GIRL IN TRANSLATION by Jean Kwok is one of my favorite novels this year!
Jean Kwok has written an amazing story full of dynamic characters that you will fall in love with forever. I have been lucky enough to be in contact with Jean and she has very graciously granted me an interview. So, without further ado, here we go.
Your lovely novel came to me in the form of an ARC from Riverhead Books. Boy, was I lucky! Not only does it have a gorgeous cover, it has a wonderful, moving story and is written like a dream. Is it true it took you ten years to write? And if so, why?
Thank you for the kind words! I’d received recognition as a writer quite early on in my career, publishing a few stories in a prestigious literary journal and being taken out to lunch by agents and editors before I’d even graduated from the MFA program at Columbia but I hit a wall when I tried to write: a compelling, well-structured story that would carry the reader effortlessly from beginning to end. It took years to train myself and to find my own process.
Meanwhile, I’d moved to Holland for love and was adjusting to a new language and culture for the second time. I was enrolled at Leiden University as a full-time Dutch Studies student and I was teaching English at the university at the same time! Soon I was teaching at the Technical University of Delft as well, and working as a Dutch-English translator. I was extremely busy, but that was nothing compared to what happened when I got married and had two little children! I would have a full day with the kids, then throw them into bed and
race to the university to teach several times a week. I wouldn’t get home until 11 PM and fall into an exhausted sleep at around midnight. The kids would wake us up all night long, then I’d get up at 6 AM the next day and do it all over again.
I barely slept for years so that I could complete this novel. You say that it is written like a dream-well, it was almost written IN a dream! I’m happy to report that I was about to give up my job at the university with the publication of GIRL IN TRANSLATION and now write full-time.
You were five years old when you moved to NYC with your family. What do you remember of Hong Kong? Have you ever returned for a visit?
For many years, I thought of Hong Kong as my true home, because it was the only place I had no awareness of being an outsider. However, I knew that that fantasy would be eradicated when I actually returned there and I delayed going back for that reason.
My husband and I finally went to Hong Kong as a part of our honeymoon and it was actually a really beautiful experience. Although it was immediately apparent to everyone there that I was a foreigner because of my clothing and demeanor, I still felt very much at home.
My other homes now are of course the United States and the Netherlands.
It amazes me how resilient children are. I understand you knew no English when you arrived from Hong Kong. And went on to attend school for gifted children. What would you attribute this to? Is there one particular teacher or person who was responsible?
When I first moved to NYC, I attended a public school in Queens. That teacher did not acknowledge the fact that I couldn’t speak a word of English in any way. There’s an episode in the novel where the teacher gives Kimberly, my heroine, a zero because Kimberly cannot understand the directions on the test. That had happened to me.
We moved to Brooklyn shortly after that and I was fortunate enough to attend another public elementary school where the teachers were far kinder to me. Like Kimberly, I was lucky enough to have a talent for school. The teachers there recognized my abilities immediately, despite my lack of English, and encouraged me in every way. In the novel, Kimberly’s principal makes sure that Kimberly gets tested by a good private high school. Mine did the same for me. I’d won full scholarships to several private schools but when I was accepted by the public high school for gifted children, I knew that that was where I wanted to go.
The more I read about your life and look back on Kimberly, the main character of GIRL IN TRANSLATION, the more similarities I see between you and her. Was it difficult to write about this trying time?
I think I am a writer who prefers to write when time and distance have given me more perspective. Our first years in the US were extremely difficult. My father picked me up after school each day to bring me to the clothing factory in Chinatown, and like the one in the book, our apartment was also unheated and we kept the oven door open day and night through the bitterly cold winters in order to have a bit of warmth.
I could never forget the cloying dust of the factory and the biting cold of the apartment. Worst of all for me were the roaches and rats that were constant companions!
I felt an urgency to write about these things, but it was hard too. Now that the novel has gone into the world (literally, since it’s coming out in 15 countries), I feel a sense of relief. I’m glad that I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to tell our story, and that of many other working immigrants.
You now live in Holland. That sounds so exotic. How did you come to move to Holland? Is it easier to write away from the topic of your story?
We fell in love right away but I had to go back to NYC to do my degree and he needed to finish his study at Leiden University in the Netherlands. We had a long distance relationship for three years until we both completed our degrees. Then it seemed logical for me to “temporarily”move to Holland since I wanted to be a writer and was therefore more flexible. Little did I know that I’d still be here years later!
It is nice to have a certain distance from the topics of my stories. I’m grateful for my international experiences because I think they provide me with a broader perspective when I try to create new worlds for my readers to inhabit. I do love living in Holland and now our family consists of us, our two little boys, a Balinese cat that we brought home from Bali, and a Siberian cat. We’ll be getting another Siberian kitten after Christmas!
You mentioned that your mother speaks no English. Where does she live? Why do you think some immigrants choose not to learn English?
I don’t think that immigrants choose not to learn English. I think that they can’t learn it. You have to imagine that an older American person who may not have had much schooling is dropped in the middle of Tokyo. She is then expected to work day and night earning a living and learn Japanese fluently. It’s not easy and for some, like my mother, it was impossible.
I have heard that you are working on a new novel. Could you share a tidbit about it with us? I will so be looking forward to it!
Well, before I tell you about my next novel, let me tell you a bit about how I came to choose the topic. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I made the decision to become a writer. Before that, I had been too afraid. I’d wanted to choose a more secure profession. After graduation, I needed a job that would still allow me to have the time to write. I hoped for something that wouldn’t consume my mental energy, something that would be more physical.
I saw an ad in the newspaper for a professional ballroom dancer at a major studio in midtown Manhattan. I’d always loved to dance and taken many lessons at Harvard. I applied and after a long audition process, I was hired. I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for three years: teaching, doing shows and competitions. I was lucky enough to see what the professional ballroom dance world is like behind closed curtains.
My next book is set in Chinatown and the professional ballroom dance world. I can’t say much more than that at this point but I am really enjoying it so far! I hope to give my readers an insider’s view of a new and fascinating world.
Thank you for being such a wonderful friend to my novel, Jean. Readers and bloggers like you are so important to the literary world.
And I do wish to thank you for sharing your kitties with us too. As you know, I am a huge cat lover. I have so enjoyed your photos of your beloved cats
I can’t thank Jean Kwok enough for being so generous, and sharing so much of her story and her life with us. Her life experiences breathe real life into her characters. We are waiting with baited breath for the next.! Jean, you’ve outdone yourself!