Jessica Hagedorn uncovers ‘Manila Noir’

Acclaimed novelist talks about fiction anthology, 'Manila Noir'

MANILA AS A CHARACTER. Jessica Hagedorn describes Manila, the subject of her new anthology, as 'complicated, beautiful...with a painful history.' All photos and video by Pia Ranada/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Romantic radio dramas from the 1950s sparked Jessica Hagedorn’s love for storytelling.

In the hush of a hotel dining area on July 5, the internationally-acclaimed novelist shared how evenings spent with her grandmother listening to doomed love stories in the crackling airwaves taught her how to write.

“It instilled in me an appreciation for the sound of a story and characters because you can’t see them, you have to imagine them,” she said.

Hagedorn, the author of “Dogeaters,” “Gangster of Love” and “Toxicology,” is in Manila to launch “Manila Noir,” an anthology of crime stories set in the Philippines’ mega city. She spent a year and a half editing the anthology of noir gems by some of the brightest names in Philippine literature today: among them, Jose “Butch” Dalisay Jr., Rosario Cruz-Lucero, Eric Gamalinda, Angelo Lacuesta, Lourd de Veyra, F.H. Batacan, R. Zamora Linmark and Lysley Tenorio.

“Manila Noir” is the latest star in the constellation of Akashic Books’ “Noir” series, which includes over 50 noir fiction anthologies set in cities all over the world – from “Paris Noir” to “Istanbul Noir” (“Seoul Noir” and “Baghdad Noir” are in the works).

Hagedorn, of Filipino-Spanish-Irish-Scots-French-Chinese descent, was born in Manila but moved to San Francisco with her family when she was 14. Her multicultural background and migratory experience find their way into many of her books which feature Filipino or Asian characters dealing and coping with the sphere of Western society and culture. Her writer’s pen has sketched many worlds – from art to drug addiction to dictatorship. 

She spoke with Rappler about the anthology, writing and Manila.

DARK AND LIGHT. The cover of 'Manila Noir.' Image courtesy of National Book Store

How did you get into writing?

I became a writer because I love books and storytelling. I came from a family of good readers, we always had books in the house. I was very fortunate and they were also very expressive people, everything was a story. So, you could say what happened to you today and it would become this amazing story. My maternal grandfather was also a writer and an artist. I wanted to be that. 

How are you able to describe your characters in so much detail?

Everybody has a story to me. I don’t know a Joey Sands (a character from “Dogeaters” who is a DJ and male prostitute) but I can imagine a Joey Sands. I’ve seen kids in the streets and I just imagine what their lives must be like, how they make a living. I’ve interviewed some women, some bar girls, because I’m very interested in their lives and how they survive. I think my sympathy and empathy go a long way. 

As a kid, I used to – like when we first moved to San Francisco – walk around, take notes and imagine what people were really like. I look at these new people and take in my surroundings. I think what’s important for any writer is curiosity about the world. The minute you stop having that, you stop writing.

What was it like to be an aspiring author in the United States?

It was hard. They’d be like, what, the Philippines? And I don’t write very traditional narratives. I write very fragmented narratives. I don’t write a one-two-three kind of novel that these publishers were used to dealing with, so it was very new to them. Now it’s not new. A lot of people are writing in that style and I think the editors are hipper now. But I persisted and I was lucky to find an agent who, even with rejection after rejection, never gave up. I think every writer faces this. It’s never easy.

Why write about Manila?

I’m from here. It’s beautiful. It’s crazy and chaotic. It’s got a really painful history. What’s not to like? It’s got a very complicated culture – complicated, unique. It’s great material.

Hagedorn’s tips for aspiring writers:

What’s your writing routine, if you have any?

I have my coffee and I just start. There’s no formula. It’s kind of about sitting there and facing it. I kind of have an idea. You can’t take months to brew. I make a living off this. I think it’s about opening your mind to ideas even if the idea is something half-formed. You just sit down and start and see where it goes. If you’re under a deadline, you’re under a deadline for a reason. You sold them an idea. I like deadlines. The pressure’s good, I think. 

How did the idea for “Manila Noir” first come about?

I’m a fan of the series and I love those kinds of stories. I love noir film. I love noir books. When I started reading the series – it’s a series about cities, I thought. The editor has to know the city. The stories have to be set in that city and in a particular neighborhood. What the editor has to look for is a range to give a flavor of the city. The city itself is a character and that was intriguing to me and I thought Manila is perfect. So I went to them and pitched the idea. 

How did you choose the writers in the anthology?

The ones I knew because I had them in other anthologies I edited. I wanted writers to turn in a story fast and do it well. I contacted some writers I know who come here a lot and have connections here. And I said, “Who are some writers I don’t know and who are local and who are really, really good?” They know my taste so they recommended some people. They bought me their books and I read them then I contacted them. 

Why did you decide to include comics by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo in an anthology of short stories?

Because that’s very Filipino and I knew it would be unique and the readers would love it and they do. This is the first book in the “Noir” series to include comics.

Have your perspectives as a writer changed through the years?

Maybe I’ve gotten more mature. I don’t think my basic perceptions have changed. Maybe I’m more interested in writing for old people now because I’m getting older. So I have older characters. I’m interested now in the very old and the very young.

What are you working on now?

It’s a novel. It’s too early [to talk about it]. I think you have to keep that until you’re ready. I’m very superstitious. I don’t talk about stuff until I have enough, when I’m sure of what it is. 


“Manila Noir” is available in National Bookstore for P395.

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