Saturday, December 22, 2012

Q&A with novelist Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok, photo by Mark Kohn
Jean Kwok is the author of the best-selling novel Girl in Translation. She lives in the Netherlands.

Q: Why did you decide to write Girl in Translation as a novel rather than a memoir, and how close is Kimberly's story to your own?

A: Although Girl in Translation is a work of fiction, it is very much based upon my own life. Like Kimberly, I also moved from Hong Kong to Brooklyn as a child. My family and I found ourselves living in a decrepit apartment that was overrun with roaches and rats. The worst thing was that it didn’t have any central heating and throughout the bitter New York winters, the windowpanes were covered with a layer of ice on the inside. Also like Kimberly, I started working at a sweatshop in Chinatown almost right away. At five years old, I was even younger than she was. Fortunately, I also had a gift for school and that was my way out.

When I was growing up, I’d tried to tell friends once or twice about my real life. They didn’t believe me. I soon found myself at places like Harvard, where it seemed everyone else’s background was very different from mine. I learned to keep silent.

I wrote Girl in Translation as a novel so that no one would ask me about my past. I wanted to talk about the worlds I’d experienced but since I did it in this veiled way, I was certain my secret would be safe. Of course, as soon as anyone read the book, their immediate question was, “Is this autobiographical?” 

After practically swallowing my tongue the first few times someone asked me this, I realized I had to come clean. Readers wanted to know if it was possible for working class immigrants to live and work under such atrocious conditions, and I understood that it was a part of the message of my novel to stand up and say, “Yes.”

Q: Girl in Translation takes place in the 1980s. Have working conditions changed since then in factories in New York's Chinatown, and if so, how?

A: The descriptions of the factory in the novel are true to life. I remember how every surface in the factory was smothered in fabric dust. If I ran my hand over my arm after a few minutes, I would rub off a film of grime. We worked next to the steamers, which emitted high-pitched shrieks every ten minutes, and billows of steam added to the intense heat. I was not the only child there.

Most of the factories in Chinatown have moved back to China but there is no shortage of low-wage labor today. I think that there are still many hard-working immigrant families who cannot afford childcare. I was taken along to the factory as a child because every adult in my family was working day and night to make ends meet, and no one could afford to stay home with me. Once I was there, I worked to help as much as I could.

I think that many things have improved. There is much more multi-lingual support these days so that for example, there are Chinese-speaking counselors in hospitals to help immigrants fill out the paperwork.

Teachers have become more aware that children might come from very different backgrounds. I used to dread the “fun” assignments at school, like “draw a photo of your bedroom.” I didn’t have a bedroom. I slept on a mattress on the floor. I was ashamed of how we lived and the last thing I wanted to do was to draw a picture of it. So what did I do? I lied. I drew a picture of an idealized, American bedroom and handed it in. No one realized.

Free or low-cost afterschool and summer programs are a godsend to working class parents who don’t want to submit their children to the kind of conditions I experienced. These kinds of changes make a tremendous difference.

Q: What did your family members think about your writing the novel?

A: Actually, they didn’t know exactly what I had written and I had hoped to keep it that way. I thought, “Oh, none of them will pay much attention anyway.” That didn’t work out very well when the novel became a New York Times bestseller and was published in 17 countries. Especially the large, front-page article in a leading Chinese newspaper busted me with my folks.

My family was surprised that I’d written so honestly about our past. Yes, I was in trouble. However, as reader reactions started to filter in, the sense of shame that we’d always borne turned into pride. People were very kind about how inspiring it was that we had managed to survive our hardships and for my family, that was a revelation. They are very proud of me now, and more importantly, of themselves.

Q: Girl in Translation focuses on the experiences of a Chinese family from Hong Kong, but are there ways in which your story also has relevance to other immigrant groups coming to the United States?

A: I’ve been amazed by the reactions I’ve received not only from other immigrant groups, but from all sorts of other people. One deaf woman told me that my novel revealed how she felt when she wasn’t able to understand someone. My book’s been used in high schools and universities for literature, history and social studies classes, as you would expect, but it’s also been used in physical therapy courses to help teach what it feels like to be a patient who is unable to communicate properly.

I think that fundamentally, Girl in Translation is about being an outsider and that is a feeling that is universal.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just finished my new novel, which is about a poor Chinatown girl who goes from being a dishwasher in a noodle restaurant to becoming a professional ballroom dancer. As she begins to train, her little sister gets very sick. Soon our heroine realizes that the only way to acquire the money to save her sister is by winning a prestigious ballroom dance competition.

I also worked as professional ballroom dancer for three years in between my degrees at Harvard and Columbia.

I’m thrilled that my current publisher Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin, will be publishing this book as well. I really feel like I’m a part of a literary family there. When I walk down the corridors at Penguin, random people pop out and tell me they read and loved my book. I think my editor must bribe them with chocolate to do this. In January, I’ll be entering the revision process with my editor and hopefully soon after that, the new book will be on the shelves.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Fans of Girl in Translation should know that Kimberly and a mystery character will be making a very brief appearance in the new book. We’ll find out a bit more about her future there but in any case, rest assured that Kimberly and Ma are doing just fine. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. I really enjoyed this interview. Good luck with the new book, Jean!

  2. I have just read jean's novel.I reallly loved it.i cried sometimes with the terrible conditions of her childhood....and the love between Kim and mat...