I read The While Devil's Daughters by Julia Flynn Siler and Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang at the same time, the first on audio the other in hardcopy, because they informed each other. One is a non-fiction, the other is a very well researched historical fiction novel. I chose them as research for a novel I am working on. I'm sure I've said it many times, but I struggle with knowing what I know. I once spent weeks researching victorian houses so i could write about living in one. At the time I lived in one. *forehead slap* So it is with people.
I believe it is important to read/listen to people's own version of their stories, their histories, to better understand how they see their lives, the nuances in their existence. But often our experiences, while not identical, are similar enough that we can understand. I was not shipped across the county in a barrel, or a slave ship. But I was taught to hate myself. I was taught to see myself as lesser, as wrong. I know fear. I know danger. I know finding myself and choosing what my life looks like despite what I've been taught about myself. In those ways we are similar.
So reading the While Devil's Daughters and Four Treasures of the Sky gave me great insights into some of the cultural difference between my contemporary American life and that of China in the 1800s, Chinese Americans in the 1800s, and European Americans in the west in the 1800s. And it revealed what I know, that our circumstances may be different, but being human isn't. The David's wrote in The Dawn of Everything that prehistoric people were different in a Tolkien sort of way. Giants and dwarves, Neanderthals and Denisovans, Homo floresiensis (Hobbits). They were different humanoid species, that interacted, had sex, and warred against each other. Today, we claim that our differences that are so minute are reasons to hate each other. But really we are one species with more in common that not.
That being said. These are beautiful, fascinating books that I highly recommend. Understanding the torture we put each other through, helps us understand the generational trauma our peers carry. It can help us understand why stereotypes and tropes are hurtful, and increase our empathy for the people around us.
Back of the Book:
The White Devil's Daughters: The Fight Against Slavery in San Francisco's Chinatown by Julia Flynn Siler
A revelatory history of the trafficking of young Asian girls that flourished in San Francisco during the first century of Chinese immigration (1848-1943) and the "safe house" on the edge of Chinatown that became a refuge for those seeking their freedom
From 1874, a house on the edge of San Francisco's Chinatown served as a gateway to freedom for thousands of enslaved and vulnerable young Chinese women and girls. Known as the Occidental Mission Home, it survived earthquakes, fire, bubonic plague, and violence directed against its occupants and supporters--a courageous group of female abolitionists who fought the slave trade in Chinese women. With compassion and an investigative historian's sharp eyes, Siler tells the story of both the abolitionists, who challenged the corrosive, anti-Chinese prejudices of the time, and the young women who dared to flee their fate. She relates how the women who ran the house defied contemporary convention, even occasionally broke the law, by physically rescuing children from the brothels where they worked, or snatching them off the ships smuggling them in, and helped bring the exploiters to justice. She has also uncovered the stories of many of the girls and young women who came to the Mission and the lives they later led, sometimes becoming part of the home's staff themselves. A remarkable story of an overlooked part of our history, told with sympathy and vigor.
Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Daiyu never wanted to be like the tragic heroine for whom she was named, revered for her beauty and cursed with heartbreak. But when she is kidnapped and smuggled across an ocean from China to America, Daiyu must relinquish the home and future she imagined for herself. Over the years that follow, she is forced to keep reinventing herself to survive. From a calligraphy school, to a San Francisco brothel, to a shop tucked into the Idaho mountains, we follow Daiyu on a desperate quest to outrun the tragedy that chases her. As anti-Chinese sentiment sweeps across the country in a wave of unimaginable violence, Daiyu must draw on each of the selves she has been—including the ones she most wants to leave behind—in order to finally claim her own name and story.
At once a literary tour de force and a groundbreaking work of historical fiction, Four Treasures of the Sky announces Jenny Tinghui Zhang as an indelible new voice. Steeped in untold history and Chinese folklore, this novel is a spellbinding feat.