Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Month is only 5 days away, so I wanted to share my plans to participate in the Asian Readathon and recommend some of my favorite books written by AAPI authors — so if you’ve been planning to participate but have been unsure about what to read, this is the post for you.
For those of you who don’t know about it, the Asian Readathon is an annual event that takes place during AAPI Heritage Month and hosted across several BookTube channels; for the readathon, you aim to read at least five books by and about AAPIs, with each book fulfilling a different challenge prompt. The challenges are different every year, but this year’s prompts are:
- Read any book by an Asian author
- Read any book featuring an Asian protagonist
- Read any book by an Asian author in your favorite genre
- Read any nonfiction book written by an Asian author
- Read any book written by an Asian author that’s not US-centric
For more information about the readathon and my own TBR for it, you can check out this post. This post is a compilation of my personal recommendations for the event; these are some of the best books I’ve ever read, all written by AAPI authors. However, I do want to note that this list isn’t as expansive as I wish it was — most of the titles are by East Asian American, and specifically Korean American, writers, and I didn’t include any YA because I haven’t read much from the genre by Asian authors. (Which has nothing to do with them or their books, I just haven’t read a lot of YA since high school! The density of college reading lists will do that to you.)
To make up for this, I’m prioritizing reading books by authors who are South and Southeast Asian American and of Pacific Islander heritage; I’ll also be reading a few YA titles (which I’m actually very excited about). I’m very excited to branch out of my comfort zone; there are so many books I’ve been curious about, like PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING by Randy Ribay, but have never gotten around to reading!
Along with my favorite fiction books from various genres, I’ve included some of my favorite nonfiction and memoirs/essays by AAPI authors, in case any of you are interested in furthering your understanding about Asian American history/cultural and political positioning. I hope you find this list helpful; if any of you are also planning on participating in the Asian Readathon, please let me know in the comments!
*You can add a book to your Goodreads TBR + visit its Goodreads page by clicking its cover image.
— LITERARY FICTION —
ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong | LGBTQ+
ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS received a lot of attention and acclaim in 2019 and 2020, and rightfully so. Ocean Vuong’s stunning debut novel takes the form of a letter from Little Dog, a queer Vietnamese American man in his late 20s, to his mother. In this letter, Little Dog is incredibly vulnerable and honest about his relationship with his mother and is as frank about their worst moments as he is about their best; he also discusses issues of race, class, masculinity, and sexuality.
Here’s the kicker (and no, this isn’t a spoiler, you’re told this as early on as in the synopsis): Little Dog’s mother is illiterate. She can’t read, her education having been cut short by the Vietnam War.
Knowing this, the decision for Little Dog to share so much of himself through writing assumes new significance and meaning. The result is a heartbreaking and burning piece of writing; I will say that this book is less story than it is message, but I think the prose alone would make the reading experience worth it for most.
MIRACLE CREEK by Angie Kim
MIRACLE CREEK by Angie Kim is like a punch to the gut; if you just scroll through its reviews on Goodreads, it’s not uncommon for those who have read it to say their reading experience was akin to getting their heart torn out. This book begins with a horrible accident at a special treatment center which results in two people — one a child — being killed; it then jumps through the perspectives of a number of characters, including the family of Korean immigrants who runs the facility, the mother of the child who died, and those who were present and bore witness to the tragedy.
As the book pieces together the details of the accident, we begin to realize that everything isn’t as it initially seems. In what’s essentially a courtroom drama, Kim presents us with a family that has drifted apart due to the hardships of immigration, complicated relationships among other community members, and secrets and betrayals against the backdrop of observations about race, ableism, and how our love can cause harm to those we most want to help.
— HISTORICAL FICTION —
PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee
PACHINKO is yet another emotionally brutal read and is my favorite historical fiction novel, point blank period. The book follows four generations of a (richly developed and gorgeously written) Korean family throughout the 20th century, amidst Japanese colonization, the Korean War, and the division of the Korean peninsula.
PACHINKO is, in my opinion, the best kind of historical fiction book — one that isn’t exploitative but is deeply respectful; one that seeks to further public understanding about modern Korea’s painful history and the trauma that can be stored within a nation’s collective consciousness. A god-tier read.
— MAGICAL REALISM —
SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS by Kawai Strong Washburn | LGBTQ+
SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS is one of the best and most underrated books on this list. It follows a Filipino-Hawaiian family, which consists of Nainoa, the middle child who is rumored to be favored by the Hawaiian gods and has gifts no one can explain; his older brother, Dean, a basketball star in the making and possessor of a serious inferiority complex (as well as a penchant for making bad decisions); their younger sister, Kaui, who is exceedingly independent and ambitious, prone to risk-taking, and always has something to prove; and Malia, their mother, who is doing the best she can.
My favorite thing about this book is the way it shatters the traditional trajectory of the “chosen one” archetype by lovingly and honestly exploring the toll that such expectations of greatness would likely take on the chosen one, as well as all around them; it also delivers a brutally honest look at the ways in which modern capitalism is choking Hawai’i and the people who live there. Washburn tells this story with a cast of incredibly nuanced characters and some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read, all while paying homage to Hawaiian tradition and lore.
— SCIENCE FICTION —
SEVERANCE by Ling Ma
Ling Ma’s debut novel SEVERANCE is a work of dystopian science fiction — kind of. Honestly, it’s sort of not, because it depicts the exact type of nightmarish enslavement to capitalism that we see in the status quo. But in SEVERANCE, this condition is due to the Shen Fever, a plague of biblical proportions which renders its victims zombies before it kills them. Not zombies of The Walking Dead or Train to Busan sort, but zombies that are forced to endlessly, and mindlessly, perform familiar tasks (typically those they performed at their workplace) until they finally die.
Our protagonist is Candace Chen, a millennial, 1.5 generation Chinese American, who is among the last survivors of the Fever in New York City; shortly into the story, she joins a group of survivors, and they head to the fabled Facility. Along the way, Ma makes observations about the insidious, soul-crushing, unnatural nature of capitalism and the feelings of displacement and loss common amongst immigrants.
This is perfect for fans of Kazuo Ishiguro’s restrained and quiet writing style, as well as for anyone who can relate all too well to the sense that you’ve been trapped in a monotonous and futile cycle of repetition due to a global pandemic. 🙂
— ESSAY/MEMOIR —
MINOR FEELINGS: AN ASIAN AMERICAN RECKONING by Cathy Park Hong
MINOR FEELINGS is poet Cathy Park Hong’s first autobiographical essay collection and is “part memoir and part cultural criticism,” blending commentary on issues of race, politics, history, visibility, colonialism and imperialism, capitalism, and language with anecdotes from her own life and references to her experiences.
It’s also one of the best books I’ve ever read.
I think this book, and those like it, in which members of marginalized communities are able to reclaim or reinterpret popular narratives and understandings of history, are just as integral to educating oneself on the Asian American political condition as any history book.
I do want to address the fact that many of the author’s observations stem from her experiences as an East Asian woman, and as not all experiences are universal and colorism is rampant within communities of color, every aspect of this book may not ring true for every Asian person who reads it. Park Hong is very cognizant of this, and steers clear of sweeping claims or observations as a result. East Asian people may feel especially seen by this book, but I do think that the majority of Asian people will recognize themselves in at least a few of the experiences, emotions, and issues MINOR FEELINGS puts words to.
THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS: ESSAYS by Esmé Weijun Wang
In THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS, Esmé Weijun Wang writes about her personal experiences with living with schizoaffective disorder. She discusses issues such as medication and treatment, the effect that a diagnosis can have on one’s perception of themselves, and the ways in which mental health institutions fail both patients and their loved ones through the lens of her own life.
This is easily one of my all-time favorite books and one of the best books I’ve ever read, period. The schizophrenias, and their larger spectrum of psychosis, have had an immediate presence in my own personal life, and Wang captures the reality of living with one of the schizophrenias with sharp insight and compassion. I would truly recommend this to anyone.
CRYING IN H MART: A MEMOIR by Michelle Zauner | RELEASE DATE: April 20
In CRYING IN H MART, Michelle Zauner of the music project Japanese Breakfast explores the growing distance she experienced between herself and her Korean American identity in early adulthood, only to have that gap forced closed when her mother, her closest link to her Korean heritage, was handed a terminal cancer diagnosis. Zauner was only 25.
A portion of this book was first published in a 2018 New Yorker article sharing the same title, and those who have read it know that Zauner’s mother unfortunately passed away in 2014. In her memoir, Zauner explores the self-described “cultural reckoning” she experienced when her mom was first diagnosed — when she wondered, “When she dies, will the Korean half of my identity die with her?” The result is crushingly sad and beautifully written.
*My thanks to Knopf for sending me a copy of this title in exchange for an honest and fair review! You can find my review of CRYING IN H MART here.*
— NONFICTION HISTORY —
These are far from being the only books on Asian American history and politics on the market, but they’re the most accessible and comprehensive titles I’ve personally come across. If you want to educate yourself on Asian American history but have no idea where to start (or what sources to trust), these are the books for you.
THE MAKING OF ASIAN AMERICA: A HISTORY by Erika Lee (2015)
THE MAKING OF ASIAN AMERICA is always the first book I recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about Asian American history. (I was actually introduced to it in the first Asian American history class I took in college.) It’s an extremely accessible and comprehensive overview of Asian America, with an emphasis on the history of immigration and labor from the 1550s to the mid-20th century.
With this book, historian Erika Lee provides plentiful evidence to support the argument that Asian Americans have always made: Our roots run deep in this country, and so does the racism and hatred we face every day. Even if you never bothered to see us, we were always here.
ASIAN AMERICAN DREAMS: THE EMERGENCE OF AN AMERICAN PEOPLE by Helen Zia (2000)
ASIAN AMERICAN DREAMS is the second book I recommend to people who want to learn more about Asian American history and politics. Whereas THE MAKING OF ASIAN AMERICA focuses more on providing a context for Asian Americans in the U.S., ASIAN AMERICAN DREAMS takes a closer look at modern politics, particularly during the second half of the 20th century.
Zia, a Chinese American lesbian and renowned journalist and activist, raises awareness about the ways in which Asian Americans of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds have worked to take collective action and carve out spaces for themselves in local and national politics, education, pop culture, and labor. My only complaint about this book is that it was published in 2000, and a lot has happened since then — I really hope that Zia publishes a follow-up or second edition to it soon.