May is an exciting time for many reasons: school semesters are ending, a signal that summer is fast approaching and we get to celebrate three summer-esque holidays: Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day.
Additionally (and the reason you’re reading this article) May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. This, of course, means there are a diverse collection of books just waiting to be added to your TBR (to be read) list this month.
AAPI literature contains a vast and rich diversity of cultures, heritages, spiritual practices, and more for readers to divulge. And it’s as good a time as any to get started. Here are eight contemporary books, centering on AAPI stories written by AAPI authors you should read to honor the month.
Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
Akin to Madeline Miller’s Circe, Kaikeyi (2022) by debut author Vaishnavi Patel is a feminist mythology retelling (or reimagining) that seeks to redeem a woman portrayed in her original text as antagonistic. Authors like Patel seek to explore the possibility: what if these women have been misunderstood (especially by men, who have gotten to decide their fates) along?
The titular character of this novel was first portrayed in the Indian epic Ramayana where she embodied the age-old archetype of the “evil stepmother” to the story’s hero Rama. This time, however, Kaikeyi gets to define her own role within this lore. Here, Kaikeyi is a flawed and determined asexual woman, wife, and mother who has conviction and a passion to make people's voices heard.
This book has action. It has monsters and polytheistic Hindu powers and abilities. But most importantly, there are the women at the heart of Kaikeyi who bring the remarkable world portrayed throughout the novel to life.
Jade City by Fonda Lee
Jade City (2017) by Fonda Lee is the first book in an urban fantasy trilogy that follows the prestigious Kaul family as they fight to maintain the power of their clan No Peak from those who threaten everything they hold dear. This saga takes place in a setting inspired by an East Asian metropolis: the fictional city of Janloon on the island of Kekon.
Jade City contains some of the best elements high fantasy has to offer. Come for the high stakes, intergenerational blood feuds, political conflicts, magical abilities thanks to jade gemstones, and kung-fu action sequences. Stay for the characters and character dynamics that are so well written, you’ll too feel like you’re a part of the family with much to lose.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid is for the people who love the intersection of dystopian literature, magical realism, and romance. This novel explores the possibilities that can ensue if doors mysteriously appeared, throughout a country on the brink of civil war, that can perilously whisk people far away—but for a price.
Amid this turmoil, characters Nadia and Saeed find their newly budding romantic relationship threatened by the chaos that’s ensuing in their home. What else can these characters do but leave their lives behind, find a door, and jump into uncertainty? Exit West is an innovative story of love, sacrifice, and courage, making relevant commentary on the devastating effects of war and loss.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) by Malinda Lo is a historical, Young Adult, and sapphic piece of fiction set during the Red-Scare era in the United States in the 1950s. 17-year-old Lily Hu specifically resides with her family in San Francisco’s Chinatown where discovering one’s lesbianism isn’t exactly celebrated.
This novel is heartbreaking (especially in its historical accuracy of anti-Asian racism and paranoia and prejudice toward queerness) but it contains the kind of diverse story I wish I had more of when I was in high school. However, though, for all of its angst, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is about the power of queer community, the bravery in self-discovery and subsequent self-actualization despite what the world pre-disposes you should be, and the inherent risk and beauty of falling in love for the first time on your own terms.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale for the Time Being (2013) by Ruth Ozeki connects the story of two unsuspecting characters: 16-year-old Nao who lives lonely and suicidal in Tokyo, Japan, finding solace in documenting her tribulations in a diary, and novelist Ruth who finds Nao’s writings in a hello kitty lunch box that washed ashore after a tsunami.
As Nao’s life unfolds in the margins Ruth has become invested in, the lines between past and present, reality and fiction, and history and myth start to blur. A Tale for the Time Being is a unique tale that encompasses Buddhist theories about life, death, and the importance of living in the present. The novel will too blur the lines between writer and reader in a way that’s simply unforgettable.
Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chu
Disorientation (2022) by debut author Elaine Hsieh Chu is a satirical take on white supremacy in Academia, following 29-year-old Ph.D. student Ingrid Yang who’s desperate to finish her dissertation on the late Xiao-Wen Chou.
As a series of wacky misadventures unfold throughout the novel, Ingrid is forced to reckon with her Taiwanese-American heritage coupled with her relationship to whiteness as it pertains to her love life and academic institution. Ultimately, Disorientation asks readers—who gets to tell the stories of people of color and how do those stories change when we finally tell them ourselves?
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
Nghi Vo’s debut novel The Chosen and the Beautiful (2021) mixes magic, historical fiction, and an explicitly queer heroine—Jordan Baker—in this mystical retelling of The Great Gatsby.
Here, Jordan is a Vietnamese, adopted, immigrant socialite who must navigate her Asian identity and overall ambitions in a world that views her as an exotic attraction. Set in 1920s American high society circles, Vo has shaped the aforementioned American classic as a coming-of-age, origin story with a twist of mystery, dazzling illusions, and a hint of supernatural influence.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Convenience Store Woman (2018) by Sayaka Murata and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori is for the burnt-out Millennials. Set in Tokyo, Japan, this novel follows 36-year-old Keiko Furukura: an outcast who begins working at a convenience store called Smile Mart where she finally feels aligned.
18 years later, Keiko remains at the store, which has blended into the very fabric of her being. However, the people in her life—family, friends, coworkers—pressure Keiko to become an “adult” once and for all, one who has a husband and a “proper” job. Convenience Store Woman is about conformity and an examination of contemporary work culture from the lens of an unusual heroine.
The Bottom Line
This list only scratches the surface of the AAPI stories that exist in the (global) literary community. I’m grateful outlets like Booktok, Storygraph, and Goodreads have been showcasing the range of AAPI books that have been published in recent years. There is definitely still work to be done toward seeing all of the AAPI stories that deserve opportunities and support from publishers and non-Asian readers.
However, I remain hopeful. Based on the authors who have done the work to diversify publishing thus far, the future for enriching stories across Asia and the Asian diaspora looks promising.
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- BookTok Introduced Me to These 9 Must-Read Fantasy Books
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Wealth of Geeks.
Ebony Purks is a graduate student at the University of Incarnate Word working toward getting her Master’s degree in communications. She is also a freelance writer, interested in writing about pop culture, social justice, and health; especially examining the many intersections between those subjects.