Friday, August 06, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Read by Grayce Wey
Category: Fiction
Published by: Penguin Audio
Format: Audiobook
On Sale: April 29, 2010

Synopsis provided by Publisher:

Introducing a fresh, exciting Chinese-American voice, Girl in Translation is an inspiring debut about a young immigrant in America, a smart girl who, living a double life between school and sweatshop, understands that her family’s future is in her hands.

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life—the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition—Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself, back and forth, between the worlds she straddles.

Through Kimberly’s story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and a world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic novel of an American immigrant—a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

My thoughts:

It's been so long since I've read either an immigrant or a coming-of-age story and this sweet little book by Jean Kwok more than made up for the long wait.   Our little heroine, Kimberly or Ah Kim as her mother calls her, has to endure a lot: a roach and mouse-infested home without any heating in Brooklyn; dire poverty; the embarrassment of being a "FOB" and not knowing a word of English; having to work in a factory/sweat shop after school and having the responsibility of guiding her Chinese mother through an English-speaking world.  What makes this even more complicated is she has to tread the tightrope between the two cultures and balance the Chinese desire for filial devotion and obedience with the American spirit for independence with the proficiency of a professional tightrope walker, and all this at the tender age of eleven!  But she possesses such spirit, such earnestness, you fall for her immediately.
Some reviewers have complained that the writing is too plain, but really, I think the "plainness" suited the story.  After all, this is an immigrant 11-year old girl, a non-speaker of the English language, surely one can't expect her to employ literary acrobatics?  The simple speak provides an air of authenticity to the story....what also provides authenticity is the fact that the author herself had a similar childhood.  In an interview with The Buzz, this is what the author had to say in answer to the question, "To what extent is the book autobiographical?"

It was certainly inspired by my own life, and by the worlds I had seen. My family moved from Hong Kong to New York when I was 5 years old and we, like Kimberly Chang and her mother, needed to start all over again. We began working in a sweatshop in Chinatown, which was filled with small children like myself. And we did live in an apartment without central heating, where we needed to keep the oven door open in order to have a bit of warmth through the bitter New York winters. Like Kimberly, I had a talent for school. I was also tested by a number of exclusive private schools and won scholarships to them, yet I was also accepted by a public high school for gifted children, which is where I went. After that, on a similar path to Kimberly’s, I was accepted to Harvard.

This story opened my eyes!  I didn't know for instance that so many people from Hongkong moved away   when the take over by China was imminent.  Infact, we (my family and I) were in Hongkong during the transition (1997) and we did notice a huge influx of peasants from the mainland but we didn't hear of anyone (except for the British, some expats and Chinese with British passport-holders) leaving the colony.  Also, I didn't know New York had sweatshops that employed children especially as recently as 1997!!!  That came as a huge shock to me. Something we don't talk about a lot, but which a lot of immigrants experience, is the exploitation by a family member.  In the novel, Kimberly's aunt, Paula, gets Kimberly and her mother to work for peanuts at her garment factory to pay off the money she (Paula) spent on bringing them to the United States.  I know of people here in Canada who are sponsored by relatives and then the very same relatives make them work in the home as cooks or nannies for little or no pay. Makes me realize that freedom is relative, you can be as much of a slave here in North America as in the country you are running away from.

What I did know and what the author reiterates in her story is that in the early '90's, racism due ignorance was alive and thriving. Kimberly, was picked on constantly for looking and sounding different. I am so glad that a "zero tolerance" dictate on bullying and racism has been put into place now.  About time!

Kimberlee was an extremely bright student.  One might be tempted to think of that as an Asian stereotype, but from what I see around me, Asian students are bright because they have such a wonderful work and study ethic.  Many of my daughters' friends, the Asian ones, keep long days at school and even their extra curriculars involve some form of academics or music.

This is a beautiful coming-of-age story, one that will definitely touch your heart and has been compared to "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn".   In the print version of the book Kwok cleverly employs phonetic spellings to illustrate Kimberly's growing understanding of English and wide-eyed view of American teen culture, the audio version (which is what I used) is performed by Grayce Wey, who is wonderful at giving a Chinese-American intonation to the character's voices thus bringing them alive for the listener!   The book is written in the first person narrative from the point of view of Kimberly though at times I couldn't help wishing that I had her mother's perspective too.  Kimberly's mother, who was a gifted violinist back in Hongkong was forced to lower her station in life once her much-loved husband passed away.  It would have been wonderful to read about her life in the US and her crashed American dream from her perspective as well.

Finally, besides being a wonderful coming-of-age story this is also a beautiful love story, one that doesn't quite end with stars in the eyes, but which will burrow its way into your heart and stay there a long,long time.


Booklover said...

Sounds beautiful :)

Do visit
BookReviews at BookRack

Laura said...

I loved this book too! It will be on my best list this year.

Susan A said...

This book wouldn't be my selection at all, Angie, probably because of the suspicion of simplicity which would easily fall into the throes of 'a young adult' story, and which I had myself suspected, when I happened upon it in the shops. I think Kwok may have gained a broader audience with her own memoir, especially that a sharp distinct sense to the story was real. Somehow, realness adds authenticity with all ages...fiction limits a readership according to lifestyle, age groups and so forth.
Based on this alone, among its present audience, it would already be very popular, I don't doubt. This, with thousands of immigrant families who would read it to relive their own lives.
Also, this could just be me, in wanting to seek out more complex perceptions, the voice of the character would need to be older.
But I loved your review, so thoughtfully and gently placed. And I liked the atmosphere of the daily life, that revolved around the plot itself.
I have a feeling this book would make a very good film of sorts. It has all the right ingredients for theme and colour. :-))

wordhaven said...

I am a Korean living in UK.
I found your blog while I was
serching for 'Nothing to Envy',
that was already a couple of months
ago. After that I visit your blog
often, I like most of your reviews.

So This is my first time,
to say 'Hello' to you and to let
you know I am reading this novel
at the moment.


Lotus Reads said...

@Booklover ~ It truly is. I absolutely fell in love with the narrator's voice and story. It both gladdened and saddened by heart. Aren't those the best kind of stories? :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Laura ~ Good choice! Also, I'm dying to know what the other books on your list are or will be!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi ya Suse! As always I truly welcome your comments and insights. I do agree that Kwok's memoir might have been riveting in its own right, but the reason she may have chosen a fictional narrator is to provide those elements of the story that her own life didn't provide....I'm thinking here of the narrator's first love and also her flings with American teenagehood. I think the author was too straight laced to have tried some of the things Kimberly Chang did! :)

Yes, this could fall in the Young Adult genre for sure and while I loved Kimberly's voice, I definitely pined to hear her mother's voice as well...wish we had heard more from her because her story would have resonated so much more with me.

Yes, a film would be great...I hope Kwok is listening! :))

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Word Haven it is so wonderful to have you here, thank you very much for writing! I wanted to be able to write back to you but I don't think you have a blog? Anyway, let me know if you're on FB or twitter and I'll definitely say "Hi" there!

You have to let me know if and how you are enjoying this novel!

MotoRama said...

I saw Girl in Translation in airport and almost bought it but realized Lisbeth Salander is not mentioned in the synopsis ;) I don't think you can be a are too nice and have all good things to say. Maybe i need to browse through your blog to find a book that you have thrashed!

Wordhaven said...

Hello again,

I only have a Korean blog at the
moment. I have been recently thinking about
opening an English language blog but I don't know much about the different types available.
Could you recomend one?

Yes, I will tell you what I think
about this story when I finish it.
I am enjoying it so far anyway.

Have a nice weekend,

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Moto! Lovely to see you here after such a long time! Ahh, yes, you probably confused the title with the Steig Larsson (very popular) books! Makes me wonder how many other people did the same thing? :))

Moto, the reason you find no stinging critiques from me is because I don't bother with books that don't interest me. Life is too short for that. My rule of thumb is this: if I am not enjoying a book by page 70, I give up on it. I only write notes about books I like. Fortunately, there are still bloggers doing the negative reviews and I am so thankful for telling us why we shouldn't read a certain book they are doing us such a huge favour.

Stop by again when you can!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Wordhaven!!!

I like blogspot (the blog I am using)the best. In recent years it has added on a lot of new features and it is very easy to use!

Do let me know the minute you launch your blog in English, I would love to read you!

Sanjay said...

Thank you for a wonderful review as always Lotus. I don't mind the fact that the writing of this book may be plain, for a good story may be well narrated despite the language. But that is just my 2 cents.
I think the world inhabited by the protagonist here is seen by others. Or at least glimpses of it are. I always look forward to the NYTimes annual scholarship awards to children finishing high school, and when I read their stories every year, they always serve as a reminder of the heavy odds against which they succeed. I should send you a link to them once I get a chance.
Also the Chinese triads and smugglers do run sweatshops here, as a way of getting payment for the folks they smuggle in to the US. Not saying it happens all the time, but have read about it before.
What made this book stand out for you Lotus, from the other immigrant stories that you have read, other than the narrator being a young adult?
I hope I can get a chance to read this book, thank you for sharing.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again Sanj! Yes, you are right about those sweatshops, they do exist, I checked on it when we were in Manhattan a few days ago.

Love the sound of the send it to me, please, when you remember.

What stood out for me other than the narrator's voice? I would have to say the determination with which immigrants set out to pursue the American dream...this was so clearly outlined in the story and I loved it!

Sanjay said...

Thank you for the response Lotus. I would love to read this book someday.
Here is the link as promised, some truly moving stories here. link