Author Bich Minh Nguyen, a professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, remembers it was often frowned upon to write about immigration and the refugee experience when she was a graduate student in the late 1990s. In the years since, Nguyen told NBC Asian America, she’s been encouraged as she sees emerging writers facing those themes through a distinctly diasporic perspective.
“Asian American writing has reckoned with themes like difference and outsiderness,” said Nguyen, whose 2008 memoir “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” recounts growing up in the Midwest as a child of Vietnamese refugees.
Given Nguyen's experiences and perspective, we asked her, along with children’s book author Erin Entrada Kelly, to choose book recommendations for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Many selections deal with issues of belonging, grappling with identity, cultural clashes and more.
“To me, these subjects are literary,” Nguyen said. “And they are made new every time there is a new book.”
Novelist Erin Entrada Kelly, who won the Newbery Award in 2018 for her novel “Hello, Universe,” echoed Nguyen’s sentiment, noting the growing number of children’s and young adult authors who are telling Asian American stories. “I grew up in a community where not many other people had immigrant parents and there weren’t many Filipinos,” says Kelly, who grew up with her Filipino immigrant mother and white American father in Louisiana. “I felt very different and the world around me reinforced that.” Kelly’s just-released novel for middle grade readers, “We Dream of Space,” follows a group of friends in 1986 who eagerly await the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. “There is no other period of our life like those ages. You are just really trying to figure out who you are as a person,” she says.
Nguyen and Kelly offer their recommendations below, organized by genre, for readers looking for stories about the Asian American experience. We also included some of our own picks to round out the list.
In this article
- Asian Pacific American fiction
- Asian Pacific American nonfiction
- Asian Pacific American essays and memoirs
- Asian Pacific American poetry
- Asian Pacific American middle grade fiction
- Asian Pacific American young adult fiction
Asian Pacific American fiction
1. “How Much of These Hills is Gold” by C. Pam Zhang
This debut novel from C. Pam Zhang explores the Gold Rush from a distinctly Chinese American perspective, telling the story of Lucy and Sam, the 11- and 12- year-old children of day laborers in California. When their father dies, the children go on a quest with his body through the mountains in order to bury him. “It is just wonderful,” Nguyen said of Zhang’s novel, which was released in early April.
“I think that every Asian American has a realization that Asian Americans played a major role in the history of the American West, but we didn't learn that until much later,” she noted. “So it is really cool to read a book like this and rethink what we were told.”
2. “Days of Distraction” by Alexandra Chang
Another debut currently on Nguyen’s nightstand is Alexandra Chang’s “Days of Distraction,” which was released this past March. Chang’s 20-something narrator, boasting an enviable job in Silicon Valley, tells of the tech world and the billionaires who run it. Because she increasingly feels ignored at work and overlooked for promotion, she contemplates leaving and relocating to be with her longtime partner. As he is a white man, the narrator ruminates about her interracial relationship throughout, often informed by J’s often clueless understanding of Asian identity.
3. “How To Pronounce Knife” by Souvankham Thammavongsa
One rising source of recent American literature is a plethora of writers rooted in Southeast Asia, said Nguyen. “It is so great that [there are so many new authors] that it is hard to keep up with all of the new books and stories,” she said, adding she’s particularly intrigued by the new short story collection “How To Pronounce Knife.”. The Laos-born author’s 14 stories follow refugees in their attempt to create new lives for themselves in cities throughout North America.
Asian Pacific American nonfiction
4. “One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965” by Jia Lynn Yang
“One Mighty and Irresistible Tide” examines the long road to getting the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act signed into law. Author Jia Lynn Yang, a deputy national editor at The New York Times, examines the legacy of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the stringent immigration restrictions Congress put in place in 1924, effectively shutting down immigration from Asia.
Yang describes the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act as one of the most transformative laws in American history and weaves her own family’s migration from Taiwan into her narrative about the road to immigration reform.
5. “Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir” by Kao Kalia Yang
Like many Southeast Asian Americans, author Kao Kalia Yang’s family arrived in the Midwest as refugees in the 1980s. Since then, she’s written books for children and adults about her experiences growing up in the Hmong American community. In her upcoming book, “Somewhere in the Unknown World,” Yang delves into the lives of refugees who have made Minneapolis’s once-struggling University Avenue their new home. Through the stories of families whose origins range from Iraq to Burma, she also explores what it means to create a new life for yourself far from home.
6.“A Map Is Only One Story: Twenty Writers on Immigration, Family, and the Meaning of Home,” edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary
This new collection, from the editors of Catapult, showcases some of the magazine’s select essays on migration, family ties and immigrant identity, exploring everything from the experiences of undocumented Americans facing today’s political climate to what it means to return to the lands one’s parents left long ago.
Asian Pacific American essays and memoirs
7.“Of Color: Essays” by Jaswinder Bolina
Another upcoming release Nguyen is looking forward to reading is poet Jaswinder Bolina's “Of Color,” which is set to be released in June. In it, Bolina dives into what he describes as the “metaphysical” toll being a person of color can have on the psyche. Bolina parses what it means to be a person of color on the job market, in the dating world and in literary circles — while examining the intersection of immigration and socioeconomic class on individual experiences.
8. “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning” by Cathy Park Hong
Speaking to NBC News in April, poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong said her latest book’s title refers to “knowing you've been denied a job or promotion or emasculated because of your Asian identity but you can't find proof of it.” Part memoir and part cultural history, the seven essays in “Minor Feelings” explores what she calls the "vague purgatorial status" of Asian Americans in the American milieu and the harmful effects that otherness and the “model minority myth” have on the culture at large.
9. “The Magic Language of Others” by E. J. Koh
Eun Ji Koh was 15 and living with her family in California when her mother and father announced they would be returning to South Korea for work, leaving Eun Ji and her brother behind. Koh’s understanding of a difficult adolescence were challenged when she found letters from her mother asking for forgiveness and explaining her parents’ departure. Translating the letters, Koh found herself discovering more about her family history and how her grandmothers’ own experiences during the Korean War continue to shape their family to this day.
Asian Pacific American poetry
10. “The Galleons” by Rick Barot
The title of Rick Barot’s latest collection refers to the ships used by Spain throughout the 15th through 17th centuries. “[H]er story is an illumination / of history, a matchstick lit in the black seam of time,” Barot writes of his grandmother in one poem. Recently awarded the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, “The Galleons” explores how the histories of colonialism and migration are reflected in his own family’s journey to the United States from the Philippines.
11. “A Nail The Evening Hangs On” by Monica Sok
Poet Monica Sok dedicated her debut poetry collection, “A Nail The Evening Hangs On,” to her grandmother, who she vividly describes as a master weaver. The child of Cambodian refugees, Sok herself weaves stories of a Pennsylvania upbringing with her family’s experiences during the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s. “A daughter of survivors stands in the grass among tattered military / tanks. She is the only one in her family who wants to visit the museum,” she wrote about a 2016 visit to Cambodia.
12. “Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved” by Adeeba Shahid Talukdar
Shortly after she won the Kundiman Poetry Prize in 2017 for her collection “Shahr-E-Jaanaan,” poet Adeeba Shahid Talukder talked to NBC News about how her Pakistani American identity influenced her. “I was in my early twenties when I began writing the collection, and I was searching for love,” Talukder said, adding she found solace in the ancient Persian tales of Laila and Majnu and Shireen and Farhad. “A lot of [my poems] were me making sense of what I felt through the lenses of these stories.”
Asian Pacific American middle grade fiction
13. “A Wish In The Dark” by Christina Soontornvat
Christina Soontornvat’s latest middle grade novel is an excellent addition to the recent trend of authors retelling classic tales with a modern day twist. “It’s an incredibly good book,” said Kelly. “It is a retelling of ‘Les Mis,’ but it is set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world for middle graders.” Soontornvat’s story follows an escaped prisoner who joins a revolution in order to protect his people, meeting along the way a prison warden’s daughter — their entanglement widens both of their perspectives to the realities of the world they inhabit.
14. “Any Day with You” by Mae Respicio
Currently on Kelly’s to-read list, Mae Respicio’s “Any Day with You” is the story of the strong bond between a Filipino American tween and her great-grandfather. Kaia is a typical middle school in California who loves movies and dreams of directing her own one day. When Kaia sets off to a creative arts camp for the summer, she decides to create a short film based on the folktales her great-grandfather Tatang constantly shares with her.
15. “Prairie Lotus” by Linda Sue Park
While Asian Americans were integral to the history of the American West, they often remain invisible in the children’s literature written about that era. “If you are an Asian person in America and if you grow up here, it is like reading your own erasure for most of your childhood,” noted Nguyen. Linda Sue Park’s new novel “Prairie Lotus” writes Asian Americans back into the traditional pioneer narrative with the creation of Hanna, a “half-Chinese and half-white” girl who moves to Dakota Territory with her widower father in 1880.
Asian Pacific American young adult fiction
16. “We Are Not Free” by Traci Chee
Traci Chee’s upcoming novel “We Are Not Free” (which will be released Sept. 1) retells one of the most troubling periods of modern American history through the eyes of those that lived through it. “It is the story of the Japanese internment camps from the perspective of this group of teenagers from San Francisco,” Kelly explained. In “We Are Not Free,” Chee follows 14 close friends whose families had been connected for generations as they are forcibly removed from their homes. As they try to have a regular adolescence far from home, they also learn to rally against racism and injustice.
17. “Butterfly Yellow” by Thanhha Lai
2020 marks the 45th anniversary of the first arrival of Southeast Asian refugees to the United States. In recent years, the literary world has seen a welcome increase in narratives that tell the story of the legacy of the Vietnam War from refugees and the children of refugees themselves. One such book is Thanhha Lai’s young adult novel “Butterfly Yellow.” “It is a really fantastic book about a Vietnamese girl who comes to America to rescue her brother” after the Vietnam War, said Kelly. “She doesn’t speak any English at all so it is really interesting how the author demonstrates her thoughts and how she speaks.”
18. “Parachutes” by Kelly Yang
Author Kelly Yang’s young adult debut is timely given its sharp commentary on racism, immigration and sexual harassment. The book's title refers to the thousands of students from Taiwan, Korea and China that attend high school in the United States each year as international students. Main character Claire Yang is a teen from a wealthy-but-troubled family in Shanghai who abruptly decides to send her to the United States to complete her high school education.