Jean Kwok, Girl in Translation
A coming-of-age novel that sheds new light on the immigrant experience
The wonderful thing about coming-of-age novels is that there can never be too many. Growing up is a universal experience, but the details always differ just enough to warrant subtle variations on the theme. Yes, Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation rests squarely in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn territory (quite literally in fact, as the narrator, Kimberly Chang, moves from China to the titular borough of that perennially popular novel) with generous doses of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake for good measure. Girl, however, presents a somewhat shifted experience than the others. Facing the same exploitation, poverty and seemingly insurmountable language barriers as her mother (a pianist of note in her native China), Kimberly, at 11-years-old, also has to take over as de facto head of the house.
As in many novels recounting the immigrant experience, education proves to be the key to escaping the crushing hardships the Changs face upon their arrival in the US. Thankfully, Kimberly excels in academia — even being offered a full scholarship to a private school. As she says, “It was as if school were a vast machine and I a cog perfectly formed to fit in it.” In school, her story veers towards the time-honored explorations of maturing and falling in love, while at home she exhibits the ironclad determination of someone who knows that resting for even a moment would mean abject failure. Kwok has obviously drawn heavily on personal experience in writing her novel, and fans of the grand traditions of bildungsromans will find much to appreciate in it.