Jean Kwok was in St. Louis the other day to talk about her bestselling debut novel, Girl in Translation, recently released in paperback. In a personable style peppered with humor, she presented the true story behind the book, which is a horrifying immigrant tale of a mother and young daughter coming from China to a better life in the U.S. The “better” life turns out to be working in a sweatshop garment factory and living in a roach-infested tenement. Ms. Kwok related that her descriptions of the stifling hot factory, steam venting from pressing machines into a big concrete room with windows shut and blocked against prying eyes, fabric dust everywhere, and the trashed and beaten, bug-covered apartment were exactly as those her family worked and lived in. This was in the 1990s in New York. Jean went to the factory every day after school until she went off to college. Audience mouths fell open in shock. Fortunately, the young protagonist(Kimberly) – and Jean herself – were blessed with school smarts which helped them escape from poverty and the grinding slave work for pennies. As Kimberly comes of age, she must decide between two young men and the different paths they will take. Jean married a Dutchman and now lives in the Netherlands.
Jean wrote Girl in Translation for three reasons: to let others know what it is like to be an immigrant lost in a new country and language, to encourage others to look beyond the curtain of differences that separate them from immigrants, and to commemorate the struggle of her life and the lives of her mother and brother who worked so hard and held the family together. Jean’s older brother was also brilliant in school and pulled himself out of poverty through education. He saved his pennies to buy her the gift of a blank diary, which started her on the path of writing: “Whatever you write belongs to you,” he said to a little girl who had nothing. I asked Jean if she had considered writing her memoir versus a novel, and what made her decide to write her story as fiction. Her answer was one my own mother had to overcome: she was ashamed of her rough early life. Jean laughed as she told us she thought she could hide behind the fiction, that no one would know she used her real life as a basis for the story. And maybe we would never have known except she had become rightfully proud of overcoming adversity. She also had a message for the world, particularly one for insular Americans, many of us having no clue what it’s like to be suddenly and permanently immersed in an alien culture where everyone is speaking apparent gibberish and impatient for you to understand. Add being trapped in poverty to that equation. Jean also knew she needed a good plot, and there was freedom in being able to deviate from the truth. A book that will sell well, and thus pass its message on to more people, must have a well-developed and entertaining storyline (Jean also praised her very critical editor). I can’t wait to read Jean’s book. The first chapter is great.