It’s easy to forget while you’re reading that Jean Kwok’s novel is not actually a memoir of the Chinese immigrant experience. Each page of its insistent narrative pushes the reader through the vicissitudes of life in a decrepit Brooklyn apartment, labor in a Chinatown sweatshop, and the relationship between a mother and her young daughter Kimberly with an astonishing scope of striking details. Indeed the faded red of an oft-washed pair of handmade underwear, the heft of a bolt of lime green polyester plush found in the trash and used to create blankets, jackets, and slippers, and the steamy exhale of the factory’s pressing machines, are each imbued with a dimensionality that could only come from real life.
And in fact, they did. Kwok writes, “Though Girl in Translation is a work of fiction, the world in which it takes place is real,” and one she knows as intimately as her protagonist Kimberly, having come to America as a child not speaking a word of English, yet managing to excel in school and eventually landing in an Ivy League college. As a work of fiction, Kwok has crafted a powerful story of one young woman’s tenacity in the face of a constant stream of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But it’s more than that. Girl in Translation is a vividly rendered telling of a child’s struggles as she navigates the boundary between traditional and contemporary cultures, hardships and successes, and matters of the heart. As Kimberly grows to womanhood we can’t help but root for her, on the one hand confident she’s tough enough to make it, on the other holding our breath, hoping she’ll never stop trying.