Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is a moving novel about a young girl and her mother immigrating to New York in order to achieve a better life after the untimely death of the child's father. However, success in America isn't as easily gained as the mother hoped it would be. Now facing poverty, destitution, and a bitter family debt, Ah-Kimberly, the young daughter, fights and claws her way through the American schooling system by day, and a Chinese sweat shop by night, in order to make a better life for her, and her mother.

I would classify this novel a bildungsroman - a coming of age story where the moral and psychological growth of the protagonist from child to adulthood is measured in the great change of the main character. The novel depicts the true struggles of immigrants that come to this country NOT looking for a handout. And the truth of it is, it's hard. Very hard.

The novel shares the living conditions of the naive family as they attempt to make a life in America. They reside in a roach and rat infested apartment found for them by their jealous and superficial Aunt (who runs the sweat shop), where both Ma and Ah-Kimberly barely survive. There is no heat and they sleep under piles of clothing, mostly inadequate, for the harsh winters of Brooklyn. They make ends meet by eating small meals of rice, using their oven to provide heat in the small kitchen, and sewing blankets and clothes out of fabric they find in trash dumps.

The American schooling system is cruel and unforgiving for Ah-Kim. She certainly didn't come through the soft education system of the current times where everyone gets 1,000 chances to do everything, to pass everything. Her teachers, specifically the men, are mean and cruel. They mock her, accuse her of cheating when she does start to make progress, and shame her socially. The kids, well - they are American kids - disrespectful and indifferent to anyone that isn't like them. I cried the most reading about her schooling, especially when she was so young. It pained me, as a teacher, to read the way adults responded to her, to the way the other students treated her, to the indifference of the teacher to help her. But, like a truly intelligent girl, she beats the odds of the public elementary school system and is afforded an opportunity to go to a very private and prestigious private school.

Ah-Kimberly's climb to success is painful and scarred, which makes moments of triumph that much sweeter.

Jean Kwok paints an emotional journey of Ah-Kim and one the reader will not forget. I still feel tightness in my chest when I remember the struggles of this kind, hardworking family of two.  I cried multiple times by chapter four, and the pull on the heart only increases as the reader becomes more involved with the story.

This is a book I highly recommend - in fact I'm going to request to teach this book next year in place of To Kill a Mockingbird - that is how strong of an impact it made on me.  It gives insight to a different culture and I appreciated reading about the Asian sociodynamics rather than reading yet another book about the black/white dynamic in America. This opened my eyes to the depth and tradition long steeped within Asian communities. It was the perfect book to read after Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (link for this review - found after Reached by Allie Condy on the same post). I enjoyed the distinctness and diversity of the these two novels, both creating a respect for a culture outside of my own.

About the Author (from Amazon author page):

Jean Kwok immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time, and graduated with honors in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction at Columbia.

Her debut novel Girl in Translation (Riverhead, 2010) became a New York Times bestseller. It has been published in 15 countries and chosen as the winner of an American Library Association Alex Award, a John Gardner Fiction Book Award finalist, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, an Orange New Writers title, an Indie Next Pick, a Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award nominee and the winner of Best Cultural Book in Book Bloggers Appreciation Week 2010. It was featured in The New York Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others. The novel was a Blue Ribbon Pick for numerous book clubs, including Book of the Month, Doubleday and Literary Guild. Jean lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two sons.

To learn more about Jean Kwok, you can visit her website at

1 comment:

  1. Cresta, thank you so much for this wonderful review of my book! I'm so honored and humbled by your comparison to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and I hope that you'll be able to teach both books. It means so much to me that my novel is being used in schools and libraries. I developed the "Teachers" tab on my website especially to help educators like you. Thank you. I've linked to this on my Facebook fan page:

    Jean Kwok