Girl in Translation/Jean Kwok: Reflections

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Oh, how I wanted to love Girl in Translation, the semi-autobiographical first novel by the entirely graceful-seeming Jean Kwok.  Girl is an assimilation novel, a tale of a young immigrant.  Kimberly Chang is eleven when she arrives to New York from Hong Kong with her mother.  She lives in an abominable apartment, helps her mother after school in a Chinatown sweatshop, and relies on her native intelligence not just to get through, but to be selected as a full-scholarship student at an elite private school.  Even her best friend, Annette, does not guess the full extent of Kimberly's poverty.  The boy who seems to love her can't imagine it.  And Kimberly and her mother get no help at all from Aunt Paula, to whom they owe their come-to-America debt.

Kwok herself was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to New York.  She, too, worked in a sweatshop.  She went to Harvard and then to Columbia, and certainly she knows the world of which she writes.  Though published as an adult novel, this book is an adolescent's story told with simple, straightforward prose, within an unyielding chronological structure.  This happened next is the operative framework of the story.  The unadorned language sounds, consistently, like this:  "I'd never had alcohol before.  I took a swig.  The taste was bitter and made my eyes water, but I managed not to show my distaste.  After my initial swallow, I sipped only a little from the bottle.  Matt drank as if he did it all the time."

A few weeks ago, after finishing a reading at Rutgers, one student noted that I was swaying the whole time I read.  It was if you were dancing, she said, and I realized, again, just how important music is to me—in what I write but also, unfortunately, in what I read.  I have to learn to get past that, to take pleasure in stories that are simply put, simply arranged.  I felt, reading Girl, that I would very much like to know Jean Kwok, for a whole spirit pervades her pages.  I felt impatient, though, about the story's voice, about the looseness of tension, about the plain-ness of effect.


Hull.Margaret said...

Guess I must be a plain ole country girl. I loved this book and the way it wss told.

Lilian Nattel said...

We all like different things in what we read--it's what makes the world interesting.

Julia said...

I've had this feeling about a few books before.

(and the picture is wonderful.)

Hannah said...

In general, I know I prefer lyrical writing as well. But I thought the plainness of the language in Girl in Translation was appropriate for the story. Totally agree though, about "a whole spirit pervades her pages."

Beth F said...

There's a fine line between simple, clear language and just plain. I'll probably give the book a try because I like immigration stories. I wonder if I'll have the same issues with it.

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