Jean Kwok (Girl in Translation author) on Immigration Today (Q & A, Giveaway!!)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

My favorite book of 2010 as listed here was Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation about a mother and daughter who emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn. I am so honored to have Ms. Kwok here today to talk a little bit her book, the immigration experience today, and childhood of two cultures. And at the end, there is a giveaway for one copy of this book!! (U.S. only)

1. I’ve heard you say that parts of this book were based on your own experiences. In what ways do you think this made it easier and in what ways harder to write this novel?

It’s true that much of this novel was based upon my own experience. Like my heroine Kimberly Chang, I also moved from Hong Kong to Brooklyn as a child. I was only five, younger than Kimberly, but I also started working in a clothing factory in Chinatown and our family lived in a run-down, roach-infested and unheated apartment as well. The descriptions of the apartment and sweatshop are exactly as I remember them. I think the great advantage this has given me is that I know I’m not exaggerating – I lived through those hardships and I am certain there are others who were or are in the same situation. The power of my memories lends a certain authenticity and energy to the narrative, I think. At my readings and public appearances, I have the confidence of knowing that this story is mine to tell.

However, you are right in that this also made the story harder to tell in some ways. I needed to have a certain amount of time and distance from these events in my life to be able to handle them at all, because some of that time was so painful for me and my family. I also chose not to write a memoir because I wanted to create a compelling, seamless narrative for the reader and I needed to use fictional techniques in order to do so. I hoped to form characters people would love and put them in a story that readers wouldn’t be able to put down. I was only able to do that after I had trained enough as a writer.

Ultimately, I worked with the hope of combining authenticity and a great story to give my readers a wonderful reading experience.

2. Childhood can be difficult enough, but having to grow up within two different cultures is, in my opinion, significantly more difficult. What is it about Kimberly that makes her so resilient and able to acclimate to this situation?

My heroine Kimberly doesn’t waste time on self-pity. She’s as vulnerable as any other young girl but at heart, she’s a survivor and she’ll focus on whatever she needs to do in order to escape their situation. She’s blessed by having a loving, gifted mother and even though Ma may be powerless in this new life, their bond helps make Kimberly strong. And of course, Kimberly has a true gift in her talent for school. That leads to her double life between exclusive private school and sweatshop, and ultimately, to the love two very different young men have for her.

3. How do you think the immigrant experience would be/is different now than it was 30 years ago? (Or do you think it isn’t different?)

I think that many things have changed for the better. The most important is that people are now much more aware of the difficulties many immigrants face. Bilingual help is much more readily available, and many teachers now know that some of their students may not have necessary materials or support at home. I remember when I was in elementary school, my teacher assumed that I could read my parents’ daily newspaper in order to pass the daily current events quiz. We couldn’t afford to get any newspapers and I was often working at the factory after school until 10 PM at night. I was a child and exhausted by the time I got home; I wasn’t going to watch the late news on our tiny black and white television. It was impossible to listen to the radio at the factory since nothing could be heard above the screech of the boilers and the hammering of hundreds of sewing machines. I failed that test every day. Of course, it never occurred to me to tell my teacher the truth. I was too ashamed and I didn’t think she would believe me anyway.

I think that even now, many working class immigrants have much harder lives than people know. They often work extremely long hours simply to survive. They’ve left behind their loved ones, diplomas, culture and language. I believe awareness is the first step toward understanding and change, and I’m very glad that my book is a part of that process.

4. One of my favorite things, which I mentioned in my review, was the dialogue between the characters and the way they used proverbs and metaphors to express themselves. What was your experience like incorporating this? Was it something you were so familiar with that it came naturally, or did you keep a list of phrases you want to include, (etc.)?

I’m so glad you liked that because it’s one of the most important parts of the book to me. I wanted the reader to experience what it was like to be a Chinese immigrant; I wanted to put her into the heart and soul of a non-English speaker. That’s why at the beginning of the book, when Kimberly’s English is weakest, we also hear English as gibberish. However, all of the Chinese comes through fluently because we, like Kimberly, are native Chinese speakers and we can hear all of its humor and wisdom.

It was a challenge to write because in my mind, I kept veering towards either Chinese or English and sometimes would get stuck on one of those languages. I had to have a clear idea of which language was actually being spoken in each scene and make sure that my thoughts were in that language. Fortunately, I’ve been bilingual from a young age so I knew what it was like to have my thoughts flow from language to language but I didn’t want to be sloppy. I was constantly checking to make sure I wasn’t making any mistakes with the Chinese. There are so many homonyms (words that sound the same but mean different things) in Chinese and I needed to compare the sounds with the written version to know that I was translating them properly.

5. Just because I'm wondering, the scene when Kimberly gets in a fight with Luke at school, did that happen to you? I loved how she handled that!

You really are an insightful interviewer! Yes, that did happen to me, almost exactly as is depicted in the novel. I did “fight” with a much larger boy and it was terrifying. Then (and now) I was quite small for my age but I didn’t run. Thank goodness he secretly had a crush on me or I would have been pulverized.

6. Do you have any info to share about what you’re writing now or anything you’ve finished since Girl in Translation? When will we get to read your next book? :)

I am hoping to be done with the next novel by the end of this summer! In between my BA at Harvard and my MFA at Columbia, I worked for three years as a professional ballroom dancer. The new novel is set both in Chinatown and the professional ballroom dance world. Again, it’s an immigrant family story and a love story. I hope that readers will enjoy stepping behind the curtains of the professional dance world.

The only thing is that I do need to handle a large number of publicity requests now because the novel has been published in 15 countries and won a number of prizes, so I am trying to juggle both the publicity and finishing the next novel at the same time. After the new book is finished, it’ll probably hit bookstores about a year later (if all goes well, fingers crossed!)
Thank you so much for stopping by and answering those questions!
If any of you have not read this book yet, you must!! For a chance to win a copy of the book from the publisher (U.S. only) please fill out the form below.
You can visit the author at her website:


Juju at Tales of said...

I love what she said in #3.

It is so very true.

When I was young I was held back a grade for having problems distinguishing between English and Spanish. Today there are so many programs out there for helping bilingual children.

Excellent interview.

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

Thank you for sharing this interview. I would love to sign up to win.

Zibilee said...

This was a great interview, and I loved the book as well. I had no idea that the book reflected so much of Kwok's life, but to me, that only makes it all the more interesting. I can imagine that the life of an immigrant is one that is filled with uncertainty and hardship, and reading about Kimberly's life was illuminating in so many ways. It made me realize just how much I take for granted. Great post today, Jenny!

Zibilee said...

This was a great interview, and I loved the book as well. I had no idea that the book reflected so much of Kwok's life, but to me, that only makes it all the more interesting. I can imagine that the life of an immigrant is one that is filled with uncertainty and hardship, and reading about Kimberly's life was illuminating in so many ways. It made me realize just how much I take for granted. Great post today, Jenny!

Helen's Book Blog said...

I have this sitting on my TBR shelves and now you've motivated me to read it WAY SOONER! Thank you

Thoughts of Joy said...

This was a terrific interview! I loved it! It's a bummer that the next book won't be out for a long time, but at least there will be a new one, right?! :) Thanks for sharing.

Jean said...

Thanks so much for asking such insightful questions, Jenny, and I really appreciate everyone's comments! I like this Q&A so much, I've just posted a link to it on my Facebook fan page:

All my best,

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I really loved the audio version of this one. Glad it was a hit with you. (Your blog is new to me)---it's great.

Booksnyc said...

GREAT interview! As you know, I host the Immigrant Stories challenge and this book is what the challenge was made for!


Krystyn said...

I've been dying to read this book for a while now...waiting for a copy @ the library, unless I win one here. :) Thanks!

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