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Did you know that Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month first started in 1979 and was observed for a week in the month of May in the United States? President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution for a week-long celebration on October 5, 1978. It was later extended to the entire month by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 to commemorate the contributions and accomplishments of Asian Americans, Pacific Islander Americans, and Native Hawaiians.

The month of May was chosen because it honors the arrival of the first immigrants from Japan to the United States on May 7, 1843 and to celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railroad by over 20,0000 Chinese immigrants on May 10, 1869. 

The history of Asians in America has had its setbacks; a number of federal laws beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned immigrants from China and various Asian nations. The Immigration Act of 1924 completely banned immigration from Asia. Throughout this time, persons of Asian descent experienced violence and discrimination, culminating in acts like the Rock Springs massacre. It wasn’t until the Immigration Act of 1965 that immigrants from Asia were openly welcome to the United States again. 

Still, it was during the tumultuous time period of the 1800s and 1900s that Asian Americans began contributing to the tapestry of American history. Leo C. Song migrated to the United States from Korea in 1916, and among his many other contributions, invented the nectarine. Larry Itliong formed the Filipino Farm Labor Union in 1956 and, alongside Delores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, later formed United Farm Workers. Wong Kim Ark assured birthright citizenship in the United States with a landmark case in 1898. These are the first few ways Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders contributed in myriad ways to American innovation and history. 

What does Asian American mean?

The Asian diaspora is one that is diverse and encompasses many cultures; the diaspora includes East Asians, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, and with some debate, West Asians. This includes but is not limited to persons of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino, Hawaiian, Guamese, Fijian, Tahitian, Samoan, or Indian descent. West Asia is otherwise known as the Middle East (a term that centers Europe) and includes geographies like Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Kuwait, or Syria. 

It is important to note that the term “Asian American” is a self-defined one, first used by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, along with other student activists in 1968 to identify Asian groups as a unified political identity. At the time, white Americans used the pejorative term of “Oriental” to refer to Asians in the United States (Wang, 2019). [Author’s Note:  For the record, “oriental” describes a thing or object, not a person]. 

The term Asian American then expanded into Asian Pacific Islander in the 1980s; in 1997, “Asian” and “Pacific Islander” became two separate racial categories per the White House Office of Management and Budget. This separation of terms was welcomed by the academic community, who note that the experiences of Pacific Islanders are unique. 

How is AAPI Heritage Month celebrated? Are there other Asian Heritage Months around the world?

Throughout the world, organizers have worked to recognize people of the Asian diaspora living as part of their populations. For instance, in the UK, a grassroots organization called Britain’s East and Southeast Asian Network (Bsea.n) launched the UK’s first East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) Heritage Month in September 2021 with the eventual intention of government recognition. The UK already recognizes South Asian Heritage Month in August. In Australia, where the 2021 census states that 17.4% of its population is of Asian descent, an Asian Heritage Month has yet to be formed.

There are many ways to recognize AAPI Heritage Month; the above is a bit of context for why this commemoration is important. One way to do so is to dive into the written stories of Asian American and Pacific Islander authors, poets, and scholars whose voices have been historically marginalized or overlooked. The AAPI experience is complex; just looking at the wide range of cultures and languages within the diaspora provides a hint into how varied the lived experiences might be. 

Why is Asian American and Pacific Islander literature important?

To that end, the work of AAPI writers reflects this breadth and depth; from immigrant stories that pierced the veil of American readers in the early stages of Asian American literature (America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan), to stories that challenged stereotypes and discrimination (No-No Boy by John Okada, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang), AAPI literature celebrated cultural traditions (Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston) while providing narratives. As AAPI literature itself gained number in representation, it expanded beyond the immigrant experience and cultural backstory into fully modern and sometimes assimilated life; or even stories written by AAPI writers that aren’t centered on AAPI themes at all. Chang-rae Lee’s Aloft comes to mind; there are no living characters of Asian descent in his third novel, for instance. 

We turn to literature when we want to understand the emotional journey of history. And literature has managed to bring insights into what it means to be Asian American or Pacific Islander in America. This is a particularly important thing to enact, especially with the current trend of violence against AAPI people in the wake of COVID-19.

What are book recommendations for Asian American and Pacific Islander Month?

By reading and engaging with these works (arranged in age-appropriate sections for instructors), we can expand our perspectives, cultivate empathy and solidarity, and honor the diverse legacies of Asian American Pacific Islander heritage.

Our staff curated a list of AAPI literature that we’ve read in the last few years that you might want to read or offer to your students. The rubric for our list were books that tell stories that highlight previously marginalized perspectives and illuminate portions of little-told history. We also tried to be as inclusive as possible, hoping to represent as many people in the Asian diaspora; given its wide-ranging reach, we understand that we haven’t touched on every community. But we hope this is a starting point. 

Youth and Middle Grade book recommendations

  • Take Me Out to the Yakyu (Aaron Meshon): A heartwarming tale of a young boy who gets to experience baseball in both America and Japan with both of his grandfathers. The book honors the varying cultural traditions that make the sport a beloved pastime. 
  • Watercress (Andrea Wang): The tale of a young girl whose parents stop to pick watercress by the side of the road, and how this small act spurs the sharing of stories of her mother’s life in China. Moment by moment, the young girl leaves behind her initial feelings of embarrassment and instead embraces and appreciates her family’s time together.
  • Eyes that Kiss in the Corners (Joanna Ho): A lyrical book that celebrates a young Taiwanese girl’s self reflection, recognizing that while her eyes may look different from her friends’, she has a beauty and strength all her own. 
  • Ramen for Everyone (Patricia Tanumihardja): Young Hiro dreams of making the perfect bowl of ramen for dinner, like his dad, but things go awry. Worried he’ll never be a real ramen chef, he seeks advice from his father and learns that everyone’s perfect bowl of ramen is unique. 

Middle Grade and Young Adult Book recommendations for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

  • Hello, Universe (Erin Entrada Kelly): This novel is told from the perspectives of four middle school students as one of them becomes trapped in a well. Told from four intertwining points of view—two boys and two girls—the novel celebrates bravery, being different, and finding your inner bayani (hero). 
  • Other Words for Home (Jasmine Warga): In this novel, Jude never thought she’d be leaving her beloved older brother and father behind, all the way across the ocean in Syria. But when things in her hometown start becoming volatile, Jude and her mother are sent to live in Cincinnati with relatives.
  • The Forest of Stolen Girls (June Hur): A historical novel set in 1426 in Joseon (Korea). Hwani's family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest near a gruesome crime. Years later, Detective Min―Hwani's father―learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared from the same forest that nearly stole his daughters. He investigates, and vanishes as well. Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail, eventually realizing that the answer could lie within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years.
  • Front Desk (Kelly Yang): A debut novel based on Kelly Yang's real-life experience immigrating to America from China and running a motel with her parents, the story centers on Mia Tang, a 5th grader working at her parents’ motel just five miles from Disneyland, and how she moves through the struggles of discrimination and language barriers to find herself.  
  • When My Name Was Keoko (Linda Sue Park): This is the story of five years in the life of a Korean family during the Japanese occupation of their homeland at the beginning of WWII. This moving historical novel is from Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park, whose beloved middle grade books include A Single Shard and A Long Walk to Water.
  • Tiger Girl (May-Lee Chai): Weaving together Cambodian folklore and the painful past of Cambodian history with contemporary American life, this novel focuses on love, war, and acceptance.
  • When You Trap a Tiger (Tae Keller): The novel tells the story about a biracial girl, Lily, who learns about her heritage when her family moves in with Lily's Korean grandmother (halmoni). When they do so, a magical tiger straight out of her halmoni’s Korean folktales arrives, prompting Lily to unravel a secret family history.
  • Listen, Slowly (Thanhhá Lai): A California girl born and raised, Mai can’t wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. Mai finds a balance between her worlds. 
  • We Are Not Free (Traci Chee): This novel is the collective account of a tight-knit group of fourteen young Nisei, second-generation Japanese American citizens, whose lives are irrevocably changed by the mass U.S. incarcerations of World War II. It is a nuanced narrative of the Japanese American experience during World War II. 

Adult book recommendations for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

  • The Magical Language of Others (E.J. Koh): This memoir is a powerful and aching love story in letters, from mother to daughter. After living in America for over a decade, Eun Ji Koh’s parents return to South Korea for work, leaving fifteen-year-old Eun Ji and her brother behind in California. Years later, Eun Ji translates the letters that ask her for forgiveness.
  • The Body Papers (Grace Talusan): This critically acclaimed memoir explores the fraught contours of Talusan’s own life as a Filipino immigrant and survivor of cancer and childhood abuse. The abuse and trauma Talusan suffers as a child affects all her relationships, her mental health, and her relationship with her own body. 
  • Stay True (Hua Hsu): A Taiwanese American writer remembers an intimate but unexpected college friendship cut short by tragedy. Set in 1990s Berkeley, this memoir brings music, identity, and grief into a touching narrative. 
  • Fiona and Jane (Jean Chen Ho): Spanning countries and selves, this novel-in-stories is an intimate portrait of a friendship, a deep dive into the universal perplexities of being young and alive, and a bracingly honest account of two Asian women who dare to stake a claim on joy in a changing, contemporary America.
  • When the Hibiscus Falls (M. Evelina Galang): Seventeen stories traverse borderlines, mythic and real, in the lives of Filipino and Filipino American women and their ancestors detailing the complexity of family, community, and Filipino American identity. 
  • The Sense of Wonder (Matthew Salesses): From the author of PEN/Faulkner finalist Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear and Craft in the Real World comes a "a smart, very meta take" (Kirkus Reviews) on the ways Asian Americans navigate the thorny worlds of sports and entertainment when everything is stacked against them.
  • The Mountains Sing (Nguyen Pham Que Mai): A multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. A debut novel that dives deeply into the identities of families and individuals affected by the war and how each generation strives to understand both devastation and the strength of the human spirit.
  • Brotherless Night (V.V. Ganeshananthan): Set during the early years of Sri Lanka’s three-decade civil war, this novel is a heartrending portrait of one woman’s moral journey and a testament to both the enduring impact of war and the bonds of home.

Conclusion: Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month is an opportunity

Literature is a way to learn about other ways of life and living through storytelling and narrative. It is not only a channel for entertainment, but helps us to understand others better via critical thinking and asking the right questions. It helps us understand different points of view; in his Nobel Prize speech, Alexander Solzhenitsyn stated, “the only substitute for an experience we ourselves have never lived through is art, literature” (1970).

Whether a book list in a classroom is prescribed or an optional amendment, it is important to read about others. Literature gives us an opportunity to walk in another person’s shoes. And we hope this list provides onramps to multiple journeys of lived experiences.

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