Thursday, May 6, 2010

Debut Novelist Jean Kwok on What it Means to be a Girl in Translation: Part 1

Jean Kwok will be in town to read from her debut novel Girl in Translation at the Elliott Bay Book Company on Saturday, May 8, at 7 p.m. This event is FREE.

Don't let Jean Kwok's debut novel, Girl in Translation, fool you as a memoir; it may be based on Kwok's own experiences of growing up as a Chinese immigrant in New York City and follow a story line quite similar to Kwok's childhood, but she will be the first to tell you that this book is fictional, for the most part.

Kwok has already received a lot of attention for her debut novel and all with good reason. Beautifully written, Girl in Translation is not your typical immigrant story. Like others, there is heartbreak, and tragedy, and a family struggle to learn English and assimilate into the American culture.

But this is also a story about success and how our young narrator, Kimberly, is able to overcome each crushing downfall with grace, grow from her experiences, and use her academic strengths to rise up and live her own "American Dream."

This novel is everything you'd hope for in a well-written immigrant story and more--filled with unexpected twists and turns, unforgettable characters, and a landscape that we are all familiar with. Girl in Translation takes readers on a journey into the slums of Brooklyn and into a life that many of us will never know firsthand, want to see, or at points be able to recognize as reality.

Thanks for taking some time to chat with us; we're sure that this has been a long week for you. How does it feel to have finally finished your debut novel, Girl in Translation, and be on tour?

Fantastic. It was such an uphill struggle to get this novel finished because I had two little children and was also teaching at the university at the same time. I barely slept for years so that I could find the time to write this novel. The reception that Girl in Translation has received so far is more than I ever dared to hope for. It is really a dream come true.

Earlier in your career, it seems that you mainly focused on writing short stories. Did you know that you always wanted to be a novelist? How long did it take you to write Girl in Translation?

I started by writing poetry, which is something I still do and love, although I don't write poetry for publication anymore. I've found that the things I most want to communicate in public are best done in fiction, and writing short stories was a way for me to build up to my ultimate goal, which was to write novels.

When I was still a student in the Columbia MFA program, Lois Rosenthal, editor-in-chief of Story magazine, plucked my stories out of the slush pile and published them. She told me I was doing something very important, and that I must continue. Agents, an independent film company, and editors contacted me and it was clear that now was the time for me to write a novel.

However, I then moved to Holland for love and disappeared off the face of the publishing world. I did nothing but attempt to write this novel. Although people now often tell me that it's an involving, moving and seamless read, it took me ten years to develop the craft necessary to design it that way.

(Jean, shown below, as a child.)

Though Girl in Translation is fictional, Kimberly's childhood sounds very similar to that of your own experiences--your family's immigration from Hong Kong to the slums of Brooklyn when you were five, working in a sweatshop, living in a condemned apartment, and so on. Would you say that you were as well a "girl in translation" at one point (or many) during your childhood?

Absolutely. I don't think I've ever stopped being a "girl in translation." I've always lived in several different worlds at once: the sweatshop and Harvard, the dance world and that of academia, Chinatown and country clubs, Europe and the United States. Especially when I was younger, I always felt I had to translate myself from one world into the other. However, I see this as a great gift, because I can now see the world from many different perspectives.

With so much reflection on your own childhood as an immigrant, was writing the novel a therapeutic experience for you?

I think that every act of writing is an act of transformation. In my case, my background was something I never talked about. I wanted to write about the life of a working class immigrant because their lives are hard, and they are often treated unfairly. So I made the decision to create a work of fiction, never imagining that anyone would ask me, "So, is this autobiographical?"

Now that the book is out, it's become clear to me that my personal story is an important piece of the puzzle. People want to know if it is true that immigrants can encounter and overcome such difficulties, and I need to answer in the affirmative. Of course, the novel is a work of fiction, but it's been wonderful to hear people respond to it with such warmth and understanding. My favorite is when they say, "This happened to me/my father/my cousin, but I was never able to tell anyone about it before. Now I can show them what it was like by asking them to read your book."

When you first left Hong Kong at the age of five, what were your expectations for life in New York and how did those ideas differ from the realities of your and Kimberly's childhood?

Like Kimberly, we expected to find the New York we'd seen in newspapers and magazines: skyscrapers, glistening stores, beautifully dressed people. We were dismayed to find the slums of Brooklyn, where people beat each other up in the street. School was suddenly very hard for me, which it had never been before, and more than anything, I missed my family when they had to go to work, which was suddenly all the time. I didn't mind going to the factory with them because at least we were together then. Those first years in the United States were a difficult time for all of us.

Kimberly is an excellent student, as were you growing up. In your own experience, did you know other immigrant children that did not have the opportunity to go to school due to helping their family with money?

I know many children who were left behind in the factory world. Immigrant working class parents obey the law and send their children to school, but those parents are often unable to provide any support whatsoever for their children. It was something I wanted to bring across in the novel: how very alone an immigrant child is.

If you don't understand something in class, or the homework, there's no one who can help you. There's no extra tutoring, no New York Times on your kitchen table, no markers to make your poster for school. Kimberly Chang and I were both extremely lucky in that we were born able to navigate through school with relative ease but that's very rare.

You didn't understand English upon arriving in New York; how long did it take for you to fully learn the language and are you still fluent in Chinese? Which also, you currently live in Holland--are you fluent in Dutch as well? Which language do you identify with the most?

I remember wishing more than anything that I could speak English because I had quite a hard time at school until I learned. I had been the star pupil at my school in Hong Kong, where we were ranked in order of our examination grades, but I didn't want to go to school anymore in the United States. I couldn't speak a word of English and everything I did was marked wrong. Fortunately, I was able to pick it up within a fairly short period of time, but I could see my older siblings and parents struggling for much longer.

My mother still doesn't speak English so I have to be fluent in Chinese! However, since I learned Chinese at home and never studied it, I can't read or write in Chinese. It is my mother tongue but I do wish I'd had the chance to really learn it in school.

I am fluent in Dutch. It was important to me to learn the language as soon as possible after moving to Holland, so I enrolled as a fulltime Dutch student at the university while I also worked as an English teacher for the same university. I also worked for many years as a Dutch-English translator. I now have to do scary things like be interviewed in Dutch on Dutch national television!

I also studied eight years of Latin and won a scholarship to do Classics at Harvard.

There is no question but that English is my instrument. In the novel, however, I often had to think in Chinese in order to fully place the reader in the mind and heart of a Chinese immigrant.

Having been an immigrant a couple times now, where do you define as home?

I think I have three homes: Hong Kong is where I was born, and where I had no concept of being a foreigner. However, I'm easily identified as a non-native now when I go back because of my clothing, the way I walk. They just know. New York (and the United States in general) is where I grew up, where my family and oldest friends live, and where I feel the most comfortable. Holland is where I live with my husband and two little boys. It's a beautiful and peaceful place, and our kids love our neighborhood and their Dutch school.

To Be Continued Until Tomorrow...

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