Book Talk: Sweatshop toils haunt novel of immigrant life

Wed Apr 28, 2010 11:14am EDT
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By Chelsea Emery

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - An immigrant family cracks open the oven door to ward off New York's brutal cold in an unheated apartment and works for pennies in a dust-filled Chinatown sweatshop as they adjust to life in a new land.

Author Jean Kwok drew on her own experience to depict the struggles of a strong-willed girl from Hong Kong whose intelligence lands her in some of the country's best schools even as she helps her mother bag garments in a workshop late into the night.

Kwok's first book, "Girl in Translation," which will be released May 3, experiments with language to show how her talented main character, Kimberly Chang, navigates English. Kwok also explores Chang's struggles to learn American customs and make friends while concealing her poverty.

She spoke to Reuters about writing a novel and what drove her to revisit some of her more painful memories.

Q: What similarities do you and Kimberly Chang share?

A: "I moved to the United States when I was five. My family, they had been fairly well-to-do in Hong Kong and they did lose everything by the time they came here. So we worked in a sweatshop and we lived in an apartment just like the one in the book.

"We lived without heat. We kept the oven door open to keep the apartment warm. A detail I didn't even put in the book is that parts of the ceiling would fall in on us. My father built a canopy over the mattress we slept on to keep the plaster off when we were sleeping...

"The sweatshop is exactly like it is described in the book. I was lucky enough to be able to leave the sweatshop and go to Harvard and go on with my life and to become a writer. I've been extremely fortunate.   Continued...