Interpreters of Dreams

by Julia M. Klein
How to Read the Air / Girl in Translation
By Dinaw Mengestu / Jean Kwok
Riverhead, 320 pages, $25.95 / Riverhead, 304 pages, $25.95
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Kwok’s often mesmerizing Girl in Translation is a simpler, more linear novel, blessed with a vivid central character and tremendous narrative drive. Like Kwok, 11-year-old Kimberly is an emigrant from Hong Kong — and, unlike Jonas, she is passionately driven to succeed.

She is also more embattled by external forces, facing not just a language barrier but a decrepit Brooklyn apartment crawling with roaches and mice, and an endlessly spiteful aunt who exacts every dime she can from Kim and her mother. We shiver with mother and child in that unheated apartment, where the cold was “like the way your skin feels after it’s been slapped,” where it “crept down your throat, under your toes and between your fingers.” We feel the blistering heat in the garment sweatshop where both Kim and her mother work, as waves of steam roll off the presses.

School offers an escape route from poverty and isolation.

At first, Kim’s academic efforts are hindered by her struggles with the language, as well as hostility from classmates and teachers. Her widowed mother, who was a violinist and music teacher in Hong Kong, is supportive but astonishingly helpless, and Kim assumes a quasiparental role. She also finds, in classmate Annette, a loyal, loving friend, and Kim’s exceptional math and science talents quickly become apparent. A full scholarship vaults her into private school, and her dreams begin to seem within reach — until romantic complications threaten to drive her off course.

Kwok’s reading of the segregated, insecure immigrant life is powerfully authentic. She does less well with her love story, though, which shades into melodrama. Kim falls for a fellow garment worker, who is sweet, smart, handsome, and crazy for her. But, having sacrificed an education to earn money, he seems confined to the working class she is determined to leave behind. Can this possibly end well?

“Sometimes,” Kim’s mother tells her, “our fate is different from the one we imagined for ourselves.” But for Kim, brains are destiny, and the burden of marriage is a potential distraction. “I had an obligation to my ma and myself,” she explains. “I couldn’t have changed who I was. I wish I could have.” Life won’t be easy for her, but she, too, will persist, in all her flaws and glory.

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.

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