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The universal appeal of the immigrant experience novel
Jean Kwok’s debut novel, Girl in Translation, paints a harsh, but inspirational, picture of the experiences of mother and daughter immigrants living in Brooklyn. After the death of her father, Ah-Kim (known as Kimberly in the U.S.) and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong and quickly realize their dreams about America do not match their reality. Mrs. Chang’s sister, Paula, pays their way to the U.S. and frequently reminds them of their indebtedness to her. Rather than living with Aunt Paula and her American husband, Bob, Kim and Mrs. Chang move into an apartment overrun with roaches and rats. Although they quickly realize the apartment is an uninhabitable slum, Ah-Kim and Mrs. Chang do their best to maintain hope. Mrs. Chang goes to work in Paula’s clothing factory, where she and Kim are paid by each piece of clothing they finish. For the longest time, Kim and her mother view everything in terms of how many skirts something will cost.
Based upon her personal experiences as an immigrant to the U.S., Kwok provides a searing and at times heart-breaking account of the misunderstandings, miscommunication, and misinformation on both sides of this cross-cultural experience. Kimberly’s first teacher immediately dislikes her and assumes she will be a poor student because of her struggle with the English language. A principal accuses her of cheating because she performs too well on standardized tests. She is mercilessly teased by fellow classmates. But, as she struggles to fit into one world, she loses ground in another.
This is the classic immigrant novel dilemma—how do you reconcile who you are with what you will inevitably become? How does one mitigate the loss that results from succeeding in a new culture? These questions have universal appeal to many types of readers because they are such basic questions about identity and sense of self. For similar reads, I would recommend:
The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: while not an immigrant story, this semi-autobiographical novel, which chronicles the coming-of-age of Junior, a Spokane Indian, does illustrate a cultural divide. When he realizes the limitations of his current environment, Junior decides to leave the reservation school for an all-white college preparatory school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.
House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: A contemporary classic and on reading lists across the country, the House on Mango street is the story of Esperanza Cordero a young Latina woman growing up in Chicago. This story is told in vignettes that are as much poetry as prose.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: This is a beautifully written story of a first-generation American, Gogol Ganguli. Born to Indian parents, named for the Russian novelist, and growing up in New England, Gogol struggles to find his own path through the cross-cultural and generational conflicts so common to immigrant stories. This novel was made into a film in 2007.
If you have younger readers in your household, consider Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñ oz Ryan. After the death of her father, Esperanza and her mother must leave the comfort and privilege of their life in Mexico to become migrant farmers in California. This story, set at the beginning of the Great Depression, is loosely based upon the life of the author’s grandmother.