Debut Author Snapshot: Jean Kwok

Posted by Goodreads on May 2, 2010
Jean Kwok's immigration odyssey from Hong Kong to the sweatshops of New York City inspired her powerful work of fiction, Girl in Translation. Every day after school, Kwok joined her family in a Chinatown garment factory, spending countless hours making clothing. Her novel, which took ten years to write, follows a similar path: A young Chinese girl in the slums of Brooklyn struggles to learn English and help her mother in a sweatshop. The Harvard graduate now writes full time from Holland. She shared a snapshot from her childhood.

Goodreads: Girl in Translation is a work of fiction and not a memoir. Yet the story of Kimberly, your protagonist, echoes your own history. What are some of your more vivid childhood memories that you incorporated into the book?

Jean Kwok: I was younger than Kimberly when I worked in the sweatshop. I started when I was only five, and I remember the suffocating blanket of dust that constantly descended upon my arms and face. After we wiped off the tabletop, another layer would cover it again, almost immediately, and I used to draw stick figures in the dust when I had the time.

I had been ranked number one in my class in Hong Kong, like Kimberly. In Hong Kong, school is a serious business, with examinations and rankings even for the youngest students. I remember my first teacher in Queens, NY, writing a huge zero on the top of my page because I was supposed to circle everything that was red, but hadn't, because I couldn't speak a word of English. I was so hurt, especially since I was already able to read parts of a Chinese newspaper and do some multiplication, and here they thought I didn't know how to do something a toddler could do.

Finally, I also remember how cold it was in the unheated apartment we lived in. Some of the windows didn't even have glass and were covered in black plastic bags that billowed from the wind outside. In the winter there was a constant layer of ice across the inside of the windows with glass panes. We kept the oven door open day and night for warmth. Since no part of that building was ever heated, the very walls and ceiling radiated cold back to us.

GR: Goodreads member Molly says, "My favorite part of the book is the language; it adds a whole unique layer of authenticity to the novel as you watch and listen to the main character struggle with English." What was your strategy for revealing to the reader what it is like to learn a second language?

JK: I experimented with using language and structure to place the reader completely inside the head and heart of a Chinese immigrant. I used the first-person voice of Kimberly Chang, the heroine, in a way I hadn't seen before, which was to place the reader on the other side of the language barrier. The reader goes so deeply into the mind and soul of a Chinese immigrant that they can no longer understand the English spoken by westerners to Kimberly, yet they can hear Chinese expressions the way a native Chinese speaker does. As Kimberly's knowledge increases, so does that of the reader.

My deeper goal was to give people a better understanding of what it's like to be articulate and intelligent in your own language but to come across as ignorant in another. It's so easy to dismiss foreigners who don't speak English well, and I'm hoping that after reading the novel, people might think, "That strange-looking foreign woman on the bus could be as funny and wise as Kimberly Chang's mother in her own language."

GR: Goodreads member E says, "I've never read a book that described more accurately what it is like to be an Asian American immigrant. It's like Ms. Kwok took pieces of my own experience." What are some of your favorite books that capture the immigrant experience?

JK: Books were incredibly important to me from the moment that I learned to read in English. There are so many fantastic writers. One important book for me was Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, her lyrical, beautifully written, and honest memoir of a Chinese American woman growing up in California. I could never overlook Amy Tan, a great pioneer for so many of the multicultural writers who have followed her, because she opened the way for the rest of us. I'm also amazed by Chang-rae Lee's work and his distinctive voice, the complexity of the material he handles—I think The Surrendered is going to make a huge impact. Then there are so many new Asian American writers making their debut, like Goodreads Author Deanna Fei, with her wonderful A Thread of Sky.

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Marjorie (new)

Marjorie Arendas My sister entered kindgarden speaking no english. In first grade she was placed in the mentally challenged class and totally ignored by the teacher. Meanwhile she was able to teach her self to read but the teacher never discovered this. A new teacher came to help the class and discovered her reading ability. Shortly after she was placed in an age appropiate clas. She retired from a stae university. She came to that university to establish a baccalaureate nursing program when many male faculty members on the committee found no need for such a program. She has always been my hero.

message 2: by Krista (new)

Krista Thank you for writing Girl in Translation. I was ignorant to the existence of sweatshops prior to reading this book. Your book tells a beautiful story that I am so happy you shared with your readers.

message 3: by Denita (new)

Denita mcdaniel it's nice

message 4: by Nan (new)

Nan Yes, it is a powerful book that I have recommended many times.
I wonder if you have read In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. A fascinating look at acquiring another language as an adult. I find the process of becoming bilingual fascinating and thank you for contributing to this important subject.

back to top