October 09, 2018

Marie Miranda Cruz

A Filipino story that serves as a beacon of light
Interview by
Debut author Marie Miranda Cruz shines a light on the forgotten children of Manila’s cemetery slums in her hopeful middle grade novel, Everlasting Nora.
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Debut author Marie Miranda Cruz shines a light on the forgotten children of Manila’s cemetery slums in her hopeful middle grade novel, Everlasting Nora. When 12-year-old Nora wakes to find her mother missing from their makeshift grave house—the mausoleum where Nora’s loving father was recently buried—she finds a wellspring of resilience and strength and teams up with her caring and supportive neighbors to find her and bring her home. Filled with vibrant details of life in the Philippines and brought to life by a wealth of Tagalong phrases, this is a unique story that will bring American readers face to face with a beautiful island nation that has strong cultural ties to our own. We asked Cruz a few questions about her memories of living in the Philippines, the importance of Filipino-American literature, what she’s working on next and more.

What was your initial inspiration for Everlasting Nora?
I decided I wanted to write a children’s novel a little over 10 years ago. I had written a short story about a pair of Filipino brothers and their strange encounter with a goblin on the night of All Saints Day in a cemetery and thought I could expand this into a novel. So I began doing some research on cemeteries in the Philippines. During my research, I came across a blog post written by a missionary about his trip to Manila. While there, he met an orphan named Grace who had been abandoned by her mother. She begged in the streets for money to buy food and slept wherever she could find safe shelter in the cemetery where other squatters lived. Eventually, Grace died all alone in a charity hospital. I was so moved by her plight that I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I wondered how she coped with being abandoned and what she did to survive. I wondered if she had friends. This was when I began weaving together Nora’s story.

Readers may be unfamiliar with Nora’s makeshift home in one of Manila’s cemetery shantytowns. Have you visited one of these communities, and if so, what was your experience?
I haven’t been inside any of those homes but I have seen them while traveling through Manila. It’s heartbreaking to see so many people living in such desperate conditions.

Although there are more than 3 million Filipino Americans living in the U.S., there aren’t nearly enough stories with Filipino protagonists that are set on the islands. Are there other Filipino authors that have inspired you?
Definitely! I love Erin Entrada Kelly’s books. She is the first Filipino-American author to publish books for children with Filipino protagonists. Her novels are beautifully written. She fills the lives of her characters with wonderful Filipino cultural details. After reading Blackbird Fly and The Land of Forgotten Girls, I knew I had to hold on to my dream that my own books with Filipino main characters would someday be published. Another favorite of mine is Mae Respicio. Her novel, The House that Lou Built, debuted last June. It’s a story set in Northern California about family, friendship and home.

What details about Filipino culture were you excited to include in your novel and bring to a wider audience?
Many Americans know about Filipino food and how much Filipinos love to feed anyone who walks through their front door, so of course, I had to include mouth-watering descriptions of dishes like pancit and arroz caldo in my book. I was excited about showing what it’s like to walk the streets of Manila and the people you’d encounter there. More importantly, I wanted to show Americans (and the world) the dynamics of family and community in the Philippines. A dynamic reflected in Filipino families all over the world. One of the basic tenets of Filipino culture is bayanihan. The word essentially means community—people working together and sharing goods and services with one another. For example, in my novel, Nora and her mother help Jojo and his grandmother with their laundry in exchange for water Jojo fetches for them.

The other important cultural aspect I wanted to include in the book is pakikisama, which means doing what you can to get along with those around you, and it is how Filipinos adapt to social situations. Nora recalls what it was like for her and her mother to live with her father’s aunt. They do what they can to blend in, to adjust to the day to day rhythms of their aunt’s family. These two aspects lie at the heart of Filipino culture.

Although Nora is hesitant to open up to others living in the cemetery, her neighbors Lola and Jojo rally around her during a crisis and feel like family by the end of the story. The concept of found families is so important for many children, yet it still feels like this is rarely highlighted in children’s stories in the U.S. Why did you center your novel on this concept?
My memories of growing up in the Philippines helped inform much of Nora’s story in terms of her relationships with family and friends. After my father retired from the military, we moved back to the Philippines and we lived in my mother’s family compound. My mother’s two sisters, brother, and their families lived there. I remembered my mother and aunts cooking together, how they would go to market for each other and how they spent afternoons with one another playing bingo or having manicures. I remembered my older cousin, Cesar, who used to make moccassins for me and my younger cousins out of remnant cuts of leather. This was a special time in my life.

Another memory that influenced this concept in my novel belonged to my mother-in-law. Both my in-laws came to the U.S. as physicians in the ’70s. During their years of residency at a hospital in Camden, New Jersey, they had kind neighbors who looked after their children while they worked long shifts. The spirit of community within my extended family and between my mother-in-law and her neighbors is what exemplifies the bayanihan and pakikisama aspect of Filipino culture I wanted to share in my story.

This story is filled with delicious-sounding descriptions of Filipino cuisine. What’s your favorite local dish, and what memories from your own childhood in the Philippines is it tied to?
I have lots of favorites! But if I had to choose one, especially one associated with fond memories of my childhood, it would be halo-halo. This is a delicious, sweet, icy, milky concoction usually eaten for Merienda, which is an afternoon snack time practiced in the Philippines as well as in Southern Europe and Central and South America. I remember going to neighborhood Merienda stands with my own glass where they would spoon sweetened beans, sugar palm fruit, tapioca balls, nata de coco (a delicious jelly made from fermented coconut water—sounds weird but it’s so good) and ripe jackfruit into the glass. Then they would fill it with shaved ice, packing it in tight, and drench it in evaporated milk. Halo-halo comes from the Tagalog word “halo” which means “mix,” so the way you eat halo-halo is to take a spoon and mix it all together. It makes a hot afternoon so much better!

What conversations do you hope Everlasting Nora opens in classrooms and in homes?
I hope it inspires conversations that center on empathy and the importance of community, kindness, and how these aspects can be a beacon of light in a world already full of darkness.

What do you hope your young readers take away from this story?
Once again, empathy and awareness of how people live in other countries. I hope Nora’s story inspires curiosity and a desire to know more about the Philippines and its history, and perhaps even visit someday.

What are you working on next?
I’m working on my next middle grade novel! It’s about sisters who reunite on an island resort. It’s a story of friendship, sisterhood and healing with a little Filipino mysticism mixed in.

Get the Book

Everlasting Nora

Everlasting Nora

By Marie Miranda Cruz
Starscape
ISBN 9780765394590

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