(INTERVIEW) Girl in Translation Author Jean Kwok & BlogHer

BlogHer Original Post

Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation was one of the May selections for BlogHer Book Club, and we've been talking up a storm about the novel. We opened to the floor to questions from BlogHers, and Jean has obliged by sending us answers! Find out about the time she was accused of cheating, who her favorite authors are and what kinds of books she reads to hone her craft.

Did you have teachers accuse you of cheating? After reading your column about your brother's death (I'm so sorry -- he sounds like a wonderful person), I also wonder how his experience as a young male immigrant differed from yours as a female. - All i'm Saying.

Actually, both of the cheating incidents in the novel were based upon real-life experiences. On my first day of school in the U.S., the teacher distributed pieces of paper with pictures on them. Her voice boomed and everyone started scribbling on their sheets. I was only five. I couldn’t speak a word of English, so I glanced at the boy next to me to try to figure out what we were supposed to do. The teacher took my piece of paper away and wrote a huge zero on it. Later, I found out that we were supposed to circle all of the pictures that were red, and I was so outraged because I could already multiply and read a Chinese newspaper but here, that didn’t matter.

My brother Kwan was also accused of cheating when he did so well on a university examination that the department didn’t think it was possible. They re-examined him orally, and he passed with such flying colors that the entire testing committee congratulated him afterward.

Thank you for your kind words about my brother. I do miss him more than I can say, and it is a consolation that my main character, Kimberly, was partly based on his life as well. As a male in the Chinese hierarchy, Kwan ranked higher than I did, but he needed to prove himself, too, because he was the youngest boy in our family. I think there were advantages and disadvantages to being either gender. Kwan never pulled rank on me because of his “higher” status –- in fact, he often complained about me bossing him around!

Could you talk about the line you walk between "telling a good story" and "spilling too much of the truth"? Did your family have issues with any of the tales you told? - Ashleigh Burroughs

I believe that fiction is the truth disguised as a lie. We love good fiction when it resonates with what we know and feel about the world. That said, I do need to have some distance from certain events in my life before I can use them in my writing. I have to be able to shake the truth loose from me, so that I’m able to use it in the most effective way in a story.

The funny thing is that none of us ever spoke about our past. People who have known me for most of my life didn’t know I worked in a sweatshop or lived in an unheated, roach-infested apartment in Brooklyn until they read my book. It was something we hid, because we were ashamed. I think that this is common for people who come from this kind of difficult past. The wonderful thing is that since the publication of the novel, all of this has changed. Readers have responded with so much warmth and compassion that my family can now say with pride, “Yes, we lived like this, we worked like this. And we survived.”

Chinese sweatshop in New York City

(Photo used by permission from Jean Kwok)


How do you respond when people say they can't believe that such conditions exist in America? I've been a little ruffled by some of the people who say they "can't believe" sweatshops still exist or that people live the way Kimberly did. Since I've written ESL textbooks for years, I know waaaaay too much about the horrors of the immigrant experience when there is no one to help. I know these places and lives DO exist. But apparently, many people do not. - blondieinchicago

Well, I am glad to hear that there are people like you who know about the difficulties of the immigrant experience! I guess I’m used to people not believing that such conditions exist, because no one believed me when I was growing up, either. I learned not to talk about those things anymore.

I hope that my book has made that world more real to people. And I do think that as a society, we have become more aware. One kind person, one good textbook can make all the difference to someone who is struggling to survive in a strange new world. Just the feeling that a sympathetic someone understands is so important.

Who is your favorite author and why? Also, as an author was this a childhood dream of yours or did you have another? - F.A. Ellis on Facebook

When I was little, my parents were even more lost and confused than I was. I looked for answers in books, and I found them there. About how to live, how to be, how to think. I loved to read and I went through the entire children’s section of my public library, starting from the As and going all the way through the Zs. However, it never occurred to me to become an author until much later. I was still so close to my life in the sweatshop, I never dared dream of doing anything as financially risky as becoming a writer. It wasn’t until I was at Harvard that I realized I was safe. I would never have to return to the factory. It was only then that I dared to try to live my dream.

There are so many authors I love; I couldn’t pick just one. As a child, I loved books like Anne of Green Gables –- although now I laugh to see how little in common I had with red-haired, freckled Anne who grew up in the countryside. But on a deeper level, I felt as alienated and lost as she did, and I was as much of a dreamer as she was. Now, I have many authors I admire, like Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguru and Maxine Hong Kingston. I love their voices, wisdom and craft.

I'd like to know where her (real) life deviated from Kimberly in the book. What was her goal for Kimberly in the end? And did it reflect at all her own goals and/or "expectations" as a young Chinese immigrant herself? - Lulobird on Facebook

Girl in Translation is a work of fiction, but it is certainly drawn from my own personal experiences. Like Kimberly Chang and her mother, I, too, moved from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, NY with my family. I was only five years old, so I was even younger than Kim, and we all started working in a sweatshop in Chinatown exactly like the one in the book. We also lived in an unheated, vermin-filled apartment in Brooklyn that was also completely true to the book. We needed to keep the oven on day and night throughout the bitter New York winters in order to have any sort of warmth there.

Fortunately, like Kimberly, I also had a talent for school. At first, I didn’t speak any English, but soon I started winning prizes and was later accepted to a public high school for intellectually gifted children. After that, I won early admission to Harvard, and it was there that I decided to become a writer. So you can see that the worlds depicted in the novel are very real.

In the end, Kimberly needs to make a very difficult choice. The decision she makes is to be true to herself and her own talents. I believe in this myself. However, I don’t personally agree with some other things that Kimberly does or chooses deliberately not to do. But that is what Kimberly chose, given who she was, and I needed to be true to that. I think that a great work does not set out to give you some pre-programmed answers but rather to raise the right questions, and that was what I hoped to do with this book.

I'm always fascinated by a writer's process. Do they outline? Do they have set writing hours? Can you tell us a bit about a typical writing day is for you? - Sassymonkey/Karen

Oh, I could talk about craft for hours! I am a real believer in the craft of writing. I hope I am an artist, but I see myself as a carpenter, too. I think that the art of it, the muse-like, magical part cannot be controlled. However, the craft of writing is entirely up to you. I believe in practicing and honing your skills until you are strong enough to give form to whatever flight of fancy your muse may unleash upon you.

This means that I am constantly reading and writing for my work. I read all sorts of books – great literature, trash, books on writing – anything that I feel I need for a particular problem in my current work. I have certain hours in which I’m free to write. That usually means during the day, when my kids are at school. Nowadays, I often have other commitments I need to uphold before getting to my real work, because the novel is being published in 15 countries, which means that I need to respond to publicity requests from all over the world.

However, once I am on my writing time, I tell myself that it is my job to create the work, not to judge it. Leave that to the critics. I force myself to keep moving through the story, even though I am often filled with conviction that nothing so bad has ever been written in the history of the world. I start at the beginning and write all the way through to the end. Then I rewrite again and again and again. Lots of things change along the way, and I allow them to, as long as they enhance my master plan.

And I do have a master plan. I take months dreaming a novel from beginning to end before I write a word. When my dream is complete, I start taking notes on it. This takes shape in many different ways: as a scene list, as character sketches, as a drawn structure diagram. All of these tools help me recreate the dream as vividly as possible for the reader.

So I wouldn’t say that I outline in a formal sense, but I do see the entire novel in front of me before I begin the actual writing process. It’s the only way I can be sure that I’m creating a fluid, organic and compulsively readable book.

Our thanks to Jean Kwok for answering our questions. You can find our community reviews of Girl in Translation in BlogHer Book Club.

BlogHer Book Club Host Karen Ballum also blogs at Sassymonkey and Sassymonkey Reads.

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