Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

“The air was thick and tasted of metal.  I was deafened by the roar of a hundred Singer sewing machines.  Dark heads were bent over each one.  No one looked up; they only fed reams of cloth through the machines, racing from piece to piece without pausing to cut off the connecting thread.  Almost all the seamstresses had their hair up, although some strands had escaped and were plastered to the sides of their necks and cheeks by the sweat.  They wore air filters over their mouths.  There was a film of dirty red dust on the filters, the color of meat exposed to air for too long.”

Kimberly and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when Kim is only eleven.  Her mother takes a position at a sweatshop, working for relatives who helped with her immigration papers.  In order to make payments on the debt they owe for the immigration assistance and still have enough money for food, even Kimberly must work in the factory after school.

For years, they live in squalor, squatting illegally in an unheated, roach-infested building.   Because of the nature of their work (they are paid-illegally-for each skirt they finish, rather than an hourly wage), Kimberly and her mother calculate the prices of all their purchases in skirts.  A dress for graduation is 1,500 skirts. A gift for a friend is 133.  Determined to improve their living conditions, Kimberly works hard at school, gradually learning English and soaring to the top of her class.  Her scholastic abilities earns her an unprecedented full scholarship to a prestigious private school, where she struggles to keep up with the classwork while concealing her poverty from her classmates.

This story is an Alex award winner! Alex awards are given to books that aren’t necessarily written for young adults, but may be especially appealing to them.  I’ve always been partial to Alex winners, and I was hoping this one had been nominated, too.  I’m glad to see it won!  The story is compelling; expect chilling descriptions of a workplace injury and page after page of a poverty so extreme that it is hard to imagine. I was genuinely sickened when I read about Kimberly’s apartment, and how she would sleep on the side of the bed nearest the wall, because she was less afraid of mice than her mother was, and wanted to give her the small gift of a more restful sleep by taking the spot nearer the mice .    There were many tender moments between Kimberly and her mother; I loved the portrayal of their relationship.  They were genuinely protective of each other and clung together in a threatening and confusing world.

Not only does this book explore issues that are often misunderstood or not discussed, like sweatshop labor, illegal immigration, and extreme poverty, but it is also very well-written.  The characters are realistically portrayed, and Kimberly’s storytelling changes and matures as she ages.  I picked it up and was reading it even while I followed my sister around at the grocery store; I just didn’t want to stop.  Even better: the author, Jean Kwok, was born in Hong Kong, immigrated to Brooklyn, and worked with her family in a sweatshop as a child.  While this book is fiction, it was inspired by her real-life experiences.  If you’d like to know which parts of the story really happened, you can check out the FAQs on her website.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://jeankwok.net/index.shtml

Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. Riverhead Books: New York, 2010. 303 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked the description of Kimberly’s experiences living in a new country, and you are an older reader, you might like Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  Younger readers who are interested in the experiences of Chinese-Americans could try the amazing graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese.  For another portrayal of the grueling work immigrants often do, younger readers might like Esperanza RisingThis is one of my favorite genres to read, and if you’d like more recommendations (or if you have some yourself), please let me know!

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