Grief can be a powerful source of inspiration for artistic works. Jean Kwok demonstrates this in her new novel Searching for Sylvie Lee, in which a family copes with the disappearance of one of their own, much as Kwok had to cope with the loss of her brother, who disappeared and was later discovered to have died in a plane crash. Kwok was devastated by the loss, and here, she opens up about how she turned her grief into art.
When people ask me how I find the subject matter for my novels, I answer that I generally write from trauma to trauma. I think of each book as a vessel powered by a motor. My emotional connection to the subject matter, my own deep investment in the characters and themes, is what drives each novel. I write because I’m passionate about trying to find the answers to something, even as I understand no answers might exist. I’m trying to transform grief into art. My newest novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, was inspired by the disappearance of my beloved brother.
“So you’re doing therapy on yourself,” some smart-aleck always says to me. I think that is not entirely the truth although it’s certainly partially accurate. There is a therapeutic value to voicing a painful incident, no matter how senseless and tragic it may have been. The act of telling transforms, just the way shining a light upon an object changes the way we view it.
However, the attempt to shape art from grief is not simply therapy. To return to the metaphor of the novel as a vessel, I don’t want to send my readers into the ocean, only to have the ship fall apart. I need the novel to be enlightening and entertaining to read as well. So in order to have the distance to manipulate my material, I changed the missing person from a man to a woman, Sylvie. If I had tried to write a novel about a missing brother, it would have been too painful for me and the gravitational force of the truth of my brother’s life would have overwhelmed any attempt to reform the material.
Once I made that decision, the book began to take on a life of its own, even though it continued to be powered by my devastation when my brother went missing. That will always be the beating heart of Searching for Sylvie Lee. The characters came alive for me and took off on their own journeys. I began to think about how we often don’t know the people we love most, especially within an immigrant family, where different generations might be fluent in different languages.
In Searching for Sylvie Lee, Sylvie is the dazzling golden girl, the older sister who disappears during a visit to the Netherlands, and her timid younger sister Amy must pull herself together and follow in Sylvie’s footsteps in a desperate attempt to find her. The story is told by Ma, Amy, and Sylvie. While the book is written in English, each narrator’s inner dialogue is in their own native tongue: respectively, Chinese, English, and Dutch. For example, since Ma can barely speak English and Amy can’t really speak Chinese, Amy sees Ma as a simple woman. The reader, however, gets to hear Ma’s true voice in Ma’s chapters and understands that she is very intelligent and perceptive in Chinese. Also, since Sylvie’s narrative is backdated by a month, the reader experiences what happens to Sylvie leading up to her disappearance even as Amy is uncovering clues in the present time. Amy realizes that both Sylvie and Ma have been keeping secrets.
Ultimately, I hope that Searching for Sylvie Lee is not only a tribute to my dear brother’s disappearance but also an exploration of immigration, language, romantic love, love within a family, and how we sometimes know least those we love the most.
Jean Kwok is the award-winning, New York Times and international bestselling author of Searching for Sylvie Lee, 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, 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.