Arts

Living the hyphen: East Palo Alto author looks to her Tongan roots to find a hero

East Palo Alto author Tonga Victoria has released a fictional trilogy for young adults that weaves Polynesian culture into an espionage story. Photo by Daniela Beltran B.

Growing up the daughter of Tongan immigrants, Tonga Victoria often felt stuck between her Tongan and American cultures — never feeling 100% American or 100% Tongan.

Although she was born and raised in East Palo Alto, her parents didn't speak English, so she spent the first eight years in school as an English as a Second Language student, embarrassed to read out loud in class.

"That can cause a lot of hidden trauma," Victoria said.

And she especially dreaded the first day of school with a new class as the teacher would read the roster of names.

"I literally conditioned myself every first day of school to go up to the teacher and tell them that (the roster) says my name is Tonga, but it's actually Victoria," said Victoria, who didn't use her real first name until after high school because it didn't sound like other American names.

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She spent years struggling with her bicultural identity. Then, she went off to college and heard the phrase "hyphen American" in an ethnic studies class to describe Americans who can trace their ancestry to another part of the world.

"That resonated with me," she said.

Now 28, Victoria has just released her first novel, "Hyphen American," a fictional book for young adults that weaves Polynesian culture and family traditions into an espionage story whose protagonist is a 21st-century Polynesian American girl named Sam Kelly who is working as a TechTon sales associate when she learns that she is the rightful owner of a super nuclear energy mined from the Earth that she must protect from those trying to steal it. It's the first volume in her Hyphen American trilogy series.

She said the struggles she has experienced as a Polynesian American inspired the title of her first book, but action-comedy movies like "The Other Guys," (or just about anything starring Will Ferrell) inspired the storyline, which she describes as "crazy and adventurous."

Victoria said she didn't always consider writing as an art.

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"Writing in general is very scary for me," she said. "It took six years just to write (this) book. I spent the majority of time convincing myself 'It's a good story.'"

Victoria's unexpected path into writing started in 2012 after she temporarily left college due to what she attributed to the culture shock of going from East Palo Alto to the University of Redlands in Southern California. Through a business grant from her college, she took time off and traveled to the Kingdom of Tongaa to teach at Queen Salote College and Tupou College Toloa, respectively.

During that trip, Victoria said she finally felt connected to her heritage.

"I went there and fell in love with the culture," Victoria said.

The experience emboldened her to take on the name Tonga — the same name that she struggled with for so many years and is now on her book jacket.

When she returned to California, she ditched her plan to major in business and instead majored in Race and Ethnic Studies. As she grappled to transition herself from the cultural mindset she'd grown accustomed to abroad and back into "American thinking," she sought out spaces and internships that offered explanation and cultural knowledge and turned to writing as a way to sort out her thoughts.

In her first year back, she wrote every single day, thanks to programs like Pacific Islander Leaders of Tomorrow and platforms like TheWhatitDo.com. This eventually gave her confidence to write a novel.

After finishing her manuscript for "Hyphen American," Victoria launched Tonga Victoria Books and self-published the novel. She is currently working on the second volume in her trilogy, as well as her second book, "Tinsley," which draws on her experiences attending Menlo Park and Atherton schools through the Tinsley voluntary transfer program created in the 1980s to integrate East Palo Alto students into surrounding school districts that were mostly white. The book is scheduled for release later this year.

Victoria said her biggest challenge at the moment is reaching a cultural and ethnic community who might not consider themselves readers.

"It's a unique challenge. How do I make this relevant to a community that doesn't like to read," she said during an appearance on the Coach V Show on Island City TV in March.

As a longtime advocate for the Pacific Islander community who has worked on everything from housing issues to educational opportunities, Victoria is currently working on several projects to improve the literacy rate in her community.

She's teamed up with local initiatives to build out curriculum that centers on culture, literacy and leadership development. She's mentoring others on how to self-publish their manuscripts. And she's working with educators from local school districts to develop the groundwork to possibly introduce Hyphen American as English subject, which could commence in 2022. She's also in the midst of launching a podcast in which she will discuss community, politics and all things Pacific Islander (Pasifika).

"I think there are topics and conversations that deserve our attention, but there is no support and resource that we're plugging into, so it becomes an echo chamber," she said. "I'm seeing that Pacific folk, we need to be at the table and having these conversations with other thought leaders for change, but I don't think we are equipped to have these conversations.

"So, it's taking these big issues and digesting them and simplifying them so they are more palatable to my community."

Book one of the Hyphen American trilogy can be purchased at tongavictoriabooks.com.

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Melissa McKenzie is a freelance writer. Associate Editor Linda Taaffe contributed to this article.

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Living the hyphen: East Palo Alto author looks to her Tongan roots to find a hero

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Fri, May 21, 2021, 10:50 am

Growing up the daughter of Tongan immigrants, Tonga Victoria often felt stuck between her Tongan and American cultures — never feeling 100% American or 100% Tongan.

Although she was born and raised in East Palo Alto, her parents didn't speak English, so she spent the first eight years in school as an English as a Second Language student, embarrassed to read out loud in class.

"That can cause a lot of hidden trauma," Victoria said.

And she especially dreaded the first day of school with a new class as the teacher would read the roster of names.

"I literally conditioned myself every first day of school to go up to the teacher and tell them that (the roster) says my name is Tonga, but it's actually Victoria," said Victoria, who didn't use her real first name until after high school because it didn't sound like other American names.

She spent years struggling with her bicultural identity. Then, she went off to college and heard the phrase "hyphen American" in an ethnic studies class to describe Americans who can trace their ancestry to another part of the world.

"That resonated with me," she said.

Now 28, Victoria has just released her first novel, "Hyphen American," a fictional book for young adults that weaves Polynesian culture and family traditions into an espionage story whose protagonist is a 21st-century Polynesian American girl named Sam Kelly who is working as a TechTon sales associate when she learns that she is the rightful owner of a super nuclear energy mined from the Earth that she must protect from those trying to steal it. It's the first volume in her Hyphen American trilogy series.

She said the struggles she has experienced as a Polynesian American inspired the title of her first book, but action-comedy movies like "The Other Guys," (or just about anything starring Will Ferrell) inspired the storyline, which she describes as "crazy and adventurous."

Victoria said she didn't always consider writing as an art.

"Writing in general is very scary for me," she said. "It took six years just to write (this) book. I spent the majority of time convincing myself 'It's a good story.'"

Victoria's unexpected path into writing started in 2012 after she temporarily left college due to what she attributed to the culture shock of going from East Palo Alto to the University of Redlands in Southern California. Through a business grant from her college, she took time off and traveled to the Kingdom of Tongaa to teach at Queen Salote College and Tupou College Toloa, respectively.

During that trip, Victoria said she finally felt connected to her heritage.

"I went there and fell in love with the culture," Victoria said.

The experience emboldened her to take on the name Tonga — the same name that she struggled with for so many years and is now on her book jacket.

When she returned to California, she ditched her plan to major in business and instead majored in Race and Ethnic Studies. As she grappled to transition herself from the cultural mindset she'd grown accustomed to abroad and back into "American thinking," she sought out spaces and internships that offered explanation and cultural knowledge and turned to writing as a way to sort out her thoughts.

In her first year back, she wrote every single day, thanks to programs like Pacific Islander Leaders of Tomorrow and platforms like TheWhatitDo.com. This eventually gave her confidence to write a novel.

After finishing her manuscript for "Hyphen American," Victoria launched Tonga Victoria Books and self-published the novel. She is currently working on the second volume in her trilogy, as well as her second book, "Tinsley," which draws on her experiences attending Menlo Park and Atherton schools through the Tinsley voluntary transfer program created in the 1980s to integrate East Palo Alto students into surrounding school districts that were mostly white. The book is scheduled for release later this year.

Victoria said her biggest challenge at the moment is reaching a cultural and ethnic community who might not consider themselves readers.

"It's a unique challenge. How do I make this relevant to a community that doesn't like to read," she said during an appearance on the Coach V Show on Island City TV in March.

As a longtime advocate for the Pacific Islander community who has worked on everything from housing issues to educational opportunities, Victoria is currently working on several projects to improve the literacy rate in her community.

She's teamed up with local initiatives to build out curriculum that centers on culture, literacy and leadership development. She's mentoring others on how to self-publish their manuscripts. And she's working with educators from local school districts to develop the groundwork to possibly introduce Hyphen American as English subject, which could commence in 2022. She's also in the midst of launching a podcast in which she will discuss community, politics and all things Pacific Islander (Pasifika).

"I think there are topics and conversations that deserve our attention, but there is no support and resource that we're plugging into, so it becomes an echo chamber," she said. "I'm seeing that Pacific folk, we need to be at the table and having these conversations with other thought leaders for change, but I don't think we are equipped to have these conversations.

"So, it's taking these big issues and digesting them and simplifying them so they are more palatable to my community."

Book one of the Hyphen American trilogy can be purchased at tongavictoriabooks.com.

Melissa McKenzie is a freelance writer. Associate Editor Linda Taaffe contributed to this article.

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