Somini Sengupta: Cultivating the Art of the Melange
NEW YORK (December 4, 1996 15:03 EDT) -- For the record, Jessica Hagedorn issued this warning before the scheduled interview: "It's not really 'Lunch With.' It's 'Merienda With.' "
You see, once, a book critic had upbraided her for failing to translate "merienda" in her first novel, "Dogeaters." So, this time she was determined to translate everything that landed on the table, including the dinner rolls.
So (again, for the record), let it be said that merienda is a light, late-afternoon Filipino feast. And there is perhaps no more fitting place for merienda with Ms. Hagedorn, a poet, performance artist, rock-and-roll band leader, novelist and Filipina diva, than Cendrillon. It is a fashionable SoHo bistro, where traditional Filipino fare is masterfully tweaked; where, with a wink and a touch of culinary genius, the bibingka becomes a rich souffle of gouda and feta instead of the traditional water-buffalo cheese, and where the paella is a steaming cornucopia of shrimp, long beans and indigo-colored rice, instead of the standard long-grain white.
Ms. Hagedorn, 47, doesn't cook much. But like the brains behind Cendrillon, she too has cultivated the art of the melange, in life and in literature.
Like the critically acclaimed "Dogeaters" (Pantheon Books, 1990) and her numerous plays and poems, her second novel, "The Gangster of Love," published in August by Houghton Mifflin and scheduled for paperback release by Penguin next year, is a cornucopia of eccentric characters full of drama, bravado and sass. In the world of "The Gangster," colonizer and colonized collide, and Americans of different shades and sensibilities bump into each other, not always pleasantly. And the spirits of Ms. Hagedorn's fellow eclecticists -- Jimi Hendrix, Frida Kahlo, Sly Stone -- roam through the novel. (Cultural nationalists may be pleased to note that the novel also traces the Filipino origins of the yo-yo.)
"Maybe it's the more positive side of appropriation:you take from many different sources, not to steal, but to pay homage to it, to say these are your influences, to add your own thing," Ms. Hagedorn said. "I don't believe in sampling some Tibetan music just to make it sound groovy, but you do your homework, you understand what you're doing with it."
In an interview, the poet and writer Ishmael Reed called Ms. Hagedorn a "vanguard artist," whose work has crossed over narrowly defined racial categories and embraced African-American, Latino and Asian traditions. Her two novels, he said, are "the kinds of novels that will be written in the next century."
"They make the typical American novel look very gray," he added.
Ms. Hagedorn was 13 when she came to the United States from Manila in 1963. Her parents had divorced, and she and her two older brothers were told they would be leaving in a week. "It was so stunning and strange," recalled Ms. Hagedorn, who now lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and their two girls, who are 13 and 5. "We said goodbye to everyone and everything in those seven days."
But America had come to her much earlier -- in the shape of rock-and-roll. At 7, she recalls, she heard Fats Domino and Chuck Berry on the radio. "I was like, 'What is that?' " she said. "I responded to it physically. It was a very visceral reaction."
Years later, as a young writer in San Francisco, she would have a similarly visceral reaction to the Beat poets and the black arts movement of the 1960s. She would be dazzled by the poetry of Leroi Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka. With her rock band, the Gangster Choir, Ms. Hagedorn would sing the irreverent funkadelic tunes of Sly and the Family Stone. And she would collaborate with writers like Ntozake Shange and Thulani Davis on performance pieces in the 1970s (called spectacles, at the time).
In 1978, one of those spectacles brought her to New York City. Soon, the Public Theater produced several of her performance pieces. And in 1990, "Dogeaters" was published and nominated for a National Book Award, in the fiction category.
Since then, she has co-written a screenplay and edited a collection of Asian-American fiction. These days, she is considering an offer to write a theatrical adaptation of "Dogeaters" for the La Jolla Playhouse in California and collaborating with a friend, the film maker Angel Shaw, on a documentary titled, "Excuse me ... Are you a Pilipino?" ("Pilipino" is a humorous reference to a distinctly Filipino pronunciation. The question posed by the title is one that Ms. Hagedorn, who is of German, Spanish, Chinese and Filipino ancestry, is frequently asked by fellow Filipinos, who, much to her chagrin, sometimes disbelieve that she is one.)
Ms. Hagedorn has not always been popular among Filipinos. Many were outraged by the title "Dogeaters," which is a nasty slang term for Filipinos. At a reading in Hawaii a few years ago, an avuncular-looking man stood up in the front row. "He kept pointing his finger, like, 'J'accuse, j'accuse,' " she recalled. "He accused me of wanton disregard for the people."
She didn't let him finish. "I said: 'I know, I know. I set the race back 400 years.' " Describing the incident, Ms. Hagedorn rolled her eyes. "What is literature for?" she snapped. "You don't go to literature and say I need to feel good about my race, so let me read a novel."
That kind of reaction, she said, "was more about how they were being viewed by Americans -- read white -- than it was about anything else." She added, "It was really insidious."
|Title||Somini Sengupta: Cultivating the Art of the Melange||Type of Content||Biographical|
|Criticism Author||Somini Sengupta||Criticism Target||Jessica Hagedorn|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||04 Aug 2022|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Cultivating the Art of the Melange|
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