Jean Kwok Barters and Triumphs With Girl in Translation

BlogHer Review

Jean Kwok's searing, debut novel, Girl in Translation, reduces Kimberly Chang’s life to the piteous value of Chinatown, sweatshop piecework. 59 skirts for a book at the dime store, 133 skirts for a $2 plastic plant. With liberal sprinklings of evocative Chinese idioms, 11-year-old Kimberly describes how she and her beloved Ma find their way amidst cultural, indentured servitude, demoralizing destitution, matriarchal denigration, rats, cockroaches and filth.

Part autobiography, this pulsating narrative has been teased from Jean Kwok’s own life experience as a Chinese immigrant transplanted to Brooklyn poverty. With crackling discourse and Kim’s melodious voice, Ms. Kwok exposes slum life at its most appalling. Inside the abandoned tenement building to which “big sister” committed them, Kim and Ma use a broom to beat back the vermin and roaches their Buddhist religion won’t allow them to kill. Pieces of stuffed toy covering pulled from a dumpster become sleepwear, blankets, and floor covering to ward off the bone-piercing cold of an unheated apartment in the “projects” of Brooklyn. You could not make this stuff up, and it made my skin crawl.

After surviving the death of her husband, and tuberculosis in China, Ma is shackled by massive debt to “older sister” for saving Ma’s life and the immigration papers. Called “Dog. Flea. Mama" by her sweatshop underlings, “older sister” would be easy to hate if she were not such a tragic figure in her own right. A simple twist creates crippling resentment towards Ma manifested as needless suffering on both sides. "Dog. Flea. Mama" is cruel, but life was not kind to her. Ma was a music teacher in China, and a gifted musician who stands in the middle of her squalor on Sundays to play for her “cub” and remind herself from where she came. Resigned to her sweatshop fate, she is a heartbreaking character totally devoid of the ability to imagine any way out. Frustrated by Ma’s lack of American integration, Kimberly makes this statement, which broke my heart:

“I grew into the space that Ma’s foreignness left vacant.”

Kim Chang takes us with her as she calculates every move between her two dramatically different worlds. A strict Chinese Buddhist and obedient daughter, she is brilliantly endowed with educational prowess and internalizes early that her gift is the means of redemption for not only herself, but Ma as well. Education is Kim’s salvation, but she must pay a stiff price for accomplishment. Misunderstanding everything American, she initially struggles not only with scholastic achievement that had come effortlessly in China, but just to understand what her teachers are saying. Then the winds of fate blow her way, and she is transported to a world of elite prep schools, privileged surroundings, and appreciation for her intellect, but only during the day. At night in the oppressive sweatshop, and fetid apartment, she struggles beside Ma deliberating what to reveal to whom, and what to keep secret.

I loved Girl in Translation, was completely enthralled by almost every page. Ms. Kwok’s characters made me want to slap my feet on the grandstand and cheer, and none more than Kimberly. My only disappointment was the ending, which flattened out when it should have soared. Ms. Kwok tidied up Kim’s life in an epilogue, when leaving her future to our imaginations would have been inevitably more satisfying were we allowed to ponder it. It was as if Ms. Kwok looked at her watch and thought; “Oh my, I have to wrap this up!” But that small footnote did not diminish my overall enjoyment of her lively tale.

In between reading this book, I thought about the characters. Ma made me appreciate the simplest blessings, like the ability to communicate effectively in the country where I live. Considering “big sister,” it occurred to me to be more thoughtful of those less fortunate, and I have begun to practice that ideal as a direct result. Kim’s friends and the boys and men in her life wrapped the story in intriguing layers that brought out the vibrant color underneath, and I am deeply moved when I day dream about Kimberly. With every reason to yield to the harshest of lives, she bartered for triumphant translation and her story will inspire you.

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