About the Book:
Kimberly Chang and her mother immigrate from Hong Kong to New York when Kimberly is just a girl. Her mother’s older sister, Aunt Paula, sponsors them and pays for their passage over. She finds them an apartment and work. But the apartment is barely livable: the windows in the kitchen are broken, the heat doesn’t work, and roaches and mice are alarmingly bold. The work is hard: long hours in a clothing factory run by Paula and her husband, Bob, where children help their parents and workers are illegally paid by the piece instead of the hour. With debts to Aunt Paula of both money and gratitude to pay off, Kimberly and her mother are just barely able to make ends meet.
Kimberly’s mother speaks almost no English, so it is up to Kimberly to take care of any interactions that occur outside the factory, Chinatown, or home. In Hong Kong, Kimberly was at the top of her class; in America, she can hardly understand what the teachers are saying. Her cheap clothes and foreign habits draw ridicule from her classmates, and her poor grades are discouraging.
But Kimberly is determined to help her mother, to get them both out of their current situation and build a better life for them in America, where they’ve dreamed for so long of living. Girl in Translation is Kimberly’s story.
The entire time I was listening to Girl in Translation, I had to keep reminding myself I was listening to fiction, not fact. The novel reads like a memoir, so well told that I kept forgetting, losing myself in Kimberly’s story. When I visited Jean Kwok’s website, I realized why the story felt so real: much (though not all) of what the main character experiences is autobiographical. Somehow, knowing that the novel contained kernels of truth from Kwok’s own life made the story even more powerful for me.
Kimberly is an eloquent narrator. She speaks her mind well and spares the reader nothing about her and her mother’s grim existence. She is determined and passionate, while at the same time, she is a girl who wishes she could be like other girls her age. Kwok does an excellent job showing Kimberly’s progress, especially in English. As the novel begins, Kimberly often mishears what people say to her, and Kwok simulates Kimberly’s confusion by writing what the character hears. As Kimberly learns, her English gets better and better.
I liked the way Kwok flavored her novel with Chinese. There is no actual Chinese, yet customs and traditions come up from time to time and are always explained. The novel is also full of Chinese idioms, used when the characters are supposed to be speaking Chinese and translated via Kimberly’s explanation into English for the reader. I’ve always loved idioms and really enjoyed hearing some Chinese ones.
The audio production was really good. Grayce Wey reads with a mild Chinese accent throughout, which helps create Kimberly’s voice very clearly. As Kimberly relates her story, Wey uses a much heavier accent when Kimberly has first arrived in New York. By the end of the novel, Wey reads Kimberly’s speech in the same accent she uses to narrate the rest of Kimberly’s story. I think the skill with which Wey read Girl in Translation contributed to my feeling that I was listening to a true personal story and not a novel.
Girl in Translation is a wonderful novel and audiobook. I think either would be a great way to experience Kimberly’s powerful story.
Have you ever read a novel that seemed like a memoir? Was it meant to be autobiographical, or was it purely fiction?