Jean Kwok is the New York Times and international bestselling author of the award winning novels Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Her work has been published in 17 countries and taught in universities, colleges and high schools across the world. She has been selected for many honors including the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award and Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers.
Jean immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood while living in an unheated, roach infested apartment. In between her undergraduate degree at Harvard and MFA in fiction at Columbia, she worked for three years as a professional ballroom dancer. Jean lives in the Netherlands with her husband, two boys and three cats, and is working on her next novel. Both Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown are available in paperback, Kindle, NOOK and audio. You can learn more about Jean by going to her website www.jeankwok.com or find her on Facebook.
I met Jean Kwok after spending a weekend with my friend Terry Cox at the Tucson Book Festival in March of this year. I had heard of her books but had not read them. She sat across from me on the plane home—Jean to Amsterdam, where she lives with her husband and two sons—me to Grand Rapids. We struck up a conversation and she graciously agreed to answer some questions I and my 14 year old granddaughter Christa had for her. Christa and I read Girl in Translation together ( which is a wonderful book for grandmother and granddaughter to share.)
Girl in Translation is your first book. What motivated you to write this story, which according to sources, is semiautobiographical?
My debut novel is indeed based upon my own life. Since I, like my heroine Kimberly, also moved from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, NY to live in a roach-infested, unheated apartment, this was a story that I felt compelled to tell. My family started working in a sweatshop in Chinatown and even though I was only five years old, I did as well. There were many children who tagged along with their parents to work as much as they could. Sometimes writing is a choice and sometimes it is a compulsion. With this novel, I needed to share this story, to allow people to catch a glimpse of what that world is like.
How close is Kimberly’s character like you as a child?
I was very fortunate that like Kimberly, I also happened to be born with a gift for school and that allowed me to escape a life spent toiling in the sweatshop. So in many ways, I do see myself in Kimberly. However, at home, I was considered a complete failure as a Chinese daughter. I was (and still am) disastrous at making dumplings, unable to wield a broom properly and not very obedient. That part of myself, the girl who seemed to lack talent in all areas, became Charlie, my heroine in my second novel Mambo in Chinatown.
Did you write the novel in English or your native Chinese language? Did you have an American audience in mind when you wrote it? How did you come to make these decisions?
This is a very wise question because indeed, I had to switch languages in my mind as I was writing Girl in Translation. I wrote the novel in English but I wanted the reader to undergo the immigrant experience, not just read about it, so I made it so that when Kimberly doesn’t understand something in English, the reader doesn’t either – it comes across as gibberish. But when Kimberly hears Chinese, the reader becomes a native Chinese speaker as well, so the reader understands expressions like, “Let’s get a moon tan” for “Let’s go on a date.” In order to do that, I needed to think in Chinese while I was writing in English. I was hoping to part the curtain of language that can separate us.
Your book gives a different perspective on Asians and Asian-Americans. In popular culture, Asian-American immigrants are often shown as successful, both educationally and career-wise. In both of your books—Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown, both Kimberly and Charlie, challenge that myth. Can you say a few words on how important it was to you to make sure that Asian-American immigrants were portrayed authentically—to dispel the stereotypes the media portrays daily.
This is indeed an important part of my need to write. It is so easy to focus our attention on the successful Asian Americans because those are the people we want to see, those are the ones in the media. However, there are so many Asian Americans who have been left behind, who are working day and night simply to make ends meet.
According to a recent report by the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD), nearly two million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) live in poverty and this population is one of the fastest growing poverty populations in the wake of the Recession.
So there is a real need to hear about the people whom we pass every day yet are invisible to us: the man mopping the floor, the woman at the food cart, the dry cleaning guy.
Charlie, the main character in Mambo in Chinatown, takes up ballroom dancing but keeps it from her family. You too, took up ballroom dancing as a young woman. Did you keep it a secret from your family? If so, why did you keep it a secret?
Like Charlie, I knew my family would never approve of my working as a professional ballroom dancer. Even though I personally already had a degree from Harvard at that point, my family would have found it something that a proper Chinese girl does not do. Charlie had been a dishwasher in a noodle restaurant before she was lucky enough to land a job at the dance studio so she was in an even more precarious situation.
You now live in the Netherlands with your Dutch husband and two sons. You are fluent in Dutch, English and your native language. You have lived in America, China and now the Netherlands. How does blending these cultures affect you as a writer?
I have learned that although it is hard to need to choose how to react in every situation since I am such a blend of cultures, this necessity teaches me time and time again that I do have a choice, and that is a great privilege.
Editor Naffie’s granddaughter Christa Plamondon had lots of questions about the process of writing for Jean Kwok. Here are Christa’s questions and Jean’s response.
What advice would you give to women who want to write a book?
I was told I could not do many things because I am a woman and I never listened. I think that anyone can follow their dreams, male or female. It’s different for everyone but I think that a good, supportive writing workshop can be very helpful. You will meet like-minded people who also love to write and I find the feedback to be invaluable. Sometimes you might resist what they have to say, sometimes you might resist initially but slowly realize that they are right. I am personally all about resistance but deep down, I’ll understand that a certain piece of advice will improve my work and be grateful. And keep writing. Keep your sense of freedom, adventure and joy while exploring what you put on the page. You’ll surprise yourself.
What made you write fiction instead of a memoir? How did you decide what to make autobiographical and what to make fictional in Girl in Transition and Mambo in Chinatown?
I love the freedom that fiction gives me. I begin with an emotional heart, something that I care about passionately, maybe something that has hurt me deeply. I start to flesh that out with a voice, a character and as that voice begins to speak, I catch a glimpse of the rest of the journey. I like to start with a real world, one that I’ve lived in myself, and then populate it with characters.
Once I start writing my novels, my characters begin taking over the worlds I created. Sometimes I assume that A will happen because that’s what occurred in real life but then I realize that my character would actually make a completely different choice. I love that moment when my fictional world starts to breathe and come alive.
Describe your writing process.
I spend many months dreaming about my novels before I actually start writing them. I do research, I jot down notes, I hang out with my characters in my mind. I will usually have a very rough outline of what I think will happen in the novel, just a list of 15 events or so. Then I force myself to write a very bad first draft. My first drafts are beyond awful: filled with clichés, redundancies, awkward language, dead ends. However, these awful first drafts somehow purge my mind and by the time I write the second draft, I know exactly what needs to be reworked (everything.) The second draft is for me the true birth of the novel. And then I rewrite the whole thing again and again until I send it off to my agent.
I like to write in a comforting, relaxed setting so I light candles and incense and play soothing music without words when I write too. I find that writing is a beautiful combination of mind and soul.