Q&A With Author Jean Kwok: Girl in Translation

Novel based on Chinese immigrant's own coming of age.

Posted Mar 13, 2012

Best-selling author Jean Kwok embodies the American dream. Jean's family immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, New York when she was five, and she worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time, and graduated with honors in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. Here's more from Jean, whose debut novel Girl in Translation became a New York Times bestseller and has been published in 16 countries:

Jennifer Haupt: When did you know that you wanted to write a novel? Is Girl in Translation the first novel you wrote, or is there one stashed away in a drawer?

Jean Kwok: Girl in Translation is the first novel I wrote, only I wrote it more than once! I finished it, then realized that I needed to rework almost the entire thing. I had to throw away hundreds of pages. The second time I wrote it, I understood much more about what I wanted to say and how I needed to say it. I had learned enough craft to be able to sustain my vision.

It was hard to keep going when I realized how flawed the first version was. I was already a published writer then but still needed to learn the craft and art of sustaining a novel. I couldn't give up, though. I just felt that this was a story I had to tell, for myself, for my mother and family.

JH: Did you consider/are you considering writing a memoir about your moving to New York from Hong Kong as a young child, and then working in the clothing factories for much of your childhood?

JK: It was a conscious decision to write a novel instead of a memoir. First of all, I never wanted to talk about my background. I thought that it would never occur to anyone to ask me, "Is this autobiographical?" However, as soon as the novel entered the world, it became clear that the autobiographical aspect was an essential part of my message. People wanted to know if it was possible for working-class immigrants in the United States to live the way my family did—in an unheated, roach-infested apartment, working day and night simply to survive. I realized that it was important to acknowledge that truth, for myself and for others who also lead such lives.

The second reason I chose fiction was that I wanted Girl in Translation to be the kind of book that was both entertaining and enlightening. I hoped people wouldn't be able to put it down, that they would be drawn into the story as they experienced something fresh. I needed to experiment with language and structure in ways that are not possible in a memoir in order to do this.

That said, I think that I would like to write a memoir at some point. I've had an interesting life and I'd like to lay it out as it was, especially for my children. However, I won't be doing this until I'm very old, I think.

JH: Was there a character who was particularly challenging for you to discover?

JK: I wouldn't say that there was a particular character who gave me trouble because I love all of my characters, even the evil ones. What was hard was re-experiencing the world I had left behind. It was a difficult life, most especially because my parents went from being parents to being people who were even more lost and confused than I was. The physical hardships—the fabric dust in the sweatshop, the bitter cold in our apartment, the rats that ran over our blankets as we slept—were more bearable than feeling unprotected and alone.

JH: Which books are on your bedside table now?

JK: Mostly research for my next novel—my publisher just sent me an advance copy of The Little Red Guard by Wenguang Huang, which will be published in April 2012. It's fascinating and covers some of the same time period in China that my characters knew. That's the wonderful thing about being a writer: you get to read for your work. I also just finished Mao's Last Dancer, a fascinating book about a very gifted dancer in China.

Another book I read recently is my friend Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, which is a gorgeous piece of writing, and I was thrilled for her when it was nominated for the National Book Award.

JH: Has your life changed in any unexpected ways since becoming a best-selling author? And, has it not changed in any unexpected ways?

JK: I have had so many new experiences since my book has been published. I remember waiting for my first radio interview, for the Leonard Lopate Show in New York City, and I was just terrified. I'd never had anything I said be made public before. It didn't help that every time I told a friend about my nerves, they'd answer, "Oh, I love that show! I listen to it all the time!" That only made it worse. I didn't want anyone to listen to me, let alone thousands. I sat in the waiting room and I heard the author before me on the air, and he was so calm and eloquent. I wished so much I could be like him.

However, Leonard is a wonderful, experienced interviewer and he led me through the entire experience. It turned out to be OK. I could forget about all of the listeners and just concentrate on the interesting conversation we were having. Since then, I've been on CNN, morning talk shows and as I type this, I'm sitting on an airplane with a whole television crew who is going to follow me around New York City for 10 days to film a documentary about my life and novel. So I guess I've learned a lot since that first interview.

Something that hasn't changed is that I still need to do everything I did before, with the great exception of my job at the university, which I was able to give up after this novel was published. I loved my students but I really wouldn't be able to manage now if I were still teaching. Since my book has been published in 16 countries, I've gone abroad 10 times in the last 12 months. Yesterday, I responded to emails from readers who had enjoyed the book, other authors that I'm becoming friends with, the Penguin Speakers Bureau who makes arrangements for me when I give talks at universities and schools which are using my book, the television people to finalize details for this trip I'm now on. I've just been short-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, the world's richest short story award, and I've needed to send them publicity and personal information as well. And then I also had emails from family, friends and my children's school. Plus I had to pack, get my tax papers in order for my accountant, and leave a detailed schema for my husband and family for when I'm gone. In the midst of all of this, I also had to film my 8-year-old interviewing our cat for a presentation he's giving at school!

So sometimes it's quite busy combining my old life with my new one, but I really love it. And the interview with the cat went very well too. Here's an excerpt:

Child: What's your favorite color, Sushi?

Sushi the cat: Meow.

JH: What is the One True Thing you learned from Kimberly?

JK: Not to give up, no matter how tough things get. That the person you are deep inside is the one that counts, no matter what other people may think of you.

JH: What's next for you?

JK: I'm very close to finishing my next novel. As you may have guessed from the books I'm reading for research, it's about a poor Chinese girl who lives in New York's Chinatown. She winds up working in a professional ballroom dance studio and soon realizes that winning a prestigious dance competition will be the only way to save her ailing little sister, and herself.

I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for a major studio in New York for three years in between my Bachelor's degree at Harvard and my Masters at Columbia, so it is a lot of fun to work on my new book!

Jean Kwok's debut novel Girl in Translation became a New York Times bestseller and has been published in 16 countries. It has been chosen as the winner of an American Library Association Alex Award, an Orange New Writers title, a John Gardner Fiction Book Award finalist, a Chinese Library Association Best Book, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, an Indie Next Pick, a Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award nominee and the winner of Best Cultural Book in Book Bloggers Appreciation Week 2010.