Monday, May 16, 2011

The Americanization of Kimberly

I was there with her, that Girl in Translation.
I walked the streets of Brooklyn, wearing a too-thin jacket on my way to school. I rode the subway, studying as we traveled to Aunt Paula's factory. I froze in the roach-riddled apartment and lusted after Matt. I worried and I protected Ma and I was smart. I was very, very smart.
Her successes were my successes, her longings mine as well. Truly an outsider, she was clearer than I'd ever been about the inner workings of her high school's social hierarchy. Being different, having talent, surviving bad teachers and snotty classmates and jealous relatives -- my life was her life for 300 some pages.
Jean Kwok brings Kimberly and Ma into your life and embeds them in your heart. There is no whining, even when the situation warrants it. It's the two of them against the world, and their connection gives each of them the strength to move forward, upward, onward.
It's this connection that makes Girl in Translation such a special book. Thissemi-autobiographical novel renewed my faith in the power of positive thinking. Kimberly knows that she is talented, knows that she and she alone can rescue her little family, knows that there is an end to her pain. She is often beaten but she remains unbowed. She is focused and driven and because of that her travails are never maudlin. They simply are.
Until love enters the picture. This is a delicate, surprising, thoughtful love story, with an ending that is perfect and sad all at once. Stolen kisses landed on my lips at the same time they did Kimberly's. Longing and lust and passion and responsibility - all were present on each and every page.
This simple and elegant book should be read by every high school girl who is considering sacrificing a brilliant future for a popular present. There are deftly told anecdotes folded in amongst scenes familiar to anyone who has ever sat in a classroom or wondered about her place in the world.
But this is not a young adult novel. The larger social issues surrounding immigration and being the other are there as well, woven into the fabric of the story. There is no judgment; there is only understanding and reality.
This is a quick and easy read with a deep and powerful message. Like life itself, the joy is nuanced and the pain multi-faceted. Jean Kwok's debut novel truly does describe a girl in translation.
(previously posted at


  1. I'm going to read that one and quite possibly pass it on to my 4 granddaughters.

  2. Sounds like a lovely book. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Kenju, your granddaughters will love it. It's accessible, doesn't glorify drugs or sex or violence, exalts loyalty and love and hard work -- Jean Kwok is someone we can all aspire to emulate.

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