China Books

Jean Kwok's Girl In Translation


Jean Kwok writes about the Asian American emigration experience. Her website describes the plot of Girl In Translation thus: "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." For more, see

Below Danwei prints a Q&A with the author.

Danwei: When did you decide that the book just had to be written? Was there any kind of catalyst or a special incident?
Jean Kwok: When I was seven years old, my brother brought me a special present. We had just arrived in New York a few years ago and although my family had been fairly well-off in Hong Kong, we had to start all over again in the US. We all needed to work in a clothing factory to survive and we lived in an apartment without central heating, where the plaster was falling off of the walls. After working the whole day in the factory, my brother would go to his second job as a waiter.

One night, he came home and lay a small package on my pillow. It was a diary with a lock on it. “Anything you write in this will be yours to keep,” he said.

That was the beginning of my life as a writer, although I didn’t dare to consciously choose it as my profession for many years. When I look back, I’m amazed that my brother had the wisdom to choose the diary instead of candy or a toy as a gift when our money was so incredibly scarce.

In terms of this specific book, there wasn’t a moment when I could choose or not choose. I had to write this book. I wanted to show people the different worlds I had seen, and I wanted to create compelling characters and a story that would entice readers into these worlds.

Danwei: "The white disease" for leukemia," “small-hearted" for be careful and "release your heart" for don't worry. The title of the novel Girl in Translation seems to be carried over to the realms to the language, too. What motivated a technique that accentuates the foreignness of "translated" dialogue?
JK: It took me ten years to write this novel and one of my goals was to develop a technique that would show English-speaking readers what it was like to be a native speaker of Chinese. I wanted to put the reader into the head and heart of a Chinese immigrant. English comes in garbled and incomprehensible, while the beauty of the Chinese language is easily understood

One of the greatest compliments I’ve been given is when native Chinese speakers tell me what a pleasure it was to read the language, and how they had to chuckle at the Chinese expressions. Non-native speakers seem to love this experience too – it’s like they can suddenly speak Chinese!

However, my deeper goal was to show people how very difficult it is for a foreigner in a strange country. So many people are articulate and intelligent and funny in their own language, yet are judged as ignorant because they don’t speak the dominant language well.

Danwei: Were you conscious of being part of a particular strain or a type of Asian American literature whilst writing Girl in Translation?
JK: I really can’t compare my own work to anyone else’s because it’s impossible for me to judge it objectively. I can only try to tell my own type of story as well as I can. I wanted very much to talk about the experiences of a first generation immigrant, to display the incredible sacrifices and triumphs made by so many people.

There are many Asian authors I admire very much, however, like Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Lan Samantha Chang and Chang-rae Lee.

Danwei: The book has been described as a "non-cliched" story of its type. Did you consciously try to avoid cliches?
JK: I love this question because I am so conscious of clichés. Reviewers have indeed often described the novel as “fresh” and “new” and that means a great deal to me because I worked hard to try to make it that way.

At every single moment in the book, I try to anticipate what readers would expect and attempt to surprise them. That is the difficulty in writing – to deliver a story that is unexpected, yet inevitable. I have had readers tell me after reading the novel, “I was so surprised, yet what happened was completely right.” That’s what I hope for.

Danwei: Have you met many people who had grown up in similar circumstances, with similar traits as Kimberly, and who came out the same way? Were there many very different outcomes?
JK: Although this is a work of fiction, it was definitely informed by my own life. We moved to the US from Hong Kong when I was five years old and we needed to work in a sweatshop to survive. Our apartment was just as rundown as the one in the book. Fortunately, like Kimberly, I had a talent for school. I struggled at the beginning but was accepted to a high school for gifted children and was later admitted to Harvard via early admissions.

I think that there are other children who were also lucky enough to escape their circumstances. Although I had a natural ability for school, I was a disaster as a Chinese daughter – burning everything in the kitchen, making holes in shirts when I tried to iron them – and sometimes I reflect that if my talents had been reversed, I would probably be a very good cleaner in a restaurant somewhere. And that is true for many people. I feel very fortunate to have a different life now.

One thing I wanted to illuminate with my novel was how alone a working-class immigrant child is. If they have any kind of difficulty in school, they often cannot rely on their parents to help them. They often don’t have physical resources like magazines or art supplies at home to complete school projects. Not to mention the lack of tutoring and lessons in extracurricular activities.

Danwei: In this Penguin short you say that your mother has never really learnt to speak English, making her sound simple in English whilst elegant in Chinese. Do you think the character of "Ma" became resigned about this inescapable fact, or do you think she sees it lightly and as something that must be accepted in order to move on?
JK: I think that it must hurt Ma to be seen as ignorant by non-Chinese speakers, but she is not one to complain. She accepts the things she cannot change and moves forward to make the best of them. Like many other immigrants, Ma’s main concern was to provide the best for her daughter and she doesn’t worry too much about herself and what other people might think of her.

It is my hope that after reading the novel, when readers see a foreign woman on the bus who cannot speak English very well, that they will think, “That could be someone as wise and thoughtful as Kimberly Chang’s mother, only in her own language.” It is my hope that we could all learn to understand each other just a bit better.

There are currently 2 Comments for Jean Kwok's Girl In Translation.

Comments on Jean Kwok's Girl In Translation

I saw the book in the bookstore two days ago and would love to read it. Thanks for the prompt interview!

She does sound non-cliched here! would like to read her book!

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