Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

By Ekta R. Garg

July 27, 2011

Rated: Borrow it

Scores of authors have tackled the immigrant experience, and in this rich field steps first-time author Jean Kwok with her book Girl in Translation.  First published in 2010 by Riverhead Books, Kwok wrote Girl in Translation based on her own experience of emigrating from Hong Kong to New York City.  And as most books written from personal experience, the depth of detail in Kwok’s novel lends it the utmost credibility.

Lead character Ah-Kim “Kimberly” Chang comes to New York City with her mother, who has recently recovered from tuberculosis.  The Changs are lured by promises made by Kimberly’s maternal aunt, Paula, of helping them build a glorious new life in the West by letting them move in and help her raise her children.  Upon arriving in New York, though, Aunt Paula reveals her true intentions: to employ Kimberly and her mother in a factory under her husband’s management.

After a week Aunt Paula moves Kimberly and Mrs. Chang into an apartment in the Projects, complete with roaches and mice, with no heat for the winter and broken window panes to expose them to the elements.  Kimberly and Mrs. Chang join the illegal sweat shop in Paula’s husband’s factory to eke out a living so they can survive.

Kimberly’s one outlet proves to be school.  Despite her initial awkwardness, slowly but surely she begins to shine in academics.  Kimberly finds schoolwork and her one friend, Annette, to be the only bright spots in life.  As she begins balancing her home life with school, Kimberly leads something akin to a double life.

At school she is a star, respected by her peers and teachers for her intellectual prowess.  As soon as school ends, however, she rushes to the clothing factory to help her mother complete orders; no one at school suspects she works in such dreadful conditions.  But together mother and daughter build a life in this new country, fighting cultural and language barriers.  As Kimberly continues to excel in school, she starts to set her sights high enough so that she can dig herself and her mother out of the squalor in which her aunt has dumped them.

Clearly Kwok has lived and experienced Kimberly’s challenges.  Only someone who has made the arduous journey from one country to another, from one life to another can write with such clarity of feeling.  On her website,, the author talks about the similarities between the book and her own trek from Hong Kong to New York City.  While Kwok maintains that there are several differences between her own story and the novel, she knows where Kimberly has come from and where she is going.

Kwok clearly has talent as a writer, although her first novel gravitates in parts to the slightly melodramatic.  For instance throughout the novel Kimberly avoids Annette’s repeated requests to come to her home, a point, Kimberly tells readers, Annette would never forget.  But their actual confrontation on this matter turns out to be less than overwhelming.  Kwok’s promise through Kimberly’s voice of a showdown goes unfulfilled, but we can forgive both Kwok and Kimberly because our protagonist wins in the end.

For anyone who wonders whether sweatshops do exist, this novel would prove to be a good starting point in the affirmative.  Kwok herself can attest to this fact, having worked in one.  And given the strength of this story, the genre of immigrant fiction may have another strong author to its credit.


What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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