Girl in Translation is Girl in Sacrifice

BlogHer Review

I fell asleep late one night after reading the first forty pages of Jean Kwok’s debut novel, Girl in Translation. I dreamt of roaches and mice scurrying across my prostrate body as I lay unable to escape them. The next morning I awoke exhausted and unsettled. I can only imagine that this is similar to the feeling that Kim, the 11-year-old main character of the novel, must have felt every morning when she awoke in the filthy condemned tenement apartment that she shared with her mother while growing up, realizing once again that this was no dream, this was her reality for nearly eight years.

Reminiscent of Angela’s Ashes, this novel is the fictional but semi-autobiographical story of a mother and daughter who work in a Chinatown sweat shop after immigrating from China in the 1980’s, eeking out just enough money to buy food and put clothing on their backs. The vivid, stark and straightforward writing style that Kwok employs to explore the poverty and hardship that her two main characters must suffer through is the power of this book for me. She lays it out for the reader, and left me wondering in the first half of this book whether I would actually be able to finish it or not. It was incredibly depressing and frustrating to read about the first days and months that Kim and her mother struggled through after their immigration. The language barrier was also a significant obstacle for them both. Kwok creatively translates this struggle for the reader by swapping out certain words and spelling them as Kim hears them, making context the only way even the reader can understand some of the dialogue. On top of the language barrier add the enormous debt they owe to Aunt Paula for bringing them to the US, their meager sweat shop earnings, jealous spiteful relatives, ignorant and biased teachers, and the bitter New York City cold that invades their apartment even freezing the water in their toilet. I couldn’t take three hundred pages of this.

But I didn’t have to because Jean Kwok skillfully handles the hideous conditions that they must withstand and finds the little joys, humor and successes that Kim and her mother are able to wring out of their rough beginnings. A scene where they find rolls and rolls of discarded bright green fake fur, fashioning it into warm blankets, jackets and coverings in their freezing apartment actually made me laugh out loud. Then somehow after the first year or so, things begin to brighten. While the poverty is still a main character of the book, Kim’s brilliant intelligence and tenacity begin to help loosen their economic noose. Her bright genius lights up her teachers, once they actually stop and hear her and that intelligence and courage ultimately leads to Kim’s family’s safety and prosperity. Kim doesn’t have a childhood though. She studies all day and then runs to her mother’s sweatshop job to help her until late into the night. She has few friends and many obligations. More obligations and pressure than any child should have to bear up under. Yet Kim’s sacrifices and her mother’s sacrifices aren’t for nothing. Kim gets a full scholarship into a private school and an Ivy League college. She becomes a neonatal surgeon. She finds success and pulls her mother and herself out of the slums and into a secure new life. But there are sacrifices along the way that are weighty and life altering.

I enjoyed reading this novel, but I struggled with the fact that culturally Kim and her mother were so stoic, steadfast and loyal it was almost to their detriment. I wanted them to force someone to see how hard they worked, how they were abused, see the disgusting apartment they lived in and reach out to help them. But that wouldn’t fit this story or these characters. When Kim finally has the pleasure of telling off her small minded cruel Aunt Paula it was as satisfying as seeing a bully get socked in the nose. This was a realistic and uplifting story, but the secret that Kim and her mother keep at the end of the novel seemed unfair to me. I understood and yet I entirely disagreed with Kim’s final decision. Kwok created characters, scenes and dialogue so realistic and accurate that I would have believed this was a memoir, until the end. The end didn’t fit for me. It felt like a twist for twist’s sake and didn’t feel completely true to the story. I can disregard that feeling though because of the beautiful, simple and emotional writing style. Read this book, but read it armed with a box of Kleenex and someone who will let you vent to them in frustration. Believe me, I had to do a lot of venting to keep from crying.


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