Art/Culture / Books

5 books by Asian American Authors

May was Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. Though it’s almost over, we should recognize and read Asian American/Pacific Islander authors every month of the year. Sometimes it’s hard to read outside of your comfort zone because you don’t know where to start (hit me up with Pacific American book recs!). To be honest, I never read Asian American authors until high school, and I wish I had started earlier. 

Today, I’m co-writing this post with my friend, Siddhi! This list is by no means exhaustive, but should give you a starting point. There are some books that most people have heard of and others that deserve way more attention. In no particular order, here are 5 books by Asian American authors.

The Astonishing Color of After

By Emily XR Pan, Recommended by Serena

astonishing color of after book cover

I’ve been trying to track down this book since last year since I’ve only heard rave reviews. It did not disappoint. 

The Astonishing Color of After is about a mixed-race girl named Leigh whose mother has recently committed suicide. As she grapples with the guilt of not being there with her mother in her last moments, she discovers that her mom has turned into a majestic red bird. The story unfolds as a non-linear retelling of their family’s history and gradual uncovering of quietly kept secrets. 

Pan is a second-generation Taiwanese immigrant (like me!). The loving attention she paid to present-day Taipei/Taiwanese culture is both clear and appreciated. It’s a book that feels very Taiwan in a way that not many books do. Through her writing, she makes the world of Taiwanese 小吃 (“little eats”, or snacks), folk religions/superstition, and cultural dynamics come alive in English. The book also deals sensitively with mental health, loss, and guilt over the past. 

More like Astonishing Color of After

If you loved The Astonishing Color of After, try American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang! It’s a graphic novel written/illustrated by a Taiwanese American that also incorporates elements of Chinese legends/folklore.

Joy Luck Club

By Amy Tan, Recommended by Siddhi

Amy Tan is many people’s introduction to Asian American literature. The Joy Luck Club helped pave the way for Asian representation in popular media and the arts. It gave a new voice to immigrants and their stories, and it even inspired Kevin Kwan, the author of Crazy Rich Asians!

joy luck club cover

The novel follows the stories of four second-generation Chinese women and the obstacles their mothers faced as immigrants. Each mother-daughter pairing has its own unique dynamic, analogous to the four corners of a mahjong board. The stories are told from both the perspectives of the mothers and the daughters, juxtaposing their modern American lifestyles with a rich and tragic Chinese history.

The daughters often fail to understand their mothers’ perspective, resulting in a generational barrier that still plagues many children of immigrants today. 

The Joy Luck Club displays the sacrifices parents make for their children, and it explores how the burden of that sacrifice follows families through generations. Tan perfectly captures the confusing struggle many children of immigrants have connecting their parents’ identity with their own.

The Buddha in the Attic 

By Julie Otsuka, Recommended by Serena

“On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. …Some of us came from the mountains and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.”

The Buddha in the Attic

I’ve chosen to include a quote from this book because I think the writing speaks for itself. I read the first chapter of it for a creative writing class last year, and it’s been ringing in my mind ever since.

Written completely in the 1st person plural, Otsuka explores the story of Japanese picture brides and their experiences emigrating to America in the early 1900s. While using a collective voice, Otsuka highlights nuances and differences within the group through mini-narratives within the story. 

buddha in the attic cover
More like Buddha in the Attic
pachinko book cover

If you’d like to read more Asian historical fiction that explores immigration, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a beautifully written book that follows 4 generations of a Korean family living in Japan.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

By Khaled Hosseini, Recommended by Siddhi

After reading Khaled Hosseini’s award-winning novel The Kite Runner, I had high hopes for A Thousand Splendid Suns. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

The book follows the stories of two Afghani women living during the country’s transition from Soviet to Taliban rule. Mariam, a poor girl living on the outskirts of Herat, is the victim of a hasty child marriage and is forced to move away from everything she once knew. 

a thousand splendid suns cover

Laila, the other protagonist, begins as a daughter cherished by her parents and friends. Her life quickly becomes compromised when rockets from a rebel faction group destroy her community. As the lives of Mariam and Laila become intertwined, the two find ways to conquer their shortcomings and find solace in each other, despite the adversity they must face.

The characters in this novel are raw and tangible. Their stories brings awareness to issues that may make people uncomfortable, but are incredibly important. The reader is forced to acknowledge the ugly truth of domestic violence, terrorism, etc.  

Though the characters are fictional, their struggles are very real.

Fresh Off the Boat

By Eddie Huang, Recommended by Serena

fresh off the boat cover

Most people know Fresh Off the Boat as the sitcom on that just finished its last season in February. This is the memoir the show is loosely based off of. However, Huang’s story is so divorced from the sitcom that I got a little whiplash reading it. 

There’s a lot of content in this book I can’t commend to younger readers. If reading about drugs, domestic abuse, critiques of America, or prose with profanity in it makes you uncomfortable, this probably isn’t a good fit for you. 

But if you can look past that, Huang illustrates an Asian American experience that’s complicated and doesn’t fit well into the dominant narratives about Asians in America. His life isn’t perfect, and he isn’t always a person parents would want their children to emulate. 

Asian Americans are often forced into one of two stereotypes: honorary white through the Model Minority Myth or forever foreigner/thug. It seems like Asians can never just be, and yet, Huang is unapologetically himself. In his own words, “you shouldn’t define things by their title, how it looks, stereotypes, or stigmas.” 

Huang manages to be every Asian parent’s dream and worst nightmare simultaneously.

There are so many incredible books by Asian American authors that didn’t make this list. But hopefully you found something that piqued your interest! I’m always looking for book recommendations. What have you read recently?

Meet the guest author: Siddhi Bhat
Meet the guest author: Siddhi Bhat

Hi! My name is Siddhi Bhat, and I’m a sophomore at the University of Arkansas studying chemical engineering. I’m passionate about a lot of things, which includes but is not limited to: social activism, iced coffee, and long walks with my dog 🙂

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