25 Must-Read Books by Asian and Asian American Authors
25 Must-Read Books by Asian and Asian American Authors
on May 21, 2021
May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which celebrates the lives and contributions of inspiring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders through various mediums. In honor of the holiday, here are 25 books from Asian American and Pacific Islander authors that you should include on your reading list, from prize-winning fiction to graphic novels, essays, and memoirs.
1. THE SYMPATHIZER // VIET THANH NGUYEN
The Sympathizer is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize as well as a place on The New York Times Bestseller list. When Nguyen was 10 years old, he saw the film Apocalypse Now, an American drama about the Vietnam War, and realized that not many stories about the war came from the perspective of the Vietnamese people.
In The Sympathizer, the unnamed narrator is a South Vietnamese military aid working as a spy for the communist North Vietnamese. Born to a French father and Vietnamese mother, this unnamed spy was educated in America, but has returned to his home country to fight for the communist cause. After the Fall of Saigon, he is among the refugees sent to the United States and tries to start a new life there, but is quickly recruited back to spy on his fellow comrades. The Washington Post has called the novel “startlingly insightful and perilously candid.”
2. PACHINKO // MIN JIN LEE
Pachinko is a historical novel that follows four generations of a Korean family that migrates to Japan, following a large ensemble of characters who must deal with the legal and social discrimination they face as immigrants. In order to move up in society, the family opens up pachinko parlor, a slot machine-style game popular in Japan, from which the book takes its name. Beautifully written and captivating, Pachinko was named one of the 10 best books of 2017 by The New York Times and was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction.
3. LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE // CELESTE NG
Set in the 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere tells the intertwined stories of the Richardsons, a middle-class suburban family in Shaker Heights, Ohio—where author Celeste Ng grew up—and single mother Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl. While Mia is a transient artist with a mysterious past, the Richardson household follows a strict set of rules and status quo. When the two families find themselves on opposing sides of a custody battle over the adoption of a Chinese baby, secrets are revealed and lives are changed forever. In the process, Little Fires Everywhere explores the power of privilege and the societal demands on motherhood.
4. CLAY WALLS // RONYOUNG KIM
The Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Clay Walls tells the story of a Korean family forced to leave Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1920s to live in the United States. As Pachinko author Min Jin Lee described it to Bustle, “Clay Walls is a story about immigration and colonial trauma, and it is also a story about marriage, class, and patriarchy. Published in 1986, the book was the first-ever American novel to explore the social and cultural situations of Korean immigrants in the early 20th century, and had a major impact on later generations of Asian-American authors. At the time, I did not think I could be a writer, so I did not read it as a lofty literary example, Lee told Bustle, rather, I read it and loved it because it was a beautifully written work of American literature that was both absorbing and deeply felt.”
5. THE NAMESAKE // JHUMPA LAHIRI
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake brings the immigrant experience and the idea of identity to light in this story of the Ganguli family leaving Calcutta for the United States. After their arranged marriage, Ashoke and Ashima move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for Ashoke’s career in engineering. As Ashoke adapts to the American way of life, Ashima resists the lifestyle and pines to be back home with her family. The story then follows their son Gogol as he struggles between following his family’s tradition or assimilating to U.S. culture—an experience that many first-generation American children deal with.
6. GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER // SHOBHA RAO
Set in India, Shobha Rao’s debut novel follows Poornima and Savita, friends who are born in an impoverished landscape where they endure daily abuse. They are separated after a devastating assault on Savita. Poornima becomes determined to find her friend and leaves everything behind. Her journey takes her to the dark underworld of India and then to a tiny apartment in Seattle, Washington. Girls Burn Brighter is a timely—if distressing—portrayal of human trafficking, sexual assault, misogyny, cultural patriarchy, and the power of friendship.
7. I LOVE YOU SO MOCHI // SARAH KUHN
In this coming-of-age story for young adults, Kuhn explores themes of food, fashion, family, cultural differences, and love. The sweet romantic comedy follows Kimi Nakamura as she visits her estranged grandparents in Japan during spring break after getting into a fight with her mother. While there, Kimi meets Akira, a cute medical student who moonlights as a Mochi mascot, and he ends up serving as her guide in Kyoto. What begins as an escape from her problems becomes a way for Kimi to understand her mother’s past and figure out her own future.
8. THE WOMAN WARRIOR // MAXINE HONG KINGSTON
Told across five interconnected stories, The Woman Warrior blends autobiography and Cantonese mythology to explore Kingston’s identity as a first-generation Chinese American woman. Kingston focuses on the women that have affected her life the most—from her aunts to her mother to the Chinese folk hero Fa Mulan and finally to Kingston herself. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, The Woman Warrior has become a staple in Asian American Studies classes since it was first published in 1976.
9. PIDGIN EYE // JOE BALAZ
If you want to learn about Hawaiian culture, start with Joe Balaz, a Native Hawaiian poet and visual artist best known for his writing in English and Pidgin (Hawaiian Creole English). His collection Pidgin Eye features 35 years of poetry honoring the beauty and complexity of Hawaii and its people. Balaz’s poems are funny, spiritual, and full of Hawaiian history.
10. ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW: A MEMOIR // NICOLE CHUNG
This memoir by Catapult magazine editor-in-chief (and former managing editor of The Toast) Nicole Chung is a warm and honest reflection on the author's search for the birth parents who gave her up for adoption. After asking her adoptive mother about her birth parents, Chung is told that they could not give her the life she deserved and that may be all you can ever know. As Chung prepares for the birth of her first child, she seeks out her birth parents and finds an older sister as well as some painful family secrets. All You Can Ever Know was a finalist for the 2018 National Books Critics Circle Award and named a Best Book of the Year that year by The Washington Post, NPR, TIME, and many more.
11. LANGUAGE OF THE GECKOS AND OTHER STORIES // GARY YONG KI PAK
Writer Gary Pak is considered one of the most popular and influential writers of Hawaiian heritage of the modern era. Many of his stories focus on Asian-Hawaiian identity and the complexities of Hawaiian culture. Language of the Geckos and Other Stories features stories of Native Hawaiians and Asian Americans (as well as haole, or white people) dealing with unfulfilled dreams, failure, and the loss of love.
12. PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING // RANDY RIBAY
In this young adult novel, author Randy Ribay dives deep into Filipino and American identity, drug abuse, guilt, grief, and the unjust policies of current Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte. After the death of his cousin at the hands of the Duterte regime, Filipino American Jay Reguero is determined to find out what happened. Jay travels to the Philippines, where he finds out more than he bargained for.
13. THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER // EMILY X.R. PAN
After her mother dies by suicide, Leigh is convinced her mother has been reincarnated as a red bird. She travels to Taiwan to meet her mother’s parents for the first time, and while there, she seeks out her mother’s past, uncovers family secrets, and builds a new relationship with her grandparents. At the same time, Leigh must come to terms with her relationship with her best friend and longtime crush, Axel, whom she kissed for the first time the day of her mother’s passing. Pan explores mental illness, grief, and love in this heartbreaking story.
14. EDINBURGH // ALEXANDER CHEE
Alexander Chee’s semi-autobiographical debut novel is about a boys’ choir in Maine and the sexual abuse its members suffer at the hands of their choir director. The harrowing tale of sexual abuse, resilience, and redemption is guaranteed to leave a powerful impact. In fact, its publication helped prompt Chee to enter therapy for the first time.
15. TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE // JENNY HAN
Whenever Lara Jean has a crush on a boy, she writes a letter to him telling him how she feels, but she doesn’t send the letter. Instead, she seals and locks them away in a box under her bed. One day, Lara Jeans discovers that these letters have been mailed out, meaning all the boys she’s ever had crushes on received them, including her sister’s ex-boyfriend, Josh. In this debut novel (which has been adapted into a hit Netflix film), Jenny Han writes beautifully about the importance of sisterhood, falling in love, and finally taking some risks in life.
16. MARRIAGE OF A THOUSAND LIES // SJ SINDU
In writing Marriage of a Thousand Lies, SJ Sindu wanted to explore a topic that isn't typically talked about in South Asian American fiction—queer identity. The novel follows Lucky and her husband, who are both gay, and lying to their Sri Lankan families about it. After Lucky’s grandmother suffers an accident, Lucky returns to her childhood home and reconnects with her first love, Nisha, who is preparing for an arranged marriage with a man she’s never met. Throughout the book, Sindu tackles what it means to be queer and South Asian American.
17. INTERNMENT // SAMIRA AHMED
Inspired by the uptick in anti-Muslim hate crimes and Islamaphobic rhetoric in the United States that followed the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Samira Ahmed's Internment imagines a not-too-distant future in which Muslim American citizens are rounded up and forced into internment camps. In this timely novel, Layla Amin and her family are forced into one of these camps in the California desert. Layla is determined to take down the system, leading a revolution inside the camp.
18. THE KISS QUOTIENT // HELEN HOANG
Helen Hoang’s 2018 debut novel, The Kiss Quotient, is about Stella, a math genius with Asperger’s who isn’t great at intimacy and relationships. This is why she hires an escort, Michael, to teach her a thing or two about sex. Of course, it doesn’t take long for them to realize their relationship is more than just what happens inside the bedroom.
19. WHERE REASONS END // YIYUN LEE
Where Reasons End takes the form of a painful and honest conversation between a mother and a son. Written after the death of her own son by suicide, Yiyun Lee creates a space between life and death where the narrator and her son talk about memories, grief, love, and longing. The novel is a stunning exploration of grief and loss that is likely to leave you in tears.
20. THE LEAVERS // LISA KO
Lisa Ko was inspired to write The Leavers after reading a 2009 New York Times article about an undocumented Chinese immigrant in America. Several years after sneaking into the United States on a boat from China, this woman tried to bring her son to the U.S. to join her. But he was caught by authorities while trying to cross the border from Canada and placed into the Canadian foster care system, where he was adopted out to a Canadian family. The Leavers tells the story of Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant who disappears, leaving her 11-year-old son Deming all alone. He is eventually adopted by a white couple and is left to wonder where his place is in the world. Ko’s powerful debut was National Book Award finalist in 2017.
21. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE // GENE LUEN YANG
Winner of the 2007 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese weaves together three seemingly independent stories of Chinese folklore, self-acceptance, and cultural assimilation. Told through the eyes of Jin Wang, an all-American white teen named Danny, and the Chinese folk legend the Monkey King, Yang breaks down the insecurities of growing up Chinese American and dealing with issues of identity and self-worth. While the three stories seem unrelated, they are later revealed to be connected in a surprising twist.
22. AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART // ELAINE CASTILLO
Elaine Castillo examines today’s suburban Filipino migrant community in this ode to Carlos Bulosan’s 1946 tale America Is in the Heart. Castillo's America Is Not the Heart tells the story of Hero, a former doctor from the Philippines who immigrates to the United States after joining the New People’s Army, an insurgent Communist guerrilla group, and being disowned by her immediate family. Living with her uncle’s family, Hero is slowly coming to terms with what happened in her past with the help of her cousin, a potential love interest named Rosalyn, and the Filipino-American community.
23. FALLING LEAVES: THE MEMOIR OF AN UNWANTED CHINESE DAUGHTER // ADELINE YEN MAH
Considered unlucky by her family after her mother dies giving birth to her, Adeline Yen Mah tells her Cinderella story in Falling Leaves. Her father remarries a beautiful yet cruel woman. Yen Mah and her siblings are mistreated, but Yen Mah takes the brunt of the cruelty. Determined to get away, Yen Mah works hard to be an exceptional student and is eventually allowed to study medicine in England. She later finds success and happiness in the United States, but must return to China after the death of her father and deal with her wicked stepmother once again. The Washington Post called the story of family cruelty and resilience “painful and lovely, at once heartbreaking and heartening,” leaving the reviewer to wonder how Yen Mah survived to tell the tale.
24. SOMEWHERE ONLY WE KNOW // MAURENE GOO
A contemporary take on the 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, Somewhere Only We Know tells the story of Lucky, a popular Korean pop star who, after playing a big concert in Hong Kong, escapes her handlers in search of a hamburger. High on anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills, she encounters Jack, a tabloid reporter looking for his next story. Together, they travel around Hong Kong and begin to fall for each other, but both are keeping their own secrets. Goo immerses the readers into the world of K-pop and life in Hong Kong and captivates us with her witty banter and charming story.
25. IT’S NOT LIKE IT’S A SECRET // MISA SUGIURA
In this YA romance, teenager Sana Kiyohara is dealing with a lot—her mother’s subtle racism, her father’s infidelity, and her crush on a friend who happens to be a girl. The coming-of-age story tackles the intersections of identity, racism, cultural expectations, and coming out, and author Misa Sugiura doesn't hold back.