“Writing is my way of experiencing thoughts and processing events by putting them into a story form, because stories have always affected me, whether it’s a book or a movie. I feel like a well-told story can change the way you think… change the way you live. And I think that’s why writing has always intrigued me. But it’s not my only artistic pursuit.” — Waka T. Brown 8/21/19
Who is Waka T. Brown?
Waka T. Brown is an Asian American writer, artist, educator, and mother of three sons… among other things. She’s married to her college sweetheart and lives near Portland, Oregon. I met her some years back when we both were taking a screenwriting class, during which I learned that we both grew up in Kansas… which is not all that common for Portland-area folks. Also, we both are members of a local writing group.
A couple of her recent successes include winning the 2017 D.C. Asian Pacific American Script2Screen competition with her short film DOUBLE TAP, which included having her film produced and presented at festivals around the country. Waka also recently scored a two-book deal from HarperCollins for her new middle grade memoir — While I Was Away — that recalls the summer she spent living in Tokyo with her grandmother and attending a Japanese public school. She does her writing while juggling her joint roles of being a good mom and educating young Japanese students as a part of a Stanford distance learning program which she manages. 2023 update: Waka’s middle grade novel Dream, Annie, Dream (HarperCollins) has been selected as a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. Yay!
J: So, let’s start at the beginning… where were you born, and where did you grow up?
W: My parents came to the U.S. from Japan. My dad wanted to study psychiatry, and he got a residency in Connecticut, so he and my mom — and two older siblings — moved to the U.S. That’s where I was born. But, three weeks after my birth, my dad got a job in Kansas, so my mom packed up the house, and we moved to Topeka. I think my mom even drove the truck (laughs) except for when she was holding me. And that’s where I lived until I moved to California to attend college.
J: What was it like growing up Asian in Topeka?
W: Initially, I really didn’t know anything different. It was the only reality I had ever experienced, and it was fine. But when I was in first grade, we were playing a soccer match in PE — and you can see I remember this because I’ve still got all the details — a classmate called me a “chinky mongol” because I stole the ball from him. That was the first time it really registered with me that, like, you know, this happened because I look different. I remember feeling really angry and running at him when he had the ball and purposely missing the ball and kicking him as hard as I could. I don’t think he remembers because I saw him at a reunion almost ten years ago, and he was really super friendly (laughing).
J: Did you maintain a Japanese household or was your home life more mainstream American… did you speak Japanese?
W: Yes, I did speak Japanese, but it was definitely a situation in which if I didn’t feel like it, then I would just respond to my parents in English. I didn’t try very hard. It wasn’t much of an effort at first.
J: When did it become more of an effort?
W: Around the time I was ten or eleven. They started sending me back to Japan for the summers. The summer after third grade. The summer after fourth grade. And then the summer after sixth grade was the last time they did it.
J: And your memoir… I’m jumping ahead by asking about the new memoir you’ve written, but anyway, which summer is that?
W: That was the summer after sixth grade. And on that trip I traveled alone. The other times I was either with my mom or another sibling or two. But that was the first time I was by myself, and it was the longest time. My mom was convinced that I was looking at my sister to translate when she spoke Japanese to me, and that’s when my parents decided to send me back for a really long time. That convinced me to pay more attention.
J: Do you feel like you benefitted from being sent back?
W: Oh, yeah, I do now. Definitely. I mean I probably speak the most Japanese of all my siblings. My sister, who was there until she was three and a half, definitely has the best pronunciation, but in terms of being able to live and get around without any problems, I’m the one who could do that most easily, I think, out of all my siblings.
J: Is that because you’re the smartest?
W: (Big laugh) Yes. (bigger laugh) Just kidding. It’s kind of like I ended up specializing in it really, because in college my major was international relations, and you have to have a language with that, so I chose Japanese. And then afterwards I worked in Japan for a couple years. And so, I mean, my sister’s a doctor and the medical world is a different type of language, so she’s well versed in a second language, but as far as the Japanese language goes, that’s just where my bread is buttered, I guess.
J: So let’s go ahead and make the leap into writing… tell me why you write.
W: Why do I write? Well, I like the creative process. And I think I became a more prolific writer after having kids because I no longer could go anywhere with small babies. So, writing was my way of going places when I actually physically couldn’t. Writing is my way of experiencing thoughts and processing events by putting them into a story form, because stories have always affected me, whether it’s a book or a movie. I feel like a well-told story can change the way you think… change the way you live. And I think that’s why writing has always intrigued me. But it’s not my only artistic pursuit.
J: What are your other creative pursuits?
W: Well, I played guitar for awhile, and that was really fun because I felt that that was a completely different side of my brain that was being exercised. It felt very mathematical. I enjoyed the way that you just did it and there was sound and then it was gone. There was no clutter. It was very immediate and very much in the ‘now’. But I haven’t been playing much lately. I think when one pursuit takes over, others have to give room for it, so I haven’t been as involved with my guitar for a bit.
J: What took over?
W: My writing. And actually art. I’ve been entertaining the thought of illustrating a children’s book… writing and illustrating a children’s book… and actually art is what my mom really focused on when I was little. She made me take piano lessons, but she also was really hoping that we would be artists, like her dad. And my mom… she has a bachelor’s in fine arts, too, so that’s always been really important to her. And I guess since I always had it in my life it never really was something I was interested in as a kid, but as an adult I’ve come back to it and I find it very relaxing. The only problem with art is it’s not like music… there’s clutter… it exists after you’re done.
J: Do you like a clutter-free life?
W: I aspire to a clutter-free life. I don’t think I’ll ever get it, though. You know the Marie — by the way it’s Mar-ee-eh Kondo but everyone in the U.S. says Marie Kondo and pronounces it incorrectly. Anyway, her Netflix special — The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up! — I watched one episode, but it just made me sad that my house is so cluttered so I stopped watching.
J: Back to your work. Have you always been drawn to creative endeavors?
W: Yes. But reading was one of the biggest parts of my life when I was young. During the summer my mom would take us to the library, and we’d get a whole box of books… literally a whole box of books… and that’s what I’d do. It was too hot to play unless I was in a pool, so I would sit in the air conditioning and read. All the Little House books when I was in first grade. All the Oz books. All the Black Stallion books. They’re all kind of formative, you know.
J: So did that shape what you write today? I mean, did those books help shape you as a person? I guess I’m asking what it is that informs your work?
W: I’ve been trying to think about if there is a central theme to my writing, and I don’t think so. A lot of it is just working to process things I’m going through in my life. Like my screenplays… I’m trying to think… you never read AFTERBIRTH… I think it was before our writing group maybe? But that was when I was going through the throes of taking care of a lot of babies.
J: I think that was one you were pitching just as we were getting to know each other.
W: Yes, I think so. I’d say a lot of my writing, as an adult, has been to process different things going on in my life, or to answer questions. Another example is BO PEEP! (animated family screenplay about fairytale characters) which was about someone who wanted to be heard, and I think that came after a lot of rejections and a lot of people reading my work, but the studios kept saying, basically, good but not good enough. And COCKROACH SAVES THE WORLD (another animated work) was somewhat an early reaction to Trump. The antagonist is so filled with hate, you know, and they hate the humans so much, but there’s this cockroach who loves the humans and he doesn’t understand why they just can’t get along. I mean, it’s a kid’s story but it’s processing events that are happening around me, as well as a way to try to make it not so depressing.
J: So has all of your creative work been just to help you understand your life or to give your life context or help you figure out a path?
W: I mean, maybe. I’m trying to think of anything that wasn’t, but that applies to everything I can think of right now. Some of them present a ‘what if’ type of question. Like the one I wrote in the class we were in together… A WEEK IN TOPEKA… did you read it?
J: I did but it’s been a long time, and I can only remember bits of it.
W: Long time… yeah… so it’s about an Asian American girl growing up in Kansas, and being kind of the only one, and not having any other Asian role models, except for her family of course, and it was kind of a ‘what if’ question for me. Like, what if someone who had a lot of Asian pride and was a role model entered this girl’s life and kind of changed how she felt about herself, how she viewed herself, you know. So that was kind of a ‘what if’ type of screenplay.
J: Do you think that helped set you on the path of embracing your cultural heritage, and did that lead to the memoir about your final summer in Japan as a child or is all of this not necessarily connected?
W: I don’t know. I think everything’s a little bit connected, because A WEEK IN TOPEKA, I think, is a pretty good structural and character-based story. I think it’s a solid screenplay. But around the time I was pitching it, people wouldn’t even read it because they were like, “Asian leads don’t sell.” It was just point blank, “sorry, you’re going to have to change it.” One person read it and liked it enough to send it to The Disney Channel, but even them, they were like, “ooh, this event that happens here, it’s too racially charged. I can’t believe that it would really happen.” And it was one of the only events in the story that actually happened in real life. I think times are changing, but that’s when I started writing animated features, because I felt like, if Asian leads don’t sell, then let’s go for an even harder genre, which is animation. (laughing) But yeah, I just kind of wrote, I don’t know… I wrote what I felt.
J: Writing seems to be a way for you to make sense of your life as you travel through it. Taken as a whole, it seems a bit like you encounter or observe challenges and try to formulate more positive outcomes for everyone. So, looking at the state of things today, what do you want the world to look like?
W: Well, it would be nice to see young people not struggling as much as they are right now. And I’m tired of people who are self-serving and out for their own profit and status symbols. I don’t like that at all. I don’t want my kids to be people who worry about what kind of shoes they have, you know. Right now, they do… they talk about these shoes, these baseball bats. I want them to be the type of people who care about others. And I’ve been talking about privilege with my boys. I tell them, “you know, we’ve given you quite the head start in life, so I don’t want you to waste it, and I want you to use it towards something good.” I believe trying to do good matters. Also, I think a lot of people write, in my mind, to not feel alone. When I write something and send it out into the void, I want to believe it helps someone not feel alone when they read it. It’s about connection.
J: So that’s what matters. Connection… and, I guess on some level, equality.
W: Yes, and meaningful relationships… realizing we’re all in this together. My sons and I have been talking a lot about communism — how it hasn’t worked — and one son said it didn’t work because people are fundamentally bad and power corrupts, and I’m like, “yeah, I think there’s a little bit of that.” And he goes, “what about democratic socialism?” And I said, “well, I think we could definitely give that a shot.” Then he says “so, the seventy percent tax on just like the upper one percent, that would mean they would only have two yachts as opposed to twelve.” And I’m like, “yes.” And he’s like “they should be fine with that.” (laughing) and I’m like “yeah, you would think they should be fine with that.” A bit of an oversimplification, but still.
J: Well, there aren’t any democratic socialists in the current administration. They’re focused entirely on further consolidating power among the wealthy and promoting racism.
W: But it’s the level of support they receive. To me, that’s the biggest problem, and that’s what I find most disturbing. It definitely changed my writing, because up until 2016 I was writing comedies. And afterwards, I just didn’t have it in me. And so SEUSS (screenplay examining the life and racism of ‘Dr. Seuss’ author Theodor Geisel), in some part, was a reaction to try and understand that mind. To try to understand the privileged white male racist mind, you know.
J: Were you successful? Did you come to understand it?
W: Did I understand it? Well, the message of that screenplay is people can change. Because he did change… I would like to think that he did change. I read interviews with his family members and him, and it’s not necessarily an apology, but he did come out and say that he was embarrassed about some of the things he did… so I feel like, for that generation, maybe that’s as close as we’re going to get. But I would like to think that he changed, because then there’s hope that others can, too. Accepting diversity helps everyone feel like they belong in a place, which I think is really important. In my case, I remember visiting Hawaii for the first time in my twenties, and I remember feeling… so supremely comfortable. And it was the first time that people thought that I was from there… that I belonged there. In California they thought that to an extent, but everyone was from everywhere at college, so no one assumed I was from there. But when I visited Hawaii I remember just looking around at a market and the shop owner was chatting away and then I mentioned I was just visiting and she was so surprised… she said she could have sworn I was local. And I remember thinking that was my first real experience with that feeling. Because even in Japan I was a little different, you know.
J: Connection seems to be very important to you. You must have had some feelings of isolation…
W: Yeah… yeah, I guess so. You know, you don’t really realize it at the time.
J: I felt isolated. I mean, as a poetry loving farm kid during the 60s.
W: I think everyone feels isolated or alone, right?
J: I don’t know. You and I did, but I don’t know about everyone else.
W: Maybe not everyone else, but you always kind of wonder. I wondered about those popular kids who always seemed happy and had all the clothes and all the money, lived in the really nice houses, had the PTA moms and the white-collar dads and you kind of wondered… are they a hundred percent happy? They acted like it… (laughing)… but is that just a facade that gets them through, as well? You know what I thought was really interesting was when I went back for my twentieth high school reunion, and of course I reconnected with my friends who had been my friends forever. But then I just started talking with some other people who I never talked to in high school, including the guy who called me a chinky mongol. And we had a long, nice conversation. Another person from high school had come out as gay since we graduated. I had no idea at the time, but at the reunion, he was open about it, and it was just nice to talk to him as himself, you know, and we’ve kept in touch since the reunion. So, yeah, I guess maybe I would say that everyone feels alone or isolated at some point, but it’s not something you show people or feel comfortable showing people. And, for me, I think writing helps me have some of those difficult conversations.
J: That’s an interesting observation. Writing as a way of connecting.
W: I mean it’s the introvert’s way of connecting, right? Extroverts go out and they mingle and they connect socially. But we introverts don’t feel comfortable doing that. (laughter) So I think maybe writing is the introvert’s way of sending their own messages out. At least it is for me.