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Jean Kwok: Your own rules

How to find the story between cultural pressure and personal desire.

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Jean Kwok (c) Chris MackeJean Kwok has a degree in physics from Harvard and a fiction MFA from Columbia. She worked as a professional ballroom dancer for three years, married a Dutch psychologist, moved to Holland, had two sons and, in 2010, published The New York Times best-selling novel, Girl in Translation.

This life of success wasn’t earned easily, however. Kwok’s family immigrated to New York City when she was 5, and her whole family was forced to work in a Chinatown sweatshop and live in an unheated apartment infested with roaches. Her first novel, which followed a Chinese immigrant who uses extraordinary intellectual abilities to escape the horrors of poverty, was the first time Kwok spoke publically about the conditions of her childhood. Kwok’s second novel, Mambo in Chinatown, explores the same themes of immigrants’ struggles and cultural conflict and introduces aspects of the author’s experience as a dancer through the main character, Charlie, who escapes her job as a dishwasher by becoming a professional ballroom dancer. Kwok concedes that the collection of themes can seem disjointed to an outsider, but to her, they make perfect sense.

How do you describe the kind of writer you are?

It has to do with what am I interested in, but it also has to do with what do I want to communicate to people. That’s the interesting thing about a book, isn’t it? It’s this meeting ground between an author and the reader. It’s a two-way street. What you put out there are objects for the reader to interact with and to make their own. It’s very important to me as a writer to think about the reader. Not that I write for the reader because it’s not like I’m going to write vampire books because everybody is reading vampire books. I would have no idea how to do that. Everything you write has to be true to yourself, but on the other hand, I am aware there’s somebody walking through the book with me, and I don’t want them to be bored. It’s like when you’re having a conversation, you’re like, am I droning on and on and on? Are they falling asleep? I’m always aware of that in a book, too. I’m always thinking: Is my reader still with me? Is she being entertained while she is hopefully learning something interesting?

You called your reader a she. Does that mean you assume you’re writing for women?


I guess in a way I do. I am a she, so it’s just natural for me to write as a woman and to speak to women. But I do have a lot of male fans, too. I have men who write to me and say, “I loved this book. But don’t tell anyone.” It’s because there are girls on the cover. It’s a marketing thing. I don’t have anything to do with marketing.

You could say that Mambo in Chinatown meets a lot of the criteria of a chick-lit novel: There are shoes on the cover, it’s written about a woman by a woman, the main character goes through a transformation and finds love. How do you feel about that characterization?

I’ve never thought of myself as a chick-lit writer, but to be offended would be to put down other chick-lit writers, which I think is ridiculous. Everyone is writing what they can as best as they can. I probably would not put my book with the chick-lit books just because, on the one hand, I know there’s a really compelling love story and a Cinderella transformation, but for me, the book is about so much more than that. The book is also about poverty. It’s about telling the story of the immigrants who are not heard. We all have the stereotype of the Asian American immigrant who is successful, who becomes a doctor or a lawyer, and this book is really about the ones who are left behind, the people who are invisible to us – the dishwashers and the taxi drivers and the pizza delivery guy – and about realizing that they have their dreams and their hopes and their struggles as well. What are those lives like? That was one piece of what I wanted to put in the book, and the other piece was that Charlie’s sister becomes sick and that relationship between two people who love each other so much and that feeling many of us have of desperately wanting to save someone we love and not knowing how to do it. Those are, let’s say, the darker pieces of what I would not consider typically chick lit, but there’s also some really good chick lit out there, so what do I know?


How does being multilingual affect your writing?

Being multilingual has been a tremendous asset, especially when I’m writing about Chinese people. I switch into Chinese for the Chinese scenes in my mind, and I switch back out for the Western parts, and that helps me give different worlds a certain type of authenticity.

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When you translate your writing back and forth, do you feel like anything gets lost?

I think that you always lose when you translate, but there remains an echo of the original language. I had a professor at Harvard, Helen Vendler, who always said, “In translation, the music of the language is lost, but the magic of the meaning remains.” I think an imprint of the language is still there. It’s like you’re covering an object with a piece of cloth, but you can still feel it. You don’t have direct access to it, but you can still feel its shape through that cloth.


How do you make a common plotline come off as original and not clichéd?

Cliché is something I’m always aware of, and I think being aware is already a big step. With the creation of character, I’m always thinking, OK, this is the ex-girlfriend. What do we think the ex-girlfriend is going to be like? And I make sure that we break from that in some way, that we are not getting exactly what you would expect an ex-girlfriend to be like. When it comes to the story as a whole, you need to read a lot. You need to be aware of the type of stories that you are writing. I read constantly. I read books that are good, I read books that are bad, I read everything. I also try very hard to foil my reader. There’s nothing worse than reading a book and being like, oh, this is going to happen, and then it totally happens and nothing else happens. But it’s really important to play by your own rules. You can’t break the rules, you can’t suddenly be like, oh no, no, actually it was like this. You have to lay a very subtle groundwork and anticipate the reader at every step. Sometimes you give the reader what she wants, and sometimes you don’t. In the end, you have to be true to your characters. If your character is going to do something, the first sign of bad writing is to make her do the other thing because it helps end your book nicely. You need to go and rewrite the whole book if that’s what you’re going to do.

What do you think are the keys to writing believable romance?

Just as they always say: Don’t think of your villain as a villain, think of your villain as a person who thinks he’s the hero of his own story. I think you have to do that with all of your characters, including the romantic lead. But it is hard, especially in literary fiction; the bar is high. I will write a scene between two people where I’m like, oh, they were meant for each other. It’s so obvious! Then someone will read it and be like, “Why do they like each other? I don’t see why they like each other at all.” It’s really hard. I mean, why do two people fall in love? The problem is we need to be more convincing in fiction than in real life. So while two people may totally fall for each other in reality, in a book you kind of have to make it more rational while still magical at the same time.


Where’s the line for you as far as constructing sex scenes or alluding to sexual encounters?

I’m a fade to black person. I’m not really the best person to talk about sex scenes with. I think there are people who write amazing sex scenes. I write what I think is necessary. I follow along my characters and I write what I see, but I’m pretty quick at going like this [covers eyes].

What was the hardest thing about writing Mambo in Chinatown for you?

I really hate to feel emotion. I’m all for repressing and not dealing and functioning and going on, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I am called to write. It’s a way for me to deal with emotion. In Mambo, and in every book I write, the emotion is central because it’s really important to touch the reader on an intellectual and emotional level. I think if you don’t do both, you’ve really failed in your job, or at least I’ve failed in what I’m trying to do. In order to create the emotion, I have to feel the emotion as honestly as I can, and that’s always hard. To go through the younger sister’s illness [in Mambo in Chinatown] was me going through my own father’s illness.


How do you get over that?

I don’t really. I have no good answer. I think it’s hard. Writing is really hard. Writing is the hardest thing I know how to do. It is. It’s absolutely harder than anything I have ever done, and I was a physics major. I have worked in labs. I’ve worked in an investment bank. I’ve really done a lot of things, and there’s no question that writing is absolutely the most difficult thing I have ever tried to do. It helps me that it’s fiction, so I have some distance. That’s why I always change the main character in some way from me. The main character is obviously greatly based in myself, but I change some things so I have space. That space is where I can create. There’s the intellectual drain as well because you’re trying to keep all of these balls in the air. You have your themes, you have your thoughts, you have your message – not that you are like, oh, this is my message, but you do have to kind of make it cohesive – and then you have all the mechanics of your world. What month is it? What season? What are they wearing? What are all those characters doing? What did he do in the whole week when he didn’t see her?

What kind of outlining or note-taking do you do to keep track of all that?

I have a very good editor, Sarah McGrath, and after going through my first book together with her, one thing I learned was that I needed to be more careful about the mechanics of the book. Just the stupid stuff, like how old is she here? What season is it? What happened in those years? If I aged her this much, did I age everyone else the same amount? On the one hand, your artistic self still needs to be free, but on the other hand, once the basic feeling of a book has been pounded out, I nail down those details. There are two programs I use a lot that are very helpful to me. One is Scrivener, and that allows you to outline very easily and to move huge chunks of text around and to be able to go into the text and out of the text and have all of your research and all your notes in one place. I love Scrivener. I’ve also started using Aeon Timeline, which hooks up to Scrivener. That’s a pretty simple timeline program, but you would be amazed at how much you screw up when you don’t nail it down. I made myself go through this book and say, OK, this happened on a Tuesday. When did the next event happen? Did it happen also on a Tuesday? If it did, then actually, the studio has a party on Tuesday, so that could not have happened. Or say she went and saw the school, that means there had to have been a school day between this and the last thing. There are all kinds of tiny little details, but in the end, that’s what makes the fabric of your fiction smooth.


Megan Kaplon is an editorial assistant at The Writer. She is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston.

Excerpt from Mambo in Chinatown

By Jean Kwok

MAMBO IN CHINATOWNI was surprised to find Dennis seated next to Uncle Henry at the restaurant. Uncle even had an arm slung around the back of Dennis’s chair, laughing at something he’d said, while Aunt Monica beamed. It was unusual for an assistant to be invited to a family event, but I understood. Dennis was becoming the son Uncle and Aunt had never had.

I sat between Dennis and Lisa, and when we were choosing what to order, I said, “How about Peking duck?” I knew that was Lisa’s favorite dish.

The older people gave me disapproving looks. “Charlie,” Pa said. “We never have duck for a birthday celebration.”


Of course. Duck eggs were used in funeral rites and thus duck was bad luck at other times. For a birthday, the “three lives” were acceptable: chicken, pork and fish. Noodles were always necessary too, to represent longevity of life. They ordered pork in black bean sauce, noodles, a soy sauce chicken complete with head and claws to symbolize wholeness, a tofu dish and a whole steamed carp. Although Pa loved fish with bitter melon, nothing bitter was permitted on a birthday, lest the taste bring bad luck in the year to come. Pa, Aunt and Uncle started to drone on about their times in China and the people they’d known then. I felt overwhelmed with shyness next to Dennis. Even though he and Lisa worked together, they didn’t speak either.

Finally he said to me, “So are you still in school?”

Excerpted from Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok by arrangement with Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2014 by Jean Kwok

Originally Published