Jean Kwok’s debut novel tells the story of a girl who immigrates with her mother from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, where she toils long hours in a grueling sweat shop but finds a ray of hope through education. The experience of Kimberly, the plucky main character in “Girl in Translation,” is somewhat similar to Kwok’s own story.
Kwok’s work feels destined for to become a pick of summer book clubs, and she’ll be here next month to read and sign. The appearance, coordinated by the Georgia Center for the Book, starts at 7:15 p.m. May 4 at DeKalb County Public Library, 215 Sycamore St. in Decatur.
We interviewed her via e-mail from her home in Holland.
Q: To what extent is the book autobiographical?
A: “Girl in Translation” is a work of fiction, so the storyline and characters are not real. However, it was certainly inspired by my own life, and by the worlds I had seen. My family moved from Hong Kong to New York when I was 5 years old and we, like Kimberly Chang and her mother, needed to start all over again. We began working in a sweatshop in Chinatown, which was filled with small children like myself. And we did live in an apartment without central heating, where we needed to keep the oven door open in order to have a bit of warmth through the bitter New York winters. Like Kimberly, I had a talent for school. I was also tested by a number of exclusive private schools and won scholarships to them, yet I was also accepted by a public high school for gifted children, which is where I went. After that, on a similar path to Kimberly’s, I was accepted to Harvard.
Q: Both you and Kimberly faced such enormous challenges yet never complained – and excelled at school despite poverty, horrible living conditions, long hours working, etc. Did you ever find yourself losing patience with your American classmates who had a much easier time of it? (I’m thinking of the passage in which Curt tells Kimberly how living in the suburbs is “hell,” oblivious to the reality of her life).
A: The more I see of the world, the more I realize that no one really has an easy time, no matter how rich they may be. Although we were quite poor, I’ve always felt lucky that as a child, I was a part of a family that loved each other. It was the hardest when I was a teenager, because that was when I wanted to have the freedom and privileges of my classmates the most. Now, I see that my peers had their own problems, and that no one’s life is as perfect as it seems from the outside. Sometimes, I lose patience with myself when I get stressed about minor things, like the cat peeing on the couch (with so much enthusiasm that we actually had to throw away the couch), and I realize how fortunate I am to have such a different life now.
Q: Could you talk about the inspiration behind the complex relationship between Aunt Paula and Kimberly’s mother, and between Matt and his father? While most people would likely be aware of the injustice of sweatshop labor, it seemed that you revealed something a bit hidden within immigrant communities in describing the tense dynamic between the sisters and the father and son.
A: I don’t think that these dynamics are hidden within only immigrant communities, but rather exist in all sorts of family relationships. The bonds of love, jealousy and guilt can be very strong. Aunt Paula loves her sister, Kimberly’s mother, but Aunt Paula is jealous of her as well and honestly believes that she sacrificed her own happiness for Kim’s mother. Matt gives his hard-earned money to a father who gambles it away, but underlying all of these relationships is genuine love.
Q: To what extent do you feel becoming “Americanized” is a cultural detriment? I refer to the passages in which Kimberly refers to teachers as “sir,” shakes hands with adults, folds her hands behind her when the teacher talks – and then the passages in which her spoiled cousins Nelson and Godfrey demand that their father change clothes because he looks “gay” (a very Americanized epithet among adolescents) and that their mother take off her “gaudy” 24K jewelry.
A: You’re right in that I did set up a deliberate contrast in the novel. I don’t think that it is becoming “Americanized” that is a cultural detriment, but rather allowing your children to be spoiled. Nelson and Godfrey are the products of an upbringing that didn’t teach them to value the things that matter: respect, love, honesty. I did mean for them to be examples of what could happen if you only showered children with material goods and didn’t teach them to respect their own heritage. They are, of course, a form of poetic justice for their parents.
Q: I detect some subtle humor regarding academia, such as when Annette announces she is “Communist” to Kimberly’s horror, and the passages in which students work on esoteric essay topics which confound Kimberly, who seems more comfortable with equations. Are there elements of higher education in America that strike you as absurd?
A: These elements of higher education don’t strike me as absurd, but I think that they were incomprehensible to a new immigrant like Kimberly. When I was at Harvard, I loved writing essays on issues like “the meaning of the disembodied hand in Shakespeare” but sometimes, I would reflect on how little I would have been able to appreciate such ideas when I was younger and simply struggling to survive.
Q: In writing this book, were you motivated by a desire to shed light on what life is like for immigrants? Was it scary to reveal in such intimate detail a sense of what your early life was like? Did anyone try talking you out of such a revealing novel? What reaction have you received from family and new immigrants who are familiar with the life you describe in the book?
If I had known then that I would be talking about my own background like this, I would have tried to talk myself out of writing this novel! I made the clear decision to write this book as fiction and not a memoir, exactly for the reasons you name above. It never occurred to me that people would ask me, “Is this autobiographical?” However, you are right in that I did very much want to write about the world I had left behind, because it was a hard life, and many injustices are committed against people who live under such circumstances. When the novel started getting so much attention, it became clear that my personal story was an important part of the whole. People really wanted to know if it was possible for working class people to live like this, and I understood that I needed to answer, “Yes.” The best thing is that people’s reactions have been so wonderful. They range from sympathy to understanding to people saying, “I lived like this too, and I’ve never been able to explain to anyone else before what it was like.” It was something my family had always hidden, and it is astonishing to have people tell us how much they admire us for having overcome the obstacles that we did.