Spotlight: While I Was Away by Waka T. Brown

Blackbird Fly meets The Farewell in this empowering middle grade memoir from debut author Waka T. Brown, who takes readers on a journey to Japan, where she was sent as a child in the 1980s to reconnect to her family’s roots.

When twelve-year-old Waka’s parents suspect she can’t understand basic Japanese, they make the drastic decision to send her to Tokyo to live for several months with her strict grandmother. Forced to say goodbye to her friends and what would have been her summer vacation, Waka is plucked from her straight-A-student life in rural Kansas and flown across the globe, where she faces the culture shock of a lifetime.

In Japan, Waka struggles with reading and writing in kanji, doesn’t quite mesh with her complicated and distant Obaasama, and gets made fun of by the students in her Japanese public-school classes. Even though this is the country her parents came from, Waka has never felt more like an outsider.

If she’s always been the “smart Japanese girl” in America but is now the “dumb foreigner” in Japan, where is home? And who will Waka be when she finds it?

  • Title: While I Was Away
  • Author: Waka T. Brown 
  • Publisher: Quill Tree Books 
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Targeted Age Range: Middle Grade
  • Trigger Warnings: Bullying, child abuse, death of a family member, mentions of war, mentions of cancer, racism

A major, major thank you to Waka T. Brown, and Quill Tree Books for sending this ARC my way! 

While I Was Away transported me out of my cold December bedroom and into 1980s Japan, where author Waka T. Brown reflects on the summer she spent there when she was twelve. In an attempt to improve her Japanese, her parents sent her to live with her grandmother for several months. Like any other twelve year old being told that she’ll have to spend the summer away from her friends, this idea is met with a lot of opposition. Still, Waka’s plans to delay the trip is nothing but futile, and she’s sent off to Japan regardless. Once there, Waka learns to adjust to her grandmother’s ways of living, her silence and her strict rules, and slowly but surely, finds herself making friends, learning Japanese, and even calling her grandmother’s place “home”. 

I tore through While I Was Away one December night, and hadn’t expected to be as emotional as I was. I was captivated by Brown’s writing; the setting was so vivid that it made me feel like I had been there too. And the way Waka felt abandoned by her friends, how angry, scared, and lonely was captured in such detail actually reminded me of a younger version of myself. When I was nine, I emigrated from Hong Kong to Seattle and also felt very lost and confused — While I Was Away brought me back to those experiences. Reading While I Was Away was like having a conversation with a new friend, one where you got to know more about how they grew up and formative experiences that led them to who they are today. 

 I would highly recommend this book to anyone, not just those in the middle grade age range, as I found it incredibly compelling. As I am not Japanese, I would highly recommend you check out ownvoices reviews, such as the one that Bella at rainstormreads wrote. 

Links for While I Was Away:  Goodreads | TheStorygraph | Bookshop | Indie Bound 

I was the first American born in my family and was raised in Topeka, Kansas. I grew up speaking both Japanese and English, although my English is decidedly better than my 日本語. My parents made sure I didn’t lose my Japanese, though, by sending me to Japan to live with my grandmother when I was 12 years old. While I Was Away is my memoir of this experience. I’m so excited to be able to share it with you in early 2021!

In addition to writing middle grade stories, I enjoy writing screenplays. I wrote and co-directed the short film Double Tap (Official Selection, 2018 DC Shorts and Portland Film Festivals) and my feature-length screenplays (comedies, romcoms, & animated features) have been 2nd-rounders at AFF, placed in the semifinals of PAGE, and quarterfinals of Screencraft writing competitions.

I’m currently an online instructor with the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE). I teach about U.S.-Japan relations to high school students in Japan, and have also authored curriculum on several international topics. Recently, I was honored to receive the U.S.-Japan Foundation and EngageAsia’s national 2019 Elgin Heinz Outstanding Teacher award.

I live in the Portland, Oregon area with my husband, three sons, and my naughty yet lovable shiba Niko. I have a lot of hobbies such as running, art, baking, and playing guitar.

Follow Waka: Website | Goodreads | Instagram | Twitter

Happy reading!

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