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An Interview with Kwan Kew Lai


Originally from Penang, Malaysia, I came to the United States on a full scholarship to attend Wellesley College. Without the scholarship, I would not have become a doctor. I was a Harvard Medical physician in the Boston area. In 2006 I left my position as a full-time professor of medicine dedicating part of my time to humanitarian work;in HIV/AIDS and aiding in disaster relief in various parts of the world, including the Ebola outbreak, the Syrian, Rohingya refugee crises, the war in Yemen, and the COVID-19 pandemic in New York and the Navajo Nation. I am a three-time recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award. My work has appeared in peer-reviewed professional journals, The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, The Infectious Society of America Science Speaks, MedPage Today, Balloon Literary Journal, Literally Stories, Vine Leave Press, Synapses, and others. I am the author of Lest We Forget: A Doctor’s Experience with Life and Death During the Ebola Outbreak, Into Africa, Out of Academia: A Doctor’s Memoir, and The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I am an Infectious Disease doctor and in 2006 I decided to leave my professorship in medicine to do humanitarian work. When I was assigned to Tanzania, Africa for a few months to educate the healthcare workers about the care of HIV/AIDS, it was my first time in Africa. I was alone almost every evening, and there was no WIFI, TV, or radio, so I read using a headlamp and started to keep a journal. It occurred to me I should write about my early life to let my children understand why and how a girl from an impoverished family halfway around the world came to the US to achieve her dreams of becoming a doctor to help the poor. I did not intend it for publication but after working on it for a while, I decided it would be worthwhile to publish it to inspire readers, especially young girls, with my story. That was how The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly was published.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I was a doctor and a professor of medicine in a medical school. Being a full-time professor and a mother of three children, I was swamped. I started volunteering when my third child was in his last year of high school, because I would soon have an empty nest. I used to run marathons and I still run for fitness. I love hiking and have hiked up to Mt. Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp. I also paint and display my artwork at the Belmont Gallery of Art.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

Initially, I toyed with a few titles—Growing Up as a Girl: I Have Eaten Salt More than You Have Eaten Salt (a saying my father often said to us to indicate he was wiser than his daughters), and Girls Were Useless. I liked the first better. After working on this manuscript on and off for several years, I fell in love with the idea of being a swallow that has the freedom to fly wherever it wishes to go, thus the title The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly was born.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

The co-founder of my publisher, Vine Leaves Press, Jessica Bell is also an artist, a poet, a musician, and a book designer. She asked me for some ideas for the book cover. One of them was a picture of swallows flying in the evening into the sky. When I saw the book cover, I instantly fell in love with it. The swallows flying in the sky, silhouetted by a full moon, using colors that depict the ambiance of a hopeful evening, convey the sentiment of the arc of the memoir perfectly. Although this was the first book I started to write, it was not my first published book. My first one was Lest We Forget: A Doctor’s Experience with Life and Death during the Ebola Outbreak, but holding a book I worked long and hard to create was still thrilling.

It was an agented book. I learned a lot about writing, especially writing a memoir, the developmental part of it, and the arc of my story.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

“Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys

“Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé,

“Independent Women” by Destiny’s Child

“Flawless” by Beyoncé

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I wish my readers will be inspired by the story of a girl from an impoverished background, who achieved her dream of education with determination and persistence despite many obstacles barring her way. My message to my readers is “Don’t give up but fly away with your dream.”

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

When my book was published, it felt like I gave birth to a baby. I spent years creating, nurturing, and putting it into the world. After it is published, it has to be made known to the world, to find a wide readership to spread my message. I went on book talks and signing and it was most rewarding to hear from the audience how inspired they were by my book and thanked me for writing it.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I am working on three novels, one MG and the others adult fiction. The MG novel is about a ten-year-old girl, conceived through IVF, and her journey to find out who her real mother was. The first adult novel is about a protagonist, a BIPOC, and a woman struggling to break the glass ceiling in academia where males still predominate. The second adult novel is a family saga spanning three generations from 1920 to 1980, spotlighting the resilient women who challenged societal norms to shape an unconventional destiny through colonialism and war.

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