The month of April is Asian Heritage Month here at Hope College. It is worth drawing our attention to this year’s event in particular, as over the last year, Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders have been targeted victims of violence and unjustly and incorrectly blamed for the pandemic. This has been the case across the United States as well as here at Hope and in the surrounding community.
That being said, it is especially important at this time to center and amplify voices of the AAPI community. Members of the English Department have put together the following list of book recommendations connected to Asian Heritage Month. Although reading books is not enough to combat the racism directed at the AAPI community, literature helps us educate ourselves and engender empathy. It’s not enough to stop at booklists, but it is an important and worthwhile place to begin. These stories matter.
Paisley Rekdal’s The Broken Country has a disarmingly straightforward subtitle: “On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam.” But the unpacking of these incredibly complex elements reveals Rekdal’s insight, skill, creativity, care, and dexterity with a range of material both personal and universal, historical and medical, local and global. Rekdal wowed reading attendees with the first chapter when she visited Hope College in 2017.
In Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer, Yang records the story of one Hmong family’s journey from Laos to the United States in the 1980s. Yang defines healthy assimilation as the ability to adapt to a new culture even as we honor the old.
Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An American Reckoning has been dubbed “a formidable collection of essays” by The New Yorker, though it is the award-winning poet’s first foray into nonfiction. Hong notes how she long resisted autobiography but finally had to write of the complicated hierarchy of a racialized United States, delving deep into the social construction of race, “the sense of lack,” and what it means to be both the recipient and administrator of these constructions and their dangerous cultural–and of course personal–consequences.
Born in Saigon and having moved with her father and siblings to the U.S. a year later, Beth (Bich Minh) Nyugen shares intimate details in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner about friendships, family life and school experiences as she grows up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner explores Nguyen’s immigrant experience from the perspective of a child and can be powerfully paired with her recent essay in The New Yorker, “America Ruined My Name for Me” (April 1, 2021). Nyugen visited Hope College in 2012.
Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing gives us a generous path into a formidable intersection of topics: art, culture, and the interdependent self. Blending family memoir, craft essay, research, reflection, and cultural criticism, this book successfully touts the novel as “a meeting ground of typically American themes of independence and classically Asian ideals of interdependence.” A must-read for writers! Jen visited Hope College in 1998 to participate in the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series.
Amy Tan’s Where the Past Begins is a writer’s memoir. The best-selling author of Joy Luck Club offers shocking truths of her early life and honest recollections of her artistic uncertainty. Tan takes us on a journey that unpacks “memory, imagination, and truth, with fiction serving as both her divining rod and link to meaning.” Another must-read for writers!
Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s illustrated book of lyric nature essays, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments spent 9 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Nezhukumatathil, of Mayalayi Indian and Filipino descent, brings a poet’s sensibility–she’s published four award-winning volumes–to unveil wonders of the natural world even as she examines injustice.
David Cho’s Night Sessions offers vivid moments of familial relationships strained and enriched by the experience(s) of being both Korean and American. Honest and beautifully wrought, these poems reflect the resolute interlacing of culture and expectations, sport and work, language and love. Cho taught and directed American Ethnic Studies at Hope College for 11 years; he was featured in the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series in 2012.
Cathy Song’s Picture Bride explores family identities and their relationship to tradition. She’s interested in what moms owe children, and in how wives relate to husbands in a changing world. In the eponymous poem “Picture Bride,” for example, Song tells the story of her grandmother, who participated in an arranged marriage. The grandma was sent to Hawaii from Korea when she was 23, to become the wife of a much older Chinese immigrant. Song’s interest is in how people make meaning from circumstances they cannot change.
Li Young Lee’s debut book of poetry, Rose, explores his family’s flight from the spread of communism in China, his father’s legacy of power, and their practice as Christians in a new land. Gorgeously clear, lyrical, and tender, Lee’s poems emit a transcendental power that draws the reader into his complex and sometimes difficult family history while washing his subjects and subject matter with a profound and wondrous love. A long-time friend of Jack Ridl, Lee visited Hope as part of the writers series in 1986, 1991, and 2001.
In Chen Chen’s debut collection When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Future Possibilities, the poems are both clear and lyrical, celebrating his Chinese American identity while also investigating his queerness in the context of Chinese American culture. Chen’s poems are loving, funny, and incredibly soulful. In 2019, Chen read in the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series.
In This is How the Bone Sings, Todd Kaneko writes crisply lyrical poems about fatherhood, history, and what it means to be a Japanese American whose family—all citizens of the United States—endured the WWII internment camp Minidoka in Idaho. Kaneko uses found forms like loyalty questionnaires and mythic figures like ghosts and ogres combined with lyrical poems to his son and father to access and understand the legacy of his family’s internment.
Through Doc Hata’s range of experiences–his boyhood growing up in an ethnic Korean community in Japan, his adoption by a Japanese couple and his service to Japan in the Pacific War, and finally, his attempts to “fit in” in small town U.S.A.–Chang-rae Lee challenges us to think about the “cultural dissonance” experienced by Hata and other characters in A Gesture Life.
In Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, we follow Professor Lee, middle-aged “Asian-born” professor of mathematics suspected by the FBI of killing a younger, charismatic colleague with a package bomb. The package bomb turns out to have been sent by a unabomber-type figure, but that’s not the reason to read this expertly crafted novel. Choi’s focus on Lee allows us to see him in human terms: the pain at his estrangement from his daughter, a failed second marriage, and his growing realization that the country to which he has trusted his life and future after flight from an oppressive regime sees him as foreign, and automatically as suspect. Choi was featured in the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series in 2009 and teaches at Yale University.
Fatima Farheen Mirza’s 2018 debut novel, A Place for Us, was the inaugural book that actress Sarah Jessica Parker published through her imprint with Hogarth books—and also was a New York “One Book, One New York” pick. It focuses on an Indian-Muslim family of five living in Northern California, experiencing conflict between tradition and modernity, and centers on the search for home in both a metaphorical and literal sense.
Aiiieeeee!, the first edition of this anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American literature, came out in 1974. The Big Aiiieeeee!, a more comprehensive collection of Asian American literature released in 1991 and edited by Shawn Wong, includes the earliest writings that appeared in America alongside more recent essays and stories about the struggles, dreams, and experiences of Americans of Chinese and Japanese descent.
Vyvyan Loh’s Breaking the Tongue, hailed as “the most ambitious and accomplished debut novels in recent memory,” depicts the divided loyalties within one family in Singapore on the cusp of Japanese occupation during World War II. Feverish in pace and packed with tension, this novel deftly explores danger and belonging, identity and loyalty. Loh visited Hope in 2005 to participate in the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, an experimental novel published in 1982, tends to defy clear categorization. Cha (a Korean immigrant, performance artist, filmmaker, and writer) uses collage in fragments of French, Chinese, and Korean, photography, letters, and historical materials to narrate the Japanese occupation before World War II and the Soviet/US spilt of the Korean peninsula after the war. A feminist novel about the damage wrought on Korean women’s bodies during the 20th century, Dictee carries tremendous poignancy: Cha was raped and killed in a violent attack by a man about a week after the publication.
Ted Chiang, hugely celebrated in the sci-fi world, offers two sci-fi collections in Exhalation: Stories and Stories of Your Life and Others. While many of these stories feature reimagined worlds that don’t necessarily reflect the contemporary experiences of Asian Americans, Chiang creates fascinating, moving visions of concepts like time travel, artificial intelligence, and mathematics.
Peter Ho Davies’ Fortunes features four loosely linked stories that come together in–perhaps collide into is a better phrase–a novel. The first three stories, based on historical figures, examines questions of identity and power, exclusion and assimilation. The final story weaves in the previous three in a profound navigation of what it means to be Chinese and American. Davies visited Hope College to read from his work in 2003.
M. Evelina Galang’s Her Wild American Self, a rich, engaging collection of stories, gives voice to Filipina Americans who grapple with their roles within the family and society, women who come to terms with the clash of Eastern and Western traditions, especially, as one reviewer puts it, “the stereotype of the subservient Asian American woman.” Galang was featured in the 2001 Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series.
Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger is a collection of five short stories and a novella. Each one, “depicting–with considerable insight and originality–the fault lines of assimilation,” showcases a lost love in the lives of an immigrant family of Chinese Americans. Chang was featured as a visiting writer at Hope in 2001.
Sui Sin Far’s Its Wavering Image tells the short yet profound tale of a young Chinese American woman living in Chinatown in San Francisco who meets an American reporter seeking access to the Chinese community for a story. Themes of love, betrayal, and identity come together in this piece.
Gary Pak’s Language of the Geckos is a collection of nine short stories set in Hawai’i that not only re-examines Asian diaspora but also the lasting effects of colonization. Characters include Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and Native Hawaiians; as one reviewer puts it, the “historical contexts loom ominously” even as the land itself offers “spiritual ambiance.” Pak visited Hope College in 2012 to read his work.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel, The Namesake, explores the experience of immigration through themes of identity, conflicting traditions, and the enduring power of family love.
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a breathtaking autobiographical novel. The narrator explores generational differences of being a first-generation, gay Vietnamese American compared to his mother’s origin story in Vietnam during the War.
Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017) follows the multigenerational story of a Korean family who eventually immigrates to Japan. The novel deals with themes of racism and stereotyping, along with historical events such as the Second World War, experienced by the family during the 20th-century. Apple TV+ has purchased the rights for a TV adaptation of this novel.
David Wong Louie’s Pangs of Love (1991) is a collection of twelve short stories and one essay that revolves around themes of alienation and exoticization, cultural legacy, and dispossession from an Asian-American perspective. At its heart, this collection is deeply invested in characters who are in conflict with their place in the world, tying together such experiences with food, loss, envy, understanding, and love.
Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte is the latest in Rushdie’s career as a novelist, notorious for the controversy over The Satanic Verses. Drawing both on the name and concept of Don Quixote, Rushdie’s main character searches for love with both naivete and optimism. Noted as “vintage Rushdie,” the novel is full of eccentric characters, long, boisterous paragraphs, and, as such, a refusal to assimilate Indian mythology and storytelling neatly into the Western canon.
Quan Barry’s She Weeps Each Time You’re Born tells the story of Rabbit, a Vietnamese girl born into war and able to speak with the dead. Deeply lyrical–Barry has also published four volumes of poetry–and radiant even in, perhaps despite, its turbulence, Rabbit’s story is profoundly moving and impossible to forget. Barry visited Hope College in 2004.
Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood among Ghosts won the National Book Critics Circle Award for general non-fiction in 1976. Kingston blends autobiography with old Chinese folktales, including a version of the story later popularized by Disney as “Mulan.”
Hope alum Joshua Kam’sHow the Man in Green Saved Pahang, and Possibly the World is the author’s debut novel that rollicks through parts of Malaysia as narrated by two characters—Lydia and Gabriel—and speaks to 21st century lives in terms of gender, culture, and religion. Kam’s intelligence spills across the pages. Written in English, How the Man in Green… includes Malay, Mandarin, and Cantonese, and evokes the plurality of cultures present in Malay society. And yet the novel ultimately explores the complex adventures of two young people who find themselves swept up in magic and myth in which both—as young Malaysians—are deeply invested. Kam graduated from Hope in 2018 and was recently the winner of the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize.
Graphic Memoirs and Novels
Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do moves powerfully back and forth between the birth of her children and the birth of her parents’ children during their journey from Vietnam to America. The story highlights Bui and her parents’ harsh experiences trying to become Asian American and how this affects each family member as they age and create families of their own.
Mira Jacob’s Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations chronicles conversations leading up to the 2016 presidential relationship between Jacobs and her half-Indian, half-Jewish six-year-old son. Honest, humorous, and heartbreaking, these conversations haltingly cover horrifying moments in American history, interracial relationships, racial and sexual identities, and, of course, knock-knock jokes.
Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings follows Berkeley resident Ben Tanaka as he struggles to reconcile his relationship with politically active girlfriend Miko and his preference for Caucasian women. Noted as “piercingly realistic as any prose fiction,” this graphic novel investigates how a jaded protagonist has fully internalized white standards for beauty (along with everything that suggests and entails).
Young Adult Novels
In Addie Tsai’s Dear Twin, the early teenage narrator, Poppy Uzumaki, uses an epistolary format (including letters, texts, and emails) combined with first-person point of view to communicate to her abused and mysteriously missing twin sister, Lola. Living in a restrictive Chinese household, bi-racial Poppy contemplates identity, family, friendship, loyalty and feelings of abandonment by her mother and twin sister. Thoroughly contemporary in style, Tsai’s debut novel investigates what it means to be a bi-racial Asian American in the 21st century and how to navigate the world as a queer young woman.
The Downstairs Girl and Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee. Both are excellent historical novels about the Asian American experience, one set amidst the women’s suffrage movement, the other during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
In Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl (Rick Riordan Presents Series), science fiction, especially space exploration stories, meets Korean mythology. Look for shape-shifting and other mythic elements from the Korean storytelling repertoire. In marrying conventional American space stories with Korean mythology, this novel reshapes how we understand the vagaries of discovery and exploration, funneling them into a textual vessel in which thirteen-year-old Min must use what is at her disposal, that is, courage and cleverness at the center of her fox-magic powers. By insisting that Min draw on her cultural wealth for her success, the novel invites us to understand that one’s home planet may not have many goods but it is rich in other things, powerful things such as stories. (Mythological Realism is the term we use for YA novels that incorporate mythology and magical realism. Madeline Miller’s Circe is a good example, as are the Percy Jackson novels by Rick Riordan. In recent years, Riordan has made it his calling to center authors who treat mythologies outside of the Western tradition. The novels thus present the lived experiences of diasporic youth in the U.S.)
Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again tracks the lives of a Vietnamese family as they leave Vietnam at the end of the war and emigrate to Alabama. The father’s possible death haunts the family even as they have to cross linguistic and cultural barriers in America. The dynamics of cultural refashioning are highlighted throughout the novel, in the importance of Bruce Lee to one of the brothers, for example. Much like An Na’s A Step from Heaven, Inside Out and Back Again underscores the power of voice and of storytelling in overcoming the bewildering processes at the core of immigration.
Erin Estrada Kelly’s Lalani of the Distant Sea traverses much of the same narrative ground as Moana but drawing instead on Filipino folklore. At the core of each of these stories are girls who venture forth into the world in order to save their communities. Thus, unlike their male counterparts in adventure novels, the quest that these young women fulfill is societally reparative, as opposed to individualistic. In this novel, Lalani sails from her home island to the paradisiacal Mount Isa in search of a cure for her mother as well as for community. Fighting evil is hard and the obstacles mount as the story unfolds. Showing determination and courage, Lalani completes the heroic journey by coming back home to bestow what she has learned to her community. Her return, in this way, marks an important component in literary works that emanate from diasporic communities.
Randy Ribay, Patron Saints of Nothing tells the story of Jay Reguero, a Filipino-American high school senior from Michigan (Ann Arbor area) who travels to the Philippines, his family’s homeland. There, Jay seeks out answers to the death of his cousin Jun who was murdered in President Duarte’s war on drugs. This powerful coming-of-age novel speaks to questions of identity, family, justice and faith.
If you liked Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese, check out his more recent Superman Smashes the Klan, recommended by Professor Postma-Montaño and her students in ENGL 113: Activist Americas. The graphic novel highlights the experience of a Chinese-American family, the Lees, as they move from Chinatown into downtown Metropolis in 1946. The Lees face many forms of subtle and explicit racism, including attacks by the Klu Klux Klan. While Superman swoops in to help the Lees, we also see the daughter Roberta growing as an activist in the novel. Roberta uses the power of observation and the pen to fight racism.
Julia Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, the Lakeshore/Hope College Big Read book for 2017, is told in spare, paratactical prose. In this novel, the West in the American Imagination, specifically around issues of mobility and freedom, is contested and challenged. Postcards and other travel/leisure paraphernalia contrast the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WW II. There is much to love about the language and its deployment in this novel. At the same time, this novel provides us a window into the ways degradation fundamentally alters conceptions of self. Paired with readings on generational trauma, Otsuka’s novel offers a view of how trauma can and often does span multiple generations.
Happy reading, Hope College!