Jean Kwok on 'Mambo in Chinatown,' Ballroom Dance, and Writing What You Know

“Some people dreamed of going someplace else; I dreamed of being someone else." So laments klutzy Charlie Wong, the teenaged daughter of a ballroom-dancing mom, who passed away years ago, and a noodle-making dad. Charlie washes dishes in her dad's restaurant, and the family barely makes enough to scrape by. When she sees an ad for a receptionist job at a ballroom dancing studio, Charlie is just intrigued enough to apply — without telling her dad, of course, who would hate the idea. By some luck, mercy, and karma, Charlie gets the job. At the studio, she first just watches, but then learns all the steps, and finds out she has real grace. But things take a pivot for the worse: her sister falls sick, and Charlie advocates for treating her with expensive Western medicine instead of, as her father prefers, traditional Chinese approaches to healing. Which is better for the family?

Author Jean Kwok's second novel, Mambo in Chinatown (Riverhead), is like a ballroom dance itself: captivating and sure-footed, and hard to look up from. Kwok draws from her own experience working in Chinatown in her youth, eventually becoming a ballroom dancer and taking to the floor with confidence. Kwok brings to the page all the detail and fluidity that one would expect of a seasoned dancer and writer.

I spoke with Kwok about her experiences and how they color her fiction, and the importance of telling the stories of the "invisible people" around us.

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok, $6, Amazon

BUSTLE: There's a lot of overlap, thematically, between Mambo in Chinatown and your first book, Girl in Translation. In what ways do you see this novel as a development of those themes, and in what ways do you see it as a departure from the first book?

JEAN KWOK: I think that these two books are similar in a lot of ways and in kind of unintentional ways. It’s like you believe that your material is under you control, but actually it’s not. And it takes on its own life once you start creating it. So there’re certainly similar themes between my two books because these are both books about young women from the working class world who escape it in some way. I think the thing about Charlie, the heroine of my new book, is that she doesn’t have Kimberly’s gift for school. You know, she doesn’t have the automatic out that, most people who get out of that world, that’s how they get out: through education. So, Charlie doesn’t have that. And that was something I really wanted to write about because nowadays, everyone thinks Asian-Americans are all so successful and that we’re all in the Ivy League, and it’s not true.

There’s so many people like that: the girl who gives you your food at the take-out counter, [at] the dry cleaners, the taxi driver. Those people have their dreams, as well.

I, personally, was lucky that I have an ability to do well in school, but I left so many friends and family behind, and I know so many people who still work day and night just to make ends meet. And, you know, we see those people every day, we pass them, we interact with them, but yet they are still invisible to us. So it’s a different type of invisibility than I wrote about in my first book, because in my first book Kimberly’s really a first generation immigrant and she was hidden behind the curtain of language and culture. You couldn’t see her because she was not a part of this world, but Charlie has grown up here. She’s an ABC: American-born Chinese. But she still is invisible because she’s a dishwasher in a Chinatown restaurant.

There’s so many people like that: the girl who gives you your food at the take-out counter, [at] the dry cleaners, the taxi driver. Those people have their dreams, as well. They have their desires, and their hopes, and their loves, and I really wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about a person who is from the working class world and does not have the standard escape and what that world is like for her. And in particular, in Chinatown, which is a very closed community. And then, of course, that conflict between the closed Chinatown world and the professional ballroom dance world.

There’s a lot in both your books that seems to be similar to events of your own life. Do you ever consider writing a nonfiction book?

I get asked that all the time. My books really are based on my life in a deep and real way. The emotional heart of every book has to be in my own heart; otherwise, I can't write the book. But how I think of it is that my life is the raw material for which I write. It's a kind of clay, but I need to be able to completely reshape it in order to write a successful fictional narrative ... I think I definitely write more autobiographically than other authors might, but it is still fiction. It is still reshaped.

I think a book doesn’t answer questions, a book raises questions.

When you’re asked to describe what your novels are about, how do you answer that?

It’s really difficult. If I were to characterize my novels, I would say I always try to provide a window into an unseen world. It’s hard to describe your own work. Those [novels] are two books that are really close to me, and when I write, I always need to have an emotional investment in my subject, and an intellectual one. There are always emotional and intellectual questions that need to be resolved that I still have not resolved when I start to write the book, and that’s what makes the book interesting to me.

I think a book doesn’t answer questions, a book raises questions. I don’t know if I can say, “Yes, I learned X, Y, and Z from this book,” but I do feel I came to a kind of resolution.

In what ways do you think that the struggles that Charlie faces are similar to the problems that American-born Chinese people face today?

I think that they are representative. Obviously, you write about an individual, you don’t write about a group, so you can never generalize. But I think there are many people living in Chinatown who are making just barely enough, and they live in very cramped, small environments. I think that way, Charlie and her friends — that was what I was attempting to do with the book, was to show that world. I based it on my own experience, too, but I also did quite a bit of research, as well. I talked to people who are living in Chinatown to see where they go out, what they do after school, if they’re free after school to do this and that. I tried to make it truthful.

You did not grow up in Chinatown, though, correct?

I lived in Brooklyn, in a very rundown apartment. But I spent most of my life in Chinatown, because I worked in a Chinatown sweatshop when I was very young.

How did you get into ballroom dancing?

It's funny, because dancing was something I always wanted to do, but never could do for a really long time. When I was younger, there was no money or time. I used to be so jealous of my little friends in their tutus. It was kind of this elusive dream. My main goal, when I was growing up, was to get out of the sweatshop and have a financially stable job — nothing artsy-fartsy like being a writer. I did not consider it at all. That was really what I worked towards.

I think dance puts you in touch with an animal part of yourself that's nonrational, and yet very important and very true.

I think that's part of the reason why stories like Charlie's are never told — the people living their lives are still living them and don't have the time or training to write about it, and the ones that get out choose financially stable positions. Most of us don't become writers.

It was when I went to Harvard that I thought, "Okay, I don't have to go back to the factory — maybe I can take that risk and do what I want to do." That was my first freedom to decide to be a writer. And at the same time I decided to take dance lessons. I was terrible! I was not in command of my body, I had no training. I loved it, though; I loved to dance.

What did you love about it?

I loved the synchronization of it, and the feeling of release. I think dance puts you in touch with an animal part of yourself that's nonrational, and yet very important and very true.

I loved it, and I took loads of lessons. And when I first graduated, I needed a day job to support myself while I was writing. No one who gets to Harvard is relaxed. We may have the illusion of being relaxed, but we are all compulsive, anal freaks. That's who I am at heart, and I knew if I were to get some sort of career-type job, I knew that I would find myself doing that 20 years down the road, and not having written anything. I was looking for a day job that wasn't that different from writing. And there was an ad in the paper: "WANTED: Professional ballroom dancer. Will train!" And that's how my dance career took off.

What is the greatest feedback you could get from a reader?

When my first book was published, the greatest thing was when a reader would come up to me and say either, "Your story is my story, and I never dare tell anyone, but you have finally brought into words what I was hiding," or when they'd say, "Your book inspired me to change my life." I always thought that if I could just hear that from one person, I would have fulfilled what I wanted to do. In that way, I feel I have. It's the best thing: when you feel your reader has been deeply touched by your book, and that you've influenced them for the better.

No one who gets to Harvard is relaxed. We may have the illusion of being relaxed, but we are all compulsive, anal freaks.

And the worst?

This is a very easy question for me to answer. I had these brilliant reviews for my first book. And this one guy wrote that after reading my book, he wanted to boil my eyeballs in acid.

Oh man!

That can happen. It's part of being a writer. He beyond hated my work.

So what part of your life have you not made into fiction yet, but plan to?

Well, my next book is going to be about a woman who moves to Holland and starts her life all over again. [Kwok now lives in Holland with her husband and two sons.]

Your novels are all about female characters. Do you consider your work women's fiction?

It's hard to say. I get a lot of fan mail from male fans who say, "Don't tell anyone, but I loved your book!" Or, "My wife was reading your book, and I picked it up, and now we're fighting over it." Which is great to hear! I think that my books are marketed to women, but when male readers pick it up, they're happy they did.

What's the most rewarding part of having written Charlie's story?

I think having the opportunity to write about myself without having written about myself. I think of a book as a conversation between me and the reader. A book is like a meeting ground. I don't believe that because I'm the author I'm the end-all and be-all of the book. I think that every person who picks it up has a unique experience and a right to that experience. What they see and what touches them, and what they like and what they don't like — you're creating a beautiful thing that someone else can enter and proceed through, and is hopefully changed by. I can only write things that are important to me, but I do need to take the reader into consideration. What does she expect? What does she want? Can I give her some of what she wants, but not in the way she thought she'd get it? I try to foil her, so that she can get what she wants to happen, but not in the way she thought it'd happen, at all.

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok, $6, Amazon

Image: Chris Macke