Exciting book news today! Our friend Jean Kwok’s first novel Girl in Translation has recently received another kudo to add to her growing list of great reviews and “best of” lists, which includes being a NYT extended bestseller, a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, an Indie Next List pick by independent booksellers of the American Booksellers Association, and a Blue Ribbon pick for all of the following clubs: Book of the Month, Doubleday, Literary Guild, Large Print, the Lifestyle Clubs, Rhapsody and Book of the Month Club 2 (Kwok). Girl in Translation has just been listed as one of the “Top 30 Books for 2010” by Woman and Home magazine, one of my favorite fun reads to enjoy while traveling or with a glass or cup of something relaxing. The editors’ call it a “Superbly written and observed coming-of-age novel” (“Top 30 Books for 2010”). If you haven’t read Jean’s book yet, you are in for a treat:
“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—the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, 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 (Girl in Translation).”
Kimberly’s story is a quintessentially American one that draws in echoes of Dickens’ gritty factory scenes, Cinderella-cruel characters, and even the sweet sounds of a violin being played to a little girl in the dark that immediately reminded me of the Little House on the Prairie books. It is Kimberly and her mom against the world, and Jean’s amazing ability to describe Kimberly’s English to Chinese mistranslations is one of the real strengths of her narrative. It helps the reader share Kimberly’s confusion, her frustrations and, ultimately, her triumphs, rooting for her all the way.
In addition, Jean just published an article for The Mail on Sunday, “The Sweatshop Was My Second Home: How One Woman Escaped the Poverty Trap”, an autobiographical piece where, for the first time, she shares with her readers in-depth details about her life as a gifted little girl who was also a Chinese immigrant, lived in condemned housing in Brooklyn and worked at a sweatshop in Chinatown after school in order to help support her parents and three older brothers. Jean’s personal story is the backbone of her novel and as American-Dream as you can get, a hard-scrabble immigrant life at home while at school her work ethic, talent and intelligence enable her to master English and then soar academically, ultimately landing her at Harvard where she still managed to work four jobs to support herself. She graduated with honors in American and English Literature, but focusing her studies on the humanities and becoming an author wasn’t the traditional way to succeed in the Chinese community, particularly for a young woman. She describes why she bucked conventional careers in “financially secure careers” that are highly sought after and concentrated on her writing instead:
“I felt it was important to write about the world I had seen – most children who work in sweatshops grow up to be adults who work in sweatshops. The ones who do manage to leave that world usually choose financially secure careers – medicine, engineering, accountancy – not writing. The one question people always ask me when they hear about my novel is: could it really happen in America? My answer is ‘Yes’.
Although most of the clothing factories in Chinatown have now moved back to China, there is still no shortage of low-wage labour. I am certain that many immigrants still work incredibly hard day and night, many with children in tow, simply to make ends meet” (“The Sweatshop Was My Second Home”).
The article in the Mail joins the flood of interviews, book signings, radio shows, photo shoots and conference appearances Jean has been participating in on her whirlwind tour of the States and the UK promoting her novel. I have been following her press via her posts on Facebook and it has been fascinating to watch Jean blaze her trail through the publishing and bookselling world. The poignant piece of Jean’s success is that her brother Kwan, brilliant in his own right and her “biggest fan”, was killed in a plane accident in 2009, but it is a comfort to know that he got to read a proof of his kid sister’s story before he died and that his encouragement of Jean’s writing enabled her to share with all of us who read Girl in Translation.
In the spring, Jean was gracious enough to make sure the HS Library received 10 Advanced Reading Copies of her novel, which I promptly and enthusiastically shared out to my teacher colleagues and high school students to take home this summer to read and enjoy. There will also be plenty of copies of Jean’s book available when school starts in two weeks because we are looking forward to having Jean, her busy speaking schedule permitting, come and visit our school this Fall…the great news for us is that she lives so close in nearby Voorschoten. We can’t wait to welcome her to ASH!