Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn

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Dogeaters is Jessica Hagedorn’s first novel. The author returned to her native Philippines in 1988 to write the work, and it was published in 1990 when it received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The novel reflects the eclectic life of its author whose experiences have included acting, singing, songwriting, and writing poetry, drama, and fiction. For the most part, Dogeaters has been well received by critics and scholars who commend its experimental nature and innovative writing style. Jessica Hagedorn is a well-respected post-colonial author whose works present gender, social, and cultural themes. Dogeaters is considered one of the most widely studied novels about the Philippines and is an important example of contemporary Asian American literature.

Despite being generally favored, some critics have called the novel fragmented, eclectic, chaotic, abrasive, and controversial. It is a mélange of stories and themes, a kaleidoscope of motifs and a collage of characters combined to create what the author calls a “crazy-quilt atmosphere.” It is a story that cannot be told in a traditional narrative, according to the author, so despite the complaints of some critics that the novel’s multiple plot lines weaken the narrative structure, the author justifies her chaotic mix of narrators, memories, dreams, news clippings, movies, radio programs, news stories, and television programs as being necessary to her purpose.

Dogeaters can be a confusing novel to read. Truth and fiction are interspersed and the reader does not know what to believe. By their own admission, the narrators cannot be trusted to tell the truth. The news articles and historical excerpts that the author tosses in lend an element of realism to the narrative, but they too are only partially true. The history presented is revisionist: part history, part memory, and part creative license. The events alluded to are based on actual historical events, but they are modified. Martial law, for example, was not declared until the 1970s, not during the 1950s when the novel takes place. “Chaotic,” cry the critics. “Exactly!” answers the author.

The novel is largely metaphoric because the characters serve the dual purpose of character and symbol. Therefore, most of the characters are not complex and the author has been criticized for the number of characters that overcrowd the novel, sometimes causing a lapse in development. Critic Blanche D’Alpuget points out such a lapse with Rio’s brother, who is introduced at the beginning of the novel, reappears at the end as “Rio’s soul mate,” but is not mentioned anywhere else in the novel. In addition, some critics have commented that the many plots and subplots leave little room for character development. Jessica Hagedorn acknowledges those critics who have accused her of “setting back the race 400 years” with her stereotypical characters and “wanton disregard for the people.” She believes that this is the purpose of literature, however. “You don’t go to literature and say I need to feel good about my race, so let me read a novel," she argues.

Dogeaters has a postmodern narrative style that includes fragmentation, paradox, and questionable narrators. The narrators contradict each other. There are multiple plots and subplots, none of which are sequential, so the novel is difficult to follow. The words are written in English, but in an effort to illustrate the effects of colonialism on the characters’ language, there are so many undefined Spanish and Tagalog words peppered throughout the narrative that it can be annoying to read according to critics. “Hoy, bruja! Kumusta? Ano ba--long time no hear! What’s the latest balita? Sige na--sit down and let’s make tsismis.” While critics admire Hagedorn’s attempt to use cultural vocabulary for authenticity, many agree with critic D’Alpuget who calls Hagedorn’s exoticisms “tiresome, more a nervous tic than a desire to make connection across the gulf of...
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