Imagine if a person’s story is a heaven where every element in it takes its place with its own story. This is the extraordinary case of “We Belong” (Dial Books for Young Readers, New York, 2021, 201 pages), Cookie Hiponia’s debut novel (ages 10+), which is written in verse. Hiponia, 46, (the book was published under her previous name Cookie Hiponia Everman) grew up in Makati and Ayala Alabang, the daughter of two businessmen. “I had a pretty idyllic childhood in Manila for the most part. My brother, sister and I grew up in areas where there were lots of neighborhood children to play with ”until her family immigrated to the United States in 1984, when she was 9 years old.during the turmoil under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and shortly before the Edsa revolution.
She then graduated from the University of Maryland with a BA in Journalism and a BA in Chinese Languages and Literature. “I thought I was going to be a cultural attaché, but the universe had bigger plans for me, and here we are. I would have made a terrible cultural attaché anyway; I’m not very diplomatic at all. “
then worked as an editor on the video games Mass Effect 1 and 2, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, Destiny 2, Forsaken and Rise of the Iron Lords. She lives in Seattle; The older daughter Diana will be 13 years old in June and Tala will be 11 years old in March.
What makes “We Belong” so special isn’t just that it’s written in verse.Starting with mother Elsie putting her daughters Luna and Tala to sleep and being asked for a bedtime story, the novel tells two parallel stories, both different types of Filipino stories.
One is a retelling of the mythological story of how the children of Bathala, the Creator, Apolaki, became the sun, Buan the moon, and Tala, the stars. The other story is about how Elsie’s family, the Aguilas, left a comfortable life in the Philippines to build a life in the United States.
These two stories are told side by side in beautiful verse as Elsie expresses to her children how much they mean to them, how much they are the elements in their heaven. It’s also a coming-of-age story for Elsie.“We Belong” not only pays tribute to Hiponia’s origins through mythology and pop culture memories; it also recognizes the resilient Filipino Americans who have overcome being outsiders in order to find their own place wherever they are. And although the book is classified as youth literature, Hiponia says it is for “anyone who needs to know that they are seen, heard, loved the way they are, wherever they are”.
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Lifestyle asked the outspoken Hiponia questions via email. Here are some excerpts:
Why did you write ‘We Belong’ in verse?
Poetry is the closest thing I can call the language my heart has spoken since before birth. It’s the genre that I can most naturally write in.I explain this particular creative decision in the epilogue: “… Like many tribal societies, Filipinos passed on their stories and knowledge of the earth to their children through song. Poetry is music, poems are songs, and so I wrote this story in poetry to convey my story, Elsie’s story, Buan Mayari’s story, through songs. “
How much of ‘We Belong’ is autobiographical and how much of it is fictionalized?
I explain all of this in the epilogue: “Many of the stories Elsie tells in this book are stories from my life… Like Elsie, I was an outspoken young woman who briefly heard her voice and name on the way to my new home lost… ”And it doesn’t matter whether it’s 50/50 autobiographical or 70/30 or 0/100.All of these stories are stories that happened to people and they are all true whether or not they happened in real life. Reality and truth are two different things, and sometimes you have to bend reality to tell the truth.
One of the elements in ‘We Belong’ seems to be that life in the United States is for those who immigrate from a country that they grew up in can be difficult, some kind of nuanced view of the American dream. How does this affect your thinking process for “We Belong”?
Do you remember the movie “An American Tail”? That was the perfect summary of what it feels like to immigrate to America. Hollywood convinced usthat America is a land of opportunity and anyone can make it if they work hard enough. So we immigrants sing songs about streets paved with gold and all the spam we can eat …
And then we come here and find that we have to work at McDonald’s after working as vice president of sales at the third largest company in Manila I think it’s telling that you’d find it surprising that life in America is so difficult for immigrants. That said, the American Dream brainwashing still has power. So I wanted to burst that bubble once and for all by telling the very real story of my family going from a fancy house in Ayala Alabang Village to a damp basement apartment in Jersey City, all justbecause we wanted to be safe from the terrible things that the Filipino government was under a dictator like Marcos.
Of course, I do not miss the fact that the current President of the Philippines has been called “The Trump of Asia”. That should tell you especially the state of the US after Trump. This is also why I don’t understand why anyone would ever think that immigrants want to leave their homes just for fun. Things in Guatemala have to be REALLY BAD if Guatemalans want to risk everything to get to America.
The lines “We are immigrants / We do the job” - is that a “Hamilton” shout?
ABSOLUTELY. There is always a risk you take when referencing a pop culture in a book,as this instantly puts the book in a period and you want books to be as timeless as possible. But it’s actually one of the lines that I convinced my editor to keep after editing, as this was the line that resonated the most with my 9-12 year old beta readers. For most of my child readers, the musical “Hamilton” was their first encounter with a story told in songs or verse about the experience of immigrants in America.
How did you decide to read the parallel stories of the immigration odyssey of the Aguilas and the interweave Filipino mythological history?
When I started writing We Belong in earnest, I began to think aboutwhich of our myths I wanted to use as a parallel to the history of immigration. I’m not just a poet, I’m a huge nerd of poetry and mythology and this is my first book so I’m pounding out the gate at full speed. Poetry AND mythology in the same book!
But seriously, this is what we all not only have to learn, but also have to remember: There are no new stories, just new ways of living and telling them. To help us all learn and remember, I made a decision to weave the myth into the modern age to illustrate how we live the same stories over and over; when we recognize the parts of the patterns that we keep repeating repeat and that don’t work with the overall form and function of weaving,maybe we weave something new, something stronger, more robust, more beautiful or more colorful.
Where did you get the elements of Filipino mythological history?
I knew parts of the battle between Araw / Apolaki and Buan / Mayari in mythology and it reminded me so much of the rivalry between me and my adult Kuya. He’s two and a half years older than me, so I followed him at school … I hated the idea of my identity being linked to my relationship with a boy, especially when I’m so much better at so many things than most boys and men .
I started thinking about how Mayari must feel that she is a little star in the story of how the sun was made, that’s probably the same wayhow Dinnah must feel in the Bible because her story is an afterthought in the story of Jacob and Esau.
I refuse to be the afterthought or asterisk in anyone’s story. I am the hero of my own story, just as everyone is the hero of them. So I imagined Mayari as Wonder Woman, that warrior who uses her vulnerability (her love of humanity, especially a special person Steve was to Wonder Woman and Tala to Mayari) as her armor and protects what she loves. Just imagine: if Apolaki could defeat Mayari just by taking her eye out, she must have been a certified badass!
Author Cookie Hiponia
The Aswang Project (aswangproject.com) was an excellent resource for my research, especially as a starting point for other resources. I also read Lane Wilcken and Leny Mendoza Strobel, as well as Jessica Hagedorn’s “Dogeaters” and Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s “When the Rainbow Goddess Wept”. I used Liana Romulo’s story “A Bridge of Flowers” as a reference for the poems about Bighari.
Do you see? No new stories, just new ways to tell a new audience.
In the book you think about staying and if you had dared to defy a dictator and if I weren’t free to write about dissent and resistance. Can you explain that in more detail?
Do you really think I could have written, published and promoted such a book,when I lived under Duterte in the Philippines - even under Erap - and survived to give you this interview? We all know the answer is no. Ninoy might tell you the answer is no, except that he was murdered for leading the resistance against Marcos. So yes, as a Filipino American living in America, I had to write “We Belong”.
How long did it take you to write the book and what was the hardest part of writing for you?
I feel like I lived the book as a Filipina in America for 37 years. What I mean by that is that I have been a writer for as long as I can remember and have kept as much of my writing as possible since I was 12.I even kept four large coffee cans with my friends ‘and my friends’ notes on. I dated each other in high school … When I decided to write a current book with a full narrative arc, it was about two from the time I was wrote the outline until the time I turned the manuscript over to my editor years. I bought a bottle of expensive scotch to celebrate when I dropped it off. During the first year of design, I was still a full-time video game editor and raised my two daughters. I wrote the book on the bus, during coffee breaks, at lunch, at boring meetings, on the back of the grocery store receipts while I waited in the parents' pick-up line after school,on the edge of my hula notebook next to drawings of hand gestures. And yet, the hardest part of writing was explaining to you the process of writing right now!
What inspired this book? I love the idea of a personal immigrant reminder that is also a bedtime story.
Toni Morrison famously said, “If there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t been written, you have to write it.”
I was a full time housewife and mom when my kids were little, which means I had to entertain and / or raise them all day. I’m a huge book nerd, so we went to the library a lot. I have always looked for Filipino or Tagalog books for them, and while we have found many that are now family favorites,like “Cora Cooks Pancit” by Dorina Lazo Gilmore, there have been no books that talked about their experiences as Hapa children (Editor’s note: a Hawaiian word meaning “half” - “half Asian and half another ethnicity” ).
And many of the immigrant stories that I had read and that were written for children were so focused on the suffering and trauma of a refugee story or an undocumented migrant story, and while those stories are valid and deserve to be told, the stories of highly educated immigrants who leave their homes to become McDonald’s cashiers or Uber drivers in America and work three to five jobs at a time to survive also deserve,
Parents have a responsibility to pass on their people’s stories to their children, but how exciting or inspiring is a bedtime story that goes: “We got on a plane, we worked ‘till our fingers bleed, just go to put food on the table. We were treated like second class citizens and just prayed that our children’s lives would be better. " No no. You have to do it epic! Mythological! Because it is.
The monumental sacrifice my parents made to leave behind everything they knew and everyone they loved to give their children a better life than they did is just as epic as the battle between the moon goddess and the sun god to rule over the kingdom of heaven.
Did you sing these songs to your children or read the book to them?
I used to sing “Bahay Kubo” to my children when they were little. There is a video on my YouTube channel of Diana singing “Bahay Kubo” when she was 2 years old. You were literally the very first people to read the first completed draft of We Belong. I wrote “The End”, yelled YESSS in my office, printed it out and asked her to read it. They all finished it in about 30 minutes and said, “This is so great mom! Yay! “That’s what two years of writing come up with: half an hour of entertainment for a medium-sized reader. I let each of them read it again. And then a third time to answer questions about how I can improve it for them . Yes,i’m an idiot but only for things that matter.
What are you doing now and what’s next for you?
I’m busy promoting We Belong as having a debut book published in the middle of a global pandemic means I won’t get a book tour; which means I’ll have to try harder to promote it. So I drove around the Seattle metropolitan area and the suburbs to sign books at independent bookstores and donate books to Little Free Libraries and the Filipino Community of Seattle Community Center. At the moment they only make meals for seniors so I’ve volunteered to help with that, but I hope I can start the youth program and read and write stories like We Belong with them.I’m also writing another middle-class book, not all told in free verse, but rather in text messages and journal entries. This is the colloquial language of the 12 year olds I know. It also has a Filipino American protagonist and interweaves Filipino mythology and a touch of poetry in the narrative because there’s nothing I can do about it, but also because it’s the best way to tell me the story I’m telling Book is published at a time when violence in Asia and America seems to be at its peak. What can you say about what happened?
How many books like We Belong do we have to write before America remembers that we are human, before you realize our humanity, before you stop,to exploit and kill us? We literally built this country. From the Filipinos who jumped the Spanish galleons to plant churches in Louisiana, to the Chinese who built the railroads across the country, to the Japanese who planted most of California’s crops, to the South Asians who built the businesses the Silicon Valley, to the Hmong, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian communities who feed us and make our nails pretty. We built this country and we belong to it.
If there was one thing readers should take away after saying ‘We Belong,’ what would it be?
It’s in this lyric from one of my favorite Joey Ayala songs (Editor’s Note: The song is “Buwan, Buwan”) that is on the Spotify playlist,Created from songs referenced in “We Belong” or inspired by “We Belong”: “Bigyan ng ginhawa hagkan ng pahinga / Nag-iipon siya ng lakas / Upang harapin ang bukas. “Loosely and poetically translated, it says that the moon gives you a kiss of calm so that you can gather your strength to face tomorrow.
Life is tough at times and the world is cruel at times, but look for the points of light in the dark, look for the sun, moon and stars that will lead you into the morning no matter how dark the night was. And always remember that you belong. WE ALL BELONG.
Maybe America doesn’t want me or you to belong because we’re too brown or black or queer or female or loud or whatever else comes up,why someone is not good enough to belong, but knowing that I am among the people I belonged to helps me face tomorrow. And keep loving, keep fighting for me and my people. We are all we have INQ
Available as hardcover from Fully Booked and fullbookedonline.com.