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Ken Mochizuki – Be Water, My Friend

Award-winning author Ken Mochizuki has always been fascinated by storytelling. Born in Seattle, Washington, he grew up in the Beacon Hill area of south Seattle. While attending the University of Washington, he became active in the Asian American movement, working on Seattle’s first Asian American newspaper, Asian Family Affair. After graduating with a degree in communications, he worked as an actor for five years in Los Angeles, including time with the East/West Players, the oldest Asian American theater company in the country.

With his downtime from acting, he spent a lot of time reading, which would set him on the course to becoming a writer. “In college, I had heard a lot about the rediscovered novel, No-No Boy, regarded as the greatest work by an Asian American author,” says Mochizuki. “When I reached the last page, I was blown away, not only from the power of the words, but also the power of his truth that Seattle author John Okada dared to portray Japanese Americans in a realistic and often unflattering way,” he continues. “More importantly, his one and only novel told me that we can write our own stories, that we can write our own versions of ourselves.”

To hone his new craft, Mochizuki returned to Seattle, and spent 10 years as a newspaper writer/reporter, which helped him develop the skills to write books for young readers.

Early on, Mochizuki aspired to write adult novels, but a classic case of serendipity steered him toward writing children’s books. “I received a phone call from Philip Lee in New York, whose wife, Karen Chinn, I knew from Seattle. He had started the children’s picture book company, Lee & Low Books, and was searching the country for authors and illustrators for its first published books,” recalls Mochizuki. “I had never written anything for children or young adults, but then Phillip suggested the topic that became my first picture book, Baseball Saved Us.” The critical and commercial success of this booked launched a 16+ year career for Mochizuki.

Since his first picture book, he has authored Heroes, and Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story, and most recently, Be Water, My Friend: The Early Years of Bruce Lee. As an author, the Asian American experience has been a recurring theme in Mochizuki’s work, influenced from his own personal history. “I have been the recipient of stereotypes about Asians most of my life, so that has had a major impact on the career paths that I have chosen and what I did within those careers,” says Mochizuki. “As a writer of books for young readers, my life’s work has involved making the American experiences of those of Asian descent known, which is especially important for young readers as they are forming perceptions of others, and to not rely on stereotypes” he continues. “Hopefully, readers will come away with something they hadn’t known or realized before, and gain traction with a positive theme such as “attitude determines altitude” (from Baseball Saved Us), the “importance of passing down a family legacy” (from Heroes), or “might is not always right” (from Be Water, My Friend).”

Mochizuki’s most recent picture book, Be Water, My Friend, is a gentle tribute to martial arts legend Bruce Lee, following Lee from his birth in San Francisco through his youth in Hong Kong. Lee’s family life, impatience with school, and legal troubles are touched upon, as is his growing passion for martial arts. “When I first contemplated writing a biography of Bruce Lee, I wasn’t sure why I should,” says Mochizuki. “But, when I toured an exhibit in Seattle [which was based on a collector’s collection of Bruce Lee memorabilia], I learned how he had his own personal library of 2,500 books as an adult, and how he developed and followed his own personal philosophies, these were revelations,” he continues. “When I saw a photo of Bruce Lee sitting on the floor reading a book in front of the shelves of his library, I knew I wanted to do this book. Readers needed to know this side of Bruce Lee,” says Mochizuki.

Mochizuki hopes readers of Be Water, My Friend see more than just the super-human fighting machine seen on the big screen from his book. “I hope readers, especially guys, will think about this: if you call your peer who wears glasses a nerd, if you think reading is boring, or a waste of time, if you think you don’t have to take school seriously, and won’t live to regret it—remember Bruce Lee, often considered the man of men, the most macho of men, was and did all these things, and much, much more.”

* Excerpts from this interview were referenced from “Book Talk with Ken Mochizuki” (leeandlow.com), “Interview with Ken Mochizuki” (mawbooks.com), and the author’s website.

© 2010 Japanese American National Museum

author Bruce Lee interview Ken Mochizuki picture book writer