Jessica Hagedorn on Writing Experimentally and Trusting the Imagination
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
In this episode, Will talks to Jessica Hagedorn on about trusting her imagination and the novels that changed her life and way of writing.
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. Sometimes when I’m stuck with writing I’ll spend endless hours on the Internet reading what other writers do when they’ve got writer’s block. It makes me feel like I’m handling the problem when, in reality, I’m really just wasting time. Other times when I hit the wall, I’ll find myself doing anything and everything I can to procrastinate. I’ll clean my closet, organize my photos, and write follow up thank-you notes for gifts received eons ago.
Soon, though, I do the one thing that always manages to get me unstuck—and that’s head over to my bookshelf. There I find a whole range of books, read and unread, classics and recent, sensible self-help books sitting alongside ambitious experimental works. (Yes, there is no particular order or system—I just cram things where they fit). And it’s the more daring books that always come to the rescue. I’ll marvel at how Lawrence Sterne had the guts to do what he did in Tristram Shandy or how Machado de Assis dared to dedicate a novel to the worms devouring his dead narrator’s flesh. And then it’s back to work for me. And recently I got to talking about fearless books and how they can inspire us with today’s guest.
Jessica Hagedorn: I’m Jessica Hagedorn and I’m a writer.
WS: Jessica Hagedorn has written poetry, plays, multimedia works, and four novels, starting with Dogeaters, which won the National Book Award in 1991, and which she would later adapt into a play. Among her works are Toxicology, Dream Jungle, and a collection of poetry and prose called Danger And Beauty.
JH: I grew up in Manila—the Philippines—and immigrated to the United States when I was 14. In Manila, I do remember, I have vivid memories of my childhood, of moving from one house to another. But the house I really, really grew up in and think of as my real home was this wonderful old house in this section of Manila that’s really changed now, but at the time was very serene and old, and sort of Old Manila and had survived the war—World War II that is—and the house was very old and haunted, I think, and a great place to grow up.
WS: But it wasn’t just ghosts that filled her childhood home. It was a vibrant place for her family to gather, too.
JH: My immediate family wasn’t large. I had two brothers—older brothers. But I had lots of cousins and aunts and uncles—my father had lots of siblings. So big family in that sense.
WS: Jessica spent childhood days listening to and learning from members of her community.
JH: We did not have a television until I was 10 or 11 years old. Everybody had books in the house and we had books and storytelling. Filipino culture, it’s very extravagant emotionally, I feel. And storytelling, even when people gossip, it’s always a big, you know, it’s a performance.
WS: When she wasn’t swapping stories, she was reading them.
JH: I had a very old copy from my older cousin of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and I was completely fascinated. They’re scary, those stories. And I was really riveted by Hansel and Gretel. I thought, “How could that old lady want to cook those children?” I mean, it was so macabre, so weirdly Filipino, that sort of grizzly aspect.
WS: But, this rich family life would soon change dramatically.
JH: My parents separated and it was a very stormy break up. And she did the grand exit like the diva she was. It caused a lot of upheaval in our lives and none of us knew it was coming.
WS: Jessica and her siblings left the Philippines for the United States with their mother.
JH: When we moved to San Francisco when I was 14, it was very different circumstances and quite painful actually. I moved to this high school in San Francisco and I had no idea what to do. It was a public high school and I had gone to an all-girls school in Manila, had lived a very rather cloistered life—very lively, but cloistered in sense of school—and suddenly I was in this co-ed environment. And the beautiful thing is it was the 60s and my mother had, by chance, rented a flat in the Haight Ashbury. So I learned to adapt quite fast, probably to her chagrin. But it was difficult and I’m making light of it now but it was difficult and I had to really be observant and figure out what was going on around me and how do I survive this.
I think when you love a writer, they are like your best friend. It inspired me to want to continue writing.
WS: It took her some time before she could begin to process how much these events had affected her.
JH: I was taking an acting workshop for teenagers. I remember the teacher was very kind, but she tried to have me reveal something of myself through an exercise and I couldn’t—wouldn’t—do it. I just sat there like a stone. And finally she said, “Well, okay, you can just sit there as long as you want. You don’t have to say anything.” And about 20 minutes went by and I remember I just started to weep and I did not understand why. And she knew, of course there was a lot of pain there and she didn’t know why.
WS: The timing couldn’t have been better for someone pivotal to enter Jessica’s life and change how she saw this new city and herself.
JH: I met my mentor, my first real, incredible mentor, who was Kenneth Rexroth, the poet and translator.
WS: Kenneth Rexroth was a central figure in San Francisco’s cultural renaissance following World War II and one of America’s most acclaimed and influential poets.
JH: He lived a few blocks away from us where my mother and I lived on Fell St., and he lived on Scott, and someone we hardly knew sent him some of my poems and he read them and he called me up. It was one of those bizarre things that would never happen today. And he wanted to talk about my poetry. I mean, this man was a busy man. I had no idea who he was. There was no Google or anything. So I had to sort of ask around. I remember my English teacher said, “What do you mean you don’t know?” So, it was an incredible relationship. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I never met him because he took me to City Lights. And I just thought, “Oh my God, this is like the life. I could be in Paris.”
WS: Rexroth helped foster Jessica’s love for literature.
JH: I read everything. I mean, I read Lolita. I read Catcher in the Rye. Sort of anything I can get my hands on . . . Giovanni’s Room. I was not critical of anyone. I was just like this hungry reader, you know, wanting to know more, wanting to know more. And I started imitating all the different poets and sort of trying to find my own voice. But it took Kenneth with his savvy and his sort of discerning tastes to turn me onto poets who really, really were like a revelation to me. I mean, poets from all over the world and writers like Baldwin. He had an incredible library in his home and he said, “Anytime you want, just come over here and borrow. Just be sure you bring it back.” He had the French Surrealists, Rimbaud, all that stuff. And he would tell me about them.
WS: The more she read, the more she decided that she needed to seek out a new storyline for herself.
JH: I moved in with friends as soon as I graduated from high school. I sort of really wanted to have that adventure, not to my mother’s happiness; she wasn’t thrilled, but what could she do? I was of age, you know, and I moved out and I wanted to be a poet and I wanted to do this and that and paint and I don’t know, just . . . I was an idiot on some level . . . and be free. But also I wanted to pursue my own life. What did that mean? It was such an incredible moment. I think for a lot of young people and also women trying to discover who they were because suddenly you’re given this weird sense of probably false sense of independence. There were a lot of ideas floating around in the air and the culture and things were just happening so fast and coming from the Philippines where women are expected to get married and if you want a career, well that’s okay, but the family comes first.
WS: Her poetry began to evolve after she left home.
JH: I got more and more into figuring out how to not just read the work in public but perform it somehow. And I connected with a group of dancers, musicians, um, theater artists who were very open about collaboration. I didn’t even know that word, you know, and I was very young, but I had went to see everything and whatever. I could go see experimental. The weirder the better.
WS: Soon she was ready to try experimenting with another form.
JH: I always knew one day I wanted to write a novel, whatever that meant. That the poetry would somehow not be able to contain all the stories in my head. So all that work that I was doing in San Francisco helped pave the way for why I decided to move to New York in the 70s.
WS: When we get back from the break, Jessica comes into her own as a writer—and later discovers a novel that will remind her why she chose this path and inspire her to create new work.
I was really glad I trusted my own instincts and kind of kept believing that this book had to be written in the way it was written.
WS: When Jessica arrived in New York, she quickly found an apartment on the outskirts of the West Village.
JH: It was cheap, believe it. It was all the way down near the highway. Nobody wanted to live there. It was really desolate. But there were three of us who came from San Francisco. My housemates at the time said, “Well, if you’re going, we’ll go too,” and it was kind of the spirit of let’s just move and do it and try it.
WS: To pay the bills she took all sorts of odd jobs.
JH: I answered phones. I worked in a store, Capezio, in the Village off of 8th St. I love that store. And actually I worked there for two years. That’s long for me. While I was doing that, I had a band and I performed and everybody came, including the boss.
WS: Bruce Springsteen?
JH: The boss of the store. Although Bruce Springsteen used to come into the store because he was seeing somebody who worked in the store.
WS: Her busy days left little time to write.
JH: But at night, late at night, if I wasn’t out listening to music, or when I came home, that’s when I wrote.
WS: Jessica took advantage of those quiet hours to begin what would become her critically-acclaimed and award-winning novel, Dogeaters.
JH: That was the book in my head that I thought one day I should write. And in the 70s, Garcia Marquez was translated into English and a friend from Mexico had given me the paperback A Hundred Years of Solitude when I was still living in San Francisco. And I read it then and I took it with me. I still have that tattered paperback and I took it with me to New York and I read it again and again. And also I got turned on to Manuel Puig, the wonderful writer of Kiss of the Spider Woman and all those other wonderful books. And I thought to myself, in a way it, too, sounds like my family. And the chances those writers took with the way they wrote fiction. It showed me the many ways you could tackle telling a big story. That it didn’t have to be rigid and that it didn’t have to be linear.
WS: These beloved works gave her the courage to tell a story set in and about the Philippines as only she could.
JH: It was very difficult, the path to publication. Because I think the novel Dogeaters is not written in a traditional form. And there was also very little interest in the Philippines or actually in that part of the world. It got so bad, everybody turned it down that I told my agent, “Don’t even call me unless you have anyone who says, ‘Yeah, maybe this could work.’ You know?” There were people who wrote very thoughtful responses, but they would say, well, if only, you know, she could write it in a much more straightforward, but the Philippines is not straight forward. It’s chaos, you know, and it’s complicated and it’s funny and it’s sad and it’s huge. So one morning he called and he said, “There’s this editor who is really intrigued.”
WS: Soon after Dogeaters was published, it landed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and everything changed.
JH: Some of the same people who turned it down suddenly got real nice. It was a strange lesson. It was ironic, but it was a good one for me because I realized, well, “Wow,” you know, I was really glad I trusted my own instincts and kind of kept believing that this book had to be written in the way it was written. I didn’t want to change. I mean, of course it needed work, but I didn’t want to change the voice.
WS: And then she discovered Chilean author Roberto Bolaño.
JH: I had read Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, of course, when it was first translated into English and everybody was talking about it.
WS: Jessica would go on to read other Bolaño works, like Amulet and Distant Star.
JH: There was something so bittersweet and kind of earnest and idealistic, and at the same time also very wise, about his voice as a very young poet. And it was touching and the things he believed in—his ideals—were very touching to me. The Latin American struggles that he went through were similar to what was going on in the Philippines. And of course Chile and the Philippines had the same marshal. I mean, it was like everybody had a dictator that was related, you know, or something really like, you were going, were they all plotting this at the same time? And so I became totally riveted by his, well, just the way his mind worked, his rigor, at the same time his incredible sense of humor and the way he believed in writers.
WS: But it was his posthumously published novel 2666 that would have a particularly big impact on Jessica and her work.
JH: It was the masterful way he told this huge story, it just blew me away. The mastery of it, you know, from the sort of innocuous first section about the intellectuals—quite funny—and their search for this obscure writer. Parts of it, I thought, “What the hell am I reading?” And then this very violent section comes up with the academics, which literally took my breath away. It was so unexpected. And then I said, “Uh-oh, okay.”
WS: She came across 2666 during a difficult period in her life.
JH: I was reading it at a time when I was supposed to be writing my last novel, which ended up becoming Toxicology and that title is connected to the dark material I was reading. There’s a lot of upheaval in my life personally. I was really sort of at this crossroads of, do I ever want to write again?
WS: Bolaño’s novel helped show Jessica a way forward.
JH: I trust him as a writer. I trust Bolaño as if he were my . . . I think when you love a writer, they are like your best friend. It inspired me to want to continue writing.
WS: She got a chance to teach 2666 in a course at Long Island University, as part of the MFA program she was directing.
JH: I had these wonderful graduate students. A lot of them were working class and they were coming to a lot of the books fresh. They didn’t come from privileged backgrounds. And so I was asking myself a lot of questions about privilege and, even though I had had to struggle for a lot of my own grownup life, I still had been privileged to have a supportive mother, to have books around me and things like that all my life. These are things I just took for granted.
WS: Through her students eyes, Jessica came to appreciate the novel even more.
JH: There’s a section called The Part About Fate, which takes place in Detroit and it does not . . . it’s a very, it’s an imagined Detroit. And then it goes to Mexico, of course, where he really knows the terrain. My students were like, “Why? He shouldn’t write about the Black Panthers and blah, blah, blah. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” I said, “No, it’s so touching.” It’s so touching because he attempts it, and you can feel the sincerity and his attempt to write about it. And you know, there’s so much hesitation these days. Even amongst my students, I remember they always felt like they could only write about what they knew they’d been taught. That would kind of break my heart.
WS: She passes along the lessons she took from Bolaño’s fearlessness to the next generation.
JH: What I try to share with younger artists, not just writers, is you have to not be afraid. You have to try it. It’s our job. And do your homework while you’re at it. But don’t squash your imagination. I mean, my imagination is all I have. I mean, it’s unique to me, unique to you, unique to my students. They have their own, and they have to learn to trust it.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard with help from Cate Hynes. Thanks to Jessica Hagedorn. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on Lit Hub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.
Author and playwright Jessica Hagedorn on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, taking risks and the place of the writer in America. To learn more about some of the books we discussed in this episode, check out Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. Also see A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig and The Savage Detectives and 2666, both by Roberto Bolaño.