Erin Entrada Kelly, author of Hello, Universe, Interviews Cookie Hiponia Everman, author of We Belong

Erin Entrada Kelly, author of the Newbery medal-winning novel Hello, Universe, raved about Cookie Hiponia Everman’s debut novel saying it is "Simply beautiful. The kind of book that holds you close and won't let go." The two authors sat down to talk about Cookie’s book, the Philippines, writing, and more.




Erin Entrada Kelly, author of the Newbery medal-winning novel Hello, Universe, raved about Cookie Hiponia Everman’s debut novel saying it is "Simply beautiful. The kind of book that holds you close and won't let go." The two authors sat down to talk about Cookie’s book, the Philippines, writing, and more.

Erin Entrada Kelly: We Belong is such a beautiful novel. As soon as I opened it, I knew it was special and unique. Tell us about it. Not just what it’s about, but how this beautiful story came to life.

Cookie Hiponia Everman: Thank you! That’s so kind of you to say, and it means a lot coming from you, Erin. Hello, Universe and The Land of Forgotten Girls inspired me to write a book with Pilipino protagonists. Thank you, too, for writing those books and for writing a touching blurb for my book. 

So! About We Belong. Toni Morrison said famously, “If there’s a book you want to read, and it hasn’t yet been written, then you must write it.” When my kids were small, I was a full-time housewife and mama, which means I had to entertain and/or educate them all day. I’m a giant book nerd, so we were at the library a lot. I always looked for Pilipino or Tagalog books for them, and while we found many that are now family favorites like Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina Lazo Gilmore, there were no books that spoke to their experiences as hapa kids.

And a lot of the immigrant stories I had read that were written for kids focused so much on the suffering and the 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 may be doctors or executives in their homelands leave those careers only to become McDonald’s cashiers or Uber drivers in America, working three to five jobs at a time just to survive, also deserves to be told.

Parents have the responsibility to pass on the stories of their people to their children, but how exciting or inspiring is a bedtime story that goes, “We got on a plane, we worked ‘til our fingers bled just to put food on the table, we were treated like second-class citizens, and we just prayed our children’s lives would be better.” Nah. You have to make it epic! Mythological! Because it is. The monumental sacrifice my parents made to leave everything they knew and everyone they loved to give their children a better life than they had is just as epic as the battle between the Moon Goddess and the Sun God to rule over the Kingdom of Heaven.

EEK: The title immediately evokes an emotional response. Tell us about that title, and what those two words mean to you.

CHE: I’m glad the title resonated because I actually stole it from the Pat Benatar song, but I think the first lines of the chorus speak to the themes of the book: We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder / We belong to the sound of the words, we've both fallen under. As immigrants to this country, we all struggle to belong to it, in whatever fashion. To me, the words “we belong” mean that we belong wherever that light hits, wherever there is thunder, wherever the sound of spoken word moves us. Nobody can tell us where we belong, only we can do that.

EEK: One of my favorite passages of the novel is on page 165: “When I could count my age on my fingers, I thought that I belonged somewhere as long as I lived someplace for a while or I spoke the same language or I ate, prayed, loved like everyone else. / As I ran out of fingers to count my age, I learned that even when I think I belong, someone else can decide I do not.” If you could only share one passage of We Belong with readers, what would it be, and why?

CHE: It’s the passage at the end of page 168: “If you can’t go home again, / then you must take home with you / wherever you go.” Immigrants and BIPOC built this country in so many ways, and yet we are still made to feel like we do not belong here, like this is not our home, even if we were born here. I’ve had to learn how to make home wherever I go; I lived for six years in Edmonton, Canada. So, again, feeling like you belong somewhere has to be your choice. You can’t allow someone else to make the rules of belonging; you, I, we belong to the light, we belong to the thunder. We belong.

EEK: When I was growing up, people seemed to have very little knowledge of the Philippines. They didn’t know where it was on a map and had no concept of the country and culture. In what ways did that motivate you when writing We Belong? What do you want people to know about the Philippines?

CHE: Not only do people still have very little knowledge of the Philippines, what they do know is only the tip of the iceberg. I read a description of the Philippines once that our people lived “500 years in a Spanish convent and 50 years in Hollywood.” When Pilipinos big-up the country, we talk about the gorgeous beaches and friendly people and the glorious food. I’m sure you’ve heard before how Pilipinos are the friendliest, most hospitable Asians. That image of Pilipinos as perpetually joyful is in fact damaging, especially when we get angry or speak up for ourselves.

I want people to know that the Philippines is more than what they see on the cover of the travel brochure. Precolonial Philippines wasn’t even one country! There are over 7,000 islands and 200 languages and dialects. And yet people only remember the beaches and the brown beauties. I’m sure people want an easy answer to this, so here you go: everything I want people to know about the Philippines is in Joey Ayala’s music. Manong Joey sings protest songs cosplaying as love songs because we are often called to fight hardest for the things we love most. That is what being Pilipina means to me: we love hard so we fight hard.

EEK: I noticed right away that you opted for the non-Anglicized version of “Filipino,” and used the spelling “Pilipino” instead, which is much less common in the States. It’s interesting how important semantics are, right down to the letter! Can you talk more about that choice?

CHE: One of the jokes I tell most bitterly is that the Spanish colonists imposed their power over us by naming the country “Philippines” and calling us Filipinos when there is no “f” sound in any of our languages. This isn’t unique to the Philippines, by the way. Greeks call their country Hellas in their language, so who decided to call it Greece? What does “Greece” even mean? So I decided to use the spelling WE use phonetically: we are Pilipinos who come from a country called Pilipinas. We can talk about the term Pilipinx some other time because that’s a whole TED talk in itself.

EEK: The book makes beautiful use of color and illustrations. Can you tell readers a bit more about what to expect—visually speaking—when they open the book?

CHE: The text in the book is in blue and black; blue to signify that we’re in the mythology portion and black for the modern portion. It was a choice that my editor and I made to make sure it was clear to middle grade readers which narrator was speaking: Elsie or Mayari Buan. As for the illustrations, Abigail Dela Cruz is such a talented artist and her dreamy art really captures the spirit of the poems. I was working in the Bellevue Public Library when Lauri, my publisher, first emailed me the pencil sketch for the cover and I had to stop work for a second to cry because it was so beautiful.

EEK: Tell us about the verse. In what ways did this story lend itself well to verse?

CHE: Many indigenous peoples including Pilipinos pass their stories down in an oral tradition, which includes songs. I explain this particular creative choice in the Afterword, starting on page 196. On page 197, I wrote, “Poetry is music, poems are songs, and so I wrote this story in poems...through song.” Poetry occupies at least one ventricle of my heart, if it’s not the actual ventricular lining. Poetry is the closest thing I can call the language my heart has spoken since before birth. It’s the genre that feels most natural for me to write in.

The hardest part was writing poetry with specific parameters because the narrative arc needed connective tissue. What I mean is that when I had the kid beta readers read the first draft, they didn’t get the subtext of why a story about immigrants and a story about half-mortal demigods are both stories of outsiders wanting to belong. So I had to write or revise some poems a bunch to answer the kids’ questions. I am, after all, writing it for them. If my primary audience doesn’t grok the story, I’m telling it wrong or incompletely and I need to make it better for them.

EEK: Books like yours remind us of the bravery, resilience, faith, and endurance of so many immigrants. What would you like to say to readers who are from immigrant families, or are immigrants themselves? What message do you hope this book sends to them?

CHE: Do you remember the movie “An American Tail”? That was the perfect encapsulation of what it feels like to immigrate to America. Hollywood convinced us that America was a land of opportunity and where anyone can make it if they just work hard enough. So we immigrants sing songs about streets paved in gold and all the SPAM we can eat—or, as Fievel’s family and neighbors sing: “In America, the streets are paved in gold/cheese”—mostly metaphorically, but sometimes literally. And then, we get here and discover that we must go work at McDonald’s after being VP of Sales at the third largest corporation in Manila.

I think it’s telling that many of our relatives back home still find it surprising that life in America is so hard for immigrants. That means the American Dream brainwashing still has power. That’s why I wanted to burst that bubble once and for all by telling my family’s very real story of going from a swank house in Ayala Alabang Village to a damp basement apartment in Jersey City, all because we wanted to be safe from the terrifying things the Philippine government was doing under a dictator like Marcos.

It doesn’t escape my notice, of course, that the current President of the Philippines has been called “The Trump of Asia.” That should especially tell you the state of the United States after Trump. This is also why I don’t understand why anyone would ever think that immigrants want to leave their homelands just for kicks. Things in Guatemala must be REAL BAD if Guatemalans want to risk everything to come to America.

So I want immigrants to know that none of our sacrifices is made in vain. Somewhere, someone, maybe your own children, maybe someone else’s children, is always carrying the legacy of your sacrifice in their heart. We built this country and we make it better for us and everyone who lives here, one day, one sacrifice, one heartbreak at a time.

EEK: What message do you hope this book sends to everyone else? Especially those who may not agree with the two words of your book’s title.

CHE: 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.

Cookie Hiponia Everman was born in the Philippines and immigrated to America when she was nine years old. Previously a video game editor, she is now a full-time writer whose poems have been published in several literary journals. She lives near Seattle with her family. We Belong is her debut novel and reflects her family's experiences.

New York Times–bestselling author Erin Entrada Kelly was awarded the Newbery Medal for Hello, Universe and a Newbery Honor for We Dream of Space. She grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and now lives in Delaware. She is a professor of children’s literature in the graduate fiction and publishing programs at Rosemont College, where she earned her MFA, and is on the faculty at Hamline University. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction and the Pushcart Prize. Erin Entrada Kelly’s debut novel, Blackbird Fly, was a Kirkus Best Book, a School Library Journal Best Book, an ALSC Notable Book, and an Asian/Pacific American Literature Honor Book. She is also the author of The Land of Forgotten Girls, winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature; You Go First, a Spring 2018 Indie Next Pick; Lalani of the Distant Sea, an Indie Next Pick; and Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey, which she also illustrated. The author’s mother was the first in her family to immigrate to the United States from the Philippines, and she now lives in Cebu.



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