TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
The novel "Mambo in Chinatown" takes readers from the grungy kitchen at the back of a not-so-nice Chinese restaurant in New York City to the seemingly glamorous world of professional ballroom dancing. And in the middle of it all, is the book's narrator, 22-year-old Charlie Wong, who describes herself in the opening lines as the daughter of a dancer and a noodle maker. Charlie finds herself torn between two cultures trying to hold her family together. This is the latest novel by Jean Kwok, whose previous book "Girl in Translation" was a New York Times best-seller. Jean Kwok told us about how "Mambo in Chinatown" was inspired by her own life.
JEAN KWOK: I come from a very poor family, we're immigrants. We moved from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, and, you know, we lived in this completely rundown apartment that didn't even have any heat. And, you know, we're working in a sweatshop in Chinatown. And to make things worse, at home I was considered this total disaster of a Chinese daughter because instead of cleaning or sweeping the floor, they would find me, like, reading a book or daydreaming or looking out the window. So Charlie is based upon me in a personal sense. And then in a kind of broader sense, I wanted really to create a heroine who is a working class and who struggles.
KEITH: Well, and she starts the book washing dishes in the Chinese restaurant where her dad works.
KWOK: That's right. And, you know, there are so many people that we interact with and pass every day - like the girl who hands you your food at the takeout counter or the person you give your laundry to, or the woman who cleans the bathrooms. But we never see them. They are invisible to us. I wanted to write a story about those people because even though I personally escaped that life, I left so many friends and family behind.
KEITH: Can you also describe Charlie's family for us?
KWOK: Well, Charlie lives with her father who is so well-intentioned and loves her so much, but he's kind of old-fashioned, you know. And he's really desperately doing his best for his two daughters but it is limited by how he sees the world. And then we have Charlie who is a 20-year-old daughter and Lisa who's eleven, and she's the younger sister.
KEITH: I love how you describe Charlie and how clumsy she is and her lack of fashion sense. And I'm hoping that you can read for us from the top of page 14. This is when she's getting dressed. Her sister is helping her get ready for a job interview at the dance studio.
KWOK: (Reading) The big sac-like, red dress covered my entire red body and it seemed as if I was wearing a red turban on my head with the ends of the scarf trailing down behind me like a tail. Do you think it's too much red? No, said Lisa loyally. You look like a gypsy, Charlie. I gave her a quick hug. Then we stare down at my shoes. I was wearing my sturdy dishwasher's shoes. They'll be fine, I said.
KEITH: You actually wore an outfit like that. Is that right?
KWOK: I did. I had managed to get out of my sweatshop life. And I had gone to Harvard. And at Harvard, they had taught me many things, but did not teach me how to dress. And when I went for an interview at a professional ballroom dance studio, this was the outfit that I managed to put together for myself.
KEITH: And much like Charlie, you did get the job.
KWOK: Miraculously I did. But they made me promise to take that thing off my head and never to wear it again.
KEITH: And through the book, Charlie transforms. Can you tell us about that transformation?
KWOK: Well, I guess, you know, one of the points I wanted to make in the book was that beauty comes from inside. And that is something that I had learned when I trained myself as a dancer. I always thought that, you know, there were people who were born beautiful and that was kind of how it was, and the rest of us were out of luck. But I learned from watching dancers that actually, you know - a dancer at rest is very much like a normal person. But it's when they get up and they pull themselves together is the confidence and the training that that is what unleashes the beauty that's inside. And that's what happens to Charlie when she finds her own talents.
KEITH: It felt like "Cinderella" or like "Grease," almost. As she gets transformed, they put these sparkly dresses on her. She puts real high heels on.
KWOK: "Mambo in Chinatown" is certainly a Cinderella story in some ways, you know. It is about a woman who finds herself and transforms. But of course, it's not as simple as all of that because she has, you know, also in the East and West struggle at the same time since she is lying to her father and not letting him know that she is actually working in a dance studio.
KEITH: And do you find that that sort of tug between Eastern and Western for recent immigrant families is universal?
KWOK: Absolutely, I think that, you know, that feeling of being in between two boundaries, you know, East or West or old or new - that is something that so many of us experience in our lives. And certainly for immigrants, you know, it's a constant struggle. And it's that struggle that is so interesting and that can lead to so much richness.
KEITH: I want to go back to the dancing. The book is called "Mambo in Chinatown," and throughout it you describe various ballroom dance moves in just beautiful detail. For those of us who don't watch "Dancing With The Stars," can you describe the mambo for us?
KWOK: Well, the mambo is the hardest dance. And the reason it's hard is because of the rhythm. You have this heartbeat of the rhythm and it goes bump, bump, bump - bump, bump, bump. And what you want, when you hear it, is you want to step on the bump because it goes bump, bump, bump. So want to step on the one but just like in "Dirty Dancing," for those of us who may have seen this movie, you cannot step on the one, you have to restrain yourself and step on the two. And so that creates this kind of really sensual pulse to the dance.
KEITH: Jean Kwok. Her latest novel is "Mambo in Chinatown." Thank you for joining us.
KWOK: Thank you so much, Tamara, and until the next time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.