April 28, 2010 / 3:17 PM / 7 years ago

Book Talk: Sweatshop toils haunt novel of immigrant life

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.

“My goal was to show people worlds that were real -- the exclusive private schools, the world of the sweatshop, the apartment that is incredibly run down. I did want to show that. But the story and the characters I made up to inhabit this world.”

Q: Why didn’t you write a memoir?

A: ”I never expected or wanted to talk about my personal background. This is the kind of thing that people, who have come from a background like this, we don’t really talk about it. No one talks about it. That was why I wrote this work of fiction, naively assuming that nobody would ever ask me if it was somehow based on my life. But it became clear that it was important to accept the autobiographical aspect.

“People want to know, ‘Could this happen in America? Do people live like this in America? And the answer is, ‘Yes.'”

Q: How did you depict language struggles?

A: ”I wanted to use the first-person voice to put a non-Chinese speaker into the head and heart of a Chinese immigrant. I wanted to use the power of the written word so it can be heard inside someone’s mind, so that when you’re reading the book, you receive English like gibberish and Chinese like a native speaker.

“As Kimberly Chang develops, and her English gets better, the book changes with her understanding of the language ... It was my hope that my readers would experience something that so many immigrants live with every day, which is being intelligent and articulate in your own language but to come across as ignorant and uneducated in English.”

Q: What do you hope sticks with readers?

A: ”We all take the bus and you see this foreign woman who comes on the bus and she’s got the bags and they smell funny and she doesn’t speak English very well. Well, I’ve been that woman. That woman could be extremely articulate and funny and wise in her own language, but she just can’t speak English yet.

”I wanted to give readers that experience of being able to go back and forth between the two languages and to see what it was like to be trapped inside a language and just not be able to speak English. It doesn’t mean you’re not articulate or not smart or not any of those things.

“I guess my final hope was that we’d all be little kinder to each other.”

Reporting by Chelsea Emery; Editing by Patricia Reaney

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