Beloved Asian American Literature You Have to Read
The following is a guest post from Karissa Chen. Karissa is an editor-in-chief of Hyphen Magazine and the author of the chapbook Of Birds and Lovers. She has been a Fulbright Fellow, a Kundiman Fellow, and a VONA fellow.
When I was asked by The New York Public Library to compile a list of my favorite books by Asian American authors, I enthusiastically agreed; I’ve read so many heartbreaking, intelligent, and thoughtful books over the years by Asian American writers, and I couldn’t wait to share them with NYPL’s readers. But then as I sat down to write my recommendations, I began to agonize. How to choose only a handful of books among the many worthy ones out there? Should I be paying attention to diversity of cultural backgrounds—and how might those assumptions conflict with how a writer might self-identify? What about genre diversity, style diversity, topic diversity? Should I be focusing on established writers or lesser-known writers? More recently published or essentials from the Asian American canon?
In general, I feel ambivalent towards lists of this sort, which, while handy for quick recommendations, are also by their nature exclusionary. A list of Asian American books, therefore, is further complicated by the fact that Asian American stories are already underrepresented in the industry, making it hard not to feel that any list focusing on Asian American writers might hold a disproportionate importance in terms of offering visibility to particular titles. In the face of this added pressure of representation, when tasked with creating a list, I inevitably feel guilty that I will have to leave off so many noteworthy books.
In the end, I simply decided to highlight some of the contemporary literature that has meant the most to me personally, with a greater emphasis on books that have been published in the last few years. Of course, this means I’m leaving out a good number of books that I’m sure would belong on someone else’s list. This also means the list skews heavily towards literary fiction, which is what I tend to read the most. I hope that one day Asian American literature will be so commonplace and so widely read that to try to compile a list like this will seem silly. Until then, I humbly submit twenty of my favorites, and hope this acts as a jumping off point for those looking for great Asian American writers to read.
Anuk Arudpragasam – The Story of a Brief Marriage
- This book, which came out last year, blew me away with its precise and loving attention to the details of a single day in one man’s life. Set during the Sri Lankan Civil War, the insistence on zooming in on the minutiae of living reminds us of the humanity that is often forgotten when we talk about war.
Thi Bui – The Best We Could Do
- Thi Bui’s debut is a gorgeous graphic memoir that interweaves her memories of her own childhood, her present-day status of becoming a mother, and her family’s story of fleeing war-torn Vietnam and resettling in America. Her stark, watercolor-esque images combined with the simple poignancy of her words results in a difficult but honest depiction of longing, trauma, and survival.
Lan Samantha Chang — All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost
- I normally stay away from books about writers (and especially about pretentious writing programs), but this slim book felt like a jewel to me. Chang’s sentences are elegant and pregnant with meaning, making the simple story of a young man struggling to make it as a writer and his relationships with those around him into something captivating.
Alexander Chee – Edinburgh
- Although Chee has recently been lauded for his sophomore novel The Queen of the Night, his underappreciated first novel Edinburgh, about a young Korean American boy whose choir director molests him and several peers, has stayed with me in the years since I read it. While the story was often difficult, the quiet, lyrical prose provides a counterbalance for the horror, resulting in a book that made me ache for days.
Tarfia Faizullah – Seam
- This collection of poetry continues to haunt me long after I finished it. Focused on Bangladeshi victims of rape and torture at the hands of the Pakistani Army during the 1971 Liberation War, the collection interweaves interviews with these women with a narrator who struggles to make sense of her role as historian and conduit. Both violent and beautiful, this collection reminds me of the best of what poetry can do, offering a voice to those whose voices have long been silenced.
Jessica Hagedorn – Dogeaters
- Of Hagedorn’s many compelling works, Dogeaters remains my favorite. The novel takes place in the Philippines during the Marcos regime and features a revolving door of colorful characters, from the children of the upper echelon to gay prostitutes and the owners of the bars they work in. Hagedorn’s prose is dizzying, providing a sensory overload that captures the chaos of the time, taking aim at the tensions between beauty and violence, superficiality and religion, dictatorship and colonialism.
Cynthia Kadohata – Kira-Kira
- While this novel is ostensibly for younger readers, I found myself moved by the poignant story of two Japanese American sisters growing up in Georgia in the 1950s and 60s. The book paints the realities of being Asian in a small Southern town, but it’s the relationship between the girls that stays front and center, made alive by Kadohata’s tender prose. The end will have you weeping.
Jhumpa Lahiri – Unaccustomed Earth
- Although Lahiri’s first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, is probably the most well-known of her work, Unaccustomed Earth is my favorite. I don’t generally read a short story collection cover-to-cover without stopping, but I found the stories in this collection to be particularly rich and filled with characters I wanted to stay with. The three linked stories at the very end are particularly haunting.
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee — Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember
- While on the surface this is a memoir of a sudden stroke that left Lee with short-term memory loss and her subsequent recovery process, the book also strives to investigate how Lee’s identity and history—as a child of immigrants, a survivor of trauma, as a new mother—might help her piece herself back together. Full of honesty and pain, it is a brave look into how recovery is more than just a medical process; it requires looking back into who we are, where we came from, and who we want to be.
Ken Liu – The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
- Liu’s collection of speculative short stories is unlike any collection I’ve seen before: there are stories about origami tigers that come to life; time machines that allow you to visit any moment in time once only; fox spirit girls turned steampunk cyborgs; a Chinese god of war in the Gold Rush. Individually, they’re fun, often heartbreaking pieces that showcase Liu’s versatility and inventiveness; collectively, they offer a unique interrogation of history, politics, identity, and philosophy. This is a book I recommend to everyone, no matter their taste in books.
Celeste Ng – Everything I Never Told You
- Ng’s debut revolves around the death of Lydia, a Chinese American teenager who has mysteriously drowned. While the book is structured loosely like a mystery, the real heart of the book lies in uncovering the isolation each of Lydia’s family members experiences and how they can’t seem to find a way to communicate their pain to each other. A story of how well-intentioned people can still hurt the ones they love, this book had me hurting for the characters even after it was over.
Matthew Olzmann – Mezzanines
- Olzmann has a talent for shining a light on big ideas in his poems—love, loneliness—by focusing in on grounding objects such as a bottle of soda or a shipwreck. The result is that his poems move deftly from whimsical to poignant without missing a beat. Although you can’t go wrong with either of Olzmann’s collections, his first collection holds a special place in my heart.
Michael Ondaatje – The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
- Although Ondaatje is probably best known for The English Patient, it’s his earlier works that really inspire devotion in me. Both The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter operate in a hybrid space between prose and poetry, and the result is strange and lovely. I particularly love Billy the Kid for its collage of vignette, poetry, and short bits of prose, an experimentation in form that I find both inspiring and liberating.
Julie Otsuka – The Buddha in the Attic
- This slim novel is told entirely in first-person plural, and captures the collective experience of the Japanese picture brides who came to America in the early 1900s. Each short chapter depicts another era of their lives in varied and imagined detail, resulting in an affecting book that illuminates the voices of the women who, in Otsuka’s hands, demand to be heard.
Bao Phi – Sông I Sing
- Bao Phi is well-known among the spoken word scene, but his first book of poems shows that his poems are just as full of life and music when read on the page. Full of outrage, hope, compassion, and humor, his poems examine what it means to be Vietnamese American, tackling racism, imperialism, and violence head-on. Phi’s poems fill me with courage and hope; they make me grateful that he’s found a voice in a world that would silence him.
Jon Pineda – Apology
- A short novel in spare, delicate prose, Apology, about an uncle who takes the blame for a horrific accident his nephew has caused, asking the reader to wrestle with uncomfortable questions about guilt, shame, regret, and forgiveness. Each compact section reads more like prose poetry than a typical novel, but Pineda manages to pack a lot into these few words, making the work seem longer than its 200 pages.
Patrick Rosal – Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive
- While Rosal has now published four poetry collections, his groundbreaking debut is the one I find myself returning to the most, in part because it has the raw energy of a new poet leaving it all out there. Written in a vibrant, lyrical voice infused with the rhythms of hip-hop and breakdancing, the poems in this book feel like funky love songs to the immigrant neighborhood of his childhood. By juxtaposing violence and grief up against dance and music, Rosal’s poems excavate shimmering truths of what it means to be a young man of color in America.
Madeleine Thien — Do Not Say We Have Nothing
- I have read many books about the Cultural Revolution before, but none that affected me as much as this one. Thien’s most recent novel, nominated for a Booker Prize last year, is a heavily researched book revolving around several students at the Shanghai Music Conservatory during this tumultuous period in China’s history. Weaving in music, stories-within-stories, and more, this book captures the impotence felt by many who lived during that time to devastating effect.
Kao Kalia Yang – The Song Poet
- The Song Poet absolutely stunned me with how vulnerable and beautiful it was. The title takes its name from a form of performance that Yang’s father spent a lifetime practicing, one that combines Hmong history, folk tale, memory, hope, and grief into song. A love song to her father, half the book is devoted to her father’s story of childhood, survival, and immigration told in her father’s voice. It’s hard to tell if the prose is her father’s words in translation or her own, but it’s suffused with gorgeous multi-sensory descriptions and poetic textures of longing that left me in tears on more than one occasion.
Jung Yun – Shelter
- Shelter opens with a horrifying scene—a son sees his mother wandering naked in his backyard, the victim of a home invasion that ends in terrible violence. The aftermath of this incident is complicated by the family’s own history of abuse. A startling story of how trauma begets trauma, particularly among struggling immigrants, the book felt intensely familiar and personal, shining a light on pain I knew existed within our community but is rarely talked about. Months after putting it down, I was still thinking about the ending.