The story of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is not a singular one. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders hail from more than 20 countries, reflecting a multitude of languages, traditions, cultures — and narratives.
Collectively, they represent the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, and they have become a creative force of notable fiction, poetry, memoir, nonfiction and children’s literature. Malindo Lo’s young adult novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, won the National Book Award this year, and Watercress, a picture book written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin, received both a Caldecott Medal and a Newbery Honor. In 2019, Ocean Vuong, poet and author of the best-selling novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, while Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown won the National Book Award for fiction and Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony won the National Book Award for poetry. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizers also received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we've highlighted 10 captivating and diverse books by AAPI authors. They were curated from a long list of recommendations from May-lee Chai, a creative writing professor at San Francisco State University and author of the memoir Hapa Girl; Marie Myung-Ok Lee, a writer in residence at Columbia University and author of the new novel The Evening Hero; Colleen Lye, an English professor at UC Berkeley; and Maw Shein Win, a poet and author of Storage Unit for the Spirit House.
Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now
By Jeff Yang, Phil Yu, and Philip Wang
Fun and empowering, Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now chronicles the rising influence of Asian Americans in entertainment, food, fashion and politics. From The Joy Luck Club to Crazy Rich Asians, Yahoo to Zappos, Vera Wang to Prabal Gurung, Asians and Asian Americans have put their stamp on popular culture. Rise deftly captures the history, challenges and triumphs through colorful graphics, illustrations, essays and interviews.
By Vanessa Hua
Vanessa Hua’s Forbidden City takes us back to the start of China’s Cultural Revolution, a turbulent time that eventually led to the persecution and deaths of millions of people. An ambitious, teenage girl named Mei leaves her impoverished village and finds herself inside the walls of Chairman Mao’s palatial home, as one of his dancing partners. (Mao was a fan of ballroom dancing.) From there, Mei becomes his confidant, lover — and a strategist in the revolution.
The Immortal King Rao
By Vauhini Vara
The Immortal King Rao, a novel by former Wall Street Journal technology reporter Vauhini Vara, imagines a man raised on a coconut farm in India who becomes a Steve Jobs-like figure in the United States and the founder of a powerful company called Coconut Computer Corporation. He has now passed on his legacy to his daughter, Athena, who must wrestle with the dystopian world he helped create, one that is devastated by climate change, in which the government has been replaced by a corporate entity, and where humans can connect their brains to the internet.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning
By Cathy Park Hong
A collection of sharp, powerful, personal essays, Minor Feelings takes a hard look at poet Cathy Park Hong's “minor feelings” about race, identity and the world at large — all of which are not “minor” at all. Published February 2020, just as COVID-19 began to spark anti-Asian rhetoric, Hong's writing articulates the many conflicting emotions felt by Asian Americans, particularly in this time of heightened awareness of race and inequity. “It's such an important book, especially now,” says Win. Lee calls Minor Feelings a “book that resonates and also helps us understand the moment we are in.” It was also shortlisted for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize.
Searching for Sylvie Lee
By Jean Kwok
When her older sister disappears during a trip to the Netherlands, Amy Lee, the baby of the family, sets out to find her in this novel. Retracing her sister's steps, Lee uncovers one secret after another. Kwok, whose previous novels include Girl in Translation, borrows from her own personal life: her older brother went missing while flying a twin-engine airplane in 2009 (his body was found in the wreckage a week later). Searching for Sylvie Lee is “a mystery, romance, and also a story about family secrets, immigration and the enduring bonds between siblings,” Marie Myung-Ok Lee says.
The Burden of
By ko ko thett
Ko ko thett calls himself “a poet by choice and a Burmese by chance.” His book of poetry is considered the first major single-volume collection to appear in English by a contemporary Burmese poet, and it explores identity, culture and Burmese politics. Particularly in light of the coup in Myanmar in 2021, it is a must-read, Win says. Thett, a translator, also edited Bones Will Crow, an award-winning anthology of contemporary Burmese poetry.
The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the
By Ellen Wu
Recommended by Lye, The Color of Success addresses the still-pervasive and harmful myth of Asian Americans as a “model minority.” Ellen Wu, a history professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, shows us through this work of nonfiction how Asian Americans were considered the “yellow peril” during the 19th century, and how their portrayal shifted over time to the “model minority.” The stereotype became a way to wedge Asian Americans into the discourse between white and Black Americans, minimizing the impact of racism. And in mischaracterizing AAPIs as one big monolith, it hides disparities within the AAPI community, including high levels of poverty.
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir
By Kao Kalia Yang
Chai describes Kao Kalia Yang's The Latehomecomer as a “remarkable memoir of her Hmong refugee family's journey to Minnesota.” Yang, who is also the author of the picture books A Map Into the World and The Most Beautiful Things, recounts her family's escape from Laos to Thailand following the Vietnam War. Poetic and evocative, her memoir also takes us to her childhood in Minnesota, depicting her family's struggles to learn a new language and acclimate to life in the United States.
Sharks in the Time
By Kawai Strong Washburn
When 7-year-old Noa falls into the Pacific Ocean, sharks surround him and keep him from drowning — an act that becomes legendary, leads to Noa's new healing abilities and sparks more attention than his family would like. Named one of former President Obama's favorite reads in 2020, Sharks in the Time of Saviors is Kawai Strong Washburn's debut novel — which Chai praises as “gripping” — and blends Hawaiian mythology with the contemporary story of millennials finding their place in life.
A House Is a
By Shruti Swamy
A House Is a Body is a collection of “innovative short stories about the South Asian diaspora,” says Chai. Shruti Swamy's 12 stories delve into major life transitions, such as motherhood and loss, and take place both in India and the United States. In one, a woman marries a childhood friend, only for him to leave her. In another, a mother cares for — and doesn't care for — her ailing daughter. Swamy's novel The Archer also debuted last fall.
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Ellen Lee is a contributing writer who covers race, gender and identity. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic and Real Simple.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 18, 2021. It's been updated to reflect additional books.