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Zale writer mixes influences, genres

October 9, 2000

Heather Heilman

Jessica Hagedorn was visiting the mountain provinces of the Philippines when she noticed an old Mercedes-Benz that always seemed to be parked in the same spot. She thought she saw a woman sitting inside, but it was hard to tell because of the car's dark windows.

"Oh, her," explained Hagedorn's host of the woman in the car, "Rumor has it that she lives there, she sleeps there, she has food brought in and she's doing some kind of penance. And she's a psychic." "How does she go to the bathroom?" Hagedorn wondered.

"Well, you know God works in mysterious ways," her host explained. Hagedorn, a writer who works in a staggering array of genres, is this year's Zale Writer in Residence at Newcomb College. Her encounter with the Mercedes Benz psychic took place as she was researching and writing her first novel, Dogeaters, in which a psychic named La Sultana, who lives in a Mercedes in Manila, makes several appearances.

"The fortuneteller is very much part of the life there," Hagedorn said. "People go once a week. And I'm talking about all walks of life. I'm talking about the intelligentsia. It's sort of like insurance."

Hagedorn was born in the Philippines and emigrated to the United States just in time to spend her teen-age years in San Francisco in the 1960s. Her background has gifted her with an inexhaustibly rich source of material. She was raised within a culture that is a one-of-a-kind amalgam of Asian, Spanish and American elements, a flamboyant, pre-Vatican Council version of Catholicism and a volatile political situation.

Once in the United States, she faced all the complicated issues of assimilation with which newcomers are confronted, all at a time when American culture itself was turning upside down. Her work is an exhilarating mix of fact and fiction, autobiography, fantasy and nightmare. Besides La Sultana, for example, Dogeaters features some characters that resemble real political figures from the Philippines.

"It can drive the lawyers crazy," she said of her tendency to play with the facts, noting the long disclaimer that prefaces Dogeaters. "The idea that fictional characters come out of 'real life' is intriguing to me because indeed those boundaries are sometimes blurred for me. I think of it as my version of history, my version of the facts. I think it's kind of an arrogant point of view-in a positive way. That's why I chose to write fiction. Because I could have written nonfiction, but I didn't want to be bound to those conventions."

Hagedorn studied at the American Conservatory Theater Program in San Francisco and began her writing career as a playwright. She has written poetry, lyrics, performance pieces, film scripts, essays, articles and two novels, Dogeaters, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and Gangster of Love.

Her most recent book is Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines, a collaboration with photojournalist Marissa Roth. While at Tulane she will visit creative writing and theater classes.

"I don't have one particular favorite genre," she said. "I have different loves. Writing for the theater is the most fun and the most immediately gratifying, because you can rewrite and fix it immediately. It's not a lonely art form. You have the benefit of working with all these other wonderful artists. Whereas novel writing is the toughest and the most solitary. It's a real struggle, but there's also something quite wonderful about it. It's a form that allows you to breathe. You can go inside a character's head. There's a lot of room for things you maybe can't do onstage."

She is currently writing her third novel and is working on an adaptation of Dogeaters for the New York Public Theater. She will be at Tulane from Oct. 16 through Oct. 20. It will be her first visit to New Orleans. Events include an interview session on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 7:30 p.m.; a reading on Thursday, Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m. that will include excerpts from the novel-in-progress; and a talk entitled "So You Want to Be a 'Writer'" from 12:30 p.m to 2 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 20.

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