Engaging with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: A reading list
Updated May 17, 2021 at 12:30 PM ET
In the past year, and throughout history, narratives surrounding Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been rife with violence, hardship and grief. Yet they are so much more than their experiences of suffering — beyond tales of war and isolation, there is joy, confusion, anger and relief.
In celebration of Heritage Month, we've compiled a reading list of works from Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander writers. Through a wide range of fiction, poetry, graphic novels and nonfiction, they explore everything from motherhood and displacement to sexuality.
While the dimensions of race are tied up in many of these works, we offer a list that celebrates stories that venture outside of diaspora narratives. These books delve into weightier questions of race, identity and societal pressure, yes, but are also alive in their illustrations of the ordinary — the habits, nuances and expressions of love that make us who we are.
Free Food For Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
Free Food For Millionaires is Min Jin Lee's (Pachinko) debut novel. It's a story about Casey Han, a bright daughter of Korean immigrants, who has grown up in New York tied to her parents' cultural apron strings. Her brains and her parents' many sacrifices have allowed Casey to graduate from Princeton — but now what? She's not rich, but she's had a rich girl's education, and she has rich friends. Their futures are set. Hers? Not so much. Casey wants to follow her passion, as soon as she finds it, but would that dishonor her parents? She is indifferent to her parents' American dream for heretic (graduate school, marriage to a Korean) and focused on her own desires, which she hasn't yet begun to realize. That tension almost wrecks her. Almost. It's a fine epic, with identity vs. assimilation, individualism vs. communal responsibility at its heart. Who am I? What do I owe myself? Are always good questions to ask.
— Karen Grisby Bates, senior correspondent, Code Switch
The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai'
One of my good friends describes fiction as the "weight room for empathy." No matter your background or heritage, this book will hit you in your feels. Informed by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai's family history, The Mountains Sing is a fictionalized remembrance of a turbulent 20th-century Việt Nam. Told alternately through the eyes of Diệu Lan and her granddaughter Hương, we follow four generations of the Trần family as they experience the French colonial period, the Great Hunger of 1945, Land Reform and the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it's known in Việt Nam). Quế Mai's first novel in English is lyrical and at once heart-wrenching and hopeful. It's hard to articulate how much it moved me. As a Vietnamese American, I rarely see my people's perspectives included, or centered, in depictions of the war. Quế Mai has described the book as her "desperate call for peace and for humans to love other human beings more." I think that call will resonate with many, after all that we've been through (and are continuing to go through) in the last year plus.
— Audrey Nguyen, production assistant, Life Kit
Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes
"Instead of learning how to care for my nails or make a pregnancy salad," Angela Garbes writes, "I wanted to learn about the placenta, the entirely new organ my body was growing." Garbes wanted to understand why some pregnancies make it to term and others don't, "these things seem like pretty basic stuff." Basic, maybe, but hard to find. And, Garbes tried. She was googling just like everyone else and coming up with contradictory information not to mention an overwhelming number of articles telling pregnant people how they should exercise and eat rather than helping them understand how all this works inside their bodies. So much of what's out there is prescriptive rather than informative, she says. I devoured Like a Mother in a couple of days when it came out (and I was nowhere near pregnant). I loved her honesty (she mentions her miscarriage in the first few pages) and appreciated whenever she talked about her Filipina mother and grandmother's experiences with pregnancy and childbirth. She writes clearly and conversationally with the perfect touch of snark. I can't wait until her next book comes out, it's about mothering as social change and an act of resistance to "patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism and the exploitation of capitalism."
— Shereen Marisol Meraji, host and correspondent, Code Switch
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
Chen Chen's (陳琛) debut poetry collection When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is fearless, unafraid of tapping the full spectrum of Asian, immigrant and queer experience. Chen's collection not only reflects on his past life but also his aspirations for his relationships with his family, friends, partners and future selves. Chen deftly conveys the pain and wonder of unrequited and forbidden love, the unease that can come from growing up Asian in America, and the messy love with his unyielding mother that colors every poem of the collection. The great feat of Chen's writing is his sustained ability to create vivid images that are at once surreal and relatable, like a fearless mango or friendly tomato. An invitation to breathe air into such starkly vibrant and unfamiliar ideas often requires a certain willingness to engage on the behalf of readers, but Chen makes the choice easy. I have insatiably read this collection over and over again, envisioning new possibilities each time.
— Samuel Cai, news assistant, The Indicator from Planet Money
Fe: A Traumatized Son's Graphic Memoir by Bren Bataclan
In his hilarious and touching debut graphic novel, Filipino American writer and artist Bren Bataclan recounts his tumultuous relationship with who he calls his "tantrum-prone, narcissistic, hoarder mom." Fe, as she is called, struggled with undiagnosed mental illness — but was also a fun-loving and supportive mom. Bataclan's earnest efforts to love his mother while trying to keep his family together is uniquely Filipino but also highly relatable to anyone who has difficult parents. The book touches on a topic I wish more Filipino writers would tackle: difficult Filipino mothers and their children's unwavering quest to make them happy. Fe is a brilliant, sensitive story of a mother and son.
— Malaka Gharib, deputy editor, Goats and Soda
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
Sometimes memoirs focusing on growing up, addiction, sexuality, and their attendant traumas end up with trajectories that lead to some sort of overcoming: At the end, the author ties them up neatly with the bright pink bow of recovery or healing. Readers searching for this kind of redemptive story may not like T Kira Madden's memoir. But the other readers? The ones who value seeing the mess that is childhood, the volatility of desire, the madness of girlhood and what is expected of it? They may well wear out the book's covers with fervid rereading. The honesty and vividness with which Madden writes and the tightly controlled structure she utilizes only emphasize the fact that Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is a deeply compassionate book, though not an apologetic one. In baring the bad and ugly alongside the good, Madden has succeeded in creating a mirror of larger concerns, even as her own story is achingly specific and personal.
— Ilana Masad, contributor, NPR Books
The Poppy War by R.F Kuang
If you're like me, and desperately hoping to read a fantasy novel that centers Asian history and colonization in all its honest and stark brutality, then look no further than R.F. Kuang's The Poppy War trilogy. The trilogy, which made it to Time's list of the 100 best fantasy novels of all time, is a military fantasy inspired by China's history during the 20th century. It's a gripping exploration of empire, war, morality and the cost of survival. It's a story of class, colorism and violence. It's wholly Asian and wholly engrossing. The second book in the trilogy, The Dragon Republic, might just be my favorite piece of fantasy of all time. The story centers around Rin, a dark-skinned peasant girl from the South of the Nikara Empire, who shocks the system when she wins admission to the empire's elite military academy and discovers a lethal ability that has the potential to upset the continent's balance of power.
— Kalyani Saxena, news assistant, Weekend All Things Considered
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
"Sometimes, you don't know how confused you are about something important until you try explaining it to someone else." This is the thought that guides Mira Jacob's hilarious and poignant graphic memoir. When Jacob's six year old son, who is biracial, starts asking increasingly difficult questions about race and identity, she thinks back to the confusing conversations she had while growing up South Asian in New Mexico. This book is told through conversations with friends, family, employers and strangers — talks that formed Jacob's understanding of race, sexuality, family and love. I devoured this book, gorging on every snarky retort, awkward exchange, and moment of epiphany. Through intimate, wryly funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching scenes, Jacob explores the complications of navigating the world as a person of color, and attempts to guide her son with vulnerability and candor.
— Summer Thomad, news assistant, Code Switch
Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina
Elizabeth Miki Brina's father was a Vietnam war veteran who met her mother when he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Brina's mother worked as a nightclub hostess. The two married and settled in a predominantly white suburb in the United States. Elizabeth, their only child, grew up feeling ashamed of her mother who spoke English poorly and spent most of her time working. Only after she became an adult did Brina begin to comprehend her mother's pain: She was not only an outsider in the United States, but grew up in Okinawa — which was heavily bombed by the U.S. during World War II and has always had secondary status to the rest of Japan. As a child of Japanese parents who also lived in a mostly white town, I found echoes of my life in Brina's story. But I also learned a lot about Okinawan history and the fraught relationship the prefecture has to the United States. The U.S. continues to have a military presence there — often to the detriment of the Okinawan people. Their difficulties give Brina's story added resonance.
— Emiko Tamagawa, producer, Here and Now
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
Ever since I started writing for the eyes of other people, I grew afraid of sharing stories about myself. What brought me back to journaling for pleasure was this collection of essays by Alexander Chee. In his first book of nonfiction, Chee taps into a wide range of topics, from his rose garden and Korean family to his communities in Iowa and Brooklyn, inviting readers to intimate reflections on his writing career, queerness and migratory routes. His words are captivating yet unintimidating. They remind readers and writers that sharing our own stories, really, isn't that different from creating those informed by our lived experiences. And to be reminded of that is an empowering experience.
— Janet W. Lee, news assistant, TED Radio Hour
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