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Girl in Translationby Jean Kwok
Author Q & A
1. The story of your protagonist, Kimberly Chang, in many ways echoes your own. Like her, you came to New York with your family as an immigrant from Hong Kong, worked in a sweatshop in Chinatown, lived in a roach- and rat-infested apartment without heat, and went on to elite educational institutions. How much of you is in Kim? In what ways is your story different from hers?
Although GIRL IN TRANSLATION is a work of fiction and not a memoir, the world in which it takes place is real.
Like Kimberly and her mother, my family moved to New York City from Hong Kong. I was five years old at the time, younger than Kim, and I did not understand a word of English. I was also one of seven children. We’d lost all our money in the move to the United States. My family started working in a sweatshop in Chinatown. My father took me there every day after school and we all emerged many hours later, soaked in sweat and covered in fabric dust. Like the Changs’, our apartment swarmed with insects and rats, and in the winter we, too, kept the oven door open day and night because there was no other source of heat.
As I slowly learned English, my teachers started asking my parents if I could skip grades. My parents always refused because I was such a dreamy child that they didn’t dare trust this strange ability of mine, to be good at school. When I was about to graduate from elementary school, I was tested by a number of exclusive private schools, like Kimberly, and won scholarships to all of them. However, I’d also been accepted by Hunter College High School, a public high school for the intellectually gifted, and that was where I wanted to go. When I was writing Kimberly’s life, I partly imagined what might have happened to me if I had gone to a private school instead.
By then, my family had stopped working at the sweatshop and we’d moved to a run-down brownstone in Brooklyn Heights that had been divided into formerly rent-controlled apartments. It was a vast improvement, but there was still no money to spare. If I didn’t get into a top school with a full financial aid package, I wouldn’t be able to go to college. Although I loved English, I didn’t think it was a practical choice and like Kimberly, I devoted myself to science instead. In my last year in high school, I worked in three laboratories: the Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology labs at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center and the Biophysics/Interface Lab at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Brooklyn.
I was accepted early to Harvard and I’d done enough college work to take Advanced Standing when I entered, thus skipping a year and starting as a sophomore in Physics. I realized when I was in college that I could follow my true calling, writing, and switched into English and American Literature. I put myself through Harvard, working up to four jobs at a time to do so: washing dishes in the dining hall, cleaning rooms, reading to the blind, teaching English, and acting as the director of a summer program for Chinese immigrant children. I graduated with honors, then started trying to be a writer.
Because I was so young when we came to this country, some of the details of Kimberly’s life are actually based more on the experiences of my older brother Kwan, who was about the age Kim is in the book. It was Kwan who, in real life, watched the factory owner cut his wages because he was working too fast. Kwan entered MIT at the age of sixteen and ultimately earned his PhD with the highest doctoral examination scores ever in MIT’s history.
Having brought up Kwan, here, I have to add that the enormous tragedy of all of this is that he died in a private plane crash in November 2009, before this book, which was in some ways our book, was published. But he’d read it and helped me with some of the details and Chinese translations. He was very proud of it. It means a lot to me that he saw it as a finished galley before he died, and that some of the details of his life will live on in these pages.
But I have to stress that GIRL IN TRANSLATION is by all measures a work of fiction. Although some elements of the story were based upon real-life events, the actual plotline itself was created to entice the reader into a strange and true world.
2. Was it difficult to re-imagine the world of that young immigrant girl again, or is the experience still very fresh for you?
You can never, ever forget living in an unheated apartment through the bitter New York winters. Or the taste of fabric dust in your lungs. Or the sight of a roach crawling across your clothes, especially when you’re as scared of them as I am.
I feel extremely fortunate every day to have a very different life now.
3. What was your motivation in writing this book?
I started by wanting to write this book for my mother. No matter how difficult my early life may have been, my mother’s life was much more so. As a child, I never once remember going to bed later than my mother. She was always in the kitchen until late into the night, working on skirts and sashes we’d brought home from the factory to finish. She used to nod off on the subway because she was so tired.
My mother never really learned to speak English, although she tried her best, and to Americans she comes across as very simple. I wanted people to hear how eloquent, wise and funny she really was in Chinese. I wanted them to know how much a mother could do for her children. But growing up in the world that I did, I also know that she is not alone in the sacrifices she made for us.
4. In the first part of the book, you write in the voice of an eleven-year-old immigrant. You use the technique of distorting familiar English words to convey to readers the way she hears the language. As Kim matures and her command of English expands, the novel’s language becomes correspondingly more sophisticated and confident. Did that evolve naturally as you wrote, or did you consciously take that course from the beginning?
With this novel, I was interested in the idea of using the first person narrator – the “I” voice – in a new way. I wanted to put the reader into the head and heart of a Chinese person. I wanted to give English-speaking readers a unique experience: to actually become a Chinese immigrant for the course of my novel, to hear Chinese like a native speaker and to hear English as gibberish. And for my readers to experience something thousands of immigrants live with every day: what it’s like to be intelligent, thoughtful and articulate in your own language, but to come across as ignorant and uneducated in English.
On a technical level, using the first-person voice in this way was something I hadn’t seen before. I wanted to utilize an attribute I find unique to the written word – its ability to be heard within the reader’s mind – to bring the reader into the head of a person from a different language and culture.
It is my hope that we may learn to understand each other a bit better this way. So the use of language in the book was very deliberate and a fundamental part of the structure for me.
5. As your title implies, Kim has to translate not just her language, but herself. She shows different parts of herself in different environments, and she hides some things entirely…even from herself. How do we see this in your novel?
Kimberly lives in such different worlds that it is impossible for her to reconcile them, even within herself. In order to adapt to the exclusive private school she attends, she needs to – and wants to – pretend she is much better off than she actually is. She can’t even share the truth of her poverty with her best friend, Annette, because to reveal the ugly truth to Annette would be to expose it to herself as well. In order to survive, Kim needs to turn a blind eye to some of the difficulties of her own life. Otherwise, she would collapse under the weight of her burdens.
In every world Kimberly inhabits, she can only show a part of herself, the part she is able to translate into that environment.
6. When and how does Kim grasp that she is going to have to take responsibility for her family’s success and survival?
I believe that from the moment Kimberly sets foot in that roach-infested apartment, she knows that responsibility belongs to her, although it takes her longer to consciously acknowledge it. She knows that Ma is helpless in the situation they find themselves in, and slowly, Kim grows up enough to take on the responsibility for their future.
7. Matt, the fellow sweatshop worker Kim falls in love with, goes against the stereotype of the Asian academic super-achiever. He’s hard-working, street-savvy, brave, loyal, and sexy, but he’s not interested in school, and his goals and horizons are much different from Kim’s. Is this a case of opposites attracting, or star-crossed lovers?
I don’t think Matt and Kim are opposites at all. In many ways, Matt understands her and her life better than anyone else. However, their ideas for the future are quite different. Star-crossed lovers imply the hand of fate, sweeping in to tear the lovers apart, and I think Matt and Kimberly struggle because of who they are. In that way, it’s even more wrenching to see how they resolve their love for each other with their need to be true to themselves.
8. Kim and her mother are exploited not only by the sweatshop system, but by members of their own family. This goes against the widely held cultural stereotype that immigrant families, and particularly Asian immigrants, go out of their way to take care of one another. How common is the situation you describe?
I believe that in general, immigrant families do take care of each other as best they can, but every person is an individual and every situation is more complicated than an outsider can know. Aunt Paula also tries to take care of Ma and Kim as best she can and she truly believes she is doing her best for them. However, she can’t help the anger and jealousy she feels toward Ma and Kim, and she can’t help believing that she has sacrificed her own happiness to bring them to America. Speaking very generally, I think that there is a tremendous amount of love in immigrant families, but as in every family, there are many other issues that can complicate that love.
9. The parents of one of Kim’s affluent classmates refuse to believe that child labor exists in contemporary America, even though it flourishes just a few miles from their home. How widespread is child labor in the United States? More particularly, how common is it in Chinatown? What is being done about it?
I am really not qualified to speak on this issue but in my opinion, simply as a person who had worked in Chinatown herself as a child, I believe that many children help their parents at work. Is that child labor? It’s hard to say. This is a problem that not only immigrants, but many working class parents have—what to do with the children when the parent needs to work. The children are almost never paid directly. Sometimes, the child is brought along simply so that he isn’t left alone in an apartment somewhere, and he doesn’t actually work at the restaurant or store. Would it be better to force the parent to leave a young child alone at home? These kinds of issues are so complicated.
I believe, for whatever my opinion is worth, that the only way to really help those children is to give their parents better income and working conditions. In fact, many of the sweatshops that used to exist in Chinatown have now moved back to China, though there are of course many other kinds of low-wage work done by American immigrants today. Sometimes, it may be worthwhile to pay a bit more for a garment or a meal, if you know that the workers have been treated decently. If the parents have more choices, the children will as well.
10. Likewise, many of your characters can’t believe that Kim and her mother live in such squalid conditions. Is it that people don’t know about these things, or that they don’t want to know?
They don’t know. It is hard to believe and most people who have experienced such living conditions don’t talk about it. I never did myself either, until I wrote this novel. It was only afterwards that I realized the main question would be, “Can this really exist?” And I have to answer, “Yes.”
11. There is a long tradition of writing about the immigrant experience, with each new group documenting its own particular experience. What new elements does your novel bring to this tradition?
I wouldn’t say it’s new, but it was very important to me through the use of language to put the reader inside the head and heart of a Chinese immigrant.
12. In school, you excelled early on in math and science, like Kim. When did you decide to become a writer?
I always really loved reading and writing, I always kept a notebook in which I wrote everything down, but I was too afraid to risk entering such an uncertain field. Since I was also good at math and science, that just seemed to be the obvious choice. I devoted myself to science in high school. It was only after I’d been at Harvard some time that I truly realized that I was free. I would never have to go back to the sweatshop. I could, in fact, do what I wanted to do. When I graduated it was with a concentration in English and American Literature, and I decided with conviction that I would do what I most desired: become a writer.
13. Why did you decide to become a writer?
There are so few people from a background like mine who can afford to tell their story. The ones that don’t become successful are too busy struggling to survive, and the ones that do make it have often gone into the more traditional career paths, rather than risk the financial uncertainty of writing. I too struggled with this choice but was always in love with books, from the moment I learned to read. There were times in my life when I felt closer to books than to anyone I actually knew, and I hope that my novel can help touch someone who feels the same way.
I feel that it is vitally important to bring certain parts of American society into the light. So many people are unsung heroes, living lives of grinding poverty and yet managing to smile when they hand you your change.
For myself, I used to think it was too much of a luxury and risk to become a writer. At a certain point, I realized I didn’t have a choice. I think this is a feeling a lot of writers have: a kind of compulsion. When I was at my most despairing, the only question for me was whether I would continue to try to publish.
14. You went to one of New York City’s elite public high schools, then to Harvard for college and Columbia for graduate work in writing. What are some of the jobs you held to support yourself during those years?
Oh, it’s a long, unusual list. As I mentioned earlier, in my math and science days in high school, I worked in a genetics laboratory, a molecular biology lab and a biophysics lab. After that, when I got to Harvard, I wanted to give something back to the Asian immigrant community and I worked as an ESL teacher to adult Chinese immigrants, a Big Sister, and as the director of a summer program for underprivileged kids in Boston’s Chinatown. We gave them a place to go when their parents were working: museums, playgrounds and beaches. We also tutored them in English and other subjects. I held other work-study jobs as well, sometimes several at once. I cleaned rooms, banged dishes in the dining hall, read to the blind and worked in a soup kitchen.
After Harvard, I was looking for a day job to support myself while I wrote and I got a job as a professional ballroom dancer for a major dance studio in New York. I taught and did competitions and shows.
I went back to Columbia to get an MFA in Fiction and in my last year there, I worked for a major financial institution as a computer expert for the Board of Directors. After that, I moved to Holland for love and started teaching English at a university there. I did that until the sale of this novel, at which point I devoted myself to writing fulltime. That has always been my dream.
15. How long did you work on this novel? Did the writing go quickly or slowly?
I was “discovered” when I was still in the Columbia Graduate Writing Program. I published my first stories in Story magazine and there was a flood of reactions. The editor-in-chief of the magazine got responses from agents, an independent film company, and just normal people who wrote in to say how important they thought it was, the material I was writing about. I was taken out to lunch by editors and agents and it became clear that they wanted me to write a novel. It was what I wanted to do too, but I didn’t think I was ready yet. They told me I was ready. So at that point, I moved to Holland, disappeared off the face of the publishing world and tried to write a novel.
It turned out that I wasn’t as ready to write a novel as I’d hoped. It took me a long time to teach myself how to write the book I wanted to write. But when I finally finished it, I knew I couldn’t do any better. Not at that moment, anyway. For better or for worse, I’d written the novel I’d intended.
16. You worked as an English teacher and a Dutch-English translator in the Netherlands for some years. What brought you there? Where are you living now?
In the summer in between working as a professional ballroom dancer and going back to Columbia for an MFA in Fiction, I did a bit of traveling. On a small island off the coast of Honduras, I met a Dutch guy. We fell in love and after I finished my degree, I moved to Holland. Before I knew it, we’d set up a whole life there. I started teaching English for Leiden University right away and now, many years later, we’re married with two little boys.
17. Which writers have influenced you the most?
I have been influenced by so many writers. Just to name a few: Amy Tan, Lan Samantha Chang, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chang-rae Lee, Ethan Canin and Andrea Barrett.
There are some authors that open up my own writing: Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguru, Italo Calvino, Anita Brookner and Donna Tartt.
18. What advice do you have for emerging writers?
I believe that if you make your work good enough, you will be heard. Show your work to people you trust, make your work as good as you can, and then believe in yourself.
This is my story:
It was an uphill struggle for me to finish this novel. From start to finish, it took ten years. I would catch a few hours of interrupted sleep, care for my two little kids the whole day, race to the university and teach in the evenings, then get home at 11pm to do it all again. In the little free time I had left, I would write. When I finally finished this book, I sent it off to my agent at the time, a smart and thoughtful man I still deeply respect and who had taken me on when I’d published my first story, many years ago. He read it and passed on not only the book, but me as well.
I was crushed. I had been in Holland for years, completely away from the literary scene. I didn’t know if I was fooling myself, thinking I could be a writer. I thought about begging every writer I’d ever met to recommend me to their agent. Then, because I believe my own advice—that if you’re good enough, you will make it—I went out on my own to find an agent.
I didn’t have a single contact and I gave myself a year to find an agent. I started by looking at authors I loved, reading the Acknowledgments pages of their books and finding out who represented them. Then I did two weeks of research on agents and query letters and made a list of twelve dream agents.
On a Thursday evening, I started sending out my query letters: some by email, some by postal mail. The moment before I sent it to Suzanne Gluck, co-head of the Worldwide Literary Department at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, I thought, “This isn’t an agent you get at the beginning of your career. This is an agent only incredibly famous writers get. I must be crazy.” Luckily, my finger had already clicked on the “Send” button by the time I completed this thought. To my utter amazement, Suzanne requested the manuscript by email within half an hour. Other requests for the manuscript quickly followed.
I felt incredibly fortunate and completely flattered by the interest expressed by several agents. I feel lucky to have chosen Suzanne, who led me to Sarah McGrath, my phenomenal editor at Riverhead Books, and I have to say that I feel completely at home with everyone at Riverhead.
19. For the first time in your life, you are now able to write full-time. What are you working on at present?
I have never had so much time to devote to my own work, and certainly not during daylight hours. It is really a dream come true.
I’m very excited about my current novel. It, too, is set in Chinatown, only from a very different perspective, and involves some of what I saw during my time in the professional ballroom dance world.
20. What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
I hope that readers will better understand Chinese culture and the immigrant experience, in order to better understand each other. That kindness counts. That the foreign woman on the bus with the funny-smelling bags may be more than she appears to be on the surface. And that, like the great poet Lucille Clifton once told me in a workshop, the secret to life is love.
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