One of my favorite books last year was an advanced readers' copy of Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. It tells the story of a young Hong Kong immigrant, Kimberly Chang, who goes to work in her aunt’s clothing factory in Brooklyn. Since her Aunt Paula has paid for her mother and her to come to America, they become defacto indentured servants.
But Kimberly is very smart, and Girl in Translation traces her path to assimilation in America. Since she doesn’t speak English when she first arrives, Kimberly is placed in a class for low achievers. She is considered lazy and unremarkable. With time, and with her genius for math, she eventually gets into a private school. The more she excels, the more torn she becomes between the claustrophobic, Chinese-centered life of her aunt’s sweatshop and the promise of success in the larger world. It will be published April 29.
I was delighted to learn today that Girl in Translation has been chosen as a May 2010 pick for the Indie Next List.
And what's even more amazing is that the book was pulled out of the slush pile, which Kwok talks about on her blog.
It’s hard to know how much of this book reflects the life of its author. But I suspect she has drawn heavily on her experiences, as she, too, immigrated from Hong Kong. Here’s a biography I found on the Asia Society webpage:
“Jean Kwok was born in Hong Kong, immigrated to Brooklyn when she was five, and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. After entering public elementary school unable to speak a word of English, she was later admitted to Hunter College High School, one of New York City's most competitive public high schools. She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time, and graduated with honors in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction at Columbia. Kwok has worked as an English teacher and Dutch-English translator at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and has been a professional ballroom dancer, a reader for the blind, a housekeeper, a dishwasher, and a computer graphics specialist for a major financial institution. Her work has been published in Story magazine, Prairie Schooner, Elements of Literature: Third Course, and The Nuyorasaian Anthology.”
With this book's publication, there is no doubt that Kwok will be noticed as a major American writer. The one sad aspect of her tale is that her older brother Kwan, who helped edit her book and who provided much of the material on which this book is based, died in the crash of a private plane in 2009.
Kwok will be at Book Passage in San Francisco on May 5 and at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland on May 6. Here is her schedule.