bigWOWO Rating: Asian American DO NOT RECOMMEND
I feel really bad about my rating for this book, so let me begin by first saying something positive. If this had been a review of Jean Kwok herself, she would’ve gotten a gold–her blog is a treasure trove of ideas on how to make it as an author, and she seems like a very nice person who supports the arts. She’s also really smart, with an undergrad degree from Harvard and an MFA from Columbia. According to her bio, she grew up working in a factory and then became phenomenally successful–you can’t help but applaud that. She’s trilingually fluent, as she speaks Chinese, English, and Dutch, since she lives in Holland with her Dutch husband.
Let me also say that if you are a writer, it may not be a bad idea to read this book. As Stephen King said, you can learn just as much from bad writing as you can from good writing. Now I’m not saying this book was poorly written–at least not right now, while I’m trying to say something good. Hell, her credentials are far above mine, and much respect to her. But you can also learn a lot from writing that…doesn’t sit well with you.
Let me also say a few words about my own prejudices: my tastes may have been unjustly influenced by the fact that the last book I read before this one was the Vagrants by Yiyun Li, which was excellent, and I may have judged this on the Yiyun scale. It’s not fair to judge a chick lit book after reading literary fiction (although I probably would still have written positively if I had read something like Someone Like Summer.) Sigh. I also didn’t want to cut into any of Ms. Kwok’s sales, even if my blog doesn’t have so much traffic that it would make too much of a difference. Asian Americans need to support one another. But then I thought about it, and I realized that Girl in Translation is already a NY Times bestseller, and that even if this lone Chinese guy had a critical word for his activist, critical readers, there will always be people who will pay for books like this. And critical reviews are something that are almost completely lacking in the AA media. So let me start:
When I finished this book, I wanted to ram my finger down my throat and wash my eyes with turpentine before jumping into a vat of boiling hydrogen peroxide to stop the pain. Actually, that’s a lie–I wanted to ram my finger down my throat and wash my eyes with turpentine while I was trying to finish this book. It really was that painful. There was a recommendation on the back cover by Min Jin Lee (Min Jin, you broke my heart…again!!!), but other than the flat, stereotypical, racialized characters and the main Asian female protagonist Kimberly Chang trying to make out with every Larry, Moe, and Curly, this book had nothing in common with Free Food For Millionaires. Either something got lost “in translation,” or I got duped once again. Fortunately this one wasn’t able to break my heart like Min Jin (whose writing style I admire–just didn’t like how her story stuck it to the Asian man).
So where to begin? The story is about a young girl, Kimberly Chang, who immigrates at age 11 to the U.S. with her mother, works in a factory, and achieves a rags to riches American dream. If you want to see a world where Cantonese people don’t yell profanities at one another, don’t call White People “Gwai loh,” lack any kind of aggressiveness, don’t have any personal struggles outside of work, and just sit around whining about how bad they have it, “Girl In Translation” is the book for you. Welcome to Sob Story central, where the narrator complains about how her sweaters are acrylic not wool, where supposedly progressive White worship conflicts with supposedly backward Kwan Yin worship, and where all minor characters sit around waiting for the supposedly brilliant narrator to add meaning to their lives. I don’t think I’ve read such self-absorbed whining ever; this book made Tito Ortiz look like Nam Phan. Of course I’m not being unsympathetic to poor people. I realize that probably a good 50% of the blog-stuff and books I read and like are about people who did not come from money (Minority Militant, Ed Lin, Lac Su, Mondega, anti-social ladder), but it’s one thing to be poor and to reflect on it, it’s another thing to take one’s modern day wealthy outlook and use it to judge or inflate the past.
Like a Hollywood movie, all the black people were modified Magical Negroes whose sole role was to help the protagonist or her mother. The Asian people all talk funny, and most of them wallow in their victimhood. There is a bad guy character–Aunt Paula–but she’s so boring and flat that she’s hard to fear or hate, and the dialogue hurt my eyes. The Asian love interest, Matt, is a stereotyped White boy dyed yellow. The White love interest, Curt, is a stereotype reminiscent of the Andrew McCarthy character in Joy Luck Club. All the other White people are walking stereotypes based on their class and profession. Stereotypes, stereotypes, and more stereotypes. If you love stereotypes, you’ll love this book.
The style was annoying. It was written memoir style, stopping every so often to jump forward with “when I was in high school” or “28 years later.” Someone should have called Adverb and Adjective Protective Services on Kwok–descriptions like “bitterly cold” and “merciless” and “surreptitiously” get beaten to the point of death like pinatas on Cinco de Mayo.
Let me end on a soft note. If Jamie Ford wrote the first Asian American romantic novel, this was probably the second attempt. But you can’t have romance for the sake of romance; just having an AM/AF isn’t enough to negate the need for plot, style, suspense, character development, and the normal requirements of fiction. There is no doubt that Jean Kwok has credentials. Harvard and Columbia are both really good schools, and I’m humbled by her accomplishments. That said, finishing this novel was like death by a thousand cuts. I think it would have been much stronger as a memoir, rather than a novel. I am inspired by Jean Kwok’s accomplishments; I am less than inspired by her character Kimberly Chang. There was more whine/wine than Napa Valley in this book, along with a crazy amount of self-praise and indulgence. Read at your own peril.