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With roots in more than 20 countries, Asian Americans make up one of the most diverse groups in the United States. Yet, pop culture depictions sometimes fail to reflect the depth of the Asian American experience, often neglecting smaller communities and ethnicities within the diaspora to focus instead on larger, more established populations. This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we talked to acclaimed Asian American authors Christina Soontornvat and Sheba Karim about the often overlooked parts of Asian America, what they are reading right now and the importance of being seen in the books we read.
In January, Soontornvat became only the third author in history to receive two Newbery Honor awards in one year: One for “A Wish In The Dark,” her 2020 middle grade novel and reimagining of “Les Miserables,” and one for her nonfiction book “All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue Of The Thai Boys Soccer Team,” which recounts the successful and highly publicized 2018 cave rescue of a trapped Thai soccer team.
“Probably the biggest honor of my life was writing that book,” said Soontornvat about “All Thirteen.” “There was so much about the story that I wanted to make sure readers knew about Thailand, about culture, about religion and about Thai families,” she said.
Soontornvat never thought she’d be in this position while growing up during the 1980s in Weatherford, a small Texas town — Thailand and its culture were so unfamiliar there that when her family opened the first Asian eatery in the county, they billed it as a Chinese restaurant.
“We had pad Thai on the menu but we didn't call it ‘pad Thai’ because nobody knew what that was,” recalled Soontornvat, noting it was listed as “Imperial Noodles” instead. “So people would come in and say ‘I love Imperial Noodles,’ and I’d think, ‘yeah, you love Thai noodles.’” It was at this restaurant that Soontorvat read plenty of science fiction and fantasy novels when things were slow — none of the stories she read included characters that looked like her. “I didn’t see books that were set in Asian worlds — there were no characters of color even,” she recalled.
Like Soontornvat, Pakistani American author Sheba Karim’s stories revolve around South Asian and Muslim American teens and noted the challenges of introducing multi-dimensional Muslim teen girl characters to the reading public.
“With my book ‘That Thing They Call A Heart,’ a lot of people were upset because the protagonist’s best friend wears a hijab — and she’s also this punk rocker who smokes pot occasionally,” said Karim.“All of my characters are always pushing the envelope in some way. Some might be religious, some might not be religious, some are questioning.”
Karim’s latest novel “The Marvelous Mirza Girls” was released May 18 and centers on an Indian American high school graduate named Noreen Mirza who, reeling from the death of a beloved aunt, decides to move to New Delhi for a year to live with family — Karim didn’t expect her novel’s release to align with India (and New Delhi, in particular) seeing tragic increases in Covid-19 infections.
She noted a particular tie to New Delhi, where both of her parents were born and which they both left as children during the Partition. Karim herself moved there in her 20s as part of a Fulbright scholarship. “I don't think anyone who moves to Delhi will leave it the same person that they were before,” she said. “It could be as dramatic as some spiritual experience or you come to some revelation about yourself or it could be just the simple breadth of your experience has widened so much.”
Books about the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience
Karim and Soontornvat recommended reads for adults, children and teens that reflect the diversity of the Asian American experience, which we’ve included below along with some picks of our own.
'The Bad Muslim Discount' by Syed M Masood
One of the books Karim enjoyed reading during lockdown, the book begins in the mid-1990s when Anvar Faris’ parents — disturbed by increasing fundamentalism around them — decide to immigrate to the United States from Pakistan. At the same time, thousands of miles away in Iraq, an adolescent girl named Faqwa is also getting ready to move to the United States with her father under much more tragic and complicated circumstances. Following both characters over the course of 25 years, the two unexpectedly meet as adults in California. “It’s really humorous and I love the voice in it,” said Karim.
'A Good True Thai' by Sunisa Manning
Sunisa Manning’s “A Good True Thai” gives readers an in-depth look at the intensity of the student movement of the 1970s in Thailand through the eyes of three twenty-somethings with very different backgrounds and life experiences. “The sumptuous details immerse you in life in Bangkok in the tumultuous ‘70s,” said Soontorvat. “This story of friendship and betrayal is startlingly relevant to both the current political situation in Thailand, and the fight for democracy and voting rights that is happening right now in the United States.”
'Afterparties: Stories' by Anthony Veasna So
The literary world was stunned by the news in December that Cambodian American writer Anthony Veasna So had died unexpectedly at the age of 28, just months before the highly anticipated debut of his first book. Over the course of his short career, So had developed a reputation for creating sharply observed stories about the Cambodian American experience, many of which drew from his family’s own history as Vietnam War-era refugees. In August, Ecco will release “Afterparties,” a collection of short stories by So that wrestles with the immigrant and queer experiences in touching and unexpected ways.
'Adobo and Arsenic' by Mia P. Manansala
Lila Macapagal, the lead character in Mia P. Mansala’s funny new mystery is going through a rough patch. She’s recently had to move back to her hometown after a bad breakup left her reeling and she’s also been tasked with helping to save her Tita Rosie’s Filipino restaurant. Things go from bad to worse when Lila’s high school boyfriend — now a food critic with a grudge against Tita Rosie— suddenly drops dead while dining. It’s now up to Lila to clear her own name and to find out what really happened. As an added bonus for readers, Manansala includes recipes for classic Filipino dishes like chicken adobo so that they can recreate Tita Rosie’s cuisine at home.
'Every Day Is A Gift' by Tammy Duckworth
The new memoir by Senator Tammy Duckworth takes readers from the Illinois Democrat’s childhood in Southeast Asia as the child of a Thai Chinese mother and white American father to the devastating injury she experienced as a helicopter pilot during the Iraq War and her present position in the Senate. “This memoir doesn’t hold back while showing us how resilient and strong the human spirit is,” said Soontornvat. “Senator Duckworth is unquestionably a hero, but it’s the beautiful tributes to the other unsung heroes in her life that will leave you in tears.”
'Olive Witch' by Abeer Hoque
One of the most memorable memoirs Karim has read in recent years is “Olive Witch” by the Bangladeshi American writer and photographer Abeer Hoque. Born in Nigeria to Bangladeshi parents, Hoque moved to Pittsburgh with her family as a teenager. Karim said she was particularly struck by the book’s openness. “It talks about moving to America as a teenager and also talks in a very honest way about mental health issues and other experiences.”
'Eyes That Kiss in the Corner' by Joanna Ho with illustrations by Dung Ho
As a mom of two young children — including a toddler— Karim has also been reading lots of picture books out loud lately. A current favorite in her house is “Eyes That Kiss in the Corner” by Joanna Ho and illustrator Dung Ho. The book is about a young Asian girl who, upon realizing that her eyes look different from everyone in her class, learns how to embrace her eyes and those of her mother, grandmother and other family members. “She has almost memorized every line,” Karim said of her daughter. “The relationships portrayed are very loving and [the story] has a sort of mythical Chinese element. It's very poetic.”
'Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush' by Anita Vachharajani
Karim and her older child have been enjoying reading “Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush,” a new picture book about the Indian and Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil, who was renowned for her portraits in the 1930s. “She’s fascinating,” said Karim, noting that reading about historical figures with her children is particularly fun because she learns a lot in the process too. “We weren't taught these things as kids.”
'Finding Junie Kim' by Ellen Oh
The latest book by We Need Diverse Books co-founder Ellen Oh was inspired by the author’s mother’s experiences as a child growing up in wartorn Korea. Main character Junie Kim is a modern-day middle schooler who is struggling to process things after she encounters racism at school. After learning about her grandparents' experiences growing up during the Korean War, Junie learns how to draw on her inner resilience and speak up. “Oh explores two subjects we don’t often see covered in middle grade fiction: the Korean War and mental health,” said Soontornvat. “We need more books like this one.”
'Amina’s Song' by Hena Khan
Shortly before the release of her popular 2017 middle grade novel “Amina’s Voice,” author Hena Khan told NBC News that she hoped “girls from all backgrounds find a friend in Amina, especially those who may not have met a Muslim before.” Khan’s latest release “Amina’s Song” is a follow up to Amina’s story and was released earlier this spring. “Amina is such a relatable middle grade heroine: strong, yet still searching for ways to make herself heard,” said Soontorvat. “You cannot help but cheer for her from start to finish.”
'A Thousand Questions' by Saadia Faruqi
Two girls from two very different worlds strike up an unlikely friendship in “A Thousand Questions” by Saadia Faruqi. When Mimi is sent to Karachi to stay with her grandparents for the summer, she isn’t happy. The Pakistani American middle schooler is more interested in finding the father she hasn’t seen in years, even though she is not quite sure how to do so. But it’s at her grandparents' home that Mimi meets Sakina, the daughter of her family’s cook who has a secret of her own. The two girls decide to team up and help each other throughout a summer of discovery. “It's a really well-written and compelling story,” said Karim. “It’s just a hopeful book.”
'My Heart Underwater' by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
Creating a story about a teen who returns to her parents’ homeland has meant that Karim has been drawn to stories that detail similar experiences. One of them is “My Heart Underwater” by Filipino American writer Laurel Flores Fantauzzo. After high school student Corazon “Cory” Tagubio is caught in a compromising (and ethically dicey) situation by her mother, her family decides to send her to the Philippines to live with her older half-brother. While there, Cory both has to process the experience that led her mother to send her away and her own feelings about her emerging queer identity.
'Zara Hossain is Here' by Sabina Khan
Writing about LGBTQ South Asian teens has always been a major theme in Sabina Khan’s novels. Khan told NBC News in 2019 that she first became interested in writing about queer South Asian teens after her own daughter came out and she noticed the lack of stories about the unique issues the community faces. Her sophomore novel “Zara Hossain is Here” is about a Pakistani teen who moves to the United States as a young child when her father receives a work visa. When Zara, who is proudly bisexual, is targeted during a racist and Islamophobic incident at her school, it sets off a series of events that leaves her father injured during a hate crime. “It's literally on my nightstand,” said Karim. “I’m excited about it.”
'Last Night At The Telegraph Club' by Malinda Lo
In recent years, there have been several new and dynamic novels that draw on the deep history of Asian Americans in the United States. Malinda Lo’s “Last Night At The Telegraph Club” is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1954, a time when both anti-Asian and homophobic sentiments were high. Main character Lily Hu, 17, finally feels like herself for the first time when she visits the Telegraph Club, a covert lesbian bar. But despite that feeling of homecoming, Lily is also aware of how dangerous her visits are. “The writing is so atmospheric and detailed that I am convinced I have lived in San Francisco in the 1950s,” said Soontornvat. “[It’s] a passionate, smoldering romance that perfectly captures the feelings of falling in love for the first time.”
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