Published in 1990, Dogeaters earned Jessica Hagedorn an American Book Award and was nominated for the National Book Award, losing out to Charles Johnson’s highly acclaimed Middle Passage. With chapter narrative by five different characters offering an individualized perspective on what it means to live under the thumb of a right-wing dictator ruling with a strong authority over the Philippines, fragmentation of the singular coalesces to form a portrait of the collective.
Definitively postmodern in structure and sensibility, the result is a narrative that swings easily if unexpectedly from violent action to political satire and can move from farce to allegory at will. The jumbled outlook of its myriad characters expressing their views and opinions while detailing important events in their own biography as well as the history of the cramped island nation they share allows for Hagedorn to explore a variety of different themes as they relate to the overarching concern about the struggle to establish Philippine identity. The title of the novel is a derogatory term first leveled at natives by American soldiers and from that bold starting point which drew criticisms of being insensitive, the author examines American colonialist influence that moves from the forced assimilation resulting from military occupation to the so-called “colonial mimicry” in which the First Lady’s obsession with American movies and pop culture has trickled down to present a serious obstacle of defining Philippine identity without seeing it through an American lens.
The novel has been the focus of more intense criticism for the manner in which Hagedorn mixes historical fact with her own inventive fiction, thus lending further difficulty to an already confusing narrative marred for some by the lack of a single dominating perspective with which to identify. Hagedorn’s response has basically been to suggest that anyone who thinks a novel that tries make sense of the chaos and unpredictability of the Marcos regime is confusing should try actually living under such conditions.