May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, also known as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Congress chose May for what was initially a week-long celebration because it was the month when the first Japanese immigrants came to the country in 1843, as well as when Chinese laborers finished the transcontinental railroad in 1869. What started as a week in 1978 grew into a full month in 1990, proclaimed by then-President George H. W. Bush.
Even with the formal month-long acknowledgment, however, the complicated realities of being Asian American in the United States have long been swept aside. While cries for racial justice are starting to gain more attention in the wake of a rise in anti-Asian hate, there's still a lot of work to be done. Empathetic allyship can start with an examination of the AAPI experience, through both nonfiction books that provide a historic background, and novels that capture the subtleties of what it’s like to exist as an Asian American today.
Here are 11 books to read this Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month — and beyond.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong, the daughter of Korean immigrants, explores the “minor feelings” Asians adopt in the United States — which she defines as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic” — in this collection of seven essays published in March 2020.
Hong suggests that “Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status” in the complicated dynamics of race and racism in the U.S., either left out of the conversation altogether or used as a tool against other races. Mixing together her own experiences with historical references and cultural critiques, Hong examines both her personal racial identity and its place in America's collective racial consciousness. One review by Citizen author Claudia Rankine said “to read this book is to become more human.”
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei
Best known for his role as Star Trek’s Hikaru Sulu, George Takei has long been an outspoken activist for the Asian American community, spurred on by his own experience of being forced into World War II-era Japanese internment camps when he was five years old. Takei told the story through the 2015 Broadway musical Allegiance and then turned his memories into a graphic novel with They Called Us Enemy, first released in 2019.
“I thought everyone went on vacations escorted by soldiers,” he told The Los Angeles Times of his family being forced out of their Boyle Heights home in L.A. and into a horse stall at the Santa Anita race track, before eventually being sent to camps in Northern California and Arkansas. “It has shaped me… As a teenager I learned about the internment and the injustice. My father said, ‘You have to actively participate.’ It was the internment and my father’s good guidance that made me the activist that I am.”
The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee
In her 2015 book The Making of Asian America: A History, Asian American historian and University of Minnesota professor Erika Lee stitches together a comprehensive history of Asians in America, from the arrival of the first Asians several centuries ago to Asian Americans becoming the fastest-growing population in the nation. As the granddaughter of Chinese immigrants, Lee was first exposed to the history of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act when she was a student in the Bay Area in the 1980s. After learning that the law — which restricted Chinese immigration and remained in place for 60 years — affected her own family, she set out to document and preserve Asian American history in order to better understand where we are today.
From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry by Paula Yoo
Vincent Chin was celebrating his bachelor party with a night out in Detroit in 1982 when two white auto workers beat him to death with a baseball bat, apparently blaming him for layoffs in the car industry stemming from an increase in Japanese import vehicles. The death of Chin, who was Chinese American, sparked a movement, which author and screenwriter Paula Yoo examines in depth in her new book, From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement.
Through details and insights gleaned from thousands of pages of transcripts and face-to-face conversations with one of the perpetrators, Yoo examines the case itself as well as the effects it had on an entire generation. “His case also inspired Asian baby boomers,” Yoo told NPR’s Code Switch. “They came of age. This was part of their civil rights education.”
The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority by Ellen D. Wu
The perception of Asians in America has evolved from a fear of “yellow peril” to a fallacy of the “model minority,” both of which have detrimental effects on how race is perceived in this country, as Indiana University Bloomington history professor Ellen D. Wu explores in her 2014 book, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.
“In the mid-20th century, assimilation and integration were seen as solutions to racism,” Wu told NBC News, adding that Asian Americans themselves have played a part in the model minority branding. “That was very much a liberal way of thinking and that in some ways really was a big change for Asian Americans who for decades had been subjected to the Asian exclusion system of laws and treatments that’s very much akin to Jim Crow in the South.”
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Adopted from Korea by a white Catholic family in Oregon, Nicole Chung grew up with parents who approached her race with “colorblindness,” even as she often felt isolated by her otherness in her school and community. The title of her 2019 memoir, All You Can Ever Know, comes from a phrase her mother used to talk about her adoption when she was growing up: "This may be all you can ever know." Chung's account of her struggles to understand her identity reads like a coming-of-age tale on the surface but serves as a deep dive into the complex nature of transracial adoption, which Chung describes in pinpoint detail. “‘Tell the truth’ is one of [a] few nonnegotiable rules when you’re writing a memoir,” she told PEN. “You have to be precise; you have to inspire enough trust for the reader to follow you through the story.”
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel from Viet Thanh Nguyen — a Vietnamese refugee who moved to the United States with his family in 1978 — mixes suspense and historical fiction in a story about a half-Vietnamese, half-French army captain who flees to America after the fall of Saigon. The nameless narrator is a double agent with conflicting loyalties, a man informing on the very community to which he belongs, of Vietnamese refugees struggling to survive in Los Angeles. As the character himself admits: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.” It’s a feeling of being caught between two worlds that Nguyen can relate to: As he told The Guardian, “That’s how I felt growing up as a refugee in the United States, as a Vietnamese and Asian American, always looking at myself from inside and outside. Always feeling displaced no matter where I was.”
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
Author and poet Jenny Zhang's 2017 book Sour Heart weaves together a collection of stories told through the eyes of the daughters of Chinese American immigrants navigating New York City life. While their parents make a living as seamstresses, food delivery workers, bookkeepers, and aspiring filmmakers, the young women grapple with both the overwhelming magnitude of immigrant familial love and the minute realities of their experience, such as waking up each morning covered in roaches.
Zhang’s approach came from comments she got in a fiction class about making her characters more “universal.” “But anything can happen to a Chinese American girl — just as much of the canon of English literature involves white men or women,” she told The Guardian. “So it was a little test to myself, wanting to show that every type of story is possible with these characters. The short story format made sense because I don’t feel like I have a life that is epic; I feel like I have a small life, but I also don’t feel minor or marginal. These stories are like overly plumped nuggets, neither a feast nor paltry.”
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Written entirely as a screenplay in Courier font, Charles Yu's 2020 novel Interior Chinatown is an inventive take on the roles Asian Americans play in Hollywood, both on screen and off. Yu's protagonist is Willis Wu, who strives to reach beyond the role he’s always cast in: Generic Asian Man. “He has no voice. He doesn’t have lines in the story, so no one is paying attention to him,” Yu told Penguin Random House. However, that doesn’t mean Wu is completely passive. “He’s paying attention to everyone else. That’s his job, because he doesn’t want to get in the way of the story.”
Infused with a satirical take from every angle, the novel follows Wu through an unexpected turn that casts him as the lead of his own story, as he uncovers his family history and how it ties into Chinatown’s past with a group of characters — hailing from various Asian countries — who all live together as “Generic Asians” above the typically named Golden Palace.
This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura
Misa Sugiura’s 2020 young adult novel, This Time Will Be Different, starts out as a fairly typical tale about a 17-year-old named CJ who can’t live up to her mom’s expectations — but it soon turns into a hefty family drama tied to their ancestral past in the United States government's Japanese internment camps.
It all unfolds as CJ’s mother decides to sell the family’s flower shop — the one place where CJ feels like she’s completely at home. To make matters worse, the buyers just happen to be the people who deceived her grandparents amid their forced relocation during World War II. Learning this aspect of her family’s past, CJ feels empowered to stand up in a fight that rattles her entire NorCal community.
Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee
Acclaimed author and Stanford University professor Chang-Rae Lee’s 1995 debut novel, Native Speaker, may seem like a spy story at first, but it’s really an examination of the cultural identity that comes from his protagonist Henry Park being the son of Korean immigrants. Although he has mostly assimilated into American life, Henry takes on the career of a spy and infiltrates immigrant communities.
“People describe it as an immigrant novel, a pseudo-spy novel … a family novel. In fact, I think it’s a novel that comprises all of these things,” Lee told the Hemingway Foundation. “If there’s anything that’s woven across the book it’s ultimately the idea that language is central. Everyone in the book has a relationship with language. Language is the predicate of action, it’s the definer of being, creating self and action.”
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