Previous Literary Ladies Cage Fight columns can be found here.
Hey, gal-pals! Hope it is warming up nicely where you live! Our last column must have pleased Queen Elsa, because most of the snow is gone around here. Yay!
Welcome back. This week, we are going to cover two new books with unforgettable protagonists. In dis-honor of Sen. Ted Cruz, who is an immigrant to America yet hates immigrants (unless they are wealthy and college-educated), we offer two very different immigrant stories: Darling from NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names versus Kimberly Chang from Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation.
Same rules as usual! Enjoy the cage match, ladies!
Darling is a very precocious ten-year old child at the beginning of the book, peppering her narration with striking and odd similies (she describes the experience of being constipated as “an impossible task, like you are trying to give birth to a country”). She lives a relatively carefree life in Zimbabwe, stealing guavas and making up games with her friends. Although the reader understands Darling’s life is unimaginable poverty, in her eyes it is just everyday life. She has a goal, though—she is going to go to America. Her aunt Fostalina lives there, and someday she is going to take Darling there. This dream sustains Darling through the turbulent episodes that make up her life—the murder of a friend, the rape of another friend, and the death of her father. Her bravery in the face of danger and her matter-of-fact way of looking at things makes her a Gryffindor.
Kimberly is very young when she comes to America from Hong Kong with her mom after her dad’s death. Her aunt—who paid her passage over—is totally evil and makes them work in her sweatshop and live in a roach-infested, unheated apartment. Kimberly realizes that she is going to have to save her mother by being good at her only skill—school. She works her patootie off, earning a scholarship to a prep school, then Yale. The only thing that matters to Kimberly is brains (as a mean to escape from devastating poverty)—so she’s a Ravenclaw.
Winner: Darling. Both girls are amazingly strong, but Darling manages to maintain a sense of humor throughout her trials. Despite the horrifying subject matter, I occasionally laughed at Darling’s way of phrasing things.
Round 2: Sidekick
Darling has a whole band of kids she plays with in Zimbabwe—Godknows, Bastard, Chipo, Stina, and Sbho. Although they mercilessly tease each other, they clearly share a lot of affection for each other. In a heartrending scene where all the children visit Darling’s ailing father and sing to him the reader sees that they are not blind to the perils of their existence—they just choose to ignore them in favor of made up games because there is little they can do otherwise. Once Darling moves to America, she loses touch with her friends back home. They resent her for abandoning them, and she feels guilty for leaving them and angry they don’t understand why she left. One of the last scenes in the book is Chipo, Darling’s former best friend, dressing her down for calling Zimbabwe “her” country.
Aww, that’s sad! Poor Darling! That whole book made me sad. But what’s not sad is Annette, Kimberly’s only friend. They bond as middle schoolers, even though Annette is white and rich and Kimberly is Chinese and destitute. Kimberly goes to great pains to keep her friend in the dark about her dire situation and sometimes comes off as aloof, but through it all Annette sticks by her. Eventually when Annette sees Kimberly’s apartment, she helps her friend find a new insect and rat free place to live. Without Annette, Kimberly would have made her dreams come true, but she would have been much more sad and lonely.
Winner: Kimberly. Annette is the sweetest! She is a ray of sunshine in Kimberly’s otherwise dreary life.
Round 3: Love Interest
Darling never expresses interest in any boys. She and her American friends watch a lot of porn together on the internet, but as far as real-life boys, they don’t seem to have any experience. The book is devoid of any romance, which makes it unique. There are so many family relationships and social relationships and cultural relationships that there was just no room for romantic ones.
Kimberly has TWO dreamy boys—Curt, the wealthy American boy at her school and Matt, a Chinese boy who works at the sweatshop with her. Curt starts out as a cad and a playboy, but he eventually falls in love with her (and has a really sweet and romantic scene with her near the end but I don’t want to spoil it because you should all go read this book RIGHT NOW!). Curt may be popular and rich, but it’s Matt who has Kimberly’s heart. She loves him from the time she is a little girl—he makes the sweatshop bearable for her. He takes her to see the Statue of Liberty (whom they call the Liberty Goddess) and shows her how joyous life can be. Their story captures the dizzying intensity of first love and the heat of discovering physical pleasure. It’s steamy and sweet! (Are you reading this book yet?)
Winner: Darling. As the goddess of chastity, I approve her choice to remain single and not get attached to a useless boy. (Artie, you are NO FUN AT ALL! But this is your match, so fine. Whatever. See if I care.)
Round 4: Tragic Flaw
Darling’s flaw is a flaw many immigrants share—she feels trapped between two worlds. When she’s still in Zimbabwe, she is preoccupied with going to America, but in America, she finds things strange and misses home intensely. At a wedding, she smacks a disobedient child, which is totally normal at home but earns her sharp stares in America. Even though in America she is never hungry and always adequately dressed, she learns that those things aren’t all they are cracked up to be compared to the comforts of home and family.
Kimberly’s life is pretty tragic—and her flaw, if I had to pick one, would be that she doesn’t get out of it sooner! She suffers in unspeakably horrible conditions for many years without talking to anyone about it. She finally is able to get out from her aunt’s clutches, but it takes so long! It’s a huge bummer. I get sad when I think about how many things Kimberly could have done if she was able to be a normal kid—debate team, school paper, even just go to the mall and hang out with friends. Things that many kids take for granted, Kimberly doesn’t get to experience at all. She is American, but her America and Annette’s America are not alike at all.
Winner: Kimberly. She eventually overcomes her flaw and makes her life better, while Darling’s life, at the end of the book, is still pretty sad.
Round 5: Happy Ending
Darling makes it to America, but it does not turn out to be everything she had hoped. She has many American comforts, but she isn’t rich like she thought she would be as a girl. At the mall, she spies a Lamborghini, a car she’d heard of when she was younger. She tells her American friends she will have one and they laugh at her, telling her how expensive they are. Darling says, “if I can’t own it, does that mean I’m poor, and if so, what is America for then?” She sees no difference from her childhood in Zimbabwe and her life in Detroit—she cannot have a Lamborghini either way.
Oh man, Kimberly’s story is much happier than that! I don’t want to spoil it too much, but she spends the whole book slaving away at the sweatshop and school, and all of her hard work pays off. She is finally able to rescue her mother and they start anew in America, “mother and cub.” It is so sweet and happy and YAY! I want to throw a parade for Kimberly. Do you think she’d let me call her Kimmie? I bet she would.
Wahoo!!! I’m so glad Kimmie won the fight!!!
I really enjoyed both these books. I wouldn’t have picked them up before you told me to, but I’m so glad I did! Let’s do this again soon, okay, gal-pals?
I echo my sister’s sentiments, although not quite so frivolously. Please go read these books. Then come back in two weeks and we will do this again. See you…gal-pals.
Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virgina with her husband and a mutt named Indiana Bones, Jr. Musical theater, pirates, and Sherlock Holmes are a few of her favorite things. Her work can be found on the Toast, the Hairpin, Jezebel, and at her blog.