Interview: Jean Kwok
November 10, 2012
Girl in Translation
November 3, 2012
November 30, 2012

J ean Kwok's novel Girl in Translation made a profound impression on me. After writing the book review, I contacted Jean. I'm totally thrilled she agreed to this interview.

JC: Welcome, Jean! What are you busy with right now?

JK: I'm celebrating 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 earn 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 at Harvard and Columbia. It's very exciting to have another book go into the world and I'm curious as to what its journey will be like.

Right now, I am exhausted. No matter how much I try to pace myself, I find that when a novel is ready to be born, it takes on its own life and I wind up writing day and night in order to keep up with it.

My family and I will take a trip to the Belgian countryside to celebrate and rest, and then when I come back, I'm looking forward to hitting the gym again. Everything else slides when I'm working intensely on a book. My entire body is now protesting the long hours I've spent in front of the computer and I need to give it some healing hours at the gym.

JC: Girl in Translation is such a powerful story. It makes me feel as though I’m standing in Kimberly’s shoes. When you used situations from your own life, how did you manage to fictionalize and to leverage them for the sake of fiction?

JK: I think this is a really intelligent question and one I struggled with for many years. For myself, I've found that I need to choose experiences from my own life that made a deep emotional impression on me yet somehow I must also distance myself enough so that I can manipulate them freely. /p>

The heart of the book needs to be true, otherwise I can't write well, but the details can change and often need to. I have to be able to see the book as something separate from myself so that I can shape the reader's experience.

It's always my goal to enlighten and entertain at the same time. I hope to draw the reader in with a compelling story and then, along the way, to show them something about the worlds I've experienced. Sometimes I'll have a real-life incident end differently, or have it occur earlier or later in the story, or change the characters involved so that it works better for my book. I'm always thinking about what I'm trying to communicate to my reader and how to do it in the most compelling way possible.

JC: Aunt Paula is one heck of a creation. She breaks the literary stereotype of immigrant relatives helping each other. She helps but in a harmful way. Tell us how you developed her character.

JK: I think that relatives do help each other but nothing in life is simple. Aunt Paula is a fictional creation inspired by a conglomeration of people I've known and heard about. There is love, and many relatives help each other selflessly, but there is also the emotional burden of the immigrant experience. People feel that they sacrificed themselves. They're jealous. They're fearful of two opposing situations: being burdened by the new immigrants and of being surpassed by them. There are so many reasons that people can be less than kind to each other and I believe shedding light on that reality is one of the functions of literature.

JC: You have a MFA and had stories published before Girl in Translation. Is there a piece of advice you wish someone had given you before you embarked on a writing career?

JK: The most important would be to trust your own gut instinct. You also need to try to be as open-minded to criticism as possible, so if a part of you deep inside knows that the criticism is correct, then you need to fix the problem. However, in the end, it is your work and it is alive because of your passion for your subject matter. If you compromise too much, you can wind killing the essential spark that animates your writing.

I do think that it's very helpful to receive feedback from a writing group, just because in the end, your work will be read by other people if you get published and it's informative to know what the outside world thinks. That said, it is still very important to listen to the advice that brings you toward your ideal and to ignore anything that doesn't. Stay true to yourself.

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