Monday, July 4, 2011

Book Review: Girl in Translation

Although most of us probably think that sweatshops no longer exist, every cheap piece of clothing that we buy probably came from one. It wasn't until I read the novel Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok that I understood what goes on in such places. There used to be a "sweatshop"  not far from my studio.  This place was off limits so to speak - marked by heavy doors with Chinese characters - from which  tired and sweaty workers emerged covered with fibres and still wearing dust masks over their faces. I never really gave it much thought until I read this book...

Girl in Translation is about a young girl named Kimberly Chan who comes to New York from Hong Kong with her mother. Burdened by the heavy debt owed to the aunt who helped them immigrate,  they are at the mercy of this mean-spirited relative who also runs the clothing factory in which they must work. With the mother's piece work wages garnished to repay the debt, they have no choice but to live in a roach and rat filled apartment without heat in Harlem.  Kimberly works with her mother at the factory after school and on Saturdays while trying to learn English and do her schoolwork. Her innate intelligence, hard work and resilience serve her well and she manages to earn a scholarship to a private high school where she is able to start the slow climb to a better life.

This coming of age story is utterly compelling and it is the type of book that is hard to put down. The reality of the sweatshop is so grim and so horrible that it is hard to fathom how any of it could possibly be true.... And yet, the author herself came from such a background, earning a bachelor's degree from Harvard and an MFA in fiction at Columbia. Although the book is clearly semi-autobiographical, I almost wish the author had written it as a memoir so I had a better sense of where the line between fiction and reality lies in this work. But sometimes truth is even a stranger tale than fiction.

Title: Girl in Translation
Author: Jean Kwok
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Riverhead Books, New York 2010
Number of Pages: 303 (paperback edition)

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