Kwok tells a semi-autobiographical tale of immigration from Asia to New York City in her debut novel Girl in Translation. Here's what Kwok says about the real-life connections in the novel:
"Although Girl in Translation is a work of fiction and not a memoir, the world in which it takes place is real. . . . I turned out to be quite good at school. We moved to New York City when I was five and my only gift was taken from me. I did not understand a word of English. . . . My family started working in a sweatshop in Chinatown . . . every day after school and we all emerged many hours later, soaked in sweat and covered in fabric dust. Our apartment swarmed with insects and rats. In the winter, we kept the oven door open day and night because there was no other heat in the apartment."
Kwok's main character, Kim, is also talented in one area: academic pursuits. Like Kwok, when Kim moves with her mother to America, she is terrible at school -- because she can't understand the language. Her mother knows even less English that Kim, and the only person they know in their new country is Kim's Aunt Paula, who owns a garment factory.
Initially, Aunt Paula puts them up in her own house. Then, she finds them an apartment of their own and gives Kim's mother a job. But the apartment is much like the apartment Kwok remembers from her own childhood: full of vermin and without heat. Additionally, Kim must work after school with her mother at the illegal by-the-piece job her aunt so kindly gives them, because otherwise her mother would be unable to complete the demands of the job.
In Girl in Translation, Kwok takes readers inside the mind of a child struggling to learn English, to assimilate to a new culture, to rise above her poverty-stricken circumstances, and to find herself somewhere in between. Kim is a winning narrator; my empathy for her soared throughout the novel. She is far from perfect, but she does the best she can. Often she is ashamed of her family, irritated with her mother, and angry with her aunt -- and rightly so.
Still, Kim manages to find a place for herself amidst all the outside pressures she feels, as did Kwok. More from Kwok on her childhood:
"As I slowly learned English my talent for school re-emerged. When I was about to graduate from elementary school, I won scholarships. . . . [T]here was still no money to spare. If I didn't get into a top school with a full financial aid package, I wouldn't be able to go to college. . . . In my last year in high school, I worked in three laboratories. . . . I was accepted early to Harvard and I'd done enough college work to take Advanced Standing when I entered, thus skipping a year and starting as a sophomore."
Although Kwok gives her characters a few more fictional adventures than the ones she endured, much remains the same: Kim is an intelligent young lady, who after immigrating to a new country feels ignorant. Through hard work and determination, her confidence returns.
Girl in Translation has joined my list of best books for the year. Kwok is a literary voice I hope to hear from again. Although this first novel seems to be born of her entire life experience thus far, I have no doubt she will tackle other topics and do so just as successfully.
The novel has been on my list of books I want to read for months, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to review it this week for Penguin. A huge thanks to Penguin publicist Erin Galloway for sending me a copy of the new trade paperback version and allowing me to help celebrate the trade paperback release.