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  October 16, 2000

'Maverick Genius' Explores
Asian American Heritage

When novelist, poet, playwright and jazz musician Jessica Hagedorn left her native Philippines at the age of 13 in the early 1960s to live in San Francisco with her mother and two brothers, she brought with her a passion to become a writer.

Some 37 years later, the multi-media artist is being praised by literary critics as a "maverick genius" for her visceral poetry and prose that deeply delves into the impact of cultural assimilation on individuals.

Her second and most recent novel, Gangster of Love, which explores the coming of age of young Filipino immigrants caught between cultures in the United States in the early 1970s, has prompted some critics to compare her work with J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Some 200 people - including UConn undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, a few Asian-American alumni and student guests from East Hartford High School - jammed into the Benton Museum Oct. 5 to hear Hagedorn discuss her life and work.

The joint guest of the University's Asian American Cultural Center and the Asian American Studies Institute, Hagedorn's appearance launched the 2000-2001 Asian American Heritage Observance season.

For more than an hour, Hagedorn, 50, who is of mixed heritage and now lives in Manhattan, took her campus audience on a poetic journey from her young life and political corruption in Manila to the streets of San Francisco, where she was dazzled by Beat poets and the black arts movement of the 1960s.

During the 1960s and 1970s she returned often to Manila to visit her father and to witness, she said, a period of political unrest and martial law during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos.

She said she was "lucky" to have grown up in San Francisco in the 60s in a community of artists and writers coming out of the U.S. civil rights movement.

"There were no writing programs in the schools in the early sixties," she said. "I had good mentors, and older writers would give me books to read."

In her late teens and early 20s, she became part of a small group of young Asian writers who hung out in a storefront on the edge of San Francisco's Chinatown. "We mentored each other," Hagedorn said. The storefront later became known as the Kearny Street Writers Workshop.

Her early poems captured the attention of Kenneth Rexroth, a San Francisco-based artist who encouraged her writing and edited the book that first featured her poetry, Four Young Women, published in 1973.

During her address, Hagedorn read a collection of early poems from her book Danger & Beauty, some of which were written during what she called her "morbid period."

One poem she read described her place of origin, Manila, as "...where the sun is scarlet/like a beautiful slut/ ...the nuns with headdresses/like wings of doves/beating you/into holy submission/with tales of purgatory..."

Her vivid images of Manila also prevail in her critically acclaimed semi-autobiographical first novel, Dogeaters, that has been turned into a play.

She is currently writing a third novel but would not reveal its storyline.

During the Storrs visit, Hagedorn also aired several segments from her latest writing adventure, "The Pink Palace," an animated television series airing on Oprah Winfrey's Oxygen Network. The series tracks the cultural struggles of Baby Cruz, a 16-year-old Filipino and her single mother Queenie, who live in a pink housing project in present-day Oakland, Calif.

Hagedorn said the series is "about the appreciation of cultural heritage without compromising our ways."

Prior to Hagedorn's talk, Angela Rola, director of the Asian American Cultural Center, discussed the season's theme for 2000-2001 Asian American Heritage Observance, Look@Asian America Now, which plays off the phenomenon.

"For the past several years, we've explored the issue of identity, an area that we all deal with whether in the context of gender, race, ethnicity,

sexual orientation, age or position," she said.

"We explored inwardly: we looked critically at ourselves and defined who we are in our terms," said Rola. "This year, we expand our search for identity and take a look at Asian America through the 'other' lens."

The center will sponsor a bus trip to see Hagedorn's "Dogeaters" in February, when it makes its New York premier at The Public Theater.

Claudia G. Chamberlain