Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A World of Difference

The biographical blurb about the author Jean Kwok on the jacket cover of her first novel Girl in Translation can just as easily serve as an abbreviated summary of the story: “Jean Kwok (read Kimberly Chang) was born in Hong Kong and as a child immigrated to Brooklyn, where she worked with her family in a sweatshop.” Kimberley and her mother arrive here when Kimberley is eleven expecting to be taken in by relatives already living in Brooklyn. But there is an old rivalry between Kimberley’s mother and her mother’s sister Aunt Paula. It is Paula’s opportunity to exact a measure of revenge by providing only a roach-infested slum apartment and a job in a sweat factory to her newly arrived sister.

For the next few years Kimberley is our eyes into the hidden world of these Chinese immigrants living in unimaginable poverty, working under deplorable conditions. It is all the more surprising because Aunt Paula and her husband own the sweat factory and are now living comfortably. I had never really thought about it but I guess it makes sense that the owner of the sweat factory would be Chinese in order to communicate with the workers in their own language. But the inhumanity of the conditions is startling.

Kimberley also has the world of school to negotiate - in a foreign language. Thank goodness for the language of mathematics at which she already excels. School by day; factory work helping her mother and then homework by night; inadequate food, clothing and shelter from the elements. What makes some children so resilient? When Kimberley wins a scholarship to a prestigious private high school, her problems are only compounded because now she has to lead a double life always finding excuses not to join in the activities after school lest she be expected to reciprocate. And of course a coming-of-age story would not be complete without a love interest – or two.

The final chapters of the book fast forward and cover a lot of years quickly tying up lose ends as many authors do. This is a work of fiction, but there is so much of Kwok’s own life story here that it could almost be a memoir. It will be interesting to see whether Kwok, in future works, stays close to home or wanders farther afield.

Lest we think that the days of sweatshops are over, read this.

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