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Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok‘s Girl in Translation is a coming of age story involving immigrant Kimberly Chang, who comes to America with her mother from Hong Kong and finds that the land of opportunity is what you make it.  Kimberly is a smart girl and was often praised by her teachers in Hong Kong, but when she and her mother were forced to come to America following the death of her father, she finds that school is harder for her.  Facing a number of obstacles to her successful education from the language and cultural barriers to misplaced accusations of cheating and teacher bias, Kimberly must work ten times as hard as her fellow students.  But her hardships do not end with her new school, she and her mother also must repay Aunt Paula and her family for bringing them to America by working diligently in a clothing factory.

“A sheet of ice lay over the concrete, I watched my rubber boots closely, the way the toes slid on the ice, the way the heels splintered it.  Ice was something I had only known in the form of small pieces in red bean drinks.  This ice was wild ice, ice that defied streets and buildings.”  (page 5 of ARC)

Told from Kimberly’s point of view as she looks on her past, readers retrace her steps as a young girl finding her way into adolescence.  She has many of the same challenges of her American counterparts, but as she matures, finds boys attractive, and searches for peer approval, she must overcome her “foreign-ness,” cultural norms she’s grown up with on how to act ladylike, and her self-imposed separateness.

“Even now, my predominant memory of that phase of my life is of the cold.  Cold like the way your skin feels after you’ve been slapped, such painful tingling that you can hardly tell if it’s hot or cold.  It simply registers as suffering.  Cold that crept down your throat, under your toes and between your fingers, wrapped itself around your lungs and your heart. ”  (page 44 of ARC)

Kwok’s prose is full of imagery, emotion, and passion that weaves a vivid tale of poor Chinese immigrants in New York, who face a number of financial hardships — even at the hands of their family.  As depressing as their situation becomes, there are lighter moments when Kimberly remembers the joy her mother felt playing music and the awkward moments of bra shopping when her mother does not speak English and she barely speaks it.

Unlike other Asian-American stories, including those from Amy Tan, Kwok relies less on the mystical beliefs and traditions of Chinese culture and the clash between mother and daughter and more upon the love between mother and daughter and a daughter’s determination to improve their situation to craft a memorable story of growing up.  In spite of those obstacles, Kimberly maintains a sense of self.  One element that readers will enjoy is the use of skirts to quantify the Chang family’s purchases of new shoes or gum, which emphasizes the youth of the narrator.

“There’s a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time.  Those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown.  I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions.”  (page 1 of ARC)

Overall, Girl in Translation provides a look at the life of a poor immigrant and her family and the determination that it takes to adapt and mature enough to create their own future.  Readers will become absorbed by the Chang’s plight and cheer them on as they make headway against the forces working against them.  Kwok’s novel could generate hours of discussion for book clubs as it demonstrates cultural differences, the harsh realities and bravery required to emigrate to another country, and the consequences and regret that sometimes accompany the hardest decisions we can make in our daily lives.

***If you missed yesterday’s guest post from Jean Kwok, please check it out here.

 

This is my 16th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

This is my 7th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.

Guest Post: Inside the Writer’s Studio by Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation comes out in paperback today.  The novel chronicles the immigrant story of Kimberly Chang who comes to America from Hong Kong, China.  She must navigate between her culture and the new world she finds herself in and the struggles that occur.  If you haven’t seen this book or read this book yet, you’ll be even more swayed to do so when you read Booking Mama‘s review and if you visit Jean Kwok’s Website, you’ll find that much of the story comes from her own life.

Today, we’re going to get a glimpse of Jean’s writing space and her three cats, who seem to be her constant writing companions . . . distractions.  Without further ado, here’s a peek at her writing space:

I have a tiny pink laptop on which I do my easy, practical writing – email, Facebook posts and the like – but when the going gets tough, I bring out the big guns. Up in my writer’s studio in the attic of my house, I do all of my novel-writing on a double quad-core Mac Pro, complete with 24-inch screen and an ergonomic, split-style Kinesis keyboard.

I know, you’re thinking, “How much power do you need to run Word?” It’s true. I guess I don’t actually need an octo-core computer, but facing the blank page is intimidating. When I turn on my Mactopus, as I call her, I know I have sheer power backing me up. Then, for more holistic support, I keep a bottle of lavender room spray on my desk, which I always use to keep me focused and calm. To my left is a statue of Kuan Yin, peeking over my shoulder to help guide my process. All around the walls of my attic are bookcases, filled with books by wonderful authors like Margaret Atwood and Maxine Hong Kingston.

I have all sorts of inspirational notes stuck to the edges of my computer screen. They say things like, “I sat down here and I turned my life around.” I’d heard some author say that in an interview long ago and when I was struggling to finish my first novel, I returned to those words again and again. It’s hard for any writer to know if they’re on the right path or not. For me, it was especially difficult because I’d worked in a sweatshop as a child and lived in an unheated apartment that was not only bitterly cold in the winter but also overrun with cockroaches and rats. I wondered often if I’d made the right decision or not, choosing a profession as financially risky as being a writer.

The notes also have more practical reminders, like, “Don’t check email!” and “Do the big stuff first!” The rest of my enormous desk is piled high with books, papers and items that have to do with my next book. Right now, I’m looking at a pair of professional Latin ballroom dance shoes because my next novel is set in the ballroom dance world. Next to them is a stack of baby naming books, which I used to choose names for my characters. By the way, if you ever want to give the person you’re dating a heart attack, just start leafing through your baby name books.

Then I’ve also got a stack of photos of Chinatown factories and apartments, research for the heroine of my next book as well. I’ve also got a tape measure here because sometimes I’ll start wondering things like, “How big is a person’s head anyway and could you possibly get it stuck inside a goldfish bowl?” and then I’ll whip out my tape measure and wrap it around my head.

The entire right side of my desk is taken up by a folder system for all of my foreign book contracts and correspondence. My debut novel, Girl in Translation, is being published in 15 countries so at a glance, I can see the Italian promotional pamphlet lying on top of the Swedish book, a set of Dutch tissues with the cover of the book printed on top, a lovely note from my UK publisher sticking out from in between a few very official letters about accounting from my German publisher that I don’t understand at all. Oh, and I have three extremely furry cats who all think it’s the funniest thing in the world to lie across my keyboard while I’m trying to type.

In other words, my desk is an unholy mess, which is why I’m not submitting a photo of it for this article. However, it’s a creative mess. It has everything I need to keep writing, which is what this is all about.

Thanks, Jean, for sharing your writing space with us. Now aren’t you all wondering what the new book is about? I know I am.

Stay tuned for my review of Girl in Translation tomorrow.