Written in collaboration with youth librarians Christy Lau, Chatham Square Library; Michelle Lee, Riverside Library; and Susen Shi, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library.
"There are so many qualifications weighing the ‘we’ in Asian America. Do I mean Southeast Asian, South Asian, East Asian and Pacific Islander, queer and straight, Muslim and non-Muslim, rich and poor?" ―Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning
What do we mean when we say “Asian American”?
The phrase “Asian American” was created in 1968 by University of Calfornia Berkley graduate students and activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka to unite various people of Asian descent into one student group.
Since then, the phrase has been widely accepted and used in the United States, leading to the creation of other inclusive terms like “Asian Pacific American” (to include people of native Pacific Islander descent) or, more recently, “APIDA” for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (to include people from the Indian subcontinent and diaspora).
All of these phrases attempt to build connections and describe a large, diverse community of people who come from or have ancestry from more than 40 countries in Asia and the Pacific Ocean, including US territories and Hawaii.
While no one phrase can truly capture the range of complex identities within “Asian American,” we’ve centered APIDA as a useful starting point to recommend noteworthy adult novels, graphic novels, short stories, memoirs, and nonfiction books that explore the broad canopy of writing by Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans.
Afterland: Poems by Mai Der Vang
In this award-winning collection of poems, Vang tells the story of her family and the greater Hmong exile from Laos to the United States due to their participation with Americans in the Vietnam War. Her work uses stark and haunting images of nature and spirits to convey the loss and anguish felt by many refugees due to the war and its aftermath.
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung
As a child growing up in Oregon, Nicole always believed the story her white adoptive parents told about her Korean immigrant birth parents: “they thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.” As an adult—and a pregnant mother-to-be—Chung digs deeper to discover her roots and finds her biological family and origin story to be more complicated than the one she’d known her entire life.
Apsara Engine by Bishakh Som
Som’s debut graphic short story collection envisions trans futures and thoughtfully explores ideas of gender, the body, and human connection against a sci-fi and fantasy backdrop.
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui
In this gorgeous and deeply intimate illustrated memoir of her family, Bui delves into the past while looking towards the future. Depicting Bui's family in war-torn Vietnam, their escape to the US, and the lasting effects of displacement, Bui lays bare and embraces the sacrifices made to ensure a new life for future generations.
When it comes to South Asian American history, most people often think of post-1965 immigration waves. Writer and filmmaker Bald, on the other hand, delves deep into the forgotten history of the Bengali men who arrived during the 1880s to 1950s via Ellis Island and other East Coast ports as silk traders and ship workers. This book also paints a broader picture of how some of these working-class men weathered discrimination and made new homes in Black, Hispanic, and Creole neighborhoods such as Harlem, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, and beyond.
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
Bestiary describes three generations of Taiwanese American women haunted by their homeland, with each embodying a mythical story. Chang’s energetic, inventive, and lyrical voice will resonate with diasporic audiences.
Blame This on the Boogie by Rina Ayuyang
Ayuyang chronicles growing up as Filipino American in Pittsburgh under the lights of disco and the silver screen in this colorful, exuberant graphic memoir.
Bright Lines: A Novel by Tanwi Nadini Islam (Tanaïs)
This coming-of-age novel/drama set in Brooklyn and Bangladesh follows the Saleems (patriarch Anwar, a botanical apothecary owner; his wife, Hashi, a beauty salon owner; their teenage daughter, Charu; and college-student niece, Ella) as they deal with family secrets, hidden affairs, and tragedy.
Comedian Ali Wong puts her brash, lusty stamp on the memoir-as-a-letter genre with this collection of stories from her college study abroad experience in Vietnam, her struggles to break into the entertainment business, and her observations on love, family, food, and motherhood.
Fairest: A Memoir by Meredith Tulusan
Journalist and editor Meredith Tulusan tells her lifelong story of struggle and acceptance as an albino boy in the Philippines, coming out at Harvard University, and later on, undergoing a gender transition as an adult.
The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimène Suleyman
Following in the footsteps of the original UK text, this new edition features writing by first- and second-generation immigrant authors as they reflect on America in the wake of the 2016 election. APIDA voices shine throughout this compelling collection.
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob
Jacob’s heartfelt graphic memoir invites readers into her life growing up as a first-generation American as she grapples with difficult questions about race, identity, politics, and love with her six-year-old son. The photographic collage art style serves as an interesting and effective backdrop to necessary conversations.
Go Home! edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Asian diasporic writers—including Alexander Chee, Gaiutra Bahadur, Mia Alvar, Chang-Rae Lee and more—meditate on the meaning of “home” through short stories, essays, and poetry in this timely, well-curated collection.
Gutted by Justin Chin
Faced with his father’s terminal illness and his own health issues, Chin grapples with grief and loss in this Lambda-nominated poetry collection. Chin died less than a decade later due to a stroke.
Homeland Elegies: A Novel by Ayad Akhtar
In this literary novel that blends in many autobiographical experiences, Akhtar writes about his relationship with his immigrant father, political conflicts and strife, wealth and debt, and love and loss, questioning what it means to be Pakistani American and Muslim in a post-9/11 and post-Trump world.
If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
Asghar’s powerful debut poetry collection reflects on her identity as a queer Pakistani Muslim woman in America and the effects of both the India/Pakistan Partition and 9/11. Some poems take on playful forms while confronting serious subjects (eg. "Microaggression Bingo"), but each retains Asghar’s distinctive voice, full of vibrancy and urgency, making this collection a must-read for contemporary audiences.
In Waves by A.J. Dungo
This gorgeously drawn graphic memoir/biography chronicles the history of surfing and the regenerative nature of the ancient Hawaiian sport. In alternating chapters, creator Dungo tells his story of love and loss with his girlfriend, Kristen, and the life story of surfing legends Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake.
Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
Grieving her mother's death, Phoebe finds herself drawn into a secret extremist cult. When the cult commits an act of domestic terrorism and Phoebe disappears, her boyfriend, Will, struggles to understand the woman he thought he knew.
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
Apostol twists and layers complex narratives to tell the story of two women—a filmmaker and a translator—creating rival scripts in Duterte’s Philippines. Challenging, labyrinthian, and referential, this postmodern meta-narrative is a haunting look at the brutalities of the Filipino-American War and its postcolonial legacy.
Making Comics by Lynda Barry
Cartoonist and professor Lynda Barry invites readers into her comics classroom, challenging them to abandon perfectionism and embrace expressive communication. Sprawling full-page spreads offer philosophical meditations and exploratory exercises to engage students young and old.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Poet Cathy Park Hong uses this collection of essays to explore the complexities of discrimination against Asian Americans and being pigeonholed as an artist and writer. Hong incorporates biographical stories with cultural criticism while also honoring such notable figures as artist and writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama.
Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
Set in the Philippines and within Filipino American communities in California, these beautiful short stories explore isolation, displacement, and the longing for human connection.
New Waves by Kevin Nguyen
In this sharp novel about tech culture, New York City co-workers Lucas, a customer service representative, and Margo, a computer programmer, hate being office pariahs and dealing with passive-aggressive racism. In a drunken fit, they decided to steal their company’s user database in an act of vengeance before quitting their jobs. Things go awry when Margo is killed in a taxi accident and Lucas uncovers another side to his late best friend through her laptop—and ultimately another side to himself.
No-No Boy by John Okada
A Japanese American “no-no boy”—so-called because of his refusal to denounce his Japanese heritage and refusal to fight for the US during WWII—struggles to cope with life post-internment and post-prison in this haunting and still relevant 1957 novel.
Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America by Shamila Sen
In this collection of essays, Harvard University Press editorial director Shamila Sen recounts her early childhood in Calcutta/Kolkata and her struggles to culturally adapt to living in America when her family moved to Boston when she was twelve years old. On a broader scale, Sen writes about code-switching between “whiteface” and being the “native translator” and “assimilated immigrant,” while she navigates the greater issue of race, caste, and white privilege in India and the United States.
Nuanua: Pacific Writing in English Since 1980 edited by Albert Wendt
Published by the University of Hawai‘i Press, this anthology features poems, short stories and fiction by writers from the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. "Nuanua" means rainbow in many Pacific languages, and to quote the general editor’s note, every contribution “is a unique shade and hue, though some of their themes, such as colonialism, love, nature or identity, inevitably overlap.” The book includes APIDA writers like Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard (Alchemies of Distance). Wendt is also the author of short stories centered on male Samoan life called Flying-Fox in a Freedom Tree and Other Stories.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
This stunning book-length memoir poem intimately explores grief, race, and sexuality in the form of letters from a son to his mother who is illiterate.
Quarantine: Stories by Rahul Mehta
Mehta explores the lives of gay Indian American men caught between worlds in this insightful Lambda-winning short story collection.
Soft Science by Franny Choi
Framed in the context of cyborgs and Turing tests, Choi's dazzling poetry collection explores the nebulous spaces of human identity.
This Is Paradise by Kristina Kahakauwila
Most fiction about Hawaii focuses on a tourist’s or outsider’s point-of-view. In this collection of short stories set in Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island, Kahakauwila crafts tightly-written contemporary stories with strong local protagonists—some Native Hawaiian and others of mixed ethnic backgrounds—as they go about their normal and sometimes complicated lives far away from the kitsch or romanticized ideal.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Ruth, a novelist, finds a diary and other artifacts inside a battered Hello Kitty lunchbox that washes up on an isolated Canadian beach in 2012. Through reading the diary, Ruth forms a connection with the writer, Nao, a depressed Japanese American teenager living in Tokyo, and her great-grandmother, Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, and begins to wonder if Nao is still alive or if she died in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future by Deepa Iyer
Racism and hate crimes against South Asian Americans, Arab Americans, Muslims, and Sikhs have been going on for more than a century, going as far back at the 1907 Bellingham race riot, accelerating after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and continuing to the present day. Iyer, an attorney and racial justice advocate, chronicles the post-9/11 history of this long-standing hatred, racial profiling, and the precacious position of undocumented immigrants and efforts by communities and activist organizations to improve the situation. The broader goal of her book is to provide ideas and recommendations to “build multiracial and equitable classrooms, workplaces and communities.”
What We Are: A Novel by Peter Nathaniel Malae
Drifter and wannabe poet Paul Tusifale spent most of his life as an outsider, never fitting in at school, church, or work or even among some of his family members as a biracial Samoan American. Tusifale wanders San Jose aimlessly, sleeping around, getting into fights, and going to jail, until his family intervenes with an opportunity to straighten out his life. What does this twenty-something-year-old do with this chance at redemption?
Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank Wu
Former Howard University law professor and current Queens College president Frank Wu examines and breaks down the complexities of discrimination, the model minority myth, the perpetual foreigner stereotype, and affirmative action. While some things have changed since this book’s 2002 publication, much of Wu’s analysis remains jarringly relevant during these turbulent times. “Race is more than black and white, literally and figuratively,” Wu writes, “Yellow belongs. Gray predominates.”
Yellow Peril!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear by John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats
Anti-Asian “yellow peril” prejudice and racism is a centuries-old idea with plenty of examples found throughout history to the present in media representations, propaganda, literature, pop culture, music, art, and even everyday life. Through critical essays, comprehensive research, and archival images, scholars John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats examine the evolution of this hatred from its colonial and 19th-century American roots to its modern-day application.
Additional Article Information Sources
- Kambhampaty, Anna Purna. “In 1968, These Activists Coined the Term ‘Asian American’—And Helped Shape Decades of Advocacy.” Time. May 20, 2020.
- Wang, Frances Kai-Hwa. “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—an FAQ.” NBC Asian America. May 1, 2019.
For APIDA teen and children's reading recommendations:
- Major Feelings: An Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Reading List, YA/Children's Edition by Christy Lau, Crystal Chen, Michelle Lee, and Susen Shi
For reading recommendations from the Chinese diaspora:
- Reading Beyond Chinatown: Books from the Chinese Diaspora by Michelle Lee, Christy Lau, Crystal Chen, and Susen Shi
For more reading recommendations and research resources:
- Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: Researching with NYPL’s E-Resources and Other Databases by Michelle Lee
- Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Recommendation: “Asian American” Documentary on PBS by Arthur Ling
- Beloved Asian American Literature You Have to Read by Karissa Chen
- Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month All Year With These Magazines by Tracey O’Neill
- Reading Stories that Define #OwnVoices: 20 Asian Pacific American Picture Books and Children’s Comics by Michelle Lee
- Hawaiian Steel Guitar as Resistance Music: Tracing a Hidden History by Tamar Barzel
- 10 Books to Read If You Love 'Never Have I Ever' by Susen Shi, Christy Lau, Crystal Chen and Michelle Lee
Additional literature-oriented educational links:
- The Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association’s Literature Awards
- The Association for Asian American Studies’ Book Awards
- Hawaii Book Publishers Association’s Ka Palapala Poʻokela Book Awards
- New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults
- Talk Story Together: A Joint Project of the American Indian Library Association and the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association’s Asian Pacific American Book List