Reading & Reviewing | R&R 130
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R&R 130 | Girl in Translation

…well. That took a while. I've been busy getting my photography butt back into gear, working with models a lot, so that's a good reason. Another is that I've been having a few issues with my computer; now I have a new one and I'm ready to continue this project properly. I've been focusing on reorganizing my office and thus largely, my life. That's going well.
I haven't been reading a lot the past few months, photography & work – yup, I've got a job now apart from taking my photography to the next level – got in the way of that. I kind of gave up on my resolution to read 75 books this year, just to allow myself to use my spare time to get organized and get moving on what I want to accomplish in the next year. But in 2012 I will challenge myself properly and keep it up, though 75 won't be doable for me I'm afraid, haha. Enough yapping. Book review time. That's what you're here for after all 😉

Jean Kwok
Girl in Translation
First published in: 2010
This edition: Penguin, 2011
ISBN: 9787-0-141-04274-9
Genre: coming of age
Pages: 290
Cover photography credited to Getty Images. C'est tout.


In a nutshell?

I needed a book to save me this summer. Save me from my inability to connect phrases and words, my failed attempts to grasp a story. I found it in Jean Kwok's debut GIRL IN TRANSLATION, a book that for a while now had been on my list of books I knew I would love, a book that I knew I would enjoy.

Kimberly Chang is but eleven years old when she and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to the United States, New York to be exact. Neither speaks a word of English, and their shocking state of poverty – their apartment without windows, freezing cold in winter; their few square feet of space shared with cockroaches – only adds to the feeling of alienation in their new country. Kimberly, however, is as determined as she is smart; she quickly realizes that school is the answer. Giving her all, during the day Kimberly strives to improve her grades and learning the language, while at night she helps her mother by working in their aunt's sweatshop.

This book was everything I needed this summer: a well written and moving story. A book that would leave a mark on me, not easy to forget. A book to get lost in.

Kimberly inspires, deeply. She's a wonderful narrator, one to fully root for, which you do. This young immigrant, I admired her greatly for her fight to change the lives of herself and her mother. I didn't want to put this book down. I wanted to know Kim's story, fully.

It's not just the story which captivates; Kwok's writing technique is, although simple in style, very commendable as it adds to the story in many ways. The English dialog is put down as Kimberly would have understood it, with misunderstood words and phrases printed in Italics. (Example: tuition is understood by Kim as "twosheen", and Kwok spells it this way, phonetically.) Sentences look a bit off-key at times, and the reader has some puzzling to do every now and again, but it's a very helpful way for readers feel what Kimberly struggles with. This technique helps bring us closer to Kwok's narrator.

Kwok applies this for translations of Chinese dialog, as well, by literally translating what is said by Chinese characters in English and having Kimberly explain them to us. (An example from page 191: "'You have one big gall bladder.' He meant I was brave.")
This play of words and phrasing, this mix and match of understanding and misunderstanding, stresses what it's like to live between two cultures, to find yourself juggling two languages.

While Kwok tells her story well by writing it well, there's a far more important element which makes Kim's story well told: it is authentic. Without prior knowledge of Jean Kwok's personal life, I recognized that Kwok speaks, through Kimberly, from experience. Upon further research I learned that, while GIRL IN TRANSLATION is not a memoir, it does bear similarities to Kwok's own life story, as she herself has emigrated to the US with her family, lived in poverty despite hard work, and applied herself in school to improve her and her family's circumstances. Kwok was five years old at the time, spoke not a word of English, and worked hard, earning herself early admission to Harvard.

And while I'm applauding Kwok for her accomplishments, and congratulating her for her skill in writing a story in a genuine voice, I also can't help feeling saddened. Reading this story shed a light on what I have to be grateful for. A lot. I'm also somewhat ashamed of myself for "being shocked", so to speak, at Kimberly's story. Was I actually surprised, "shocked that this can happen", or was it simply me finally opening my eyes, turning them towards the truth instead of looking away? A bit of both, I suppose, but mostly the latter. I'm sure this wasn't Kwok's intention, but in ways I did feel confronted with my own willful ignorance. But I think that's a good thing; another reason why this book is valuable. It does have a message, and it's not trivial. It's important. Open your eyes.

What did truly shock me, was how Kim and her mom are treated by Aunt Paula. She exploits her own family (as it's her sweatshop they have to work in to pay off their "debt" to her), and wishes for them to accomplish nothing, to be nothing, to have nothing. I'm aware of Chinese values with regards to family, and understood why it is hard for Kim and her mom to speak up (at the risk of being ungrateful). This only frustrated me more though: I was shocked at Paula's pettiness, HER lack of loyalty towards her family.

Yes, this is definitely a strong book about an immigrant overcoming hardships and unusual obstacles other teens don't necessarily have to deal with. GIRL IN TRANSLATION is a tale of personal triumph Рbut perhaps even more, it's an inspiring story about a girl growing up. A girl, being a girl with her own flaws and naivet̩. I cannot relate to Kimberly in that I've been brought up in a home with a functioning radiator, in a home where I had everything and should have wanted for nothing. That doesn't mean that I couldn't understand her and root for her. Of course I did. Kwok made sure of that, as I've established earlier.

But I could relate, very much, to her coming of age. Being an outsider in school, being bullied and teased. Laughed at and feeling that no one gets you, and that you're alone. Feeling… less than pretty, going through puberty. All the awkwardness involved with starting to like boys for the first time. In many ways, this book is also recommendable for young adult readers.

Kwok focused a lot on Kim's coming of age, which I didn't mind. But I would have loved additional insight into Kim's (and her mom's!) day-to-day life, or read about more interactions with other immigrants – aside from those with a love interest. But I must admit I did expect this book to be about a young girl first and foremost, and an immigrant second.
I am glad the novel was not overly dramatized for drama's sake. The book doesn't weigh too heavily. There's optimism. I don't need to have everything spelled out to me, either, so Kwok did well in allowing us to realize for ourselves certain details.

I'll be keeping an eye on this author. I think GIRL IN TRANSLATION is utterly charming, but I have a feeling that Kwok has more to give.

In a nutshell

– A breeze to read; unputdownable which is exactly what I needed
– Great play with language
– Relatable coming of age story
– An endearing, sympathetic character
– Genuine, authentic voice

– Somewhat predictable at times
– Very much coming of age, focus is mostly on Kim; would have appreciated more insight into Kim's mom's and other immigrants' lives

Karin Elizabeth
  • I like the expression "willfull ignorance". I think it's only too often that we ignore what we don't want to know. It's great when a book forces you to face a certain, unwanted, unwelcome, inconvenient truth!

    How nice that this book is well written, moving and inspiring. This is all you'd hope to get out of a book, isn't it?

    Coming of age problems are great to explore. Maybe those problems are most obvious in puberty but my guess is that for most people these issues never go away completely.

    What a thorough review and (of course) a great picture, which made me shiver! 😉

    November 15, 2011 at 9:21 pm
  • I loved your review and you definitely made me curious for this novel.
    I find myself increasingly drawn to these coming-off-age stories even though I am long past that time but as anyone in their twenties, thirties and so forth would agree you never stop discovering new sides to yourself 😉

    November 20, 2011 at 10:50 am
  • Thanks so much for this review! I also love the photo of you with my book. I just stumbled across this review and have linked to it on my Facebook fan page:

    Very grateful for readers and reviewers like you.

    Jean Kwok

    October 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm

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