16 Books Asian American Authors And Literary Leaders Are Recommending Right Now

published May 14, 2021
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Asian Woman reading book on summer days
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Your reading list should be like your meals: Varied, colorful, and satisfying. And more often than not, putting together a well-balanced TBR list requires actively seeking out diverse voices that excite, inspire, and educate you in new ways. To help you in your search, prominent Asian American authors and literary leaders sent in their suggestions on the best books to read right now.  

From genre-bending nonfiction and books of poems, to fiction that’ll enthrall and bring joy, here is a list of books recommendations you’ll want to keep bookmarked for the rest of the year.

Jia Tolentino, author of “Trick Mirror,” recommends “America Is Not The Heart” by Elaine Castillo.

“Elaine Castillo’s novel ‘America Is Not the Heart‘ brings to life a world of Filipino-American immigrants in California through tracing the long journey of a woman named Hero, from wealth to guerrilla warfare to a second coming-of-age in strip mall steam-table joints and beauty salons in the South Bay. Castillo’s writing is electric and vivid, and the radicalism of this novel is an astounding gift.”

Jonny Sun, author of “Goodbye, Again” and “Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too,” recommends “The Making of Asian America: A History” by Erika Lee, “If They Come For Us” by Fatimah Asghar, and “Not Here” by Hieu Minh Nguyen.

“‘The Making of Asian America‘ is a dense book of history that I am admittedly still in the middle of reading, but I find it enlightening. It is rich and complex and illuminates often invisible or forgotten or covered up histories of this country. In ‘If They Come For Us,’ Fatimah’s work is so vivid and heartbreaking and powerful and inventive. And in ‘Not Here,’ Hieu’s work is painful and beautiful and defiantly tender.”

Matthew Salesses, author of “Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear” and “Craft in the Real World,” recommends “World of Wonders” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

“Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s ‘World of Wonders’ is that rare book of Asian American joy. Each chapter touches on one of nature’s wonders: the peacock, the octopus, the firefly, the axolotl. Through that conceit, the book makes room for so much beauty and love and pleasure and life. It’s truly a marvel.”

Sanjena Sathian, author of “Gold Diggers” recommends “American Woman” by Susan Choi and “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America” by Vivek Bald.

“‘American Woman’ is an incredible work of historical fiction that dramatizes the Patty Hearst kidnapping in the 1970s. Opening in Berkeley, the novel follows a Japanese American radical (based on Wendy Yoshimura) who helps kidnap, hide, and ultimately radicalize Hearst. It’s ambitious, accomplished, and very much a Great American novel. In ‘Bengali Harlem,’ documentarian Vivek Bald has done groundbreaking research into the histories of South Asian America. He surfaces moving stories of Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani workers who migrated to the U.S., many without papers, well before the Immigration Act of 1965. These men often married into communities of color and passed as Black or Puerto Rican. By chronicling the stories of a more textured South Asian diaspora, Bald undoes our assumptions about the Indian diaspora as a bunch of doctors and engineers. Pair it with ‘The Making of Asian America‘ by Erika Lee.”

Min Jin Lee, author of “Free Food for Millionaires” and “Pachinko,” recommends “Somebody’s Daughter” by Ashley Ford.

“Ford’s memoir of a daughter’s natural yearning for her father — kept from her by his incarceration and a family secret — is a stunning literary achievement. Ford’s writing is insightful, moving, and full of grace.”

Jenny Yang and Chris Capizzi, co-founders of secondhand shop A Good Used Book, recommend “Aiiieeeee!” by Frank Chin; “Severance” by Ling Ma; and “Skinship” by Yoon Choi. 

Originally published in 1974 but most recently re-released in 2019, ‘Aiiieeeee!’ was one of the first to collect, present, and preserve Asian American literature in its early forms: from John Okada to Diana Chang to Carlos Bulosan, from Filipino Americans to Japanese Americans, and from as early as 1946. A year before the onset of COVID-19, Ling Ma released her satirical science fiction masterpiece. Severance,’ her debut novel, is about a global pandemic originating from China. Edgy and comedic, eerie and award-winning, Ma answered to the classic immigrant novel with this — a zombie-apocalypse one. And finally, set to be released in August, Skinship’ will be Yoon Choi’s debut short story collection. At once about intimacy and family, about movement and stagnation, this work promises to map the roots of generations of Korean Americans. In sum, both a book and an author to anticipate.”

Tanuja Desai Hidier, author of “Born Confused” and sequel “Bombay Blues,” recommends “Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon” by Dhan Gopal Mukerji and “Untold: Defining Moments of the Uprooted.”

“‘Gay Neck,’ the moving magical tale of a boy-to-man and his Calcutta carrier pigeon, was the first Newbery Award-winning book by a person of color (AAPI; an Indian immigrant!). The same week I read about this 1927 work in 2017, I stumbled upon a yellowed copy at my childhood library; I was so moved to think, all that time growing up in mostly white Wilbraham, Massachusetts, this Brown ancestral uncle-ji had always been accompanying me. And, to draw a loving AAPI/immigrant-honoring line from then to now: the 32 emerging Brown voices exploring the South Asian womxn experience in ‘Untold.’ Because: We Are Here. And were. And will be.”

Padma Venkatraman, author of “The Bridge Home,” and “Born Behind Bars,” recommends “The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee.

“If you think a young adult novel that includes a budding romance and descriptions of horse races and fashionable hats sounds like a light read, you aren’t aware of Stacey Lee’s brilliant ability to create historical fiction that is gripping and entertaining, even as it forces us to examine the painful past. Set in Georgia in the post-Reconstruction era (late 19th century Atlanta, to be precise), Jo Kuan, the opinionated protagonist, is born in America; but she isn’t considered a citizen, and she can’t even rent an apartment because of her Chinese heritage. Jo’s journey of self-discovery in ‘The Downstairs Girl’ is filled with delightful moments, but it also provides an unflinching and nuanced look at racism, which will induce readers to ask deep and important questions.”

Samrat Upadhyay, author of “Mad Country,” recommends “The Remains Of The Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro.

“Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day’ remains a powerful work of fiction for me, one that I’ve returned to for new insights and pleasure. The story occurs in the constricted and understated world of an English butler who is questioning his loyalty to his Nazi-sympathizing former employer, but it’s an universal tale of self-deception and denial transcending place and time, pointing to the illusory nature of our experiences. The novel is especially remarkable in how it weaves a deeply personal and moving story of a butler with larger political happenings that complicate his delusions and heartbreaks, thereby brilliantly making it, at once, intimate and expansive.“

Nicole Chung, author of “All You Can Ever Know,” recommends, “If You Leave Me” by Crystal Hana Kim.

“In this story, young Haemi Lee and her family are displaced from their home due to the Korean War. Haemi finds herself caught between the affections of two men, her childhood friend and his wealthier cousin. She eventually marries one of them, hoping for security for her family — a choice that carries profound consequences not just for her, but for the next generation. This is a powerful, beautifully written novel about love, war, inherited trauma, and the cost of survival.”