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May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the United States. To recognize the cultures, traditions, and history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we bring to you a list of 9 books written by Asian Americans to read.
These 9 books are but the tip of the iceberg in a growing body of Asian American literature -- and we hope it gives you a great start on your reading journey.
This collection of essays from Alexander Chee, author of the lauded novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, unpacks maximum wisdom. Each of the essays is a craft lesson on writing, a political breakdown of what it means to be queer and Asian American, and a snapshot of a life traveled, lived, and learned. In “Mr. and Mrs. B,” a “normal” catering job becomes something extraordinary for Chee, and in turn, the reader. In “After Peter,” Chee provides a multi-layered accounting of grief and all its stages against the backdrop of AIDS. It’s called “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” but is really a “how to” guide for living and writing.
Catherine Chung has a highly anticipated new novel called The Tenth Muse out later in 2019, but while you wait, Forgotten Country keeps excellent company. Chung’s debut novel details war, racism, familial obligation, and terminal illness in an expansive and ambitious telling of a family dealing with the death of its patriarch. But what it does best and what stays with the reader is its core of crystalline grief and anger, which Chung writes in lucid, unblinking prose. Its ethos will linger with you.
Aaliya Saleh is a 72-year-old woman living alone in Beirut. She translates novels into Arabic, not for a living, but for her own self—these books are not read but deposited into a drawer, exemplifying the invisible life of so many older women. In An Unnecessary Woman, we meet her as she ponders the next novel to translate—this is the event through which we witness Saleh’s coming to terms with age. It’s a remarkable feat to illustrate a woman’s life and a country’s history within the parameters of a shut-in’s limited actions, but Rabih Alameddine does so with great tenderness. An Unnecessary Woman was a National Book Award Finalist in 2014.
This is as much a love letter to Sri Lanka as it is a riveting novel about the push/pull psyche of immigration in the form of the Sri Lankan civil war and absorption of American culture. The Sri Lankan civil war spanned decades, from 1983 until 2009, between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils--and Nayomi Munaweera examines both sides of this conflict, offering the reader an unusual perspective through the eyes of two girls, one Sinhalese and one Tamil. The language is lush and beautiful, offering relief to brutal lives. Island of a Thousand Mirrors was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize.
Monstress is a lively short story collection from Filipino American writer Lysley Tenorio. He observes the lives of those find themselves caught between two cultures, straddling and negotiating differing cultural terrain. Characters span locations from Manila to Lemoore, California and the stories orbit glory and the monstrous. Each character seeks transformation—and whether granted or not, whether granted in the form they desire, they inform the human condition. A story collection that shouldn’t be missed.
This is defiant writing that reflects the queer Asian American experience. Well known for his poetry, Malaysian-born Justin Chin’s Burden of Ashes is an essay collection that showcases marginalized lives in prose that is very raw and real. His writing is witty (sometimes to the point of being hilariously catty), explicit, unconventional, political, and at its heart, so very tender. He died at the age of 46 on Christmas Eve of 2015 from a massive stroke--but his words live on, for lucky readers.
Girls Burn Brighter shows us the consequences of patriarchy and misogyny. Poornima and Savitha are the female protagonists of Shobha Rao’s debut novel. They are born into an impoverished landscape in the small Indian village of Indravalli that promises only a bleak future. And what a bleak future it is—as each endures abuse, human trafficking, and modern slavery. But the thread that binds them is their friendship, as they vow to find one another again after being separated in early womanhood. Rao wrote this book in a prairie cabin spending days and nights alone—she’s said she wrote these characters to keep herself company—that feeling is clear through the love and yearning Poornima and Savitha have for one another. And they are all the more vivid to show for it.
Aimee Phan weaves together a multi-generational story of the Truong family through the events of the Vietnam War and immigration in The Reeducation of Cherry Truong. Split between France and the United States, the countries in which the Truongs have settled, the novel focuses on Cherry Truong, the granddaughter of the family patriarch. In Cherry’s attempts to bring her brother back home to the contemporary United States, the narratives provide us with a historical view of how families become fractured, by not only war but family secrets.
In All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung details her search for the birth parents who gave her up for adoption. Her complex account is honest and informative, but also artful in that it addresses the changes such a journey inflicts on herself and her loving, albeit race-blind, adoptive family. It is, at its core, about being reborn, something to which we can all relate. And relate we can, due much to Chung's intelligence and charisma.