This is a transcript of Recommended Season 4 Episode 8.
This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. In this episode, Jean Kwok and Sarah Enni talk about books that have influenced their own writing.
Jean Kwok is an award-winning, New York Times and international bestselling author. Her books include Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Her work has been published in 18 countries and taught in universities, colleges and high schools across the world. She has been selected for many honors including the American Library Association Alex Award and the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award. In between her undergraduate degree at Harvard and MFA in fiction at Columbia, she worked for three years as a professional ballroom dancer. Her beloved brother Kwan passed away in a tragic plane accident and was the inspiration behind her latest novel Searching for Sylvie Lee, coming June 4 of 2019.
My name is Jean Kwok and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is my recommended.
The Blind Assassin, which won the Booker Prize, is actually three books in one. The main story is of Iris Chase Griffen, who’s the descendant of a wealthy Toronto family. The book begins with the death of her sister, Laura. We follow how Iris and Laura grow up together. We feel the love and jealousy in between them, and we are impassioned by their love for men. Meanwhile, intertwined with this story is another book. The one which Laura published after her death called The Blind Assassin, which is a provocative sexy novel about two lovers. Then finally, there’s a third storyline woven throughout, which is the story that Iris’ lover tells her.
It’s a science fiction fantasy about a blind assassin and a sacrificial virgin. Somehow, these three narratives combine in this kind of miraculous fashion to become one great book, which is much more than the sum of its parts.
I grew up in a household without books in English and so I’ve always regarded books as something incredibly precious. I immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, New York when I was five and we were very poor. Even though I was only a child, I worked with my family in a clothing factory in Chinatown after school every day. There was absolutely no money for books and the only ones I had access to were from the library. The only books that I actually owned were given to me as a part of those reading programs at the library where you’d read a certain number of books and then you’d get to choose one free. I didn’t just read books. I consumed them. For me, they were a source of solace, of knowledge, and of company because as a working class immigrant, a foreigner in this country, I often felt more kinship with books than with people in my real life.
For a very young age, I looked for answers in books for questions ranging from how do you make your hair shiny to why do we live at all. The how do you make your hair shiny, I read in a book that you should actually iron it with mayonnaise, but that was not a good answer because I did try it and I need to look further for that answer. As well as why do we live at all, still searching for the answer to that one, so anyway. From a young age, I would
make these lists of great books and I’d methodically read them all.
I got my BA in English Lit from Harvard, but I never gave up this habit of searching for books that would broaden my horizons and make my hair shinier. Anyway, so once in a while, I would read something that would just blow my tiny little mind. It was after college when I was on one of my reading binges that I had The Blind Assassin on one of my lists. I read it and then I reread it and I reread it and I reread it. I have read this book so many times because there are so many things that love about it.
Every sentence Atwood writes shows us who these two women are. Laura’s righteousness, her innocence and the oldest sister, Iris’ wisdom and her hard strength. We see how they develop over the course of the novel. The novel is breathtakingly beautifully written, and it’s filled with details that are so telling and filled with emotion, like when the narrator shrugs on a coat, which has just been worn by a man, and she feels how it’s warm from his body and we know everything about their relationship in that one moment.
That fantasy science fiction bit just makes me smile. It’s so wild. It’s so out there. It reminds me there are no limits to what we can do. I think sometimes we try to tame ourselves and kind of compress everything, keep everything under control in a book, and then that just reminds me anything goes. That streak wildness is partly what makes a book alive. Then on top of those three interwoven narratives, Atwood uses all these different voices to
tell us the story, so you’re reading and then suddenly there’s a newspaper article and it’s not always given to the reader in chronological order. You have to use your brain. The article might be in the future. It might be in the past. We’re not sure how it connects to the story, not yet.
Then, there’s so many voices in the book, not just of the sisters and of the lover, but also of characters like their servant Reenie who’s no nonsense, very funny, very honest, and says some hard truths. I love this book. I love the way it’s so intertextual. I love the way all of the different pieces form a kind of mosaic and in the end, the reader sees this huge picture, which is so much richer and greater than each of the narratives alone.
I think that books are like stones cast into a pond and each one creates a series of ripples that interact with other ripples. I can see so many echoes of this great novel in other work. Just books that everyone knows, like The Girl on the Train, which uses three interwoven narratives to create suspense, or another big hit, The Woman in Cabin 10, which uses newspaper articles and other types of media in order to bring the story forward and in order to create suspense. I think that The Blind Assassin has definitely influenced my own writing. It’s one of those books that I keep on my desk and it’s like a tuning fork.
My first novel Girl in Translation was inspired by the depth of the voice, the feeling in between the characters, the family story. The first chapter of my novel begins with a photograph from the past. The first chapter of the novel within the novel in The Blind Assassin also begins with a photograph from the past and they’re very different photos with very different messages, but it was still an inspiration to me. When I wrote my debut novel, I was really admiring of Atwood’s use of multiple narratives and timelines and media,
but I was not able to do that. It was too hard for me. I loved it, but I couldn’t do it yet. It was something that kind of simmered in the back of my mind and now I have a new book coming out in June called Searching for Sylvie Lee, which actually does use many of the same techniques and in a different context.
Because of course I write immigrant stories, I write about culture and language and Chinese American characters. In some ways very different from Atwood writes, but Searching Sylvie Lee is also about two sisters and the older dazzling, gifted sister disappears while on a trip to the Netherlands and the younger timid sister has to pull herself together to figure out what happens to her beloved older sister. Instead of three different novels, because I’m interested in language and I’m interested in unreliable narrators and how hard it is to understand each other even within the same family how women within the same immigrant family might not share the same mother tongue, I take Atwood’s technique and then I twist it.
I’ve read everything by Margaret Atwood because I am such an admirer of hers. I think that she has a great and dazzling intellect, and it’s packaged within the gifts of a poet. She’s working on so many levels and then I think the thing that I admire her for most is that on top of all of this, which requires a tremendous amount of disciple and intellect, she’s still really fun-loving and free, like this crazy science fiction story that’s woven throughout The Blind Assassin. Who does that? What’s it doing there? It works. It definitely works because it reflects off the themes of the book, but it’s a kind of wild, fun, free thing that’s inserted in the book, which I admire tremendously and also enjoy tremendously.
Of course, Margaret Atwood is coming out with a sequel to one of her great classic books The Handmaid’s Tale, and I just cannot wait to read it.
Thanks again to Jean Kwok for joining us and recommending The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. Her newest novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, published by William Morrow, will be released on June 4 of 2019. You can follow her on Twitter at JeanKwok.
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Sarah Enni is an author, podcaster, and journalist living in Los Angeles. She created and hosts the First Draft podcast, where she talks shop with other KidLit authors. She’s a contributor to the New York Times bestselling villain anthology, Because You Love to Hate Me. Her debut young adult novel, Tell Me Everything, follows the reclusive Ivy, who has been hiding her art and her identity in the shadows — until a gift gone awry thrusts her into the spotlight.
My name is Sarah Enni and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is my recommended.
This book came into my life when I was very young because it is something that my mother always loved. So I remember reading The Hobbit, which is The Lord of the Rings Trilogy has three books, but they are kind of sole sequels to The Hobbit, which is kind of the standalone book meant for a younger audience by the same author, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read The Hobbit when I was kid, and I really vividly remember watching this 1970s animated cartoon version of The Hobbit.
So it came into my life through my mom and I like to think of that often especially when, as women writers we kind of come up against barriers in genre fiction and like “fake nerd girl” or whatever that is, a concept that women aren’t intrinsically drawn to genre, which of course, we know is ridiculous. My mom loves fantasy novels. She loves sci-fi. I got all of my love of that from her.
When I thought about who is my favorite character in this series, what came to mind first was the character of Gandalf, who is the wizard who does have his own emotional arc throughout the series and he is not a patently good character. He’s very complicated. But I think of Gandalf a lot in the course of my daily life because I have such a powerful desire for there to be one person in my life who knows everything, who is like a trustworthy source on any one thing. I love the idea that you can fully trust someone to see things clearly.
Gandalf is the one who leads the Fellowship of the Ring on their journey. He, like I said, stumbles along the way, but he’s always this fount of knowledge. He knows the history of the world, he is the one that can fill them in contextually. He’s a leader, he’s someone they can trust and love. So I think of that character very fondly.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is definitely the master work of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life. It is the series that narratively moves through the world he created. He was a world builder, so his entire life was spent creating maps, creating new languages, there’s a whole system of runes that he made based on the languages in the book and a history of the world. So basically, it’s the series to like, if you’re gonna like them.
But, also what I love about this series is how funny it is. I find it to be really, really funny and dry in this very British way. It’s like, he was such a linguist so there’s lots of wordplay, there’s songs in it, they go off on tangents. So it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, that’s for sure, but I do find it … I get the sense that I’m sitting next to the fire to this old man who, if you listen closely is telling jokes under his breath and I kind of love that feeling when I read a
The funny thing about this series is that I don’t recommend it to people. When I talk about how much I love this series to other grown people and they express interest in reading it, I often, am like, “You know what, don’t. Because it’s opaque, it’s very hard to get into.” There’s many aspects of Tolkien’s world that are evidence by his service in World War I and his anti-industrial views and his racism. He was a white, British man, who lived his life primarily in the early 20th century. There’s inappropriate parallels in this book.
It doesn’t holdup in some ways, and also, there is such a rich world of
fantasy novels now that owe a great debt of thanks to the kind of world building that Tolkien did. That if someone’s interested in reading fantasy, epic-high fantasy, there’s other more modern series that I push them toward. But if someone’s really, really into it, then I will give them the books and recommend it to them.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Tolkien and the broader concept of genre fantasy influences my writing because I write contemporary novels or the very least my first novel, Tell Me Everything, is contemporary. I was thinking about what it means that I still prefer reading fantasy, but I’m not writing it. What does that mean? How do I interplay with that?
And one thing that really jumped out to me was that as a contemporary writer, I’m still completely devoted to setting and descriptions. In a fantasy world, you meet the reader and the reader knows nothing. The reader is very open to the possibility of anything, so you do have to guide your reader with a steady hand, filling in the information about the world without bogging them down with information and with giving their imagination room to fill in some of the gaps.
But in contemporary, I sometimes read other contemporary books and I feel that they make assumptions about what their readers know. Just because you’re writing a book set in the real world doesn’t mean that everyone has the same perspective or idea of what’s important or aesthetic.
My book, Tell Me Everything, is set in like a fantasized Santa Cruz and so it was important to me to talk about the ocean and I don’t assume that people know what Santa Cruz is or what it’s like or what it means to be a sleepy, seaside town. I really wanted to fill in the gaps and I wanted to talk about what it smelled like and what kind of food they ate.
And so, I think I created from a young age, a very high standard for world building and fantasy books. So, when I find a book that does the same thing where I can tell that author is just swimming around in their own world for a long time, building the mythos, understanding the structure, I can really feel that and I really respond to that.
The other thing is point-of-view. Tolkien has a point-of-view. As I said, some aspects of his book and what he’s talking about haven’t aged well and there’s undertones that are worth looking at and examining in a more modern lens, but basically, his book was about war. He served in World War I briefly and his son served in World War II, and he was against
industrialization in England. He was so dedicated to the preservation of the English countryside. His books are about loving home and loving a sense of understanding your place in the world and resisting the destructive forces of modernization.
I’m not saying that I fully am onboard with everything that he is saying, but he has a point-of-view and it is passionately argued to the narrative of this series. I find myself very impatient with books that don’t have a point-of-view. I’m not saying I want an author to be preachy or certainly not heavy-handed in what they’re saying, but I want to have an authorial authority.
I want to feel they’re working through a major theme or issue or idea in their life through that book. I want them to take me on this intellectual journey, and that’s what fantasy and sci-fi and other genre does, right. It takes our real world and issues that we’re really facing and it puts a different façade on them.
It allows us to see them in different ways, and we see that with so many authors of color now using fantasy and sci-fi and other genre to talk about things that are important to talk about and sometimes need to be cast in a different light in order to get through to other audiences. I think that’s, we’re so well-served by that and I think those authors are doing yeoman’s work, so I really respond to that.
This series has been formative for me through kind of every step of evolution and I have vague but sincere plans to write a book that is somewhat loosely based on the structure of these books. I feel comforted
by them, so I think that’s the height of compliments, right, to an author. I feel that having a little bit of Tolkien and his wild imagination be a part of my life has enriched it fully.
Thanks again to Sarah Enni for joining us and recommending The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Her debut novel, Tell Me Everything, published by Point, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at SarahEnni.
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