Something You’ve Never Said Before #1
Lake Forest Reads: Ragdale is a community reads program in partnership with the Ragdale Foundation, Lake Forest College, and the Friends of Lake Forest Library. In most years, I engage in a live conversation with the featured author in a keynote event at Lake Forest College. 2020 found the event on Zoom, although no less lively, with the inimitable Jean Kwok.
The goal of the interview is simple: to get authors who are accustomed to media appearances, and must by trade be practiced in packaging answers, to answer in a way they have never answered before.
My conversation with Jean Kwok about her novel Searching for Sylvie Lee was wide-ranging, and like another Sylvie—from Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980)—Kwok’s Sylvie refuses to be painted by others; her life seeks an understanding of its conditions, of the familial, international, and ethnolinguistic structures that defines and ultimately constricts her search for identity and agency.
The transcript below is edited for context and clarity.
Davis Schneiderman: Searching for Sylvie Lee is an excellent read, and it offers its charms across two different dimensions: as a literary novel about family and as a mystery. It intermingles both in a multigenerational tale of intrigue and identity. If you’ve read it, you know this be true already. And if you haven’t, you are in for a surprise and a sustained pleasure. It is my pleasure to welcome Jean Kwok to the virtual stage with me here tonight. You’re all muted, so you can’t really clap.
Jean, we’re just delighted to have you with us tonight, and thank you for doing this.
Jean Kwok: Thank you so much, Davis. I’m excited to be talking with you tonight. I’m curious what we’re going to reveal in our discussion.
DS: Let me start by saying what some of you who have been to this event before know—there’s a bit of a method to the interview. My goal, and I’m not always successful, is to try to get the author to talk about things that they have not already spoken about a thousand times on the book publicity circuit.
Sometimes this goes better than other times, because people understandably default to things that they have said before. Therefore, I try and ease into it, and the first couple of questions are not going to be the ones you have perhaps never answered before. Once we’re done, you can tell me if I’ve been successful or not.
JK: I’m excited.
DS: Alright. First question: You’re in the Netherlands. What time is it there?
JK: It’s right past 1:00 a.m. here. So, it is actually nighttime. And if you could see outside my windows, you would see that it is pitch black. I have a full array of studio lights so that it doesn’t look incredibly black. You will maybe also see my two new kittens, Mona and Lisa. They’re like two little white balls of fluff. It’s night, so they’re really excited that I’m down here. And you know how cats are at night. This is their time, so if you seem them chasing each other behind me, that’s who they are.
DS: All cats are gray at night, except when there’s good lighting. Thank you for doing this, particularly in the evening, more the nighttime. And I wanted to call that out. Here is an easy starter question. Where did this book come from? Tell us about how it emerged.
JK: Well, I think that the beating heart of Searching for Sylvie Lee is always going to be the real-life disappearance of my own brother who died in a tragic plane crash. That happened years ago. It was like Sylvie in the story—Sylvie is the dazzling, brilliant, successful older sister who disappears—and Amy is the stuttering, shy, younger sister who has to pull herself together to go and find her. It was actually right around this time of year that my brother Kwan didn’t call home. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving and, of course, that was worrisome.
Yet it’s the kind of worrisome where you think, ‘yes, it’s worrisome, but that can happen.’ People can forget. They can be busy. The phone can be broken. It’s a little bit weird. Nobody had heard from him, but he lived alone. It wasn’t that unusual. It wasn’t until the moment that he did not come home for Thanksgiving that my family really start to panic, and I was living in the Netherlands at that point.
I come from a very conservative, traditional Chinese family. I’m a first-generation immigrant myself, and status is conveyed by how old you are and by your gender, by whether you’re a man or not. And guess what? I’m not. So being a woman and being the youngest of seven children, I was as far down in that conservative Chinese hierarchy as you could go. Even though I had also gone to good schools, I had nowhere near the status of Kwan in my family. He was a very brilliant, very competent person, who took care of a lot of things that I was happy to let him take care of. So, I had the same feeling as Amy in the book when Kwan disappeared; I thought, oh, my goodness, it’s up to me now to pull myself together and figure out what happened to him.
DS: Thank you for sharing that very personal story. I am terribly sorry that you experienced this tragedy, and yet I understand how it motivated and unfurled the narrative of Searching for Sylvie Lee. One of the things you’re already hitting upon is duality; I perceive many binary splits in the narrative, and whether those are geographical—the Netherlands and the United States—there’s a diasporic quality to what’s going on. Before we get to some of those things that are particular to the content of narrative, I want to ask you about the structural level.
Here’s what I’m hoping you might be able to address: The book is two types of books. For me, it’s a mystery and a thriller, or it at least has many of the conventions of those genres. Searching for Sylvie Lee is also a deeply moving, family minded, literary, multigenerational novel that could stand on its own without the mystery elements. How do you balance those two modes, and was it always clear to you that this book would explore both modalities from the start of the writing process, or did it emerge later on?
JK: OK, Davis, now I understand why you have your reputation for asking the incredible questions, because that is one I’ve never had before. I love that question because you hit the nail right on the head. When Searching for Sylvie Lee was still in manuscript form, my agent read it and she was blown away. She absolutely loved it, and she sent it out to editors to see who might be interested in purchasing and acquiring this book. A lot of people were interested so I flew to New York to meet with them.
When you go into this type of talk with an editor, it is kind of like speed dating: You try to get to know each other. You’re thinking, can we work together? What do I think about this person? But to me, the most important question in all of those meetings is how would an editor improve my book. I know the book needs improving; it always does. You want an editor to give you feedback that is going to push you. Yet the feedback also has to resonate with what you believe the book will be. So, if I chose an editor who said, I really see this as a horror story, for instance, I would have a problem, because we would be at odds throughout the entire process.
I met with all of these wonderful, brilliant top editors in New York City, and half of them wanted Sylvie Lee to be a thriller. The other half wanted it to be a literary family drama. I was experiencing the duality from these initial readers, where some of them thought the manuscript needed to be speeded up, recommending that I could cut a whole bunch of the immigrant material. They wanted the book to be like Gone Girl, for example.
Other editors thought that I did not need the story at all. None of it. We could cut the whole thing, they said, we don’t need the mystery. We have more than enough with the relationships and the three women and how they love each other, their culture, and the languages, etc.
Yet it was really my editor today, Jessica Williams of William Morrow, who was one of the few people who saw the book the way I did and who talked about enhancing elements of both stories. I love the fact that it’s this balance of both a literary family immigrant story and a suspenseful mystery-thriller. When I was writing it, it was probably more of the family story than the mystery story, but it naturally became a mystery-thriller because it is about a disappearance and it is about revealing what happened to this person.
It was only in the process of writing it that I realized how much it could be like that, and this happened only once I came up with the idea of changing the timelines, so that what happens in the novel is Amy the younger sister’s story happens a month after Sylvie the older sister’s. In this way we see Amy take off, go to the Netherlands to try to find Sylvie. We then see Sylvie take off—a month earlier—and we can follow along with Amy as she discovers clues. We can then watch Sylvie to actually see what really happened to Sylvie and what led to her disappearance.
This structural decision made it possible for the novel to become much more of a mystery-thriller than it was originally. I did not articulate that idea to myself until the book was published and it hit all these mystery-thriller lists. And I thought, that’s right. I guess that’s what it is.
DS: I really love that answer of the organic cascade of the genres from your structural decision. I want to move now, from that structural question, to a different aspect of duality, in reference to your earlier novel. Girl In Translation balances the life of a bright young woman in a double life between private school and a sweatshop in Chinatown. In Mambo in Chinatown, the text accomplishes something similar, with the protagonist torn between the worlds of ballroom dancing and that of Chinatown.
In Searching for Sylvie Lee, though, you don’t have a single character leading a kind of dual existence; rather, you have the two sisters’ lives anchored from two different geographical spaces. You are expressing duality on a geographical scale, and I wonder if this aspect of the text was important during its genesis. You talked already about how this was inspired by your real-life brother, but I wonder if that makes sense to you.
JK: Oh, absolutely. I thought partly as a duality, but also as a three-way system. Because, of course, even though Ma does not show up as much as the two sisters, her perspective is essential. I thought about it on different levels; first of all, emotionally. How, for example, would Amy and Sylvie see the Netherlands differently? How would Ma see the Netherlands differently, given her choices?
Sylvie was given away by her parents to be raised by her grandmother who is living in the Netherlands. Sylvie lived in the Netherlands until she was nine years old, and she was brought there because her parents just couldn’t afford to keep her with them. They were working day and night in Chinatown and could barely make ends meet. It wasn’t until Amy was born that they brought Sylvie back. Nonetheless, the Netherlands is her home. The Netherlands is the place where she’s always belonged, and that has never demanded that she be exceptional in the way that people are expected to be exceptional in the United States. When Amy follows in Sylvie’s footsteps and goes to the Netherlands, she sees it as a strange land filled with very tall people who are speaking this language she can’t understand. She finds it threatening and mysterious.
While for Ma—who had to leave her baby behind in the Netherlands when she first flew there— it’s a landscape of tears. It is a dark, rainy place. On that level, in terms of what it meant to the characters, I was aware. I also was thinking symbolically of what the Netherlands might mean, and not just the Netherlands, but every location in the book. What does it mean to go from the jungle of New York to the plains of the Netherlands, those wide-open egalitarian plains where people are less demanding? It’s a less demanding society than the United States.
We think that the greatest thing is to be special, to be yourself, to excel, and to be the most you can be. That’s really American. I didn’t realize how American that was until I moved to the Netherlands; in the Netherlands, you know what people mean when they say “do normal.” Being “normal” is actually the highest goal. If you stick up above being normal, it is not always a positive thing. There a lot of emphasis on taking care of the middle ground and much less on needing to be higher or lower. On all of those levels, absolutely.
DS: Well, Jean, I’d be delighted if American could be a little more “normal”—wouldn’t that be great? And you are predicting my next question about the concept of two moving to three. You’ve got these three narrators. Ma is the least present, but she is a narrator, right? She’s telling her story. And all three—Ma, Sylvie, and Amy—all, for me, represent these different ethnolinguistic spaces.
Sylvie spent her formative years in the Netherlands, using Dutch. Amy lives is in New York and is born in America. Ma is the Chinese immigrant who exists in the spaces between the two. Even though you just spoke about the distinctions between the United States and Netherlands, the book presents examples of casual racism in each space.
We have a moment where Amy is eating with Estelle in the Netherland, and is called a racial slur. There is a scene early on with Ma, who when pregnant is confronted with a white ghost figure around her. Could you address how those incidents, what’s sometimes called microaggressions, but I think of more accurately aggressions, play into the narrative.
JK: Right. They’re just aggressions. How those play within the kind of boundaries that the characters are allowed to move around in. Well, I think that what I tried to do with this novel and all my novels is to create a compelling story that can bring the reader along, that is a great read by itself, with nothing else, just a great page-turning read. Still, I have an ulterior motive. I’m always thinking about other issues, such as racism and culture and language, and how those can divide us from each other, from people who are different ethnicities and who speak different languages, but also from members of our own family. Amy is divided from Ma is divided from Sylvie because they don’t really share the same native language anymore.
So, you know, that’s something that I was very aware of when I was writing the book about those divisions of language and what those mean. The casual racism that occurs happens everywhere. I was talking to Celeste Ng about this and how she wrote Little Fires Everywhere. We were saying how sometimes readers come to us and they’re like, “wow, those incidents of racism in your book are so realistic. How did you make them up?”
Readers wonder how I made them up, and I then respond that I did not make them up. Basically, everything in my book—in Searching for Sylvie Lee—happened to me or happened to my children, or people I love. I know this very well: there is this wrong perception that if you dress well, that if you’re well educated, that if you’re well integrated, racism somehow doesn’t occur anymore.
In the US there’s a lot of consciousness of racism; maybe not with everyone, but it’s a part of the conversation. When a racist incident happens people will write essays about the incident and publish them; the conversation in the Netherlands, especially about Asians, has not developed very far. In some ways I can understand how that happens, because if you are not a person of color, you do not experience the world in the same way as a person of color does.
Here is an example: we were in the Netherlands in a restaurant. I was having dinner with my in-laws, who are white, my husband, and my kids. I went up to get something from the buffet; I walked by this big table of Dutch men who were all pretty drunk by the time I walked by. They started yelling things like, hey, Mulan, how are you doing Mulan?
I just rolled my eyes and ignored them. Then I went back to my table but I didn’t want to experience that again; that was not a highlight of my evening. The next time I needed to get something from the buffet, I just tagged along when my father-in-law had to get something. We went past the table and the men were completely silent. Nothing happened.
You hear people say things like, well, ‘I lived here for so many years, I have never seen a racist incident.’ Well, why would that be? Because it didn’t happen to you and it often doesn’t happen when you’re around. That reality was just the truth of my characters’ lives, that given who they are those are things that they would experience. I thought it was important for me to let that truth be shown in Searching for Sylvie Lee.
The thing that I think is really great about novels is that they allow everyone, no matter their gender, age, race, language skills to be totally in the heart and mind of the characters and of the narrator. It is great to allow readers to experience what is it like to be Ma and not to be able to fully express yourself in a certain language. What is it like to be Sylvie and to have people treat you like you don’t fully belong?
What is it like to be Amy and to have people say, well, can I put my eggroll in your rice paddy? How many times have I heard that line? Those kinds of things were important to put into the book.
DS: Definitely, and so much of the text resonates not only because of the way you express these incidents and because of the terrible reality of the lived experience. There is also the very brief scene where Sylvie, at Princeton, joins the Dutch lunch table and everyone is shocked that she can speak Dutch. You are just dealing with a person who doesn’t look like your stereotypical white American in America; you’re jumping to these two very different locations, and I find that to be fascinating.
It reminds me, brief aside, of my daughter who was born in China and she came to our family when she was 10 months old. I could count on many hands the times people would say, oh, does she speak Chinese? I always answered, well, as much as any other 10-month old speaks any language. In your work are all of these moments of assumption and judgment, from a perspective that is never had to wrestle with any of these particularities. This leads into my next question.
You already spoke about how there is a political project to your fiction. I recently finished Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. What I find interesting about Alam’s work is that deliberately writes characters that are not his experience. The main characters of Leave the World Behind are not gay people of color (although two of the main characters are Black). The characters could be read as traditional, and this suggests to me a very deliberate project. I wonder if you could comment on how identity, difference, and expectations manifest in the publishing industry, in the economic motivations of the industry. Do you find some of the same things at work in the expectation publishers have placed upon you in your writing, or in the marketplace?
JK: Well, I think that I have been lucky to have had very good editors and very good publishers who have been extremely supportive of me and my work.
Sometimes I have had comments about my work where somebody would say, ‘I feel like that’s too harsh. That wouldn’t really happen. She’s too evil.’ In real life, she was much more evil. I want to reply that you have no idea how evil people can be. Publishing is filled with a lot of great, very kind, well-intentioned people who come from different backgrounds. But I do think that publishing could become more diverse than it is. It’s true that sometimes when you’re writing about something from a certain cultural context that it is not fully understood. Part of the job of the writer is the power to make sure that anybody can pick up the book and be immersed in this cultural experience, even though they may well not come from that same culture.
The main issue for Searching for Sylvie Lee is the one that we had spoken about earlier–an unusual combination of a literary novel with a real plot. You know, a novel like this might not have such a clear plot, and it could be dealing mainly with the themes and identity and narrative and language and the use of language. Searching for Sylvie Lee does all of those things. And yet it has a real mystery-thriller plot. For many in the publishing world, it was a strange idea to marry those two and they actually wanted them to be separated. When I was kind of looking for the ideal editor for my book, I asked my agent, ‘are they right’?
Everyone seemed to want the book to be Gone Girl, or to have no story whatsoever. My agent said this book is going to be a huge success as it is and it was wonderful to have her support. I ultimately did find the right home for this book with Jessica Williams, my editor at William Morrow. The team there has been incredibly supportive. And I think I can honestly say that if I had not had them behind me, I am sure the book would not have been as successful as it has been.
DS: I didn’t mean to suggest that you were being pigeonholed in a particular way by any industry. Yet the long overdue calls for racial justice that are growing in this country have also touched the publishing industry.
Who are the decision makers? Who decides which books will be published and promoted? Who designs the covers for the books? I would go one step further and suggest that readers have a responsibility here as well. If your bookshelf is composed of books authored by mainly dead white guys, we have work to do. Just as teachers have a responsibility to decolonize the syllabus, we should all decolonize our bookshelves.
Part of what makes Searching for Sylvie Lee magical-and there’s so much that makes it magical—is the way it steps between these different genres, because it increases the reach and increases the audience. Do you see it this way? Have you attracted readers from different genre worlds who might not otherwise find a book like this?
JK: That’s absolutely true. I think some readers come to the book who would not ordinarily have come to a literary novel. While I think that’s wonderful, I am also a believer that plot conveys meaning. We have this unfortunate modern division between literature and story. And I don’t think that that is really valid. Rather, the events of the story are part of the theme and the message of the book; those events are just as integral to the literary quality of the book as the language, the symbolism, the use of metaphor, etc. Plot and story together convey meaning just as much as any other literary technique. This book, though, hit that sweet spot between the literary and the commercial. There are readers who’ve come to it who were surprised by the extra things they found in the book.
Because it was a “Read with Jenna” Today Show pick, I became engaged in conversation with a lot of folks who had not previously read books like mine. That was really wonderful, and I had questions that were of this kind—”why did you put racist incidents in the book?” with arguments as to how that content didn’t seem to have anything to do with the mystery. Yet as I just explained, it’s because those incidents are a part of these characters lives and a part of the life of a Chinese American or a Dutch Chinese person. And it was great to have those conversations. I believe in books being a conversation, a meeting ground and a bridge between author and reader.
DS: You are anticipating each of my next questions before I ask, but let’s now talk about endings. We are Facebook friends, and I recall one of your recent posts. I didn’t comment, but I read it with interest. The question you asked was of this kind: Should novels have an ending where things wrap up? When I was reading Sylvie Lee, I wasn’t entirely certain we’re ever going to discover her. I could easily imagine an alternative.
Did you ever have occasion to read this really The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño? The book is searching for these two characters who are founders of the Visceral Realist movement—Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano—but we never really find them. It’s all about absences, which is common in literary postmodernism, but I think you always knew that we were going to find Sylvie.
But let me ask you the question your Facebook post posed: Should we always find Sylvie? Should we literally find the body, or, is there another way to go?
JK: That is such a great question because it highlights one of the issues that I think about as a writer and as an artist, which is, how much do you do for your own pleasure and how much do you do for your readers? If I were writing only for myself, I could certainly write many books that had open endings or that had ambiguous endings, because the books are then not so much about the story of the book, but maybe about the theme of the book.
And if the theme is absence or loss or unknowability, then an ambiguous ending, an open ending, fits perfectly. When I was in college, my major was modern poetry and experimental postmodern fiction. I really like Italo Calvino, for example. As a reader I enjoy experimental work and I think it’s really, exciting. However, I am two kinds of readers: I have one hat on sometimes when I’m reading to find something that’s intellectually interesting. I have another hat on when I am reading for emotional satisfaction. I can tell you that those open-ended endings make me crazy. It really drives me nuts when I feel like the author had no intention whatsoever. If there’s a clear intention and the author didn’t want to show us the entire road, but rather only the entrance to the road, I’m usually fine with that. Or if, as you said, a work ends ambiguously because that’s the point, I can appreciate that as well.
Yet I do have to say that there’s a part of me that becomes frustrated by not having a very clear ending. I put out that Facebook post and I got so many replies, more than 100 on my own page and more than 300 on the “Read with Jenna” page. Most people were very adamant; they hate ambiguous endings. They hate them because they feel betrayed. They have emotionally invested in the characters and they feel let down and betrayed by not having a clear ending.
As a writer, I really believe in my reader. I do not ascribe to the romantic notion of “I’m going to go and emote by myself and the whatever I emote, I’m going to publish” because I do not write things that are purely for myself. I write poetry. I love poetry still, but I don’t publish poetry because I don’t want it to be edited. It’s something that’s personal to me that I keep for myself. I write novels knowing that they’re going to be read. I write them intending to publish them. In fact, I think of a novel as a game between me and my reader, and I enjoy that. Of course, I was brought up in the age of deconstruction and all that, but I really do believe in the text as a meeting ground between author and reader, with a reader bringing as much to the book as the author does.
The reader has the right to interpret the book however they want, and I am constantly anticipating my reader as I write. I’m trying to mislead my reader. I’m trying to entertain and enlighten my reader.
When it comes to the ending, it becomes the question of how much do I want to frustrate my reader. It’s not an issue for Searching for Sylvie Lee. I always know the ending before I begin a book. I have to have the ending. If I don’t have the ending, how could I possibly lead to the ending in a clever way? That’s not really obvious, but I always knew that we would have this particular ending.
For the book I’m working on now, I think I have a really great ending, yet there is a question that remains to be answered at the end. I’m not an author that would ever leave the big questions hanging. All the mysteries of the book will be solved by the end of the book. I think that’s only fair for my readers. Even so, there are some things that exist in a gray area. There’s a storyline that is outside the scope of the actual timeline of the book that I’m writing now. I am wondering how clear I have to make the answer. I know the answer. I know whether or not these two people reconcile. Do I hint at it? Do I show the knock at the door? Do I show the entire reconciliation or the lack of reconciliation? Those are the questions that keep me up awake at night.
DS: Well, speaking as a writer and professor of postmodernism, I advocate for ambiguity. I like things to be obscure. Of course, even tidy endings are not tidy: if we were doing a deconstructive reading of your book, we would find that even though Searching for Sylvie Lee answers many questions, it has little slippages. I’ll only mention one. There is another entity that remains mysterious in its space, and the novel never fully unravels.
We don’t have time for you to address it, but it’s the cello, the character of the cello, and the music which is flitting between everything else.
We’re out of time, but here’s my final question: How successful was I in getting you to answer questions and talk about things you haven’t answered before?
JK: Absolutely fantastic, because these are, I think, almost all questions that I have not had before. I love what you just said about the cello, because, indeed, the cello is an instrument, but it’s also a character in the book that does speak. The cello has its own lines. It speaks to Sylvie and it speaks for itself. So, I really love that, and I’ve enjoyed talking with you so much.
DS: You’re very kind to say that. I certainly wasn’t looking for any of those plaudits. Yet, with the dumpster fire of 2020, I’ll take it, and will sleep happy tonight.
Jean Kwok is the New York Times and international bestselling author of Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Her work has been published in twenty countries and is taught in universities, colleges, and high schools across the world. She has been selected for numerous honors, including the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award international shortlist. She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and earned an MFA from Columbia University. She is fluent in Chinese, Dutch, and English, and currently lives in the Netherlands.
Author Photo Credit: Chris Macke