Girl in Translation (Paperback)

By Jean Kwok

Riverhead Books, 9781594485152, 320pp.

Publication Date: May 3, 2011

May 2010 Indie Next List

“It's never easy being the new kid, and harder still when you are poor and you don't speak the language. From a comfortable life in Hong Kong to a gritty sweatshop in New York, we follow Kimberly Chang in this smartly told story that illuminates the struggles of adolescence against a backdrop of poverty and cultural conflicts and reveals that, even in the land of opportunity, sometimes you have to fight for what you want and let go of what you love.”
— Carol Mark, Books On The Common, Ridgefield, CT
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Description

Introducing a fresh, exciting new voice, an inspiring debut about a Chinese immigrant girl forced to choose between two worlds and two futures.

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life-like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family's future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition-Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

Through Kimberly's story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic American immigrant novel--a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.


About the Author

Jean Kwok was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl. Jean received her bachelor's degree from Harvard and completed an MFA in Fiction at Columbia. She worked as an English teacher and Dutch-English translator at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and now writes full-time. She has been published in Story Magazine and Prairie Schooner.


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Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com

  1. Throughout Girl in Translation, the author uses creative spelling to show Kimberly’s mis-hearing and misunderstanding of English words. How does the language of the novel evolve as Kimberly grows and matures? Do you see a change in the respective roles that English and Chinese play in the narrative as it progresses?
  2. The word translation figures prominently in the title of the novel, and learning to translate between her two languages is key to Kimberly’s ability to thrive in her new life. Does she find herself translating back and forth in anything other than language? Clothing? Priorities? Expectations? Personality or behavior? Can you cite instances where this occurs, and why they are significant to the story as a whole?
  3. Kimberly has two love interests in the book. How are the relationships that Matt and Curt offer different? Why do you think she ultimately chooses one boy over the other? What does that choice say about her? Can you see a future for her with the other boy? What would change?
  4. In many ways Kimberly takes over the position of head of household after her family moves to New York. Was this change in roles inevitable? How do you imagine Ma feels about it? Embarrassed? Grateful? In which ways does Ma still fulfill the role of mother?
  5. Kimberly often refers to her father, and imagines how her life might have been different, easier, if he had lived. Do you think she is right?
  6. Kimberly’s friend Annette never seems to grasp the depths of Kimberly’s poverty. What does this say about her? What lesson does this experience teach Kimberly? Is Kimberly right to keep the details of her home life a secret?
  7. Kimberly believes that devoting herself to school will allow her to free her family from poverty. Does school always live up to her expectations? Where do you think it fails her? How does it help her succeed? Can you imagine the same character without the academic talent? How would her life be different? What would remain the same? Is Kimberly right to believe that all of her potential lies in her talent for school? Must qualities like ambition, drive, hope, and optimism go hand in hand with book smarts?
  8. Think about other immigrant stories. How is Kimberly’s story universal? How is it unique? How does Kimberly’s Chinese-American story compare to other immigrant stories? Would it change if she were from a different country or culture?
  9. Kimberly lives in extreme poverty. Was anything about her circumstances surprising to you? How has reading Girl in Translation affected your views of immigration? How can you apply these lessons in your community?
  10. The story is set in the 1980s. Do you think immigrant experiences are much different today? What has changed? What has remained the same?
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