Friday, May 13, 2011

Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation: a good read with great classroom potential

Thanks to the BlogHer book club, I've been reading books I would never have picked up on my own. The latest to arrive in my mailbox was Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. It was a fun read but with some of the flaws so often characteristic of a first novel.

I’m finding that despite being retired for two almost two years that I have a hard time taking off my teacher hat and continue assessing a novel for its classroom potential. Old habits die hard.

When I was teaching developmental English at Community College of Philadelphia, Girl in Translation was just the kind of book I was looking for -- a clear narrative line, straightforward syntax, a manageable vocabulary, but with some complexity and which addressed real social issues. In short, I was always looking for a book that college students with weak reading skills could handle, but one which raised serious issues and introduced my students to a different world.

For many years, I was determined to teach challenging works and convinced that somehow I could make students fall in love with the books I had loved so much. We had some interesting discussions about issues raised in these books but when the narrative complexity was too great I failed miserably to engage students with the texts themselves. Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Nadine Gordimer, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (my all time favorite authors) were just too much of a stretch.

Most of my community college students could handle the linguistic challenges of Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation and would be intellectually challenged by the issues the book raises. There’s one issue in particular which I think would resonate with my community college students: the extent to which educational aspirations can create distance from one’s partner. The novel’s central character, Kimberly Chang, realizes she has a choice between her educational goals and her relationship with her first love, who like her was from a struggling Chinese immigrant family. Over the years I saw young men -- particularly African-American men-- disappear from my classes. My female students’ partners, were not pursuing higher education and many spoke of increased tension and growing distance from their partners.

I found Kimberley’s adult relationships far less interesting than the earlier chapters of the book in which Kwok describes Kimberly’s experience working in a sweatshop and living in extreme poverty. These chapters were, for me, by far the most compelling.

However, I found some of Kwok’s linguistic devices intended to convey the struggle of learning another language ineffective and distracting. When Kimberly had difficulty with a word Kwok used a garbled spelling intended to convey her confusion. One example:

Don't worry. We have a financial aid program. You are applying after the normal process has closed but I’m sure we can make an excession for you. Sometimes we offer up to fifty percent of twosheen costs.

The translation of Chinese expressions into English -- for example,“release your heart" for “don't worry” -- was much more effective than the use of garbled spelling and did provide a window into Chinese cultural traditions. In an interview with Danwei, Kwok described her linguistic choices:

One of the greatest compliments I’ve been given is when native Chinese speakers tell me what a pleasure it was to read the language, and how they had to chuckle at the Chinese expressions. Non-native speakers seem to love this experience too -- it’s like they can suddenly speak Chinese! However, my deeper goal was to show people how very difficult it is for a foreigner in a strange country. So many people are articulate and intelligent and funny in their own language, yet are judged as ignorant because they don’t speak the dominant language well.

In some ways the plot is a cliché: a young immigrant girl through talent and drive achieves the American dream, but pays a price in terms of distance form her cultural roots. However, although we may have read this story line many times before, the details are fresh and new -- all in all, an enjoyable read with great classroom potential.

The ending is problematic and Blogher created a spoiler thread for those of us who wanted to discuss the ending without giving away the plot. So stop reading if you think you might read Girl in Translation. Here comes the spoiler.

One of the comments I thought was spot-on and worth quoting, from Denise:
Since the spoiler-y comments I've seen seem to be really focused on not talking about the end... the end where Kimberly is pregnant and heads to the clinic for an abortion... only to change her mind after seeing "her son" on the ulstrasound.
That's where I'll start. I won't even go into the ultrasound portion right now -- I just don't think Kimberly would have made the decision to have an abortion and then change her mind.
Nowhere in the book did Kimberly ever change her mind about anything. She thought things out. She learned things before making decisions. But she never once, as far as I can remember -- changed her mind.
That's the only part of this book that just didn't sound right to me. Not because I'm so pro-choice and am frustrated by the ultrasound being used as a weapon against women who choose abortion... but because it didn't sound like Kimberly.

The ending very much bears the earmarks of a first novel. I agree with Denise that Kimberly’s decision not to have an abortion was inconsistent with her character. Sure, even driven focused characters like Kimberly could be overcome with powerful conflicting feelings and reverse a major decision at a critical moment BUT Kimberly’s character would have to be developed more fully to make her reversal of her decision more believable and consistent with the previous characterization.

Another earmark of a first novel(especially a partly autobiographical first novel) is the author’s lack of distance from her character. If Kwok views her character critically, it’s not apparent—at least not apparent to me.

But these are flaws which can make for great classroom discussion. That teacher hat again!


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