It’s May, which means that it’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) Heritage Month aims to draw attention to the histories, struggles, and contemporary issues of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. One way to explore these issues is through reading Asian American and Pacific Islander literature across various time periods, ethnicities, locations, and genres. The field is vast, varied, and detailed—and one could spend an entire year reading AAPI works, not just a month! Here are some titles that captivated our attention and are important to the field of AAPI literature.
1. America is In the Heart by Carlos Bulosan
First published in 1943, this semi-autobiographical classic novel is by well-known Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan. It describes his boyhood in the Philippines, his voyage to America, and his years of hardship and despair as an itinerant laborer working in exploitative rural Western labor conditions before World War II.
2. I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita
Karen Tei Yamashita’s Hotel is centered around the decade-long fight to save the International Hotel–a low-income housing facility that was home to hundreds of Filipino seniors in San Francisco. She produced a magnum opus epic that effectively tells the story of the early Asian American literary movement.
3. Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Dictee is the best-known work of the versatile and important Korean American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. The novel is considered Cha’s magnum opus for its groundbreaking format and subject. According to the University of California Press, Dictee is the story of several women: The Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Demeter and Persephone, Cha’s mother Hyung Soon Huo (a Korean born in Manchuria to first-generation Korean exiles), and Cha herself. The elements that unite these women are suffering and the transcendence of suffering. The book is divided into nine parts structured around the Greek Muses and contains numerous visual and introspective elements.
These two novels by author Jumpha Lahiri are a staple for any AAPI reading list. The Lowland is a novel set in the 1960s and the 21st century that discusses themes of family, tragedy, India, and national pride. Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of transnational tales focused on Desis and Desi Americans contending with loss, sex, class boundaries, and more.
Home Remedies is Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut into the literary scene that introduces us to the new and changing face of Chinese youth. From fuerdai (second-generation rich kids) to a glass-swallowing qigong grandmaster, her dazzling stories reveal a new experience of belonging: Of young people testing the limits of who they are, in a world as vast and varied as their ambitions. Her stories of fiction carry and empathy-inducing voice that makes this novel critical to your AAPI Heritage Month booklist.
Set in Taipei in 1947, this book raises the question: How far would you go for the ones you love? Green Island is a tale of a family, a father’s love, complicity, and survival during a pivotal moment in Taiwanese history. j
Young Jean Lee was recently heralded as the first Asian American woman playwright to be produced on Broadway. She wrote Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven as an exercise to “write the play that she most despised to write.” The result is a brutally cynical but hilarious satire of the AAPI literary tradition, as well as an incisive critique of racial spectatorship. hh
AAPI science fiction is becoming an increasingly popular subgenre of AAPI literature, similar to Afrofuturism. Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy (which begins with Ninefox Gambit) is a naval space opera with insanely imaginative worldbuilding and mind-bending physics. The trilogy is heavily influenced by Lee’s own identity as a Korean American transgender writer with a background in engineering, comparable to the Wachowski sister’s Matrix series.
9. Freelove by Sia Figiel
Samoan poet Sia Figiel’s novel Freelove centers on a 17-year-old girl, Inosia Alofafua Afatasi, who visits the Samoan capital, Apia, for the first time in 1985. Combining 1980s pop culture references and miscellany with a coming-of-age story, the protagonist experiences her sexual awakening.jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
10. Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita
A short-fiction collection, Sansei and Sensibility reskins Jane Austen’s beloved stories and characters into moderately contemporary settings and Japanese bodies. Even if you’ve never wondered what Darcy would be like as a top-of-the-food-chain high school football hero, you will love the adoration Yamashita has for Austen’s works.
11. The Resisters by Gish Jen
The Resisters is a dystopian APA novel centered around Blasian culture, racism, classism, and (most importantly) Olympic baseball.
One of the quintessential Chinese heritage stories, The Joy Luck Club has been a consistent staple of AAPI Heritage Month. The Joy Luck Club tells the story of four Chinese women who immigrate to San Francisco in 1949 and their experiences with loss and hope.
13. A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok
Nail is a poetry collection centered around Monica Sok’s identity and relationship to Cambodia. Sok’s Cambodia is told through her and her family member’s minds. hhhhhhhh
Observed each year since the late 1970s, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month draws attention to the contributions of, and challenges faced by, a diverse group of people. When you read and share works by Asian American or Pacific Islander authors, you celebrate AAPI Heritage Month. These incredible works will keep you reading long after May has passed.