Author, playwright, and poet Jessica Hagedorn sat down with us to talk about the premiere of her play, The Gangster of Love, adapted from her novel and how the Filipino-American community in San Francisco has evolved over the years.
The Gangster of Love is showing at the Magic Theatre from April 11th - May 6th, 2018.
How would you describe the Filipino-American community in San Francisco?
Jessica Hagedorn: The Filipino/Filipino-American community is very present in the city. It’s active, diverse, and artistic – a very rich, community culture.
Back when I arrived in 1963, there was none of that going on. I remember my mother going to Chinatown just so she wouldn’t feel so isolated. That’s where we did our shopping and where we could find the various foods that she wanted to cook. Of course, there were Filipinos around but it was a scattered presence. Back then, it wasn’t the kind of community that exists now with activist groups and artist communities. There all kinds of things happening like the revival of the SOMA area.
Who influenced you as you were writing The Gangster of Love and growing up in SF?
JH: A lot of people were inspirations for me and for the book such as Al Robles. He was a poet, a mentor, and a very influential member of the Filipino American community - really hard-working. He did everything he could for the elders in the Filipino community so he was someone that we all loved, respected, and had fun with.
My fellow poets from the 70s like Oscar Peñaranda - they were my peers, but we really formed a kind of extended family of artists. It wasn’t just Filipino artists either - the muralists from the Mission District were all women, folks from Kearny Street Workshop were Asian Americans from different cultures but we all worked together. It was really diverse and great. And everyone helped make it work, you know. We did readings together, we edited books, created magazines - things like that. And we did it by hand - there was none of this online stuff, so it was truly a labor of love.
What kind of work did you do with Al Robles and the other artists in the community?
JH: Well, we did creative work together, we did readings together. And Al and I both worked in the CETA Program. It was a program that was run by the neighborhood arts people. We went and taught workshops in schools and spaces like hospitals and juvenile detention facilities. We used the arts as a means to help people express themselves and find their voices in different places. And that was a job we held for a couple of years, together, with five other poets.
So Al and I became good friends during that time and we always read together. So it wasn’t just one job here, one job there; I very much revered him and would always try to include him in whatever event was being organized because he was really someone that everyone respected, within the Filipino community but also outside of it.
Were there any spaces that were important to you growing up or as you wrote Gangster?
A space that was very important to me and to my fellow artists was Glide Church in the Tenderloin. It was a community space to us and it still exists today – it’s very active. It was one of the landmarks of social activism and arts activism spaces and still is.
The other space that was important to us was City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. It’s one of the greatest bookstores in the world. I would say those were two spaces that I paid attention to as I was writing The Gangster of Love.
How has the work that you’ve done in these communities and spaces influenced your writing?
JH: Well, I think everything affects me. I mean, if you're a writer or any kind of artist, whatever experience that you have with other human beings is going to affect you if you're out there observing the world. It gives you an understanding. I think if you're in the home of an impoverished person or if you're in the home of the other extreme, a person who has "everything", you're going to be affected. This gives me an understanding of the human character in whatever situation they're in.
So it made me learn to listen, and to observe deeply. I mean, you know, you're hearing their stories. And I'm talking across the board, not just singling out people who are on the fringes. I think everybody is worth writing about, you know? So I never sort of judge it from one way or the other, I just sort of walk in and work with it.
I'm fascinated by everybody's stories - I mean, look, I'm already interviewing you!
But if I get in a cab, I talk to the cab driver. That's me. Somebody has a story to tell, I'll listen if they're willing to talk. Sometimes, especially in New York, they don't wanna talk. They're trying to focus on their job. But if they're anxious to tell me their story, I will listen. Because to me, that's fuel for something. Fodder for something. And I always tell my students, back when I used to teach, “Don't turn it on or turn it off.” You should always be alert because you never know when these things are going to present themselves to you - and they're a gift.
Who else in the community have you known or worked with?
JH: Well, I don't spend as much time in San Francisco as I used to but Claudine Del Rosario, who’s teaching at USF, I met as a student. It’s the same with other young women - who were still students at the time, and who are now scholars, professors, these accomplished individuals - I've known them since they were, you know, babies.
And it's great to watch their trajectory. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, who teaches at SF State; Professor Christine Balance, who wrote a great book recently about music in America, Filipino musicians in America and in the Philippines. She covers this vast terrain and I'm just really proud of all of them - they're great women. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Celine Parrenas Shimizu - they're like Wonder Women to me.
They're all brainy, funny - you know what I mean? They can do a million different things, they're on the ball, they're juggling families, they're brilliant people. And I'm so glad that they found this kind of work after all these years of having these dreams - that they really went out and did it. They should be thriving, I hope you all go out and do that.
Thinking about Gangster and the play that's coming out soon, some of the big themes are displacement and relocating. How did that affect you and how do you see that affecting the Filipino-American community?
JH: Well, I can't answer for the large community, I can only answer for myself. I see my old friends, many of them who are my age and can't afford to live in the city.
My cast of actors, for example, they have to come from so far away just to come to work to rehearse. Only one of them lives in the Mission - he was lucky enough to hang onto his apartment - but, you know, the rest of them, the young ones; it seems like the younger you are, the harder it is to live in SF. You can't live in SF, you have to live in the East Bay or further because who can afford it? It's no longer a city that's flexible and diverse economically and also racially - I can see that with my own two eyes.
But that's why I feel like the work that you all are doing for SOMA - to fight for that area - it's so crucial.
I don't want to go on and on - that’s the substance of what the play's exploring because I just adapted the novel. I adapted the San Francisco sections. The city is very much a character from the 70s so you can see that history of what the city used to be but already there were struggles with housing and displacement going on.
You wrote Gangster as a kind of love letter to SF. If you wrote that love letter now, would it change in any way?
JH: I wouldn't write it now.
I would be writing something else. It's a novel of it's time, I think. If I wrote it now, I wouldn't be in San Francisco. I mean, I was writing about a particular time.
I think you become a different kind of writer as you age. Maybe it'd be edgier because I'd really have the distance from that time to help me write it. But, I don't know because I didn't write it now.
But I'm writing the play now which is a very different thing. Because when you adapt your own work, it's a chance to re-imagine it and maybe make it even stronger. Because you have the years on your side - you learn things as you write each book. You're going to find this out as you write your work - every time you finish writing something, you learn from it. You make mistakes. Or you do it really well, but you didn't get to do everything. You know, a book is not a stagnant thing - it lives. And doing a play like this, it's a chance to make the book live in another way.
In the process of adapting Gangster for the stage, are you seeing any of your memories of this area or people you knew back then in a new light?
JH: Yeah, of course. I'm much wiser that I was in the 90s, I think *laughs*. I have history to look at - or herstory. I was sort of aware of a lot of the darkness of the 70s in San Francisco when I was writing it.
So maybe it's just that this gives me another opportunity to dive into that even deeper, you know, it's just the times were hard. It wasn't all fun, it was very hard, and there was a lot going on. There was a lot of crap going on in the 70s that was not so nice. But I'm focusing on different things in the play so I hope people can come see it. I think that if you've read the novel then it'll be fun for people to compare it to the production - but it's not the same thing, you know. You cannot literally transfer it, one medium to another.
That’s what I've always loved about reading a novel and then seeing the play or film - because the characters come to life and there's always a different interpretation of it when it's adapted for the stage.
JH: And there has to be. There has to be that difference because it's such a different medium, just as a movie is a very different medium - it can't tell you the novel, you know. And it shouldn't. You can't do it all in a show or a movie.
What a book can do is take you into it deeper and deeper and further and further and you can have 500 pages to tell a story. You can't do that in the other mediums. So you have to be adaptive. What's going to work, what's going to keep an audience involved, and whose story am I telling?
Do you have any closing thoughts about your time in SF and having Gangster being performed on stage?
JH: I'm really excited! I'm really excited for the production, I think we have a really wonderful cast and having all these really, really, creative and brave performers who are giving it their all, excites me! It's a privilege to be back and to be able to do this.
And I have to thank the Magic Theater for making it possible and believing in this project. The components we're trying to have in the play - live music, a music video, and a poetry reading - what does that mean? As part of a play, it's very, very different than traditional theater so I'm thrilled! I'm really happy, even if I'm tired and I can't see everybody for as long as we want to be together, old friends catching up, I'm happy to see them. It always makes me feel honored that people care and people still come out.
Buy tickets for The Gangster of Love here
Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle
Written by Cat Jimenez