Friday, November 17, 2023

Q&A with Jean Kwok




Jean Kwok is the author of the new novel The Leftover Woman. Her other books include the novel Searching for Sylvie Lee. She lives in the Netherlands and in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write The Leftover Woman?


A: The Leftover Woman is the story of two mothers, two worlds and one impossible choice.


A young Chinese woman, Jasmine, mourns after being told her baby died shortly after birth but when she learns that her daughter had actually been placed for adoption by her own husband to a wealthy American couple -- another casualty of China's controversial one-child policy -- she follows them to New York City to get her child back, with her husband hot on her trail. 


This novel was inspired by my own experience as a young woman in a traditional Chinese family where I was at the rock bottom of the hierarchy, which was based on both gender and age.


I was the youngest daughter in a family of seven children. As a dreamy child who was a terrible cook and housekeeper, I was considered a complete failure as a daughter.


My feeling unseen and unheard in a family that clearly preferred men was the initial impulse behind The Leftover Woman


Q: How did you create your characters Jasmine and Rebecca, and how would you compare the two women?

A: Jasmine, the birth mother, was abandoned as a baby by a family that also wanted to have a boy instead.


Her grandmother couldn't bear it and saved her, much to the disappointment of the family they lived with, who had the burden of not only an extra mouth to feed but the fear of life-crushing penalties under China's one-child policy if they were discovered.


When Jasmine discovers that her own daughter had been placed for adoption without her knowledge, she is pushed to the brink and decides to take control of her own life, and that of her child. 


Jasmine was very much inspired by my own experience growing up in a male-dominated household.


Rebecca, the adoptive mother, is Jasmine's polar opposite in many ways. Rebecca has a high-powered career, a handsome husband, a beautiful home and an adopted Chinese daughter she adores.


However, Rebecca is also inspired by my own life as well, because I greatly identify with Rebecca's attempt to balance her many roles of career woman, mother, daughter, and partner. She makes mistakes but she truly is doing her best. 


In the end, The Leftover Woman is about unity rather than division. It's about how much these two women have in common rather than the issues that divide them.


Even though they seem very different on the surface, both characters interrogate the novel's themes of appearance, power, and motherhood, and ultimately, they would both do anything for their beloved daughter. 


Q: The writer Lucy Foley called the book "At once a hugely atmospheric and suspenseful mystery and a compelling exploration of motherhood and belonging that packs a profound emotional punch." What do you think of that description?


A: That is exactly what I was hoping to accomplish with this novel. I wanted to write a thrilling, compulsively readable page-turner that would stay with the reader long after they'd finished the last page.


The story is romantic, twisty, and propulsive, but at its heart, it's an interrogation of what it means to be a woman today and the relationship between our identities and motherhood. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next novel is a murder set at Harvard and I just traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, this past summer to do research. It's a lot of fun to write and I can't wait to share it with you. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jean Kwok.

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