Introducing a fresh, exciting Chinese-American voice, an inspiring debut about an immigrant girl forced to choose between two worlds and two futures.
When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life--like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family's future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition--Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.
Through Kimberly's story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic novel of an American immigrant--a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.
In this touching and insightful debut novel from Jean Kwok, 11-year-old Kimberly Chang makes us proud to call her a fellow American. Grace Wey’s narration effortlessly carries the abrupt “scene changes” that are a natural part of the life of an immigrant child. Wey takes us from the grassy prep school where Kimberly spends her days to the loud, hot factory where she works every evening with her mother fabric fibers sticking to her sweaty body, hours of homework ahead of her.
When Kimberly is in Chinatown, Kwok translates for us but loosely enough to retain the vivid metaphors of the original language. When Matt, another Chinese boy who works at the factory, invites Kimberly and her mother for an outing to see the “Liberty Goddess”, Mrs. Chang says, “Now I wouldn’t want to be a lightbulb.” Kimberly explains, “Her joke, that she would be there as a chaperone stopping the lovers from kissing because of her presence, like a lightbulb in a darkened room made public my private hope: that Matt’s invitation might actually be a date.” The metaphor itself is so descriptive, and the fact that Kimberly has to translate even for us as listeners reminds us that this young woman gracefully leads a double life.
Much like Chinese characters, where the white space in between the brush strokes holds as much meaning as the bold, black lines, Wey’s precise delivery leaves room for Kimberly’s often unspoken, but deeply felt emotions. Kwok and Wey take us on a ride with Kimberly on Matt’s bike we can feel the wind on her face and Matt’s strong back against her chest. But just as abruptly as we shift from Kimberly’s “white” world to her “Chinese” world, Wey’s voice betrays the tragic sound of Kimberly’s heart shutting off. Too much is at stake.
Girl in Translation is a stunning debut novel that will inspire respect and admiration for families who come to this country to start new lives especially children. The first line of Kwok’s debut novel is meant to describe our heroine. “I was born with a talent.” But this line just as aptly describes the author who also came to this country as a child. Girl in Translation shows the promise of our great country and just what many are willing to give up for it…even true love. Sarah Evans Hogeboom
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