“To set the record straight, my emotional reaction to all of this really is that I am grateful for this journey,” she says. “We didn’t know The Farewell would have a home, we didn’t know if anyone would buy the film, or that it would be on screens.
“For me, personally, I think that there’s always more work to be done, of course,” she adds. “And I think that I’ve had a pretty exciting ride, and I think that with this show and with the movies that we’ve seen this year, representation existed in those movies. And that’s what I know. But in terms of anything else, I can’t be more grateful to do what I love to do. To be recognised at least a little bit for that is enough.”
Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens is not autobiographical, she says, though it does follow the adventures of “a 20-something woman in Queens who strives for a larger-than-life existence.” In addition to Awkwafina in the role of Nora – borrowing her own real name – the series stars Lori Tan Chinn as her grandmother, and BD Wong as her father.
In the US, the series has drawn some comparisons to Broad City, a sitcom about two Jewish American women, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, playing themselves, trying to make it in New York. Despite its relatively short life, Broad City drew wide critical acclaim.
“I love that show, I love Abbi and Ilana and I think [the comparison] is incredible,” Awkwafina says. “I think they’re very specific voices and in a show where you don’t have a lot of people like them, and especially a show like this.”
Awkwafina also notes that the two shows share some crew who worked on both. “I think that the common thread is that everyone that came onto our show from Broad City really loved working with Abbi and Ilana,” she says.
The series to some extent mirrors Awkwafina’s own upbringing. Her mother died when she was just four years old, so she was largely raised by her father and paternal grandparents; she spent most of her home life in the company of her grandmother while her father, Wally, worked.
The story’s central tenet – that Nora from Queens is living with her grandparents who are, largely, giving her the space to find her own feet – is something “that literally happened to me,” she says.
“The only time-crunch I got was just a lecture [about being able to take care of myself], you know, they weren’t really making any moves, which I think was fine,” she says. “I think that they define success as you being able to take care of yourself and that if tomorrow something happens, they don’t have to worry about me.
“That was where that love came from,” she adds. “I loved hanging out with my grandma, [and] living with her in my 20s, you know. [She made] great, great food.”
Awkwafina was born Nora Lum but chose her stage name, she says, because she was awkward as a teenager. “People are like, ‘You’re awkward?’ And I’m like, yeah. So maybe I feel like sometimes I just call myself awkward. I feel awkward all the time. And that’s been a very constant thread of my life. So, it’s just awkward-fina.”
The name change, she adds, was not an issue for her family. “I don’t think they mind,” she says. “And I think they know that I’m very proud of that name as well. But I think when it comes to my career, it’s always kind of been Awkwafina. And that was the name that I thought of. To see that on call sheets, on chair backs, on the show title, it’s a name I invented.”
The comedian and actress acknowledges the landscape has changed dramatically from her own childhood, when the first Asian-American sitcom premiered – All-American Girl, which starred groundbreaking comedian Margaret Cho – and lasted just one season.
“I was probably already in [primary] school about to go to middle school and that was the representation that I had and it was a big moment,” she says.
“When you look at the progress that we’ve made since then it’s been incredible, but I think that these shows still stick out as very genre-specific, Asian-American shows. Slowly and slowly as these shows become more ingrained, they’ll start to flow into the genre I think a little bit more broadly.”
Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens airs at 8.30pm Wednesdays on The Comedy Channel.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.