by Corinna Wang
Speaking of environmental and social justice issues — there’s a lot going on, and while we are busy dealing with the hustle and bustle of our ADLs — activities of daily living — we may not always raise our heads long enough to see how others are doing. After all, it’s a great big world and we can’t keep tabs on everyone, plus some of these problems are so ginormous that it’s easier to look at them, but not too closely, and then move on to things you can control of like getting your kid to soccer practice or making dinner. The thing is, the problems aren’t going to go away on their own, not without a concerted effort by more than a few of us.
That’s why I think fiction is so important in moving our collective consciousness forward. It allows us to see the problem, hold it in our hands, examine it from different sides, empathize without collapsing under the weight of it, and, clearheaded, brainstorm some solutions. In fact, I would offer that Story — which has been around as long has there have been humans — has moved us forward farther than most anything else in raising our vibration, opening our hearts, and understanding the connection between all living things.
The Downstairs Girl is one of those novels that deepens our understanding of the world while helping us to decipher how to move forward in a way that’s more equitable for all. I loved the book and I hope you will, too. Please enjoy this review of The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee, written by my friend, Corinna Wang.
The Downstairs Girl reviewed by Corinna Wang:
I am not an avid reader nor have I looked at this book critically for its historical accuracy, but the The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee, holds a deeper meaning to me since I am a Chinese/Taiwanese American living in the same bustling city of Atlanta where the book takes place. This past year, there has been an increase in attacks against the Asian community, leading me to wonder when the hatred towards Asian Americans began and how it compares to other minority groups. In The Downstairs Girl, Stacey Lee captures the struggles of being a Chinese immigrant during times of segregation all the while highlighting a strong and savvy Chinese protagonist.
The book begins in the lively city of Atlanta in the 19th century where an American born Chinese woman, Jo Kuan, lives with her uncle, Old Gin, as they strive financially to get through each week. Jo and her uncle live in the basement — a former abolitionist’s hidden tunnels — underneath a newspaper office where Jo eavesdrops on the current tenants’ conversations through a secret pipe. By day, Jo works as a hat maker with a reputation for her beautiful knot work. Outwardly, Jo epitomizes propriety, but inwardly, desperately trying to keep her opinions to herself, she struggles as many modern women of color do with not being able to share her true thoughts and opinions openly, in this instance, opinions such as suitable color options for fabrics and the aesthetics of various hat designs on different customers. Since Jo can’t hold her tongue, eventually she’s fired, a subtle reminder by the white store owner that women of color are not part of society but an accessory to be used to others’ advantage, and otherwise remain silent. Desperate for a job, Jo returns as a maid to a daughter in a family that had previously fired her without explanation.
As Jo listens through the pipe on the tenants conversations several floors above her, she begins to feel like she’s part of their family, growing closer to them through their frank discussions with each other, and forming an unrequited bond with the family’s son. One night, Jo hears that the newspaper is struggling and will not stay in business much longer if the subscription numbers don’t increase, sparking fear inside Jo who worries that the sale of the building could compromise her and Old Gin’s living arrangements.
Jo decides to start an advice column for the newspaper called Dear Miss Sweetie, submitting her work anonymously through the mail slot in the front door of the house when no one is around. By adopting the persona of Miss Sweetie, Jo can openly express her opinions about gender and race inequality because readers of the paper assume she is a member of high society.
Unlike Miss Sweetie, we people of color can’t hide our skin or other features — not at work and not out in the world. Rather, we find ourselves covering who we are to fit the American standard of the model minority. Be the quiet and successful Asian man. Be the submissive and subdued Asian woman. Be the polite and non-aggressive black woman. Be the intelligent and non-threatening black man. The list goes on. People of color will also correct their speech patterns to cater to the white majority to sound more intelligent or lighten our skins to increase our proximity to whiteness. In The Downstairs Girl, Jo writes like an older white woman to gain the support of her readers, then uses it to advocate for racial and gender equality, and since controversy sells papers, subscription sales boom.
Even though this book takes place in the 19th century, I felt Jo’s pain as if it were my own, navigating the world as someone does who has been pushed aside for her heritage, all the while trying to find my own voice. The story gently guides the reader to feel the battles and the blows, both metaphorical and physical, that Asian Americans have faced since emigration began in the mid-19th century, recounting the hardships of the Asian immigration story in this country in a way that is both enlightening and uplifting.
I applaud Lee’s ability to write an engaging story intertwined with the sensitive topic of race which encourages the readers to reflect on the similarities of then and now. The journey of self-discovery can be a lonely one, and is something not just women of color walk, but all people at different stages of their lives. Lee’s story made my own journey less difficult by knowing others have walked it before and will walk it again, by knowing some like Jo, the protagonist of the story, and Lee, its writer, have not only survived but thrived.
The Downstairs Girl is a great read, both for the story and the history, and the insights will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
Corinna Wang is an environmental engineer and former Peace Corps volunteer. Having built her share of latrines in Panama for people who didn’t have access to improved sanitation, she understands the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion.