GIRL IN TRANSLATION by Jean Kwok (Riverhead Books, 2010)

girl-in-translationAs a compelling, at times shocking, account of a young immigrant’s life in America this book has many merits. As a convincing work of narrative fiction it leaves a lot to be desired.

The episodic nature of the novel is problematic in that the story has a disjointed quality. As the author jumps from one event to the next, the reader is left with more questions than answers.

In the opening chapter we learn that the mother of the first person narrator, Kimberley Chang, had suffered from tuberculosis in China but her state of health is something which is barely mentioned therafter.

Later on, at the age of 18, when it is clear that Kimberley (Kim) needs to obtain U.S. citizenship, she applies and studies hard for naturalization but we are never told how the actual test went. The cumulative effect of these gaps is disorientating and infuriating.

Before and after - Jean Kwok

Before and after – Jean Kwok

In the fictionalized version of Jean Kwok’s life she is an only child who arrives in America aged 11 with her mother (Ma) not long after the death of her father.

In reality, Kwok came to the States from Hong Kong with both parents and six older siblings when she was 5, principally to escape the return of Chinese communist rule in 1997. Many details may have been changed for dramatic effect but the fundamental facts are, as Kwok has stated in interviews, true to her actual experiences.

The novel gives a sobering insight into a hidden world of grinding poverty and routine exploitation. The conditions at Kim’s home in Brooklyn and as an underage worker in Chinatown’s sweat shops are so primitive that they are more akin to a 19th century Dickensian world than modern-day America. The apartment where she and her mother live is in a run down block scheduled for demolition. It has no heating, many windows are broken and it is infested with cockroaches and rats.

This is rude awakening to Kim who quickly realises that the streets of this side of New York are not paved with gold but strewn with garbage. School offers her only ticket out of a life of drudgery to the “clean and carpeted life” she dreams of.

As a straight As student with a remarkable capacity for late night studying, Kim is able to win full scholarships to the best educational establishments. Kwok has a BA from Harvard so this is clearly based on her own story but it is also draws upon the achievements of her elder brother Kwan who gained a PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (A sad footnote to the novel is that Kwan’s luminous career was tragically cut short in 2009 when a private plane he was piloting crashed during a heavy storm).

Kim’s attempt to come to terms with the American way of life is both heartbreaking and amusing. She draws a lot of humour from her struggles to learn English such as when she asks for a rubber instead of an eraser in a classroom and fails to understand the slang expressions of her peers (“he used a lot of words I didn’t know like cock and mother finger”).

Where the novel falls down seriously is in the final section after Kim belatedly discovers the pleasures of sex and transforms from a shy social misfit into a feisty career woman. This part is written more in the style of a YA melodrama and gives the impression of being tagged on as an afterthought. Her treatment of her Chinese boyfriend (Matt) is meant to show what a free-spirited and independent woman she is but, instead, portrays her as being cold and insensitive.

Jean Kwok completed an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University to add another academic feather to her substantial bow but her limitations as a novelist are all too plain when she departs from the truth at the heart of the fiction, as she does in the cheesy finale.

Related links:
Official author website of Jean Kwok.
Dutch TV documentary about Kwok (with English subtitles).
Article by jean Kwok about the death of her brother (