished in three days. Today, the Manila Film Center stands as a living testament to Imelda Marcos’s “edifice complex”—a series of grandiose construction projects meant to signal national progress and prosperity, but which plunged the Philippines into a debt crisis so deep the country is still struggling to recover from it.

The collapse of the Manila Film Center inspires a central episode in Jessica Hagedorn’s 1990 novel Dogeaters, which was published 30 years ago this month. As it happens, Hagedorn was at the festival in January 1982 while she was working on the book. “Oh my God, it was like the worst metaphor,” she tells me. “And I just thought, ‘Well, here’s your material.’” Dogeaters, considered by many to be the quintessential Filipino American novel, is perhaps one of the most famous efforts to capture the cultural and political stakes in the country during the Marcos era.

The novel follows a dizzying array of characters cutting across Manila’s highly stratified social spectrum. These include Daisy Avila, a beauty pageant queen who eventually renounces her title and takes up with a guerrilla army battling the corrupt government’s forces in the mountains, and Joey Sands, a queer hustler and nightclub DJ who is the bastard mestizo son of a black American soldier. Incorporating different elements of Manila’s post-war cultural milieu from the 1950s to the 1980s, the book reads like a kaleidoscope of overlapping film reels, newspaper clippings, and TV soap opera scripts—interrupted periodically by ethnographic notes from an explorer named Jean Mallat, who describes a world that feels inexplicably at odds with the one that the rest of the novel describes.

There is a saying often attributed to the Filipino novelist and journalist Nick Joaquin—“The Philippines spent 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood”—that points to the profound influence that the back-to-back eras of Spanish and US colonialism have wrought on Philippine culture and history. Dogeaters is an attempt to grapple with those conflicting realities—“the dancing and the fun and the violence,” in Hagedorn’s words. I sat down with her at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City this month to talk about the novel 30 years later and its enduring status as the definitive work of Filipino American literature.

—Noah Flora

Noah Flora: Let’s start with the title. Why Dogeaters?

Jessica Hagedorn: When I was writing the early drafts, I was digging into a lot of historical research, searching for answers to things that were not taught to me in the Philippines, particularly about the Philippine-American War. Back in my childhood in Manila, it was not a popular topic—they weren’t going to teach that in school. So a lot of these things were shared with me by my Filipino American writer peers in San Francisco, who had grown up here with all the racism and Filipino hatred. They taught me a lot, and I just felt so ignorant.

And there was one book that I stumbled upon in the library called Little Brown Brother, by a historian named Leon Wolff, which is where I encountered the term. As a kid, I knew there were these cringy jokes in the Philippines about how people think we eat dogs, but I didn’t know the root of all the shame around it. So in this book, there were these references to how the American soldiers would call the Filipinos “dogeaters” and other things—like the fact that “gook” came from the Philippine-American War and not the Vietnam War, as is commonly assumed.

So I wrote down “dogeaters,” because the word haunted me; it burned a hole in my brain. And when it came time to really make a decision, I had a long talk with some friends—these were African American writers who were part of my community—and they said, “If you’re afraid of something, don’t shy away from it.” So the idea was to flip the word on its head and use it as a defiant title. My editor didn’t want it. She thought it was terrible.

NF: Let’s go back 30 years. What was the novel’s reception like at the jump?

JH: We got the cover of The New York Times’ Sunday book review, which was shocking—it was this beautiful surprise. Back then, there was no Internet culture, none of this media where you get advance notice ahead of time. My editor knew a couple of days before the weekend. She called me up and said, “They want to come over and photograph you.” I mean, can you imagine? It was my first novel—nobody had wanted to publish it, and they gave it no support. It was Pantheon who took the big jump, which was wonderful, because everybody was turning it down. And then Penguin did the paperback.

NF: I actually wanted to ask you about the different book covers.

JH: Oh, that first cover is gorgeous. I had a lot to do with that. I love talking book production—I always tell young writers now, “Fight for that. Your cover is important, and if you have ideas, make it known.” For that one, I went upstate to find a retired Filipina movie actress, Erlinda Cortes. She gave me some of her photographs to use for the cover; I gave them to the art director, Melissa Grimes, and she incorporated it.

NF: And the paperback?

JH: That’s a Filipino artist in Los Angeles—Papo de Assis. I saw his work in a magazine—this was in the 1990s—called Ray Gun, a graphic arts magazine. I thought he was Mexican, because his name could have been Mexican, but it turned out he was Filipino. The piece is called Justice. The sword and severed head are supposed to represent the US; the fetus in the womb is the Philippines. And Spain is the cardinal’s hat—Catholic Spain, America, Philippines. But this piece was already made; he didn’t do it for the book. So I had to track him down. He didn’t have a phone. My artist friend told me, “He’s always at this café”—one of the first Internet cafes in LA. And my friend said to me, “You will find him there every night. Call the café and ask for him.” It was so cool—I love shit like that. Now everybody just e-mails, but I actually liked the difficulty of finding the art.

NF: What was it about that cultural moment in the early ‘90s that allowed the book to be so successful so quickly? And was the book’s reception in the United States different than it was in the Philippines?

JH: When it came out in the States, you have to remember, this was the very beginning of multiculturalism. Critics here were starting to be a little more conscious—or at least attempting to appear more conscious—about these inequalities. And there was also a great editor at the time running the Times Book Review, who was a woman and who was trying to include more women writers, since they were ignored.

And in the Philippines, I would just hear from my cousins: “Oh, everybody’s talking about your book. Why did you call us that?” So I think in the Philippines it was pretty polarizing. There was also the fact that I had left the Philippines, which created a lot of resentment. And I don’t blame them, because a lot of other writers should get the kind of attention I got, but the reality is that sometimes you have to leave to get it.

NF: And you had left the Philippines just before this period of political repression, before the peak of the Marcos dictatorship and martial law. What was it like to experience that from afar? How do you write about the Philippines when you’re removed from it but also connected to it through the diaspora?

JH: My leaving was not of my doing; that was because of my parents’ breakup. But I was fortunate to be living in San Francisco. There was so much activity, so many activists, so many Filipinos fleeing, coming over. It was the perfect time for me to grow as an artist. I mean, we came in the ’60s—can you imagine? We hit the Summer of Love. There were all these political movements that opened my eyes. I met all these amazing young Filipino American poets who became my teachers. They were going to demonstrations, and I got involved. I was reading up on it, making connections. My God, my brain was vibrating! There was a coup d’état in Chile. There was war in El Salvador. People were making alliances, making connections, and I came to understand: It wasn’t just about us. It was about all these colonies—former colonies—that had the same people running shit, who were probably engineering all these coups. It was a harsh awakening for me and a lot of people like me.

So I got more and more into it, and when I decided to go home to visit my family that was left there, I also knew that I was going there to start taking notes. The idea of a novel—it was my secret, but I used that stuff. Things I saw, I would write down. I collected newspaper clippings—you know, newspapers there are so surreal. Half of that, I didn’t make up; I just changed the names of the people involved. Floating bodies, the flies, all that stuff—that was real!

NF: Tell me more about that part of the research process—being in the Philippines and journaling, taking notes.

JH: I was interviewing actual people involved in the underground. I had friends who trusted me to be able to keep their confidence. They arranged for me to meet people, because it was really dangerous stuff. There would be these safehouses in Manila. If you were involved and working with the guerrillas up in the mountains, but you needed to come to Manila for medical supplies, you couldn’t go to your house, because [the security forces] were watching your house. So there would be these designated places, and you’d have to come at night and then leave at night. A lot of folks were very open with me—they just said, “Don’t use our names.”

NF: And while you were doing all this research on the underground movement, you actually had a novel in mind the entire time?

JH: Yes. You have to understand that I’d been working on this book for a long time. I’d always wanted to write a novel about the story I knew, the world I knew, and what I was not finding in books about my own odyssey. And that world was changing and in turmoil—well, it’s always in turmoil, but for a young writer, you always think it’s the first time—but I knew I wasn’t ready to write a work of fiction yet, because I was so green. And remember, this was a time—a better time, I think—when there were no MFAs. And certainly you don’t go to school to be an artist or a writer; you just go out and do it, and you keep learning how to do it by making mistakes.

I had a chapter I kept in a drawer for years. And then the ’80s was when I finally thought, “OK, I think I can handle it.” I’d been back and forth to the Philippines a lot. I’d seen what martial law was doing.

NF: But there’s also an archival research aspect to the book as well, right? I wanted to ask about the Jean Mallat sections. What is that text, and how did you come across it?

JH: Oh, Jean Mallat! Well, that was beautiful. Because of my background in theater, I’m very open to spontaneity—and oftentimes, at the last minute, I’ll change something because a gift comes my way. During one of my trips back, a childhood friend gave me the Mallat book, which had just been published in Manila to a lot of fanfare. It was translated from the French by this lady, Pura Santillan-Castrence. So Mallat is real! He was a botanist, an explorer, and a Jesuit priest who went to the Philippines way back when and fell in love with it. I had already written a draft, but after I read the Mallat, I thought, “Man, I’ve got to use this, because there’s the gaze! And it’s not just American—it’s this Frenchman!” I’m very intrigued by explorers, people like Magellan and his scribe… like, what the fuck is that? Why do they think they can go into some place and just claim it, “discover” it? It’s already been discovered!

NF: Do you still follow what’s going on in the Philippines? Do you see historical continuity between the Philippines you were writing about 30 years ago and the Philippines as it exists today?

JH: Same old shit? Sure. I mean, [current president Rodrigo] Duterte is more belligerent, and he doesn’t have a kooky wife running the show, so he’s less interesting to me as a character. He’s just horrific—kind of like who we have in the White House right now. It’s tragic to me. But once Marcos was gone and Imelda was gone, there was [Joseph] Estrada, there were all these corrupt presidents. And Duterte has also turned out to be a real piece of work. But speaking as a writer, he’s just too easy as a character! As a literary character, what can you say about him that’s not obvious? What your heart bleeds for are the people who have no defenses, the poor people who are killed to make him look good, the young people in the street who are shot down. That system’s been around forever, and it’s something that really breaks my heart.

NF: There’s not really an ending like the People Power Revolution in Dogeaters, right? You don’t get to see the deposing of the dictator in the novel. There’s no hint of a political resolution.

JH: I don’t believe in resolutions—life isn’t like that. And that’s not the way shit goes in the Philippines, anyway, because it’s the same people running the show. And that’s the complexity of it. There’s nothing simple about it. And if you’re a writer who’s trying to grapple with the history of your culture, you’re going to go for the complicated stuff and know that it’s endless. The Philippines is such a strange construct. The Spaniards came and said, ‘We’ll just claim these islands.’ They were all different kingdoms! But there’s a culture there. There are many cultures there, and it all thrives in spite of this crap on the surface.

So I just think there are no answers sometimes. And it’s what makes the book, I hope, have a long life. Because it’s not trying to say, “And it ended.” It never ends.

NF: I like that.

JH: Can I ask, what made you want to do this? What interests you about the book?

NF: Like you said, growing up Fil-Am you’re not really taught about the colonial history of the Philippines, and especially not America’s role in that history. So when I read Dogeaters in college, that was the first time I’d ever been asked to have a critical conversation about what happened. I saw my own existence in a different light. It’s a very significant book to me for that reason.

JH: What is always powerful for me, even now, is when a young writer says to me that the book was important to them—and I’m not talking just about Filipino American writers but about all kinds of writers of color. I’ve gotten letters from young writers who tell me that the book gave them a sense of not being alone, that they saw themselves in it. It made them feel like part of the conversation. And I think it’s important to stress that, because people get comfortable now and they think it’s all hunky-dory. It’s not. It’s the same, really. There’s more access now, but it’s still very unequal.

NF: Say more: What’s unequal?

JH: The level of support you sometimes get, and who reads the work, and how the work gets marketed. Like, is it just put into a particular slot, or does it get to be part of a larger conversation? Or is it one of those things like, “Oh, it’s Asian American History Month. Oh, it’s Women’s History Month.” You always get a lot of gigs like that, and you go, “Really?

NF: Do you feel like the book has been put in a slot like that?

JH: They keep trying, but I keep resisting it, because I just feel like we are Americans. We’re American writers, and we’re Filipino American writers—but one doesn’t negate the other. And so I feel it’s important for people to not forget that time and to recognize that things haven’t really changed in publishing. I happened to land on the cover of The New York Times Book Review in 1990. Why was that a big deal? Because I know writers like Ben Santos and N.V.M. Gonzalez, whom nobody knew—and they were here writing in the 1940s and ’50s; they were active. And Carlos Bulosan—now people know him, but he was a rarity. So I’m very aware of what came before me. I just think that’s a very big point.

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