Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! May was chosen to mark the arrival of the first (official? hard to believe they were really the first) Japanese immigrants to the U.S., as well as the completion of that transcontinental railroad laid by Chinese workers. We have a long, ugly history with Asian immigration here, namely that we used people, treated them horribly, and didn’t consider them full humans; we locked away Japanese Americans while sending their boys out to the European front lines to die during World War II, and anti-Asian racism, from the myth of the model minority (applying only to certain Asian Americans and deeply damaging to all) to stereotypes built around Asian masculinities (and a lot of overt racism on dating apps)—and that’s not even really delving into daily microaggressions. (Curious about those? Try “Racial Microaggressions and the Asian American Experience,” “Racial Microaggressions and Asian Americans,” this sheet of examples of racial microaggressions, Eleanor Ty’s Asianfail, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Race and Resistance, among other things.)
So, in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’m presenting an #ownvoices booklist. The books here represent a wide range of people—Asia is a massive continent, stuffed full of countries, cultures, and ways of being, from China to Pakistan and beyond—and have been written for a wide range of ages and reading preferences. (I am, for what it’s worth, not focusing on literary fiction, although I’ll include some; there are a lot of tremendous lists on the #litfic side, so I’m going for something closer to pleasure reading.) Everything I’ve got here is own voices, written by Asian Americans or Asians living in America: so, in other words, these books are by and about Asian and Pacific Americans. I’m also including some additional resources, which is what I’d do if I were putting this sort of list together for work—so, down below, you’ll find some Asian American and Pacific American cultural organizations and book awards, too.
The Books (fiction in all varieties)
Lara Jean, up there in my gif, will start us off: have you read any of Jenny Han‘s books? (if you know a teenager, you’ve probably at least seen them.) To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a great place to start—and it’s a charming rom-com on Netflix!—but there are so many more. Read Bao Phi and Thi Bui’s award-winning A Different Pond for an exploration of growing up Vietnamese American in Minnesota—and for Bui’s gorgeous art, coupled with Phi’s words. Strive for the magic of education with Malala Yousafazi and Kerascoët’s Malala’s Magic Pencil, winner of several awards.
Explore rom-coms—and love among people who aren’t neurotypical—with novelist Helen Hoang. Economatrician Stella Lane, more comfortable with numbers and algorithms than with people, hires escort Michael Phan to remedy her problems with the opposite sex—but the practical arrangement changes to something very different in The Kiss Quotient. Michael’s cousin Khai discovers he doesn’t have a stone heart after all when his mother brings Esme from Vietnam into his life in The Bride Test—but emotions are so much more complicated than taxes, and Esme, who falls in love with Khai during their summer together, must decide how much she’s willing to put on the line. Assumptions crumble as neurosurgeon Trisha Raje and chef DJ Caine get to know each other—but they’ll have to deal with the past if there’s any hope of a future in Sonali Dev’s Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, the start of a new series. Looking for more rom-coms? You might enjoy Ruby Lang‘s Practice Perfect series! (She has a new series in the pipes, by the way, so if you enjoy her writing—or if medical series aren’t your thing, but you like her work—you’re in luck.) Prefer your romance a bit, well, darker? Try Alisha Rai, whose romance novels—including the Forbidden Hearts series—are dark, intense, and intelligent.
Suburban Chicago teenager Maya Aziz balances worlds—what she wants, what her parents want—but she can’t control what’s happening out in the “real world,” and racism and Islamophobia are lurking in Love, Hate, & Other Filters, by Bombay-born Chicagoan Samira Ahmed. (In the mood for dystopia? Try Ahmed’s Internment. Much dystopia. Very believable. Like, more than any of us want.) Rukhsana Ali struggles with her parents’ expectations and her own sexuality in the heartbreaking, brilliant The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali, which author Sabina Khan wrote so she and her daughter—and others like them—could see themselves in books. (Lambda Literary gives it a glowing review.) Janna Yusuf, Indian Arab American, balances high school, faith, and friendship with the fear and shame of assault as she tries to decide whether or not to expose the monster who assaulted her in S.K. Ali’s award-winning Saints and Misfits. (You might also enjoy Ali’s Love from A to Z, which takes place primarily on a trip to Doha.)
In Misa Sugiura’s forthcoming This Time Will Be Different, CJ’s world implodes—and she finds something worth fighting for—when her mother decides to sell her family’s flower shop to the family of the people who screwed over her grandparents when they were interred. (Sugiura’s It’s Not Like It’s a Secret won the 2018 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Teens.) In Adib Khorram’s award-winning Darius the Great Is Not Okay, teenage nerd Darius copes with depression, love, and life between cultures as his family embarks on their first family voyage to his mother’s native Iran.
Want something more chick-lit style? Check out Sandhya Menon’s Dimple & Rishi series, starting with When Dimple Met Rishi, and explore the Indian American experience with a good side of teen life. Continually frustrated in love, Desi Lee tries applying life lessons from Korean drama towards her real-world life in Maurene Goo’s I Believe in a Thing Called Love, while Mia and Jake, sick of their mothers’ interfering ways, plot to get them off their backs forever in Jenn P. Nguyen’s Fake It Till You Break It. You’ve definitely heard of K-pop, whether or not you listen to it—now, follow along as Korean American K-pop sensation Lucky, on a desperate quest for hamburgers, and Korean American Jack, sneaking around for his tabloid job, with no clue who Lucky is, stumble into each other—and whole new worlds—in Goo’s May 2019 release, Somewhere Only We Know.
The U.S. has never been a white country—that’s only an ugly figment of white supremacist imaginations—and Asians have been here a long, long time. (For that matter, we took over a lot of Pacific islands—remember Hawaii? And Guam?) In Stacey Lee‘s Under a Painted Sky, two girls—Samantha and Annamae—disguise themselves as boys (Sammy and Andy) and take to the Oregon Trail, fleeing slavery—Annamae—and tragedy (Samantha). Then travel to 1906 San Francisco, as Mercy Wong, clawing her way towards a brighter future despite the racism of the other girls at her exclusive school, must work to ensure her own survival—as well as her classmates’—after an earthquake destroys their world in Outrun the Moon. World War II and the internment of innocent Japanese Americans destroys lives and friendships in Lisa See’s China Dolls.
Travel through generations of a Hawaiian family in Kiana Davenport’s The Shark Dialogues, then travel generations of Bengali American women’s lives and secrets in Mitali Perkins’ You Bring the Distant Near. Ready for a(nother) TBR? Jo Kuan, lady’s maid to a cruel mistress by day, columnist by night, tumbles into the crosshairs of society—and a notorious criminal—when she uses her column to attack racism and sexism in Lee’s forthcoming The Downstairs Girl. Vietnamese American Thanhhà Lai, who came to the U.S. as a refugee following the war, tells the autobiographical story of Hà and her family as they flee their homeland for Alabama as Saigon falls around them in the multiple-award winning Inside Out & Back Again. It’s years after the war in Listen, Slowly, and California girl Mai isn’t happy at all that she’s going to Vietnam with her grandmother for the summer—but once there, she’ll have to learn to balance worlds as her grandmother hunts for long-buried truths.
Lai’s forthcoming Butterfly Yellow, meanwhile, follows Hang as she comes to the United States, hunting for the brother torn out of her arms in Vietnam. In Uma Krishnaswami’s Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, it’s 1945, and Indian-Mexican American Maria Singh really wants to play softball—but she’s going to have to find a way to deal with prejudice and hate in the face of war as her parents try to shield their kids and keep the farm. Henry, middle-aged and Chinese American, searches for traces of his childhood friend, a Japanese American girl, in Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, while in Songs of Willow Frost, the (supposedly) orphaned William Eng and his friend Charlotte escape their orphanage to track down the actress William knows is his mother, going by another name. And did you know that sometimes kids got, well, auctioned off? When Chinese American Ernest is auctioned off, he lands in a brothel, where he finds friendship and love, in Ford’s Love and Other Consolation Prizes.
Delve into Hawaii with the short stories of Kristiana Kahakauwila’s This Is Paradise; explore the Vietnamese diaspora with those in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees. (You might also like The Sympathizer: a spy tale, and a tale of Vietnam and of the United States.) Explore the past—and the world of superheroes—with graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang‘s The Shadow Hero, as mild-mannered Hank, who only ever wanted to run his dad’s grocery store and stay out of the way, ends up a world- (or at least neighborhood-) saving superhero after his mom, who got saved by another superhero, decides that is her only son’s path in life. Join a 1970s middle-schooler born in Iran and transported to California as she copes with middle school, moving a lot, and the Iranian Revolution in Firoozeh Dumas’ It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel.
Looking for something, well, a whole lot younger? Second-grader Yasmin copes with the horrors and joys of being, well, a second-grader in the series of the same name by Saadia Faruqi and Hatem Aly (Aly’s illustrations are adorable). There’s a whole series, but I’d suggest starting with Meet Yasmin! (Which I’ve read.) It’s sweet and very age-appropriate, exploring culture and second-grade adventures—including scary ones, like not being able to see one’s mommy—without ever once talking down to its little readers. There’s even an Urdu dictionary and Pakistan facts (all age-appropriate, in nice big font) at the back. Valencia, Kaori, and Gen must rescue their friend Virgil and his pet guinea pig when a “prank” lands them at the bottom of a well in Erin Entrada Kelly’s Newbery-winning Hello, Universe.
Kelly’s Blackbird Fly, meanwhile, follows Filipina immigrant Apple as she tries to escape the horrors of middle-grade unpopularity with a guitar—and the new friends she’s making along the way. In Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, Mia manages the front desk of the motel her parents clean, while trying to dodge mean Mr. Yao, who owns it, hiding the fact that her parents are helping (and hiding) other immigrants, and working to follow her dreams and become a writer. I’m not entirely sure that this one is set in America, but it’s so lovely it deserves its spot here: in Julie Kim’s beautiful graphic novel Where’s Halmoni?, two young folks hunting for their grandmother (Halmoni), who wasn’t in the house when they got home from school, step out a traditional Korean door into a world they’ve never seen before and travel through worlds of Korean folklore and myth. In Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s picture book Drawn Together, a Thai American boy and his grandfather find a common language through art.
Amina struggles to navigate cultures, worlds, and the hells of middle school in Hena Khan’s Amina’s Voice, while in Khan’s forthcoming More to the Story, middle schooler Jameela balances a desire for fame—middle-school journalism fame, that is—with doing the right thing. (Middle school is tough, man. And high school is hell.) In need of another early chapter book series? Follow the adventures—and misadventures—of Debbie Michiko Florence‘s Jasmine Toguchi, an 8-year-old Japanese American! Jasmine’s adventures start in Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen, and continue through the series. A magic pashmina allows Priyanka to travel from her home in the U.S. to the India she’s never known in Nidhi Chananai’s award-winning graphic novel, Pashmina. Explore Chinese American identity—and racism, including that of the model minority stereotype—with graphic novelist Yang’s award-winning American Born Chinese, funny and sad and definitely not just for teens.
In the mood for poetry? Brown Girls writer Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come For Us is a heartbreaking exploration of the affects and aftereffects of Patrician on a Pakistani American family, as well as an exploration of growing up brown, female, Muslim, and Pakistani in the United States. Explore Hawaii—land and people—in Brandy Nalani McDougall’s The Salt-Wind: Ka Makani Pa’akai. (If you’re in the mood for something more academic, McDougall can also provide Finding Meaning: Kaona and Contemporary Hawaiian Literature.) The Poetry Foundation curates a list of Asian American poets, as does Poetry.org.
Jeffrey Yang explores place, history, and being with the poems of Hey, Marfa; Mia Ayumi Malhorta tracks the atrocities of internment in Isako, Isako. Worlds come together in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Miracle Fruit, while Oceanic explores the natural world. Tarifa Faizullah explores grief and violence, family and memory, in Registers of Illuminated Villages; Jenny Xie travels the world in Eye Level. Chen Chen delves into family, love, and the bonds between us in When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, while Victoria Chang takes on society in Barbie Chang, culture in The Boss, and gender with Circle. Is poetry your jam? There are a lot more lists of Asian and Pacific American poetry out there—have a ball.
Now that I have bombarded you with far too many words, I’ll finish off with just a few more: these books, though all are #ownvoices and all feature Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, are only a small sampling of the incredible works out there. (For instance, I’ve mostly overlooked more literary fiction, including Celeste Ng.) I have not included any fantasy—or, at any rate, any fantasy not explicitly set in the United States, featuring Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders. (Though you might want to check out Heidi Heilig there.) And I’ve left off books set primarily outside the U.S., ranging from Sonali Dev’s Bollywood series to Soniah Kamal’s amazing Unmarriageable. So think of this as a starting place—and head out and explore.
a few resources, for the curious
- Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage via the National Parks Service (Wayback Machine link)
- Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA)
- Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (federal page—here’s a Wayback Machine link just in case), including resources for teachers
- Asian Pacific Americans from the Library of Congress’s themed resources
- Celebrate! Where Asia Meets America from the Smithsonian
- Chinese American Museum of Chicago
- Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection from the Library of Congress (and a blog post about it!)
- Google Arts and Culture presents James Wong Howe, pioneering cinematographer who deserves to be way better known
- Heritage Museum of Asian Art (Chicago)
- Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center via Google Arts and Culture