Jean Kwok, once a Girl in Translation herself, relives her arrival in America with her debut novel.
You have a lot in common with the main character, Kimberly. You worked in a clothing factory in Chinatown as a girl, you lived without heat in Brooklyn, and you excelled in public school and won scholarships to private schools. Was writing this book therapeutic for you?
I think every act of writing is therapeutic in a way. What I think is wonderful about writing and fiction is that you can take something that was difficult, and writing about it transforms it into something positive. Because we were very poor when we came to the U.S. and had to work in a factory, live in an apartment without heat, and we'd been quite a well-to-do family before immigrating, there was a lot of shame associated with our poverty. It was something we never talked about.
You write moments of humiliation with a little bit of humor. Does this lightheartedness come from experience?
Absolutely. It was important to me to not have this be a dark book. I think there are difficult things that Kimberly and her mother experience, but in the end they triumph because they are dignified people with integrity. I think it's important to have humor and to be able to laugh at these things in your life, because they make the burden lighter.
Kimberly's mother never learned to speak English. How did that affect their lives?
My mother never really learned to speak English. She worked from day to night, always in the kitchen with skirts and belts that she brought home from the factory. She was always falling asleep because she was so tired. To Americans she comes across as very simple. And in writing this book, I wanted people to hear how eloquent and wise and funny she really was in Chinese, and also to see how simple a mother, like Kimberly Chang's mother, could be in English. Normally, you see a character only in one language, but now you can see her reflected in both languages.
You live in Holland now. Where do you consider home?
I love Holland and I love the Dutch people, but New York will always be my home. I think it's hard for people in America to realize, but America is a great dream for many, many people. It really is. But we came here, and we expected to see the beautiful skyscrapers of Manhattan, and instead we were put in the slums of Brooklyn. It was really different from what we expected.