For novelist Jean Kwok, spending a decade of her life writing “Girl in Translation” in the attic of her home in Holland meant risk. “It was bypassing traditional success,” she says while tucked amid boxes in an office at Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle, calm but energized despite the pressures of a book tour. Kwok emigrated with her family from Hong Kong at the age of 5 to face New York’s brutal winters, working in a factory and living in an apartment with broken windows and no heat, “exactly like the one in the book where it was really so run down and not heated, we had to keep the oven open day and night in the winter to keep any kind of warmth at all.”
Those early experiences had their effect. “Like most people who come out of a working class background like that, I did not even consider doing anything as risky as becoming a writer.” It wasn’t until after being accepted into Harvard that a new reality sunk in. “I realized I’m not going to have to go back to the factory – I am really going to be alright. I felt safe enough to make the decision to be a writer, writing about the world I had come from.”
And hence her debut novel, “Girl in Translation”, chronicling the experiences of a gifted girl and her mother through their first years in a new country. Eleven year-old Kimberly Chang arrives with her mother to a harsh new environment armed with only two things – an incredible aptitude for school and a belief in the American dream. While earning one and a half cents for each skirt she handles at the factory after school, she learns how to navigate different worlds while tackling questions of dream, sacrifice and success.
“It was really important for me to talk about a first generation immigrant and to tell the story from that point of view.” To do so, Kwok places readers within earshot of her characters’ voices by deliberately reconfiguring language to convey her characters’ perceptions in their native tongue so “you can’t hear English clearly … you are really struggling as a reader to understand what’s coming in.” And though in learning a new language Kimberly and her mother face a challenging situation where children learn more quickly and so become mediators and translators, taking on roles previously the purview of parents while adults struggle to be heard and understood, “I wanted to make clear that Kimberly’s mother is still a wonderful mother in that she loves her, and she does her best for her, and she’s wise and smart and funny in Chinese, even though she can’t function in English and has to turn things over to Kimberly.” And it may indeed be that the narrative of the novel is most beautiful and eloquent when we hear Kimberly and her mother in dialogue, utilizing the poetic expressions of their native tongue.
As audiences seek links between the fictional and the autobiographical, Kwok concludes, “I wrote this as a piece of fiction because I didn’t want to talk about my own background, but of course now everyone wants me to talk about my background. But I actually think it’s good because I think it’s very important to say this can happen, and it did happen – that people live like this.”
But if there are links to be drawn between fictional characters and real individuals, perhaps they should point to Jean Kwok’s brother Kwan, who sadly died in an accident last year. Like Kimberly, he was 11 years-old on his arrival in NY, precocious, a hard worker, and a lover of things fast. And most appropriately, it is Kwan’s intervention that opens the first door for Jean Kwok’s dream. “The moment I learned I could write, I was 7 years-old. It was a time in my life where every cent was needed for us to survive, and my brother came home one night and laid something on my pillow. And it was a diary. And he said this is yours – whatever you write in it will belong to you.” Though he could have given her candy or toys, Jean Kwok still marvels at her brother’s choice. “When I talk about the novel I’m very glad because it helps keep his memory alive.”