Eight years have passed (far too quickly) since I last saw the inimitable Jessica Hagedorn. Her 2003 novel, Dream Jungle, was about to come out and we were in desperate search of boba tea in New York’s East Village. Faced with a closed tea salon (one of her favorites), Hagedorn met my disappointment with a comforting hug and we settled instead on a nearby Japanese restaurant. Noshing with a legend, I can’t remember a thing I ate … it was all about the stellar company, after all.
Born and raised in the Philippines, arriving in the United States in her early teens, Hagedorn entered the literary world fully formed: her now-classic coming-of-age debut novel, Dogeaters, garnered a highly coveted National Book Award nomination in 1990. In the two decades since, Hagedorn has been recognized as both a leader and a mentor at the forefront of Asian Pacific America with her compilation of Asian Pacific American writings, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction and Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home in the World: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, both of which she edited, in addition to her various other novels, poetry, films, plays, multimedia performance pieces, and a musical.
Eight years after Dream Jungle—in which Hagedorn intertwines the alleged discovery of an ancient “lost tribe” in the remote hills of the Philippines with the problematic filming of Apocalypse Now – Hagedorn’s much-awaited new novel, Toxicology, hit shelves earlier this year in April. Populated with her usual cast of unpredictable characters, Toxicology opens with the spectacular death of a beloved young actor. Separately joining the multiplying crowd of shocked mourners outside the actor’s apartment are Mimi Smith – a filmmaker with a minor cult slasher hit who is suffering through a rough patch both creatively and personally – and her estranged, 14-year-old daughter Violet. Across the East River, Mimi’s older brother Melo is trying to stay sober, and is convinced that their cousin Agnes has met a sinister end at the hands of her wealthy New Jersey employers. Down the hall from Mimi, her neighbor Eleanor Delacroix – once a famous writer, now an eccentric octogenarian addicted to cocaine and alcohol – has effectively shut herself in while mourning the death of her long-time lover and partner, the renowned artist Yvonne Wilder. Brought together by loneliness—not to mention the flowing booze and drugs – Mimi and Eleanor’s disparate lives dovetail one into the other, as both find a strange comfort in their acerbic exchanges and desperate binges.
Always fascinated by Hagedorn’s writing, I recently caught up with her by phone (“some things never change,” she assures me about her phone number). We laughed, sighed, cackled, debated, and generally plotted to take over the universe … [... click here for more]