Jean Kwok Interview
By: PP Wong
Photo by: Chris Macke
ean Kwok is the bestselling author of Girl in Translation - a touching story about a Chinese girl who juggles school work by day and slaves in a sweatshop by night. Jean’s debut novel was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in 17 countries. The popular author is a regular "Facebook fiend" and is known to post photos of cakes that look as though they were created by architects.
Jean immigrated to the USA from Hong Kong when she was five years old. While studying at Harvard, Jean worked as many as four jobs at a time to help support her studies. A television documentary on Jean’s life and book was broadcast on May 6, 2012 in the Netherlands. In that same year, she was shortlisted for The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.
Jean is fluent in English, Cantonese and Dutch. She lives in Holland with her husband, two sons and wonderfully spoilt cats.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Anne of Green Gables. I was this inner-city Chinese girl and I loved red-haired Anne in the countryside.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
Definitely a cat. Because I am a slave to my cats so it’d be nice to be in charge for once.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry and a Swiss army knife.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Honest, clumsy with my hands, well-intentioned.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Margaret Atwood, for her combination of voice, story and creative genius.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
How did you become a successful writer?
Being a writer is absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The internal creative struggle is already extremely difficult, and then the publication process is so subjective as well. I think that it’s a profession that chooses you. Don’t choose it if you can help it. If you’re deciding between becoming a writer or working in the circus, definitely go for the circus. However, if you feel guilty whenever you’re not writing, if you feel compelled to be a writer no matter what, then I think you’re a writer whether or not you happen to be writing at that point in your life.
I was discovered quite early in my career, after I had first published two stories when I was still in the MFA program at Columbia University. Film companies, agents and editors contacted the magazine where I had published and I signed with a very reputable agent. At that point, I moved to Holland for love and disappeared off the face of the NYC publishing world. It took me ten years to write my debut novel, Girl in Translation, and in the meantime, I wasn’t publishing anything else or winning prizes or going to prestigious residencies. I was just writing this novel. I sent it to my agent, then held my breath. Finally, an email arrived. He told me there was no market for this book, and that if I needed any advice finding a new agent, he’d be glad to help me.
I was crushed. I was living in a non-English speaking country, I had no network of contacts to rely upon, and this person I still respect and admire greatly had told me that my novel had no future. I put the book aside for a month, then reread it. I realized I loved this novel. So I sent it out again, without changing a single comma, to the ten most important agents I could find. I figured I would start at the top, then bump my way down to the bottom. I didn’t know anyone and understood that meant my query letters would end up in the dreaded slush pile of unsolicited post. I thought it’d take me about a year and hundreds of rejections to find a new agent.
I sent the query letters by email and postal mail on a Thursday evening. Within half an hour, I received the first request for the full manuscript. There were more requests on Friday. On Monday, the first agent called to offer representation. It came down to two top agents from two of the most powerful agencies in publishing, and within a week, I was very happy to choose my agent today, Suzanne Gluck, international co-head of William Morris Endeavor.
I was so disappointed when my first agent severed our relationship but it led me to where I needed to go. I guess I learned to trust in my work, even when someone told me it was bad, and to believe that rejections are a necessary part of getting to the right place in my life. And I also learned that if your work is good, it will eventually be recognized, even if you don’t have any type of network.
Your first novel Girl in Translation was inspired by some of your own experiences. Is your second novel Mambo in Chinatown based on your own experiences too?
This isn’t true for every author but for me, a part of me always needs to be invested in each one of my books. I need to care deeply about the subject matter. Girl in Translation was very much about my childhood. I was an immigrant child who grew up in an unheated, roach-infested apartment in the slums of Brooklyn. Although I was able to leave that life of working in a sweatshop as a child because I had a gift for school, I never forgot the friends and family I left behind. Mambo in Chinatown is in some ways about the woman I might have been if I hadn’t been good at school.
I wanted to write about the Asians who don’t often appear in the media: namely, the low-achieving ones. There are so many people whom we pass every day yet don’t truly see, in restaurants, taxi cabs, dry cleaners. Although my own life is now quite different, my heart remains in Chinatown.
When the novel opens, our heroine Charlie Wong is working as a dishwasher in a Chinatown noodle restaurant, which is the fate I believe I would have had. When I was a child, I envied my friends who took ballet lessons. It wasn’t until many years later, when I was studying at Harvard, that I learned that I loved to dance. After graduation, while looking for a day job to support myself as a writer, I answered a newspaper ad that read, “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer, Will Train.” Miraculously, I was hired by a major ballroom dance studio and worked for three years as a professional ballroom dancer; I taught students, danced in competitions and shows. That combination of my working class background and my life in ballroom was the basis for Mambo in Chinatown, which is the story of a young woman torn between her family duties in Chinatown and her escape into the world of ballroom dancing.
In Mambo in Chinatown, the protagonist Charlie has to struggle between the ideals of her old fashioned Chinese father and also her own dreams. Did you have these kinds of problems when you were growing up?
Absolutely. I was a complete failure as a Chinese daughter. Much as my family loved me, they did not consider me to be very bright since I was always lost in daydreams. I was bad at cooking, cleaning and following orders. I had this ability to do well in school, but outside of that, I was not very successful at all. I’m still not very practical. I was recently on an airplane and went to use the bathroom. When I tried to return, I could not remember where my seat was. I was searching through the whole plane until the nice stewardess found me and brought me back.
I’ve often thought that if I’d been good at cooking and cleaning, I would probably be working in a restaurant somewhere. From that idea, my heroine Charlie was born. In Mambo in Chinatown, I wanted to tell the story of an awkward young woman living a life of poverty who discovers something she loves in ballroom dance, and thereby unleashes her own gifts. I also wanted to portray the complicated mix of love and guilt that can often influence intergenerational relationships, especially when Charlie’s little sister gets sick in the book and their father insists on treating her purely with Eastern medicine.
I had many conflicts at home when I was growing up, the greatest of which was that my father was ill and my family treated him solely with Eastern medicine. Much as I tried to get him to a neurologist, I did not succeed and in the end, he died undiagnosed. However, there was so much love in our home and I try to convey that aspect as well.
You were born in Hong Kong, lived in America and are now based in Holland. If you were to search your heart, where would you say is your true home?
For many years, I thought of Hong Kong as my true home even though I understood that living in New York had changed me, and that I would be a foreigner by the time I went back. I did return to Hong Kong on my honeymoon. In some ways, I felt like I’d never left and in others, indeed, it was clear that I was different. The Chinese there knew I wasn’t one of them anymore. They could see it in my clothing, my hairstyle, the way I walked, the white guy following me around. Hong Kong will always be close to my heart, though.
I love living in Holland too, and my children are half Dutch. I’m working on a new book and that one will be about grief, rebirth and moving to Europe.
Ultimately, if I had to choose, I would say that New York City is my true home. It’s the place I grew up and where my family and oldest friends live.
When not writing, Jean makes cakes with the help of her cats!
In both your novels you cover falling in love. The romantic scenes are written in such a tender manner. What is the craziest thing you have done for love?
I met my husband-to-be when I was backpacking across Central America. Our paths crossed on a small Caribbean island off the coast of Honduras. Soon after that, I needed to return to New York to do my MFA at Columbia University and he had to finish his masters in psychology at Leiden University in Holland. We had a long distance relationship for three years, after which I moved to Holland. That was a great leap of faith! But it worked out fine.
You’re based in Holland, but your main agent and publisher is based in America. How do you make it work?
In this day and age, it is no problem for me to live abroad. Thanks to the wonders of email and Skype, I can do almost everything I need to do from my home in Holland. There are smaller literary events that I could attend if I lived in New York City, so that is a slight disadvantage, but I fly over for anything major. I find it a great advantage to have both physical and mental distance, which allows room for my creativity. My publicity team does a great job of compacting my events so I can do them in one trip when I do need to travel to the US or other countries.
I’m fortunate to have my publisher, publicity and marketing teams, and my agent all in New York City, so I don’t need to live there myself.
In Mambo in Chinatown, you talk about Chinese medicine, Tai Chi and chopsticks. Also, both your books have Chinese people as main characters. Do you ever feel that as an Asian author you have a responsibility to portray Chinese culture in a positive light?
No, I feel that the job of any author is to tell our personal truth as well as we can, in all of its complexity. I don’t write a book pretending to have all of the answers. Instead, I raise the questions that haunt me at night. I do try to provide balance, so that I’m not unfairly portraying something either too positively or negatively, which is very hard to do. I find it important to step back and try to make sure that I’ve written about a subject in as nuanced and compelling a way as possible.
Compared to other ethnic minorities, there are not many Asian writers getting published in the West. Why do you think this is?
I’m not an expert, of course, so I can only provide my personal guess. I imagine that Asian culture tends to promote a certain reserve, a containment of secrets, which probably discourages some Asians from becoming writers. But I don’t think there is a bias against Asian writers in the publishing industry because I know many wonderful Asian American writers publishing today: Gish Jen, Lan Samantha Chang, and many more.
For many writers who have experienced success with their first novel, they have added pressure when creating the second novel. How did you deal with these pressures?
I was not so much bothered by the pressure and expectations when writing my second novel as by the conflict between my external and internal selves. In order to be a successful author, I needed to do a great deal of publicity. Girl in Translation’s been published in 17 countries, which meant I was not only swamped with interviews but I also went abroad 10 times in 12 months. So I was very busy but more importantly, I need to retreat deep into my inner self in order to write and it was difficult to find the time and mental space to do that. In the end, I succeeded, but only after the publicity had started to calm down a bit.
I try not to worry too much about what people expect from me. I believe my job is to produce the work, not to judge it. There are plenty of people waiting to judge me and they are called book reviewers. I never know what anyone will think anyway. I just try to write the best book I can, every time.
And finally, what is the next dance move in Jean Kwok’s life?
Mambo in Chinatown will be released on June 24, 2014 so that’s very exciting! I’ll be going on a national book tour through the US then and would love to meet up with any readers if our paths cross! BW