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Tita Cookie Tells Us Why 'We Belong'

(image courtesy of Penguin Random House)

We Belong by Cookie Hiponia, aka Tita Cookie on Twitter, debuted this year on March 30. It is a Filipino immigrant story written in verse with Filipino mythology woven into it. The book received praise from the literary community, including many Filipino writers.

“Simply beautiful. The kind of book that holds you close and won't let go," said Erin Entrada Kelly, winner of the Newbery Medal for Hello, Universe.

“A beautiful, intertwined story of searching for a home away from home, told as two tales. Heart-wrenching, engaging, and full of hope," said K. S. Villoso, author of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro.

Hiponia has a lot more to say. We talked to Hiponia about her writing journey, Filipino representation, anti-Asian hate, and the unfortunate timing of her debut.

Congratulations on your debut novel. What inspired you to write We Belong in verse? It’s not a traditional format. How was your publishing journey with this book? I wrote We Belong as a novel-in-verse because poetry is the language of my heart and it's the most natural medium for me to write in. I'd been wanting to write a story about a family with hapa kids and an immigrant parent for, well, all my life.

My kids deserve to see themselves and our family in all media, not just as token representations, but as real people.

When I decided I would write an actual book with a full narrative arc, from the time that I wrote the outline to the time I turned in the manuscript to my editor, it was about two years. I bought myself a bottle of expensive Scotch to celebrate when I turned it in. After I turned in the manuscript, my editor and I went through three rounds of edits, then three more rounds of copyedits, before we all signed off on the final.

Between that and when We Belong actually came out, it took a year. Publishing is a long game. That's why writers often juggle multiple projects so that they always have something coming out every year or two. We Belong is a story about immigration and Filipino mythology. But it’s also a story about family. There was an emotional scene where Elsa is physically and violently abused by her mother at 4 years old. How did your publishers/editor react to that scene? Any pushback from them? There was no pushback. I've been lucky to find an editor and publisher who respect my creative decisions.

Life is not all bunnies and rainbows.

Children as young as and younger than four years old are abused every day by the people who are supposed to keep them safe. It was important to depict that reality, especially in the context of a Pilipino family, where such corporeal abuse is not just tolerated, but widely accepted as a means of discipline. It was also a painful but accurate way to parallel how an abused child may feel toward their parent with how an immigrant may feel toward America. I know this was semi-autobiographical. The mother-daughter relationship was so spot-on to me. How true was this scene to you? There's a difference between reality and truth. Whether or not the scene happened in real life has no bearing on how true the emotions of Elsie and her mother were. The abuse scene was true in the sense that every mother has gotten that scared, angry, and helpless when she is worried that her child is lost or unsafe. The true test of one's character is how one reacts when in that situation, as a mother and a person. Some people can't help but react in the way that their families have always taught them was the "right" way to react.

It was also important to me to depict that troubled relationship as an allegory for a Pilipina immigrant's troubled relationship with America. As one of the lines in the book says, "How can I go back to where I came from / when even in my mother's arms I am unsafe? / How can I go back to where I came from / when even in my motherland I am unsafe?" The art cover and illustrations in the book are amazing. The illustrator is Filipino artist Abigail Dela Cruz. How important was it to have a Filipino artist? How much input did you get to have? It was critical for me to have a Pilipina artist illustrate We Belong for a couple reasons: first, I always try to support and represent Pilipino artists, especially women.

I gave my publisher a list of Pilipina artists, in fact, and I was so happy Abigail got the gig. I got to review and approve the illustrations Abigail did for the book, and that was fun being able to collaborate with her to make sure the idea was solid in both text and drawing. She captured perfectly the dreamy vibe of We Belong as a book of bedtime stories. Also, she depicted the bahay kubo and the celestial siblings so lovingly. I just love that she drew Buan with just one eye showing. Subtle but effective foreshadowing there, yeah?

When my publisher sent me the pencil sketch of the cover concept, I was writing in the Bellevue Public Library and I had to stop for a minute and cry because it was so beautiful. Your book debuted at a time of increased hate crimes against Asian Americans. The day before its release, a FilAm elderly woman was attacked in NYC . The assailant hurled “You don’t belong here.” What was your reaction to that? It made me feel sick to my stomach to think that a Pilipina elder, someone who looks like my mom, was so viciously attacked. It stirs thoughts of violence in my bruised heart. It’s funny; people have also asked me if I knew that my book would come out during a time when anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise and Asian American and Pacific Islander folks on the diaspora are desperate for people to recognize their humanity and not kill them.

Maybe the real question we should be asking is: why is it that a book I mostly finished writing two years ago, part of which takes place almost 40 years ago, reads like it was written two weeks ago and took place yesterday?

How many more books like We Belong do we have to write before America remembers that we are people, before y’all recognize our humanity, before y’all stop exploiting and killing us?

We built this country, fairly literally. From the Pilipinos who jumped the Spanish trade galleons to establish communities in Louisiana, to the Chinese who built the railroads across the country to the Japanese who planted most of California’s crops and were imprisoned simply for the color of their skin, to the South Asians who started Silicon Valley companies, to the Hmong, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian communities who feed us and make our nails pretty, to countless other Asian diaspora ethnic peoples whose individual contributions make America not just great, but amazing.

We built this country, and we belong.

Your book has been out for months now. How has the Filipino community reacted to your story so far?

The most common thing that I've heard from Pilipinos both here and in the Philippines is, "I felt seen and heard." Pilipinos loved all the references to the Philippines, including Regal Babies Snooky and Gabby. Folks back home were surprised to read a story about how hard it was for immigrants because their experience is that balikbayans come home and throw a party for the barrio with gifts for everyone.

Meanwhile, back in the US, they were sleeping on the floor and working three jobs. Pilipino Americans, on the other end, were just like, "YUP, that's how it was and nobody talked about it."

Immigrants didn't want it to seem like immigrating to America was a mistake, a failure.

So they kind of had to pretend the American Dream was true, that you went to America and you got rich. This story was dedicated to your children. Have they read your story yet? What was their reaction to your book?

They were literally the very first people who read the first finished draft of We Belong. I wrote “The End,” yelled YESSS in my office, printed out the whole thing, and asked them to read it. They each finished it in about 30 minutes and said, “This is so great, Mama! Yay!” So that’s what two years of writing yields: a half-hour of entertainment for a middle-grade reader.

I made each of them read it again. And then a third time to answer questions about how I can make it better for them. Yeah, I’m a jerk, but only for things that are important. You’re currently working on your next book. Anything you can share with us? I'm writing another middle-grade book, not told all in free verse but told in text messages and journal entries, which is the vernacular of the 12-year-olds she knows. It also has a Pilipino American protagonist and weaves Pilipino mythology and a touch of poetry in the telling because I can’t help it, but also because it’s the best way I could think of to tell the story I’m telling.

(image courtesy of Penguin Random House)

For updates and more about Hiponia, follow her on Twitter @TitaCookie1974.


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