Book Review: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

I just finished reading Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.  I found it after buying the e-book version of When The Empire was Divine by Julie Otsuka, when Amazon suggested ‘other books I might like’ (thanks Amazon, you know me!).  Based on the excellent mostly five-star reviews of the book, I decided to get a hard copy since the cover was so beautiful AND the hard copy version was cheaper than the e-book version (sometimes I still like to kick it old school!).

I finished the book in 3 separate sittings.  I immediately loved the protagonist, Kimberly Chang, who had such a brave and formidable voice for a teenager.  The story is told in the first person and the details are so finely drawn, so realistic, that at times I felt I was reading a memoir.  The book is a coming-of-age story of a girl from Hong Kong and her mother, who came to the United States, only to have to labor for years in a sweat shop and repay an aunt for their debts.  The descriptions of the run-down roach-infested building that Kimberly and her mother return to after working at the sweatshop, were heartbreaking.  To realize that other human beings live, nay, survive, under such conditions is appalling.  Indeed, author Jean Kwok has revealed in interviews that the book was based, at least in some part, on her own life, where she too worked at a sweatshop, even at age 5, buttoning clothes and tagging clothes.  That is probably one of the reasons the book feels so authentic, because it is semi-autobiographical.  Here’s an excellent interview of the author, if you are curious: www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1300601/Jean-Kwok-tells-YOU-escaped-poverty-trap-The-sweatshop-second-home.html

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The story is also one of the American Dream, overcoming great odds and becoming successful despite not being white, privileged, or rich.  That is the part of the book that I loved the most, the plucky self-assurance of the character despite some real and formidable challenges such as not understanding the English language, prejudice from peers, and no institutional support from her public high school.  Through talent and hard work, Kimberly Chang achieves a full-scholarship to Harrison Prep (Kwok’s real life counterpart was Hunter High School), achieves independence for herself and her mother, and then goes onto Yale.  Like Kimberly Chang, Kwok underscores that she was one of the lucky few that was able to escape the sweatshop, unlike many others who worked in sweatshops.

The character development and changes that the central characters undergo in the book are honest and believable.  One of the strongest characterizations is for Kimberly’s jealous aunt, who secretly does not want her niece to be as successful as her son.  Every time Kimberly out-achieves Nelson (the aunt’s son), you find yourself cheering for her.  Additionally, I love how skillfully the author brings the reader into Kimberly’s world by using evocative language that is a mash-up of the wrong English words as Kimberly hears them, it’s not quite Chinglish but rather explores how Kimberly obtains language with her limited vocabulary.  You have to read the book to catch my drift, but the way that Kwok uses the mash-up language is highly creative and makes you sympathize with the character instantly.

I find it very difficult to criticize any of the choices Kwok made in writing the book.  Although on Amazon some felt the ending was maudlin, I thought it was an appropriate, maybe a bit dramatic, way of ending the book.  The one thing I wonder about is why Kwok made her relationship with her mother seem so wonderful.  Maybe because it would almost seem unfair to have a mother-daughter relationship filled with conflict when the protagonist already had to endure and overcome so much.  Or maybe the family was just so busy keeping up with the exhausting work at the sweatshop that there wasn’t room or time for conflict.  Also, having a common enemy (the aunt, society), helps bond mother-daughter despite the age gap. Because the father is absent from the story it is particularly plausible that the mother and daughter would have such a close relationship.  I found that extremely touching and a departure from the mother-daughter conflict that is portrayed so well by other Asian American authors such as Amy Tan.

A beautiful book, I highly recommend it for your summer reading list!

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