Jean Kwok Interview
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What strikes me most from your story is how private the immigrant experience can be. Here you were even as a very young girl working long hours every day after school in a Chinatown clothing factory and coming home to a life of extreme poverty and yet even your best friends knew nothing about the reality of your life. How isolating this must have been for you.
Jean Kwok: This is very true and I felt quite lonely when I was growing up. My experience was so different from that of everyone else’s, or at least it seemed that way to me. Since the publication of my book, I’ve heard from many others who were in similar situations.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: At what point did writing become a means of confiding the truth about your life?
Jean Kwok: My relationship with writing began with reading. The public library was a clean, safe place and I loved it. I devoured books in every form and made it my personal project to read every single book in the children’s section, from A to Z.
As you mentioned, my father would pick me up after school and take me to the clothing factory in Chinatown, where I helped work until 9 or 10 pm, even though I was only five years old. However, life was even harder for my older brothers. They went on to a second job waiting tables until late into the night. I was usually asleep by the time they came home.
One evening, my brother Kwan woke me up when he lay a package on my mattress. It was a present. We barely had enough to make ends meet in those days and I was amazed that he had somehow managed to save enough to buy me something. He didn’t get me candy or a toy, but rather something that would change my life: a blank diary. He said, “Whatever you write in this will be yours.”
That was such a powerful idea to me, a child lost in a strange world, and from that day on, I began to write.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Did you ever see yourself in any of the stories you read growing up? Were there any heroines who resonated with you deeply?
Jean Kwok: I loved books like Anne of Green Gables and I identified with red-haired, freckled Anne because she was an outsider and always in trouble, like me. However, I didn’t come across any books about Chinese girls who lived in poverty at home while maintaining a façade at school, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I grew up to write my own stories.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Were there folktales from your Chinese culture that inspired you as a girl?
Jean Kwok: My brothers used to tell me Chinese stories and I loved them. I was especially captivated by tales of the Monkey King and his adventures with demons and goddesses. However, again, the characters in these stories were quite different from me and my daily experience, so it was hard to find someone who could be a true role model for me.
In the end, I tried to become the role model I had needed myself.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What filled your mind and imagination during all those hours you worked in the factory? What were the secret dreams your nurtured for yourself?
Jean Kwok: I was an exceptionally dreamy child, which brought me into a great deal of trouble at home and in the factory. I was not in the slightest bit practical, which meant I couldn’t make good dumplings or sweep the floor well, I dropped plates, I dismantled clocks and other small machines, and I wouldn’t respond immediately when called because I was lost in my own thoughts. I was, in short, a disaster as a Chinese daughter.
When I was very young, I would dream about princesses and fairyland when I was working at the factory, like many other little girls. As I became older, I started to think about how I was going to escape that life. Although I was always in trouble at home, I had a gift for school. When I was seven years old, I made a plan that I would test into one of New York’s magnet schools and then go to Harvard. I knew that if I wasn’t accepted into a top school like Harvard, my family might not let me go to college at all. We certainly couldn’t afford it.
I never told anyone about this because they would have laughed at me. But that’s what I dreamed, and that’s what I did.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: It wasn’t until you were at Harvard that you decided your true calling was to become a writer. What was the turning point that led to this self-discovery?
Jean Kwok: The last thing I wanted was to become a writer. I loved books and writing but I was going to get a real job. I’d dedicated myself to escaping a life of tremendous poverty and I didn’t want to take any risks at all.
I had tested into Hunter, a high school for intellectually gifted children, and when I was there, I decided to be a physicist. I was accepted early admission to Harvard and skipped a year when I entered. I concentrated in physics and had the intention of getting my master’s in my fourth year.
The world opened up for me in college. I realized I didn’t actually like physics that much. I loved writing but was still very fearful. One evening, I was talking to my then-boyfriend and I said, “Maybe I’ll become a lawyer or a biologist.” And he said, “You should be a writer. That’s who you truly are.” Deep down, I knew he was right.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Now as a mother raising your own children in very different circumstances, how do you communicate to your sons the immensity of what you have gone through? Is that even possible?
Jean Kwok: I feel extremely fortunate to have a very different life now. What my own childhood taught me is how precious those youthful years are. I learned that you can never bring that time back. No matter how many roller coasters you ride as an adult, it is not the same.
I don’t lecture my two boys, ages 6 and 8, about how good they have it now or how bad I had it as a child. Like so many other parents, I simply try to give them the joyful, carefree experiences that I didn’t have myself. We go to parks, beaches, museums and amusement parks a lot. I also think about equipping them with skills, so I let them try activities like swimming, chess, skiing and tennis. If they’ve given something a good try and don’t like it anymore, I let them stop.
And I attempt to prepare them for the world in other ways, like teaching them to talk about their feelings. We even do mini-meditation sessions together before bedtime! They love to meditate with me and want to do it all the time. We do some deep breathing together and then I lead them through simple visualization exercises, like putting their worries or fears in the form of rocks into a rocket ship that we then fire into a black hole.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: How did dance enter your life? What gifts did this practice give you?
Jean Kwok: Dance was something I didn’t encounter until I was a teenager. I loved it. It is an example of the type of skill that I wished I’d been given the opportunity to learn as a child. When I got to college, I took all sorts of dance lessons. If I’d been trained when I was younger, who knows what I would have become?
So after I graduated from college and was looking for a day job to support my writing, I saw an advertisement in the newspaper. It said, “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer. Will Train.” I was terrified but I wanted that job more. When I arrived at the dance studio, it was packed. They ran an audition and chose 30 of us to come back for a “training class.” It was actually an elimination class. We were taught for three weeks, and every day, fewer of us came back. You never saw anyone being taken aside. They just weren’t there anymore.
I came in one day and I was the only trainee there. I thought, “Oh no! I’m going to disappear now!” But I didn’t. I got the job instead.
I worked as a professional ballroom dancer for three years, in between my degrees at Harvard and Columbia. I did competitions and shows, and taught dance lessons. My second novel is based upon those experiences. I’ve just submitted it and hope to have a publication date soon.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: You have lived such a life of courage and tenacity. Is there anything that to this day frightens you?
Jean Kwok: Thank you for your kind words but I am afraid much of the time! I just don’t let it stop me from doing what I want to do. Most things in my life that I’ve done, I was terrified when I did them, like applying for that ballroom dance job. I promised myself long ago that I would never allow fear to stop me from doing something I truly wanted to do and that promise has made a great difference in my life.
That said, I do still have two fears I haven’t conquered. One is swimming. I tend to sink like a brick and haven’t yet found a swimming teacher who can overcome this inborn ability. However, that is something I would really like to tackle, as soon as I have some spare time.
The second is driving, but I don’t think it would be safe for the world if I were to overcome this fear. I am actually quite as dreamy as I ever was and can space out at random moments. When my cat died a few years ago, I would burst into tears while riding my bicycle and crash into things. I used to teach at Leiden University and this professor started chatting to me once, as if he knew me quite well. I was wondering how I’d met him when he said, “By the way, I think you almost killed me on your little bicycle last week.” So the prognosis for my ever learning how to drive is not good.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What has been most rewarding about writing Girl in Translation and having it win such honors and recognition?
Jean Kwok: I’ve been very fortunate with this novel. It’s won so many honors and was a New York Times bestseller. It’s been published in seventeen countries. But absolutely the most rewarding thing is when people tell me that my book meant something to them. Sometimes they share their own stories about living in circumstances similar to mine. Sometimes they say how they’ve become more compassionate toward others. It means so much to me. I feel like I’ve made friends all across the world with my readers.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Have you accomplished all of the goals you have set for yourself? What still remains? Or have new ones emerged?
Jean Kwok: When I started as a writer, I told myself that if my book touched one reader’s life for the better, I would die happy. In that sense, I feel like I’ve reached my goals.However, I’ve found that there are many other issues I’d like to explore, different characters and situations I’d like to bring to life and new worlds I’d like to show my readers so I already have a list of novels in my mind, waiting to be written. It’s very exciting.
Jean Kwok 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.
Her debut novel Girl in Translation (Riverhead, 2010) became a New York Times bestseller. It has been published in 17 countries and chosen as the winner of an American Library Association Alex Award, a Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, an Orange New Writers Book, a National Blue Ribbon Book, a John Gardner Fiction Book Award finalist, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick and an Indie Next Pick, among many other honors. It was featured in The New York Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others. Jean lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two sons. A Dutch television documentary with English subtitles was filmed about Jean and her work.
To learn more about Jean Kwok, visit her website at: JeanKwok.com