Interview with Jean Kwok, author of GIRL IN TRANSLATION

Kwok I was extremely lucky to get hooked up with Jean Kwok, author of Girl in Translation, through a friend of a friend. I read her book in June and really liked it – here is my review. She answered some questions for me over email, and I am thrilled to share them here. Thank you, Jean!

One warning – the answer to the last question contains spoilers. Don't read it if you haven't read Girl in Translation yet! I don't want to spoil the book for you. Jean said that she hasn't answered that question before, though she has wanted to, so I am grateful to her for answering it here.

Q: I noticed that the style of writing in Girl in Translation changed over the course of the book – it started out somewhat choppy and got more sophisticated as it went along. I am guessing that it was intended to mirror Kimberly's facility with English. Can you confirm?

A: You are exactly right.  I wanted to my readers to truly undergo the immigrant experience in a way I hadn't seen done in fiction before.  I used language as a filter, so that all we could understand of English was what Kimberly could, but we could hear Chinese expressions like a native speaker.  I wanted readers to feel what it was like to be on the other side of the language barrier, so that some English was simply gibberish, and they could feel the frustrations that a foreigner feels.  The gradual change in style was indeed meant to mirror Kimberly's growing sophistication with the language and culture. 

Q. On your website, you said that you wrote the book for your mother, so that people could see how clever she was in Chinese (which doesn't always translate in English). Has she read Girl in Translation in Chinese? In English? What was her reaction?

My mother hasn't been able to read the novel, because she still doesn't speak English.  However, the novel has gotten enough international attention that articles about it have been published in Chinese, and she has read those.  She's proud of me, but more importantly, I think that the publication of the novel has transformed my family's perception of our past.  We (myself included) were always very secretive regarding our poor background and the hardships we'd overcome.  It'd been a source of shame, but now that the novel is out, and people have responded so warmly, we've all grown to perceive our background as a source of pride instead.  Other people from similar backgrounds have told me how glad they were to read the novel, to hear such injustices told aloud, and to feel that their story had been truthfully told and appreciated.

Q. You wrote on your website that you sometimes felt closer to books than to anyone you knew. I look at books as friends, as well, and for that reason I have resisted e-readers and downloadable books. I like to revisit them and scan their spines on my shelves. What's your opinion of electronic books?
I love my paper books and find it a sacrilege to write in them or turn down their pages.  There is absolutely nothing like a real book, and ebooks could never replace them.  I love having the sense of physically where I am in the book, the pages that are well-worn because I've read them over and over again.

However, I am a fan of electronic books as well.  I fully understand why some people don't like them, and the experience of reading them is different, but I love them as an addition to paper books.  First of all, I live in Holland, so my ebook reader (I have a Kindle) allows me to get books instantly and without shipping and customs fees.  Secondly, I read so much and for so many different reasons.  Often, I need to read a book for practical reasons, like research or because I need to see what an author is doing with structure or language.  There are books that I'll only read once and don't need to take up space on my shelf.  Finally, I travel a lot for book tours and publicity, and need to pack light.  Since I read fast, I can't bring enough books to fill up the hours I spend in airports.  Instead of staring at the walls, I can now read, so I buy an extra ebook version of books I like.

I find that because I have an ebook reader, I buy many more books than I would otherwise.  When I really enjoy a book on my Kindle, I always buy the paper version as well.  In fact, if I know it'll be a book I'll love (when written by a favorite author, for example), I always buy the real book and the ebook!  It's true that I don't feel like I really "own" a book until I have the paper one.

Basically, I use my ebook reader for books that I read only once (which I probably wouldn't have bought otherwise) and for travel.  When I truly like a book, I now buy it twice: once in paper and once for the ebook reader!
Q. Can you share some details about what you're working on now? I know that there are many people who are eager for your next book!
That's very nice to hear!  I am hard at work on my next novel now, and hope to finish it in the first half of next year.  It draws upon my own experience in the professional ballroom dance world.  I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for three years in between my degrees at Harvard and Columbia.  In that time, I taught dance lessons and did shows and competitions.  This novel is set both in Chinatown and in the professional ballroom dance world.  I love bringing readers into new worlds, and I hope that this will be something fresh and interesting for them.

I'll be posting the latest news on my website and Facebook fan page:

Q. The ending – there were two distinct directions you could have taken. What made you choose the one you did? I was surprised by it, and would love to know what pushed you in that direction.
I don't feel that I chose this ending because I saw the entire story in a flash — I had an image of the child under the mannequin, the older woman looking at her, and the man coming into the room, and the entire book unfurled before my eyes, including this ending.  It was always an integral part of the novel for me.  The one change that I do regret a bit is that the last chapter was originally written as an epilogue, and in the course of editing the book, I felt that the title "Epilogue" was no longer necessary and deleted it.  Some readers have protested the change in pacing in the last chapter, and I think the fact that it was an epilogue would have clarified a lot. 

The decisions that Kimberly made were the ones that I felt were true and natural to her character. Remember, she isn't fully Americanized and what she did was in keeping with her Chinese values, including preserving the integrity of the family at all costs.  If you've already read the book, here is a fuller discussion:



I know that the ending of the novel has inspired fierce debate.  I too wish that she could have simply told Matt the truth, and it just KILLS me that she didn't reveal everything to him.  I also wish they could have ridden off into the sunset together, since they love each other so passionately.

However, given Kimberly's Chinese heritage, what she did was the right choice.  Kimberly's reticence, her ability to stay silent about something so important, is quite Chinese and it is something  that is at odds with the openness of American culture. She sacrificed herself for Matt's happiness with his own family.  She also understood that, in the end, he wasn't the right man for her. They love each other with all their hearts, but that's not enough to build a life together.  He couldn't be happy with a wife as ambitious and talented and independent as she was.  In the end, Kimberly had to choose who she truly was over who she wanted to be with.

Of course, I also recognize that the story hasn't been fully played out.  For one thing, there is Jason, who will grow up and ask questions.  While I won't write a sequel to this novel (because it would be tacked-on), I do know what happens to the characters in the coming years and will be giving readers brief cameos of some of the characters in future books.  Rest assured that Kimberly will be just fine.