Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Beyond Bagels And Sushi: Meet Francesca Yukari Biller

Aloha, Hip Hapa Homeez. If you love bagels and sushi, we have a treat for you! This month’s Hip Hapa Homee is an award-winning journalist who loves to serve up delicious fusion meals representing both of her cultures—Jewish and Japanese. But she’s about more than just diverse food combos, as you will see below. Dear Hip Hapa Homeez, meet Francesca Yukari Biller:

Francesca serving up cultural fusion
Francesca with parents and siblings
Q: Francesca, who are your parents and how did they meet?

A: My parents are quite honestly two of the most interesting people that I know (and it's not just because they are artists and polar opposites in so many ways), making their intercultural marriage creatively flourish for more than 57 years with four children and six grandchildren.

My father, Les Biller, was born and raised in Los Angeles and his ethnic background is Russian-Jewish, English, Welsh and Irish. He is a full-time artist and was an art professor at USC, UCLA and the University of Hawai’i. My mother, Sumiko Aoki, is 2nd generation Japanese (Nisei) and was born in Captain Cook, Hawaii. Her family owned and farmed Kona coffee lands, and her brothers served as decorated soldiers in the 442nd Infantry during World War II. Today, she is a fashion designer and owns an upscale clothing boutique in Santa Monica, California.

My father has always been a rebel, and I say this quite fondly. After graduating high school, he attended The University of Hawai’i. This was quite a shock, and a wild and an unconventional thing to do, as this was the 1950's not long after World War II when there was still a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment throughout the U.S. This is where he met my mother as she was attending the University of Hawai’i while studying for a Masters degree in teaching. They married shortly after, had two children and spent three years in Kyoto, Japan where my father was a Fulbright Scholar.

"famous L.A. martini", anyone?
Q: You've written about the meals you ate as a child. How did your mother learn to cook Jewish dishes, and did your father share any culinary duties with her?

A: Some of my very first memories as a child includes both images and sounds of my mother cooking as she sang classic jazz standards in our seaside home. No matter what else was happening, our family could always count on my mother's loving brand of homestyle cooking, fashionable and stylish well before international fusion meals became the norm.

I believe that my mother learned to cook classic Jewish dishes like “Sweet and Sour Cabbage Stew”, “Beef Brisket” and “Matzah Ball Soup” not only because my father loved them, but because she truly enjoyed experimenting and trying new recipes; and, the more unique and new, the better.

Some of the recipes were handed down from my Jewish grandparents, and others, like the classic brunch of lox, bagels and cream cheese were borrowed from the numerous Jewish delis that we visited throughout Los Angeles during the 1970's, including the infamous Cantor's Deli where we often saw Jewish comedians like Mel Brooks and Milton Berle.

As for my father, he did not share in any of the preparing or cooking of our meals, although his great priceless contribution included a biting sense of both slapstick and intellectual humor, story telling, and deep conversations about art and culture, along with his "famous L.A. martinis" which attracted unique and colorful guests from many different backgrounds.

Francesca in her "writer's hat"
Q: When did you know you would become a writer?

A: Writing is such a fluid and organic art form, that I candidly cannot recall whether I was first a writer, a person, or a person who was a writer. As I grew up amongst a family of artists going back several generations, my every breath was sewn in music, colorful images and creative cultural thoughts and energy as a natural remedy and rhythm that formed the lives of my siblings and me.

My very first memory as a writer was when I started to write poetry at about four or five-years old. I was in love with the way that words simply looked when letters came together as they both started and ended on a page. Before I attended kindergarten, I was stringing words together that both rhymed and echoed themes of nature and home. First, I wrote short lists of birds, and then of trees and the sun. By the time I was seven, I was writing longer poems about my visits to the seashore with both of my grandfathers, one a Japanese fisherman and the other, a Russian wandering adventurer.

those encouraging parents
Q: With your mother being a fashion designer and your father a painter, in what ways did they encourage you towards a writing career--either consciously or unconsciously?

A: Growing up in my house was like living inside of a symphony that never seemed to have an intermission. Fluid creativity seasoned every sense of both courage and somber attempts, and my parents outwardly and inwardly encouraged passion beyond all other values.

Whether I was watching my mother hand-sew hundreds of intimate silk rosebuds onto a kimono-influenced wedding gown, or my father thrash about his paintbrushes in turpentine and fleshy oils of bright and dark colors, I only knew that I felt alive.

And I felt most alive when I was singing, drawing and writing, which I did religiously each day, even though our home boasted of no religious deities or icons. Rather, the creative process was in and of itself our flames of joy and faith, as my father painted on both small and massive canvases in our living room, and my mother always seemed to have a needle and thread dancing on ribbons of velvets and linen dresses that she designed beneath the large picture window that framed our living room.

Sumiko with flowers in her hair
As a writer, the visual images that my parents continually created before my eyes gave me boundless material to write about--and to become lost in--as I spent whole weekends in which I wrote with barely sleeping or eating, as I developed calluses on my fingers from the art pencils that I grasped with both a sense of longing and calmness. 

Q: It seems you've experienced more than the "usual" mixed-race experience through having a Japanese American mother who grew up in Hawai’i with relatives who were part of the 442nd all-Nisei military as well as being Jewish. How has all of that factored in your life?

A: I believe that having an exotic and unusual mixed-race and cultural background is what has given me the drive to create even more than the average artist, as I feel so much emotional history from the blending and fusion of both. Whether I am inspired by riveting tales of my Japanese samurai and World War II hero relatives, or by stories of bravery, isolation and philosophy from my Jewish ancestors, I know that having the opportunity to be part of both gives me a sense of tenacity and purpose I may not otherwise have.

meet Francesca's daughters
Q:  Do you think by marrying a Jewish man your children may lose some of their Japanese side? What do you do to keep them connected to that part of their identity?

A: I am now divorced from the father of my daughters. However, their thirst and interest for their Japanese identity remains strong, perhaps even stronger than some children who are 100 percent Japanese as they are continually excited about being born into two distinct cultures and, therefore, more curious. As a writer, I have found this to be a usual occurrence among children who are a quarter of some strong thread of race and culture. Our home and extended family inspires our daily life with Japanese culture, whether it be through recipes, painting and writing, watching classic films by director Akira Kurosawa such as “Rashoman” or “Seven Samurai”, or attending cultural events and museums.

Rose and Jade
Q: Tell us about any of your future speaking engagements, panel presentations, etc. 

A: I am an award winning investigative journalist, author, writer, poet, speaker and singer. My work is published for The Japanese American National Museum, Elephant Journal, Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, The Huffington Post, My Jewish, Interfaith, USA on Race, for radio and television and events.  

This month, I will be reporting special coverage and writing a unique personal perspective for the exhibit "Hello! Exploring the Super Cute World of Hello Kitty", the first large scale Hello Kitty museum retrospective in the United States in honor of the 40th anniversary of Hello Kitty to open October 11 at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

far beyond bagels and sushi
I am also writing two books to be published in 2015. The first book is a collection of humorous and thoughtful essays and short stories about my more than colorful experiences growing up as a Japanese Jewish girl in Los Angeles and Hawai’i during the 1970's.

The second book will be a compilation of poetry and prose that tell stories of a multicultural family and their artistic adventures, as well as motherhood as told through the lens of creativity, idealism and cultural inspiration. Here’s the link to the Author Page: 

Speaking engagements include a special talk for The American Association for University Women in San Francisco in March 2015 about “Girls and Empowerment”, as well as writings and conversation for the Mixed Remixed Festival in June 2015 to be held at the Japanese American National Museum.

Francesca, your story was delicious! Oiishi desu. Mahalo for sharing with us. Hey, Hip Hapa Homeez, if you’re still not full, here’s a short list of some of Francesca’s many accomplishments:

Award Winning Investigative Journalist

Edward R. Murrow Recipient

Writer, Author, Poet, Speaker
Print, Broadcast, Radio, Television
Multiculturalism & Identity
Parenting & Relationships
Inspirational & Philosophy
The Arts & Pop Culture
Short Stories & Essays
Poetry & Prose
Reporting & Documentaries

You can also check out her website:

To learn more about us at Watermelon Sushi World, please check out these links:

Watermelon Sushi film

Watermelon Sushi on Facebook

Hapa*Teez on YouTube

Hapa*Teez on Facebook

Hapa*Teez on Café Press

War Brides of Japan v.2 on YouTube

War Brides of Japan on YouTube

War Brides of Japan on Facebook

Yayoi Lena Winfrey fan page on Facebook (sorry, but Your Hip Hapa can’t add any more friends to her regular profile page)

Sexy Voices of Hollywood


Until we meet again on December 3, here’s to all the bagels and sushi your Hip Hapa Homee’s heart desires.

Your Hip Hapa,