Banned Book Club: “The Downstairs Girl” and the importance of representation

by Kylie Chen (’24) | March 31, 2023

Art by Megan Wang (’25)

This year’s Oscars was a major night for Asian representation, with history-making wins for Michelle Yeoh, “Naatu Naatu,” and more. Yeoh becoming the first Asian woman to win the award for best actress was so meaningful for me: it validated my identity by making people who look like me more than just a sidekick or someone to be fetishized. More than that, it got me thinking about Asian American representation in books—a form of media that has played a huge role in my personal growth. Since I first learned to read, I’ve found comfort and inspiration in literature. In hindsight, however, almost none of what I read contained Asian characters, which was harmful to my self-confidence. I grew insecure about the things that made me me—my culture, my language, my appearance. I wanted to be anything but Asian. Even though recently I’ve been more focused on reading books that positively represent my Asian identity and I am proud to be Asian, the insecurity remains.

So when I started brainstorming what to write about for this issue, my mind immediately went to Asian representation—but I found it hard to find any information about banned books written by Asian authors. Not because there are none, but because they were swept under the rug. When I finally found Stacey Lee’s The Downstairs Girl, which was one of the first young adult novels I read that featured an Asian main character, it was through one of Lee’s Instagram posts rather than a mainstream news article.

The Downstairs Girl was included on a list of 850 books that Texas congressman Matt Krause challenged and pushed school libraries to ban in late 2021. Set during the 1890s in Atlanta, the novel follows seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan, a Chinese American girl who works as a lady’s maid but is also the anonymous author of an advice column for Southern women. As her column grows in popularity, she starts to use it to challenge common ideas about race and gender—something that isn’t received well by her community. Lee’s novel is a quick, entertaining read that spotlights the often untold historical experience of Asian Americans with a bit of sass. Regarding Krause’s attempted ban, his apparent intention was to pull books with topics that could make kids “uncomfortable.” Nevertheless, The Downstairs Girl serves as an important reminder: while book bans have received more publicity in recent years, most of that publicity focuses on the same few books being banned, which means that many bans and challenges fly under the radar.

I had the opportunity to interview Ellen Oh, an author and the CEO of We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit “dedicated to fixing the lack of diversity [in children’s books].” When I asked about her opinions on book bans, Oh said, “I write for my kids and kids like them and for little me who would have benefited so much from seeing positive representation. When you don’t see yourself in the books and media of your country, you don’t believe that you belong, especially for Asian Americans, who have always heard ‘Go back to your own country!’ For me personally, I internalized that belief for so long that it… made me deny my own cultural roots. I always tell people that while book bans have been around for a very long time, this particular coordinated attack feels like an existential threat to LGBTQ and BIPOC creators in particular. The passing of these laws in so many states feels deeply dangerous, especially to the physical and mental health of our marginalized youth. These parents that scream ‘Protect our children!’ are picking and choosing which children they want to protect. And that is not only grotesque, but absolutely heartbreaking for all children.”

Oh’s struggle with her Asian identity because of the lack of representation in literature is an experience common to other Asian Americans, including some of the Saint Francis students I reached out to.

Sanjana Srikanth (’24), a board member of Saint Francis’s South Asian Student Association (SASA), reflected on how the lack of South Asian representation in fiction has influenced her experience as a reader and writer: “Representation in books means seeing myself and my own experiences as worthy to be written and read about. The lack of South Asian representation in books has always made me… unable to envision myself in the world of the novel because I didn’t belong. For fictional stories, representation means that prophecies, magic, and adventure can be my fantasy. As a writer myself, I see the lack of South Asian representation reflected in the stories I [wrote] when I was younger. I would never write characters that looked like or ate the same foods as me; I simply couldn’t because I had never read about them.”

Vya Raghava (’24), another board member of SASA, added, “It’s easy to say that representation in books doesn’t matter when you already have representation, but when you don’t have it, it becomes even more important.”

Emily Dang (’23), a board member of Saint Francis’s Vietnamese Student Association, discussed the negative effects of whiteness being the standard in literature: “When I was younger, I read all these stories about teenagers growing into some form of their best selves through an adventure or transformation, [but] with this emphasis on predominantly white media, it became ingrained in my mind that when I grew up, succeeding equated to being white. I felt this need to assimilate to… the white beauty standard. The main character was always described with a perfect tan, but for some reason, my tan was too dark to count. This recurring theme, that what was beautiful was white, stuck with me and still follows me around sometimes. As I venture further into the diverse world of literature stemming from minority authors, I feel like I slowly am stepping out from that shadow. But to me, the banning of books, especially those that provide a sense of solace to groups that never have been given the privilege and well-deserved right to see themselves embodied through their favorite characters, is just disappointing and frustrating… And personally, seeing books that equate to my identity as an Asian American, Vietnamese woman being banned makes me feel like I’m being banned.”

Dang’s final comment reveals what banning books ultimately comes down to: banning identities. When our stories are censored, it makes us feel like we’re not good enough and that we don’t belong here. It makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us, and it makes others feel that way too. This is why representation in literature is so important—as Kylie Tran (’25), a member of Saint Francis’ Asian Student Association, put it, “Reading about another culture opens your eyes to how the world looks and keeps you [from staying] ignorant, and being able to see your own identity in a book makes you feel [less] alone in the world.”

Categories: Column, Entertainment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s