06 Dec / Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
I didn’t actually read most of Jean Kwok’s debut novel, but Grayce Wey who read it to me made it un-put-downable. Wey’s gentle, lilting accent which fades in and out depending on the character she embodies, beckoned me back to the headphones every free moment and nine recorded hours passed in a mere two days. When Kwok’s story concluded, I found myself pining for Kimberly and Matt, inventing various sequels only Wey could voice in my head.
Kimberly Chan’s immigration story is immediately familiar, if not from personal experience, then certainly from the many (many!!) APA titles that have thankfully proliferated through the last few decades. Kwok weaves many autobiographical details of her own immigrant journey – from Hong Kong to a Chinatown sweatshop and an Ivy League education – into her fictional debut … and while readers might be tempted to roll an eyeball over yet another stereotypical model minority tale of success, Kwok deftly challenges readers with unexpected, engaging twists and turns.
The seeming generosity of a maternal aunt, already comfortably ensconced with her own family in Staten Island, enable Kimberly and her mother to escape their precarious life in Hong Kong. For all her supposed largesse, Aunt Paula makes virtual slaves of her trusting relatives, employing her sister in a grueling sweatshop, while housing mother and daughter in a condemned building, their heatless apartment overrun by rats and roaches. Throughout her young life, Kimberly will value her few purchases in the number of skirts that must pass through her mother’s tired fingers, then her own as she soon needs to help her overburdened mother meet her aunt’s nearly-impossible quotas.
Somehow, Kimberly manages to excel in school after a faltering start, and earns a full scholarship to a highly prestigious private school. Trapped between the challenges of school and the tedium of the factory, Kimberly finds occasional relief and even escape with her one best friend, Annette, and the love of her life, Matt, another factory boy she meets at age 11 and never outgrows. But her future – and that of her tiring mother – drives her every move, and she’s determined she will save them both from Aunt Paula, poverty, and the bleakness of their lives.
In spite of a whinge here and there – Annette’s ideas of being a best friend, one-dimensional relatives, myopic teachers – you will keep pushing that ‘play’ button or turning those pages. Kwok’s final chapter makes the possibility of a sequel highly unlikely, but still … with Wey’s voice still fresh in my head, I can let my imagination run wild: Ducatis in the sunset sound just about right!