May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the cultures, traditions, and history of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. In honor of this, we’re shining a spotlight on some of our favorite Asian-American authors.
There are writers of Asian descent in your lexicon, I’m sure. If you told us they were limited to the works of Amy Tan, Haruki Murakami, and/or Jhumpa Lahiri, though, we wouldn’t be surprised, but there’s also a whole world of lesser-known but no less exciting writers emerging in the literary space adding dimension to the Asian-American conversation.
Ahead, we bring you some of our favorites. Don’t limit your reading of them to this month alone, though. The brilliant books ahead are worth paying attention to just as much today as they are two months from now, next year, or even a decade from now.
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
Author Karan Mahajan took a risk by centering his second novel around the inner workings of a terrorist. But, it was one that paid off—and earned him a nomination for the national book award in 2016. The Association of Small Bombs starts after a bomb goes off in a busy New Delhi market. Two brothers lose their lives while their friend, Monsoor, though injured, survives. We repeat: This is only the beginning of the book. The rest dives deeper into the impact the bombing has on young Monsoor, the grieving parents, and the terrorists behind the attack.
Sour Heart, Jenny Zhang (out August 1)
Jenny Zhang has been showering the internet with her honest and raw writing for years now (her piece "They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don't Exist," which talks about racism in the literary industry, is a standout). As Vice states, she's a part of the new generation of Asian-American writers who are not just challenging stereotypes but also the notion that all their writing has to be a glimpse into the Asian-American life. "I want to be afforded the right to be carefree, I want freedom, at the very least for my imagination," she sais in an interview. She's written a book of poetry titled Dear Jenny, We Are All Find a couple of years ago, and this summer sees the release of her collection of short stories, titled Sour Heart. You can read more about it here.
The Leavers, Lisa Ko
Lisa Ko's debut book, The Leavers, tells the story of Polly, an undocumented mother who goes to work one day and doesn't return, and Deming, the 11-year-old son she leaves behind. The book is told through each of their perspectives but intersects in the themes of displacement and belonging. Ko, who got the idea for the book from a 2009 New York Times article about an undocumented immigrant from China who was forced into imprisonment, brings attention to an issue that's both topical, important, and worthy of your attention.
The Wangs Vs. The World, Jade Chang
"Charles Wang was mad at America," is the first line in Jade Chang's debut novel, The Wangs Vs. The World. A lot of assumptions can be made on where the book is going to go from there: slightly political and maybe a little disheartening. It's all of those things, with a heavy dose of humor sprinkled in. After Charles loses his fortune, he panics and enlists his family to go with him on a road trip across country so that he can then return to China to reclaim what he believe is his rightful land. Chang's goal with the book was to tell a different kind of immigrant story, the kind where the family is perfectly content with not fitting in.
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
Everything I Never Told You shows a relationship we don't see very often in literature: that of an Asian man and a white woman. It's not their romantic relationship that's the focus (though it's addressed at different points in the book), but the disappearance of their favorite child. It's a thriller set in 1977 that explores the tricky territory of identity, family, and the burden of expectation.
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer prize, Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel has been praised for being one of the best books on the Vietnamese American experience. Though its protagonist is a communist double agent, it's more than just a gripping spy story (though it is also that); it's an exploration of identity and love, displacement and friendship. And it's one you won't soon forget.
Fresh Off The Boat, Eddie Huang
You can read this before, after, or while you watch the sitcom series it's based off on ABC. Either way, make time to read it. Eddie Huang's depiction of his family and his isolated upbringing in Florida, being the only Asian family in his neighborhood, will resonate with anyone that's ever been made to feel like they don't belong in certain places, and forced to find their own side entrance—and it's all basically set to the soundtrack of a little Notorious B.I.G.
Private Citizens, Tony Tulathimutte
New York Magazine referred to Tony Tulathimutte's novel about four friends in San Francisco during the '00s as "the first great millennial novel." The quartet of main characters are complicated and not always likable as they try to navigate their 20s and, as Vulture puts it, figure out "who the people are beneath their personal brands."
Bright Lines, Tanwi Nandini Islam
Tanwi Nandini Islam's intentions are simple: to write stories about people of color living their lives. "I wanted brown people to fuck one another and that be a hot, wondrous thing," she once said in an interview, referring specifically to her debut novel Bright Lines. The three young Bangladeshi women in it do just that and then some as we follow them through the vibrant streets of Brooklyn, New York, and Bangladesh.