Even though Stacey Lee focuses on making the past come alive in her young adult novels, she never cared much for history class when she was a student. “To be honest,” she says, speaking from her home in the San Francisco Bay area, “I found it really boring. It was all dates and wars.”
So it’s not surprising that early in her writing career, Lee took the advice of a friend who suggested she avoid making any of her books sound “old-timey.” And indeed, Lee manages to eschew any unnecessary, tedious details while packing plenty of history into her latest creation, The Downstairs Girl, set in Atlanta in 1890. It includes elements of intrigue and deception, not to mention a tense standoff with a notorious criminal—who happens to be naked. Oh yes, there’s heaps of humor as well.
The book’s heroine is 17-year-old Jo Kuan, “an eastern face in western clothes” who works as a lady’s maid for the mean-spirited daughter of a wealthy Atlanta family. At night, Jo secretly inhabits primitive quarters once used by abolitionists underneath the home of the publisher of a progressive newspaper. An apparent orphan, Jo resides with a man called Old Gin, who hails from a long line of Chinese scholar-officials. The makeshift family stays in the shadows as much as possible, knowing, as Jo observes, “Perhaps whites feel the same way about us as they do about ladybugs: A few are fine, but a swarm turns the stomach.”
Sadly, legislation informs Jo’s fears. In an introductory note, Lee explains that between 1882 and 1943, Chinese people were prohibited from entering the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act, “the only federal legislation to ban immigration based on a specific nationality.” Lee describes it as a “shameful” time for Asian Americans: “Nobody wants to talk about it, even though it’s many years later. And I think that’s why a lot of these stories were buried.”
For Lee, hearing her own family’s stories “really opened the door to Asian American history for me.” Her father emigrated from China at age 11, endured abuse and contracted tuberculosis. Her mother’s side of the family arrived in the United States much earlier, emigrating from China in the late 1800s. “My mother comes from a line of cigar manufacturers,” Lee says. “We call them drug lords now, I think. They were dealing in opium.”
Although her previous novels were about a Chinese girl on the Oregon Trail (Under a Painted Sky) and a Chinese teen experiencing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (Outrun the Moon), lawyer-turned-writer Lee says she’s always been drawn to stories set in the South. “There’s such a great contrast [within] a society that emphasizes manners and genteel living, yet . . . has such a history of racism.” However, she explains, it’s that contrast that “allows us to explore our own very complicated natures.”
Lee first learned about the Chinese presence in the post-Civil War South when her mother-in-law sent an article about Chinese immigrants in the Mississippi Delta. This became one of Lee’s reasons for writing the novel, “because I don’t think people knew.”
Despite having to lurk in the shadows, Jo is an exceptionally bright, resourceful young woman who makes her voice heard by anonymously writing a newspaper advice column called “Dear Miss Sweetie,” commenting in provocative, often amusing ways about issues ranging from women’s fashion to prejudice against Jews and black Americans. “This was a safe place for Jo to express her opinions,” Lee says. “And it’s always fun to give advice.”
Jo rarely loses sight of the fact that it’s vital for her to remain unnoticed. And in that way, Lee says, “I really identified with her.” The author explains that she was incredibly timid as a girl, which is hard to fathom, given her adult ebullience.
“I just did not feel like there were any Asian women out there who I could identify with,” she recalls (although noting that her mother was both “awesome” and “independent”). “I thought it was our role to be quiet and that people would look down on me if I ever spoke out.” She adds that growing up as a member of the only Chinese family in Whittier, California, “felt like you had a giant eyeball on you all the time. I didn’t want to stand out any more than I needed to. I just needed to be like Jo, invisible.”
While Lee always wants “to inspire people” and leave readers feeling “that there is some hope in the world,” she also wants them “to understand what it was like for Chinese people to be treated as subhuman. I think in order to truly understand who we are, we have to come to terms with where we’ve been. Speaking for myself, I never want my children to take for granted the privileges they now enjoy, and sometimes that means not sugarcoating things.”