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The Dirt on Narratives of Resistance in Jessica Hagedorn’s Play Dogeaters

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 42, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 248-282 | 10.1353/jnt.2013.0001

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Against a backdrop of politically charged unrest and bustling street-level commerce, Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters (1990) imagines how a sundry mix of Manila’s residents might have responded to and participated in turbulent events leading to the demise of the infamous Marcos regime. Though only a teenager of indeterminate years, protagonist Joey Sands participates full-time in Manila’s entertainment industry, assuming work as a sex laborer and D.J. Other than a predatory pimp who appoints himself as Joey’s guardian, Joey is on his own, being orphaned by his mother, a Filipina sex worker who died when he was a child, and father, an African American G.I. whom he has never met. This unlikely candidate, as an eyewitness to the assassination of Senator Domingo Avila, must transition from a junkie hustler to a potential student of ascetic communist guerrilla activism. Counter to Joey’s dubious pedigree yet on an intersecting journey, Daisy Avila is Senator Domingo Avila’s sheltered daughter and the reigning Miss Philippines beauty pageant queen. Her father’s assassination and her own rape shatter this life of safety and literal entitlement, compelling this once pristine daughter of the Philippines to transform into a hardened communist guerrilla soldier.

Soon after its publication, Asian Americanist scholars hailed this novel for blurring the boundary between “official” and “unofficial” history, a shift from a trend of evaluating Asian American literary merit on the basis of historical accuracy.1 For example, Nerissa Balce-Cortes (103) and Lisa Lowe (1996, 113–120) observe in their respective readings of the novel that statements and events recorded in texts such as books and newspapers have comprised “official” history, whereas information passed orally such as tsismis (Tagalog for rumor or gossip) has been categorized as “unofficial” information. Balce-Cortes and Lowe agree that Hagedorn’s deployment of official and unofficial forms of information is instructive for theorizing Asian American literature as a genre that represents ambiguity and uncertainty as analytically productive indices of Asian American cultural production. With the publication of Dogeaters and such scholarship on it, Hagedorn’s novel became canonical for its anti-canonical verve with respect to historical representation and contributed to advancing postmodernist critique as a central analytic lens for Asian American cultural studies.

Translated for the literal stage, Hagedorn’s script Dogeaters: A Play about the Philippines (2003) emerged in the long shadow of the novel edition that has helped shape a discipline’s discourse. In large part, Hagedorn recycles the novel’s characters, themes, and overarching plot for the script. The assassination of Senator Avila returns as the pivotal moment of the story, precipitating Joey’s journey from Manila to the Cordillera Mountains, a remote jungle twelve to fifteen hours north of Manila (Hagedorn 2003, 9). As in the novel, this geographic move takes Joey out of the city and into a rugged, uncharted terrain where he has an opportunity to unlearn political apathy and receive an education in communist politics. While the “spirit,” of this story remains unmodified from novel to script, as Lisa Lowe describes it, other elements have been altered.2 For example, Hagedorn replaces Rio, the novel’s dominant and earnest narrative voice, with Barbara Villanueva and Nestor Noralez, two exuberant, amusing, and observant soap opera stars. With “joking-joking” mirth, Nestor and Barbara help lighten the mood of the story and narrate events that transpire on and off stage. Their replacement of Rio changes the story’s tone and minimizes her narrative significance. Following Victor Mendoza’s reading of Rio’s representational importance in the novel, I agree that her presence functions as a disruptive force to a novelistic schema of developmental storytelling (Mendoza 822–24). It follows that Hagedorn’s marginalization of Rio in the script might be read as a decision that puts greater emphasis on the telos of Joey’s and Daisy’s journeys toward guerrilla citizenship. In this regard, the script and its performance function differently from the novel.3 In comparison to the novel, dramatic emphasis on Joey’s and Daisy’s narrative progression and resolution gives greater insight into the way schemas of advancement and oppression interlock to advance protagonists who are unlikely but...

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