Award-winning Filipino-American writer returns to alma mater to talk about her success

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Originally published on March 14, 2016

Lowell alumna Jessica Hagedorn (left). Photo by Leonard Caoili

When Lowell alumna Jessica Hagedorn (℅ ‘1967) was in high school, she was not satisfied with only taking English classes at school, so she sat in on famous American poet Kenneth Rexroth’s lectures at San Francisco State University. “Students can’t be passive,” Hagedorn said. “I never waited for school to assign my reading. I’d go to the bookstore and pick out what tickled my fancy. You just have to trust your instinct, go out and look for it.”

“I never waited for school to assign my reading. I’d go to the bookstore and pick out what tickled my fancy. You just have to trust your instinct, go out and look for it.”

This drive to do more than what is expected of you has helped her go on to become an award-winning author and playwright.

Hagedorn talked about her journey as a child in the Philippines to an aspiring author at Lowell and beyond in an assembly during block 4 on Feb. 9, addressing experiences that helped her get to the level of success that she has reached since then. A picture of her will be added to the Lowell Alumni Association display of prominent alumni to honor her achievements.

Hagedorn has written many novels inspired by her Filipino heritage, among them, Toxicology, The Gangster of Love, Danger and Beauty and Dogeaters, which won an American Book Award in 1990. Hagedorn has since adapted Dogeaters into a stage production, and was in San Francisco for a Magic Theatre production of the play, which opened on Feb. 10.

Photo by Leonard Caoili

Hagedorn’s achievements inspire and motivate the Fil-Am Club, according to club president junior John Yumul.“I think it was important for Ms. Hagedorn to come to Lowell because it is rare for us, the Filipino-American community, to see a Lowell alum who has gone far in life and become a well-known author,” Yumul said. “Before her visit, I had never even heard of a famous Filipino Lowell alum. Her success as an author gave us something to be proud of.”

“Before her visit, I had never even heard of a famous Filipino Lowell alum. Her success as an author gave us something to be proud of.”

Set in Manila in the 1980s, Dogeaters deals with various historical and political aspects of the Philippines. It follows the lives of the Gonzaga, Alacran and Avila families during a time of violence and chaos in the midst of conflicts between the dictator Marcos and leftist guerillas. The book points out social issues like the income inequality and lifestyle differences between the wealthy Gonzagas and Alacrans and the other poverty-ridden families in the area as well as the sexual exploitation and substance abuse at the heart of the seemingly glamorous lifestyles of actresses and entertainers.

Hagedorn said that she has always been proud of her heritage and shown this through her works. This has been a challenge in a publishing industry dominated by white authors and books about White people. School Library Journal report found that of the 1,509 trade books they received in 2013, almost 90 percent was about white people. There is also an absence of diversity in the literature required by the state curriculum, an issue that is terrible, according to Hagedorn. “It sounds like whoever is putting together the curriculum needs to realize that literature has many sides to it,” she said. “It’s 2016. Why so conservative and one-sided? That’s my question.”

Hagedorn has edited three anthologies of works written by Asian-American authors: Manila Noir, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction and Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home In The World.

Despite what is required of students at school, they can still find a variety of authors outside of school that can offer different perspectives and experiences

At Lowell, Hagedorn went above and beyond the required curriculum by learning higher-level poetry curriculum in Kenneth Rexroth’s classes at San Francisco State University. She also loved being a part of drama, because it gave her the creative freedom to pursue her interests.

Hagedorn said that it is important for students in literary arts to receive support. “When I get the Lowell Alumni Association newsletter, I see a lot of science and sports, but what I would love to see is more encouragement in the arts and humanities,” Hagedorn said. “I think we need more writers, artists, culture makers and thinkers.”

English teacher Nicole Henares arranged for Hagedorn to speak at Lowell and brought her students to see the production of Dogeaters after teaching about the novel in class. The novel is one of her favorite texts. “Artistically, it is a novel that left me staggering in the scope its narrative,” Henares said.” “On a personal level, Jessica gave the screenplay of Dogeaters to my cousin Quark who she described to me as being the only director in Manila who could do it justice. On an even more personal level, it is one of the novels that gave me, as Toni Morrison characterizes, the ‘permission to write’ my own confusing history.”

The LAA will be adding Hagedorn to the display of prominent alumni outside the library by the end of the spring 2016 semester, according to LAA executive director Terence Abad. The Association will be rotating the display on a regular basis from now on.

Henares, librarian Alison Shepard and the Fil-Am Club are also honoring Hagedorn by creating a library display featuring several of her works. The display will include several of Hagedorn’s books, a list of her accomplishments, photos and a flag of the Philippines.

Photo by Leonard Caoili