The New York City public high school and the elite private college I attended were strikingly different in infrastructure, but there’s one thing they both had in common: Their curriculums focused primarily on books written by white writers — books deemed “great American novels.” Although I respected the craft of Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner, I often found these works to be emotionally hard to resonate with as a young Asian American woman, making reading feel laborious.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I deepened my joy for reading when, on my own, I started to look for books written by people of color. This May, in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I curated a list of must-read books by Asian American writers published in the last year. (These books are great to read any month!)
From memoirs to historical fiction, the contributions of talented Asian American writers have added to the richness of American literature — creating a new wave of great American novels. Here’s a small sampling of the books that represent a broad spectrum of voices that we will continue to hear for a long time to come.
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My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee
Darkly funny, dangerous, and bizarre, My Year Abroad follows the adventure of Tiller, a 20- something, aimless young man who goes to China with his mentor Pong Lou, a Bentley-driving Chinese entrepreneur. Tiller meets Pong while working at a golf club to save money to travel abroad. Starting as a taste tester in Pong’s frozen-yogurt chain, Tiller goes from an unmotivated college dropout to a talented young man.
The book alternates between the perspective of Tiller, whose views on life and Pong change, to then processing what happened abroad. Pong’s sections are filled with poetic thoughts and accounts of his complex domestic life with his beautiful Japanese wife. The two perspectives never feel like flashbacks but rather like two stories that speak to each other. Similar to an exchange program, My Year Abroad is an exciting adventure that’s also a twisted thriller.
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka
Highly anticipated, Julie Otsuka’s fourth novel was worth the wait. Otsuka’s prose glides powerfully, showing us the beauty of having everyday rituals — in this case, swimming. The Swimmers tells a story of a group of people who show up every day to swim at the university pool. The swimmers are strangers to one another and only know one another’s preferences in swimming lanes.
One day, the bottom of the pool cracks, and the facility is shut down for safety reasons. One swimmer, Alice, is particularly affected by the closing. A retired lab technician, Alice is in the early stages of dementia but always knows what to do once she’s in the water. When she’s not swimming, Alice’s mind wreaks havoc, and she’s confronted with memories of her childhood and World War II, when she lived in a Japanese American internment camp.
In Sensorium: Notes for My People by Tanaïs
Tanaïs’ prose is as tantalizing as the scents they evoke. Tanaïs is a writer, perfumer, and the author of the acclaimed novel Bright Lines. Their recently released memoir, In Sensorium, tells the story of an American Bangladeshi Muslim femme. Tanaïs builds a tender world by threading together the history of ancient perfumes with stories of their lovers, while also touching on their experiences with fragrances and the recent loss of their grandmother. Alongside these stories, however, are crucial uncoverings of rape culture, patriarchy, the violent history of caste systems, and ancestral trauma.
In Harper’s Bazaar, Tanaïs noted, “We do have to honor the pain and suffering and death of people who were treated with violence and savagery, but that’s not our only narrative. I think a lot of dominant-culture literature wants that to be our story, but we can’t always exist in our trauma. That’s not fair to us. As people who are living, who are the descendants of that loss, part of surviving is touching joy. We have to touch that joy.”
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
You’ve probably listened to Michelle Zauner’s dreamy voice in Japanese Breakfast, but this memoir gives us another side to the singer. Crying in H Mart is a beautiful reflection by a woman trying to find peace after losing her Korean mother while keeping her heritage alive through cooking with ingredients bought from H Mart. Capturing diaspora and loss, Zauner details the beautiful but complex relationship we have with immigrant mothers.
“I wonder how many people cry at H Mart. Which ones are like me, missing the people that are gone from their lives forever?” she asks. To those of you who can listen to music while reading (a particular skill I wish I possessed!), I hear that listening to a Japanese Breakfast album alongside this book is sublime.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri is constantly reinventing herself. Lahiri is known for her stories of Bengali immigrants, but her new novel, Whereabouts, is a departure from that. In 2012, Lahiri moved with her family to Rome and dedicated herself to studying the Italian language. Written in Italian in 2018, Whereabouts was later translated into English by Lahiri herself. In 46 short chapters titled by locations — “In the Hotel,” “On the Street” — we follow an unmarried middle-aged professor as she questions the world and moves through her days along bridges, piazzas, and streets, passing by her mother, an old lover, or her friends.
Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang
Sharply funny, Weike Wang’s Joan Is Okay paints a portrait of what it means to be Chinese American today while balancing being free-spirited in a close-knit family. Joan is a Chinese American ICU doctor in her late 30s living in NYC. Once Joan and her brother, Fang (an investment broker), fulfill the American dream, her parents decide to spend the remaining years of their lives back in their homeland, as many immigrant parents dream of.
However, after 18 years in China, Joan’s father suddenly dies from a stroke, and inevitably Joan’s mother returns to the U.S. to be closer to her children. While balancing family dynamics, Joan is also put under immense pressure as a global pandemic looms in NYC. Ultimately, Joan Is Okay is an exploration of a woman caught between the ideals of two different cultures and how she manages the expectations, from the workplace to her sister-in-law.
Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
A devastating work of art, Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s debut novel is a historical book of fiction drawing from the tragedies of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Protagonist Daiyu’s parents named her after a mythical tragic heroine (Lin Daiyu), but Daiyu wants to be anything other than weak like her namesake. The future Daiyu envisions for herself is forced to shift, however, when her parents suddenly disappear. She is then kidnapped from a fish market in China and taken to a San Francisco brothel. Set in the American West of the 1880s, Four Treasures of the Sky follows Daiyu’s journey while anti-Chinese sentiment intensifies.
Time Is a Mother by Ocean Vuong
Bold and intimate, Ocean Vuong’s second poetry collection, Time Is a Mother, deals with the obstacles of losing his mother in 2019 from breast cancer. In learning to live beyond grief, Ocean Vuong meditates on how we think of death, reworking the idea of loneliness into a community affair. In the poem Not Even This, he writes, “Time is a mother./Lest we forget, a morgue is also a community center.”
Taste Makers by Mayukh Sen
Mayukh Sen’s Taste Makers is devoted to seven immigrant women in history who, while being undervalued, shaped the way Americans eat today. Showing a rare thoughtfulness in food journalism, Sen empowers these fearless women to tell their own stories in their voices. The women highlighted in the book are Chao Yang Buwei, Madeleine Kamman, Marcella Hazan, Elena Zelayeta, Julie Sahni, Najmieh Batmanglij, and Norma Shirley (Julia Child is also mentioned in an interlude chapter).
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Charles Yu’s book Interior Chinatown was technically published in 2020, but I’m adding it to this list because it won the 2020 National Book Award (one of the United States’ most prestigious literary awards). Interior Chinatown is written as a screenplay, and it’s genuinely one of the most creative novels I’ve read. It’s set in present-day Chinatown in Los Angeles and follows young, second-generation Taiwanese American actor Willis Wu.
Willis narrates five years of his life as he’s cast for stereotypes like “generic Asian man” and “background Oriental male.” Willis instead longs to be “kung fu guy” and tries to free himself from Hollywood stereotypes. In an interview with NBC about Interior Chinatown, Yu said, “What I’m trying to talk about is that people — especially Asians — have been excluded, literally excluded, from being Americans for decades, and they’re not the only group.”
Sharmin Rahman is a fiction writer and screenwriter, who recently completed the UCLA Writers’ Program. Raised in Brooklyn, Rahman currently lives in Los Angeles where she is working on her first short story collection.
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