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Jean Kwok‘s debut novel, Girl in Translation (Riverhead, 2010), was a New York Times bestseller. It has been published in 17 countries and won many awards, including an Orange New Writers Book of the Month in June 2011 and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick.
Jean immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time, and graduated with honors in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction at Columbia. She now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two sons. A Dutch television documentary (with English subtitles) was filmed about Jean’s life and work. Follow her at jeankwok.com and @jeankwok.
Describe your earliest memory.
It was in Hong Kong. I was about three years old, standing on the back of my brother’s tricycle, yelling, “Faster! Faster!” Then I saw the fruit cart filled with mangos, pineapples and starfruit get closer and closer until we crashed into it. Fruit everywhere! It was the best thing ever.
What was the first book you ever loved? Why?
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I read about red-haired, freckled Anne soon after my family and I immigrated to the US. Although Anne was very different from me in many ways, I identified with the way she felt alone. I, too, was an outsider. I had to start my life afresh as she did, and like Anne, I was often in trouble at home. Although I was lucky enough to have a talent for school, I was considered by my family to be a complete failure as a Chinese girl since I couldn’t cook, clean or listen very well.
Describe the first time you realised that the world may not be as it seems.
We moved from Hong Kong to New York City when I was five years old and started living in a roach-infested, unheated flat in Brooklyn. My family worked in a garment factory in Chinatown and I did as well, simply because there was no one who could afford to stay at home to look after me. The worst thing was that my parents went from being parents to being people who were even more lost and confused in this new culture than I was.
What has been the most formative place in your life? Why?
New York City. I started my life anew there. Although it was a harsh, difficult place for a small child, it also taught me to try my hardest. It was there that I tested into a high school for intellectually gifted children, which eventually led me to studying at Harvard.
Which literary or historical character do you most identify with? Why?
Aside from characters like Anne of Green Gables in children’s books, I didn’t really find many characters I could identify with when I was growing up. I loved to read but almost everyone I read about was different from me in terms of culture, race and wealth. I guess that’s partly the reason I went on to write my own stories.
Which literary character do you have a crush on and why? How would you win him/her over?
I can’t say that I’ve ever fallen in love with a literary character but rather with voices. I remember the first time I came across a collection of Yeats in a small bookstore, I felt like I’d been struck by lightning. In that way, I’ve fallen in love over and over again, with women as well as men. Voices I love include Yeats, Stevens, Neruda, Atwood, Ishiguro, and Nabokov. And how does any writer win over another? By writing back, of course.
If you could time-travel and teleport, which literary world would you want to visit? Why?
Most literary worlds aren’t really any sort of butterfly-filled utopia, are they? I’d keep out of most of those. Maybe I need to start reading some happier stories.
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
One thing I never do is watch television. Not for any moral reason but simply because I don’t have the time. This actually is quite disadvantageous because I don’t know who anyone famous is when I chat with people. I married a Dutch man and now live in the Netherlands, where I spend a lot of time ferrying my kids around in a big cargo bike. I love to dance and go to the gym regularly. This is also to balance out the fact that I love to cook and bake as well, and can eat a hundred cookies in one morning. I need to travel quite a bit for the publicity for my book, so last year, I went abroad 10 times in 12 months. But the truth is, I spend the vast majority of my free time reading and writing.
Describe the worst job you’ve ever had.
Working in the garment factory as a child. The air was filled with fabric dust, so much so that within a few minutes, my skin was clotted with it. They boarded up all of the windows so that inspectors couldn’t see inside. The factory was filled with steam and heat from the clothing presses. And the deafening noise was incredible—the drumming of hundreds of sewing machines, the constant whistling of the boilers.
Describe your most defining experience with money.
I sold my debut novel Girl in Translation and received enough for it that I could quit my job teaching at Leiden University and write full-time. It was phenomenal. I loved my students but was exhausted. I had two small children at home and taught evenings at the university, then tried to get my writing done in the few hours I had free. It changed my life.
Being a writer is a strange brand of “celebrity”. Tell us about your most memorable encounter.
I’ve learned that hotels really like authors and will present you with all sorts of random gifts. I even got a goldfish once, which is not very convenient when you’re in the middle of a book tour. In one hotel, I received this white plaque of my book that I tried to sign, so I could give it to a friend, and then realized it was made of chocolate. Another hotel terrified me when everyone greeted me by name before I’d even checked in. It felt like a scene from Kafka. I learned later from my media escort that they hung photos of the VIPs in the staff room so they could learn their names and faces. Poor staff, trying to eat their lunches with all those photos on the wall.
If you were to write yourself as a character, what would be your most defining characteristic?
Like many other writers, I think I already write about myself again and again, in different incarnations. In my debut novel, I think I’m like the heroine in that I felt as lost and confused as she did. I also had the same talent for school. In my new novel, the heroine is clumsy but determined, and in many ways, I think I am as well.
If you were to write a novel about an anti-hero/-heroine, what would his/her central flaw be?
Leaping to conclusions too quickly, being too judgmental. It’s something I have learned to fight against in myself. I tend to assume too quickly that someone did something out of evil motives when actually, if I were in their shoes, I might have committed the same crime.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Why?
Shooting laser beams out of my eyes when I’m angry, although my husband tells me that I already have this ability.
What is the most important piece of life advice you would give a young person?
Don’t be afraid to fail. Every successful person fails again and again and again. It’s just a matter of picking yourself up and trying again. A very successful dancer friend of mine told me how she thinks about a failed audition: “When other people get cut from an audition, they say, ‘Oh, they didn’t like me.’ I say, ‘They didn’t even see me.’ I just dye my hair another color and go right back in there again!”
What’s next for you (work- and life-wise)?
I am in the process of rejoicing because I’ve just finished my new novel! It’s about a poor Chinatown girl who becomes a professional ballroom dancer. She realizes that the only way to raise the money to save her ailing little sister is by winning an important dance competition. I also worked as a professional ballroom dancer in between my degrees from Harvard and Columbia University. I’m excited to have this new book go into the world. Meanwhile, I’m going away with my family to a little house in the Belgian countryside next week to rest and celebrate.