Brief Biography of Jean Kwok
Much of Jean Kwok’s early life mirrors that of Kim in Girl in Translation. When Jean Kwok was five years old, she immigrated with her family to Brooklyn, New York, from Hong Kong. Their apartment was infested with roaches and rodents and had no central heating, and when she wasn't at school, she worked in a clothing factory in Chinatown. She was accepted to the prestigious Hunter College High School after elementary school, which prepared her to later gain admission to Harvard. Though Kwok began her college education studying science, she eventually changed her major to study English and literature. Throughout college, she worked multiple jobs at a time. In between earning her bachelor’s degree and her master's degree at Columbia University, she spent several years working for a dance studio as a professional ballroom dancer. Her experiences there influenced her second novel, Mambo in Chinatown. Kwok currently lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two sons, where she writes and speaks about her work. Prior to turning to writing full time after Girl in Translation's publication, Kwok taught English and worked as a translator, as she speaks three languages (Chinese, English, and Dutch) fluently.
Historical Context of Girl in Translation
Ma and Kim emigrated from Hong Kong as part of a major wave: the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which transferred the British colony of Hong Kong to China's jurisdiction, made it exceptionally clear that Hong Kong residents wouldn't be granted British citizenship. This prompted mass migration out of Hong Kong. Many settled in New York City, where much of the work available was in garment factories in Chinatown. Though the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union would've technically been responsible for advocating for workers like Kim and Jean Kwok's family, the union became relatively ineffective as the demographic makeup of union members shifted to Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Dominican members after World War II. Conditions in garment factories returned, in most cases, to sweatshop conditions like Kim and Matt experience. By the 1990s, factories in New York owned by Chinese and Korean workers produced around 70 percent of the clothing manufactured in the city.
Other Books Related to Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok has written one other novel that also follows a Chinese-American girl living in New York's Chinatown; Mambo in Chinatown
tackles similar themes of the immigrant experience and the difficulty of life in Chinatown. Other works that touch on similar storylines or themes include Esmeralda Santiago's memoir When I Was Puerto Rican
(the protagonist's mother even works in a garment factory after the family's move to New York) and The Book of Unknown Americans
, Cristina Henríquez's novel about Panamanian immigrants in Delaware. Kwok has cited authors such as Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club
) and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale
) as influences in her writing. Margaret Chin's nonfiction work Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry
explores the intricacies of the immigrant garment workers' lives and working relationships with their employers, and is based on extensive interviews with individuals who work or employ people in the industry.
Key Facts about Girl in Translation
Full Title: Girl in Translation
When Written: 2009
Where Written: The Netherlands
When Published: 2010
Literary Period: Contemporary
Genre: Semi-autobiographical fiction; historical fiction
Setting: Brooklyn, New York in the 1980s
Climax: Kim receives her acceptance letter from Yale and refuses to cave to Aunt Paula's abuse anymore.
Antagonist: Aunt Paula; poverty
Point of View: First person, narrated by an adult Kim
Extra Credit for Girl in Translation