Jean Kwok
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR
 





Jean Kwok
Jean Kwok, photo by Chris Macke




































































Jean Kwok

Jean's brother Kwan, Jean, and Jean's husband Erwin

 


faq

Girl in Translation

The story of your protagonist, Kimberly Chang, in many ways echoes your own.   How much of you is in Kim?  In what ways is your story different from hers?


Was it difficult to re-imagine the world of that young immigrant girl again, or is the experience still very fresh for you?

What was your motivation in writing this book?

You use the technique of distorting familiar English words to convey to readers the way Kimberly hears the language.  Did that evolve naturally as you wrote, or did you consciously take that course from the beginning?

You went to one of New York City’s elite public high schools, then to Harvard for college and Columbia for graduate work in writing.  What are some of the jobs you held to support yourself during those years?

You worked as an English teacher and a Dutch-English translator in the Netherlands for some years.  What brought you there? 

Why did you become a writer?

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Which writers have influenced you the most?

What are you working on at present?

What if we have more questions?

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The story of your protagonist, Kimberly Chang, in many ways echoes your own.   How much of you is in Kim?  In what ways is your story different from hers?

Although Girl in Translation is a work of fiction and not a memoir, the world in which it takes place is real. 

Like Kimberly and her mother, my family moved to New York City from Hong Kong.  I was five years old at the time, younger than Kim, and I did not understand a word of English. I was also one of seven children. We'd lost all our money in the move to the United States.  My family started working in a sweatshop in Chinatown. My father took me there every day after school and we all emerged many hours later, soaked in sweat and covered in fabric dust.  Like the Chang’s, our apartment swarmed with insects and rats, and in the winter we, too, kept the oven door open day and night because there was no other source of heat. 

As I slowly learned English, my teachers started asking my parents if I could skip grades.  My parents always refused because I was such a dreamy child that they didn't dare trust this strange ability of mine, to be good at school.  When I was about to graduate from elementary school, I was tested by a number of exclusive private schools like Kimberly, and won scholarships to all of them.  However, I'd also been accepted by Hunter College High School, a public high school for the intellectually gifted, and that was where I wanted to go.  When I was writing Kimberly's life, I partly imagined what might have happened to me if I had gone to a private school instead.

By then, my family had stopped working at the sweatshop and we'd moved to a run-down brownstone in Brooklyn Heights that had been divided into formerly rent-controlled apartments.  It was a vast improvement, but there was still no money to spare.  If I didn't get into a top school with a full financial aid package, I wouldn't be able to go to college.  Although I loved English, I didn't think it was a practical choice and like Kimberly, I devoted myself to science instead.  In my last year in high school, I worked in three laboratories: the Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology labs at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center and the Biophysics/Interface Lab at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Brooklyn.

I was accepted early to Harvard and I'd done enough college work to take Advanced Standing when I entered, thus skipping a year and starting as a sophomore in Physics.  I realized when I was in college that I could follow my true calling, writing, and switched into English and American Literature.  I put myself through Harvard, working up to four jobs at a time to do so: washing dishes in the dining hall, cleaning rooms, reading to the blind, teaching English, and acting as the director of a summer program for Chinese immigrant children.  I graduated with honors, then started trying to be a writer.

Because I was so young when we came to this country, some of the details of Kimberly’s life are actually based more on the experiences of my older brother Kwan, who was about the age Kim is in the book. It was Kwan who, in real life, watched the factory owner cut his wages because he was working too fast.  Kwan entered MIT at the age of sixteen and ultimately earned his PhD with the highest doctoral examination scores ever in MIT’s history.

Having brought up Kwan, here, I have to add that the enormous tragedy of all of this is that Kwan died in a private plane crash in November 2009, before this book, which was in some ways our book, was published. But he’d read it and helped with me with some of the details and Chinese translations. He was very proud of it. It means a lot to me that he saw it as a finished galley before he died, and that some of the details of his life will live on in these pages.

But I have to stress that Girl in Translation is by all measures a work of fiction.  Although some elements of the story were based upon real-life events, the actual plotline itself was created to entice the reader into a strange and true world.



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Was it difficult to re-imagine the world of that young immigrant girl again, or is the experience still very fresh for you?

You can never, ever forget living in an unheated apartment through the bitter New York winters.  Or the taste of fabric dust in your lungs.  Or the sight of a roach crawling across your clothes, especially when you're as scared of them as I am. 

I feel extremely fortunate every day to have a very different life now.


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What was your motivation in writing this book? 

I started by wanting to write this book for my mother.  No matter how difficult my early life may have been, my mother’s life was much more so.  As a child, I never once remember going to bed later than my mother.  She was always in the kitchen until late into the night, working on skirts and sashes we’d brought home from the factory to finish.  She used to nod off on the subway because she was so tired. 

My mother never really learned to speak English, although she tried her best, and to Americans she comes across as very simple.  I wanted people to hear how eloquent, wise and funny she really was in Chinese.  I wanted them to know how much a mother could do for her children.  But growing up in the world that I did, I also know that she is not alone in the sacrifices she made for us.


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You use the technique of distorting familiar English words to convey to readers the way Kimberly hears the language.  Did that evolve naturally as you wrote, or did you consciously take that course from the beginning?

With this novel, I was interested in the idea of using the first person narrator – the “I” voice –  in a new way.  I wanted to put the reader into the head and heart of a Chinese person.  I wanted to give English-speaking readers a unique experience: to actually become a Chinese immigrant for the course of my novel, to hear Chinese like a native speaker and to hear English as gibberish.  And for my readers to experience something thousands of immigrants live with every day: what it's like to be intelligent, thoughtful and articulate in your own language, but to come across as ignorant and uneducated in English. 

On a technical level, using the first-person voice in this way was something I hadn't seen before.  I wanted to utilize an attribute I find unique to the written word – its ability to be heard within the reader's mind – to bring the reader into the head of a person from a different language and culture.

It is my hope that we may learn to understand each other a bit better this way.  So the use of language in the book was very deliberate and a fundamental part of the structure for me. 


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You went to one of New York City’s elite public high schools, then to Harvard for college and Columbia for graduate work in writing.  What are some of the jobs you held to support yourself during those years?

Oh, it’s a long, unusual list. In my math and science days in high school, I worked in a genetics laboratory, a molecular biology lab and a biophysics lab.  After that, when I got to Harvard, I wanted to give something back to the Asian immigrant community and I worked as an ESL teacher to adult Chinese immigrants, a Big Sister, and as the director of a summer program for underprivileged kids in Boston's Chinatown.  We gave them a place to go when their parents were working: museums, playgrounds and beaches.  We also tutored them in English and other subjects.  I held other work-study jobs as well, sometimes several at once.  I cleaned rooms, banged dishes in the dining hall, read to the blind and worked in a soup kitchen. 

After college, I was looking for a day job to support myself while I wrote and I got a job as a professional ballroom dancer for a major dance studio in New York.  I taught and did competitions and shows. 

I went to Columbia to get an MFA in Fiction and in my last year there, I worked for a major financial institution as a computer expert for the Board of Directors.  After that, I moved to Holland for love and started teaching English at a university there.  I did that until the sale of this novel, at which point I devoted myself to writing fulltime.  That has always been my dream.


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You worked as an English teacher and a Dutch-English translator in the Netherlands for some years.  What brought you there? 

In the summer in between working as a professional ballroom dancer and going back to school for an MFA in Fiction, I did a bit of traveling.  On a small island off the coast of Honduras, I met a Dutch guy.  We fell in love and after I finished my degree, I moved to Holland.  Before I knew it, we'd set up a whole life there.  I started teaching English for Leiden University right away and now, many years later, we're married with two little boys. 

If you want to see a picture of the Dutch guy, click here. That photo is from our wedding.


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Why did you become a writer?

There are so few people from a background like mine who can afford to tell their story.  The ones that don't become successful are too busy struggling to survive and the ones that do make it have often gone into the more traditional career paths, rather than risk the financial uncertainty of writing.  I too struggled with this choice but was always in love with books, from the moment I learned to read.  There were times in my life when I felt closer to books than to anyone I actually knew, and I hope that my novel can help touch someone who feels the same way. 

I feel that it is vitally important to bring certain parts of American society into the light.  So many people are unsung heroes, living lives of grinding poverty and yet managing to smile when they hand you your change. 

For myself, I used to think it was too much of a luxury and risk to become a writer.  At a certain point, I realized I didn't have a choice.  I have to write.  I think this is a feeling a lot of writers have: a kind of compulsion.  When I was at my most despairing, the only question for me was whether I would continue to try to publish. 


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What advice would you give to aspiring writers?  How did you get published?

I believe that if you make your work good enough, you will be heard.  Show your work to people you trust, make your work as good as you can, and then believe in yourself.

This is my story:

It was an uphill struggle for me to finish this novel.  From start to finish, it took ten years. I would catch a few hours of interrupted sleep, care for my two little kids the whole day, race to the university and teach in the evenings, then get home at 11pm to do it all again.  In the little free time I had left, I would write.  When I finally finished this book, I sent it off to my agent at the time, a smart and thoughtful man I still deeply respect and who had taken me on when I’d published my first story, many years ago.  He read it and passed on not only the book, but me as well. 

I was crushed.  I had been in Holland for years, completely away from the literary scene.  I didn’t know if I was fooling myself, thinking I could be a writer.  I thought about begging every writer I’d ever met to recommend me to their agent.  Then, because I believe my own advice—that if you’re good enough, you will make it—I went out on my own to find an agent.

I didn’t have a single contact and I gave myself a year to find an agent.  I started by looking at authors I loved, reading the Acknowledgments pages of their books and finding out who represented them.  Then I did two weeks of research on agents and query letters and made a list of twelve dream agents. 

On a Thursday evening, I started sending out my query letters: some by email, some by postal mail.  The moment before I sent it to Suzanne Gluck, co-head of the Worldwide Literary Department at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, I thought, “This isn’t an agent you get at the beginning of your career.  This is an agent only incredibly famous writers get.  I must be crazy.”  Luckily, my finger had already clicked on the “Send” button by the time I completed this thought.  To my utter amazement, Suzanne requested the manuscript by email within half an hour.  Other requests for the manuscript quickly followed.

I felt incredibly fortunate and completely flattered by the interest expressed by several agents.  I feel lucky to have chosen Suzanne, who led me to Sarah McGrath, my phenomenal editor at Riverhead Books, and I have to say that I feel completely at home with everyone at Riverhead.


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Which writers have influenced you the most?

I have been influenced by so many writers. Just to name a few: Amy Tan, Lan Samantha Chang, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chang-rae Lee, Ethan Canin and Andrea Barrett. 

There are some authors that open up my own writing: Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguru, Italo Calvino, Anita Brookner and Donna Tartt. 


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What are you working on at present?

I'm very excited about my current novel.  It, too, is set in Chinatown, only from a very different perspective, and involves some of what I saw during my time in the professional ballroom dance world.


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What if we have more questions?

I hope to meet many of you at readings and other events.  Click here for my schedule.  For potential interviewers, I would love to speak with you but I'm only in the US for limited periods of time so please reserve a spot as early as possible with the wonderful publicity people here