Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Reading List
The recent rise of anti-Asian hate crimes has brought to the fore a complex American conversation about Asian Pacific American histories, storytelling, and identity. As we mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we at PEN America bring you a list of books that expand upon and amplify Asian Pacific American stories, histories, and authors. Reflecting upon how these acts of anti-Asian violence and racism have roots in the history of American racism and exclusion at large, we wanted to select a range of books that acknowledge how these histories connect to our present and uplift the authors and stories that are at times neglected or seen as being outside of mainstream conceptions of Asian Pacific American consciousness.
The books on this list explore issues such as grief, immigration, mental health, and more; they are grounded in the harsh realities of the world that we live in, and also plot a space for wonder, for dreaming toward better futures. These books remind us of storytelling’s universal reach, as well as the urgency and necessity to uplift and amplify voices in communities that are facing direct violence.
Michelle Zauner is most well known as the leading member of the music group Japanese Breakfast, which garnered universal acclaim for their first two albums and is releasing a third this year. Zauner created Japanese Breakfast while caring for her family in Eugene, OR. In her new memoir, Crying in H Mart, Zauner writes movingly about growing up biracial and one of the few Asian American kids at her school in the Pacific Northwest, attending college at Bryn Mawr, and her mother’s cancer diagnosis and passing, which was the basis for Japanese Breakfast’s first album.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s latest collection of poetry explores how a nonbinary, disabled, femme queer-of-color navigates life, from finding joy in the streets of Queens to mourning the loss of queer kin, all the while enduring a neverending period of hate crimes in their country. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s unflinching reflection of their world is a testament to how we endure and survive through life, savoring the pleasures found in beauty and healing bonds, and the safety to be found in community. The poems in this collection are by turns empathetic, hopeful, angry, sensual, and full of a lifetime of wisdom.
Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too was a book of comic illustrations that made Jonny Sun known as a voice that could be at once thoughtful, profound, and delightfully hilarious. Unlike his previous work, Goodbye, Again is a book of essays where Sun’s observations about himself and the world take the center stage, although he does include a selection of illustrations to pair with his words. While topics such as work ethic, mental health, and the meaning of happiness might seem devoid of humor, Sun’s trademark humor is palpable throughout the book, which also features “a recipe for scrambled eggs that might make you cry.”
Caroline Kim’s short story collection explores what it means to be part of the Korean diaspora from the perspectives of a wide range of characters—from courtiers and nobles of ancient Korea to Korean War refugees, to Korean Americans coming of age in the 1980s and navigating an imagined future. These voices tell stories of culture clashes, generational histories, and the moments in one’s life that can change everything. Kim invokes literary genres such as science fiction, historical fiction, minimalism, and a host of others in this dazzling testament to how sprawling the history of an entire people can be.
The Border of Paradise, Esmé Weijun Wang’s debut novel, was praised for its depiction of mental illness across familial generations. In The Collected Schizophrenias, Wang—who has been open about her own diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder—details her struggles with mental and chronic illness with keen insight and an unflinching eye. The essays in this book never shy away from the hard truths of living with mental and chronic illness, and Wang uses her own experience to engage critically with the stigmas and commonly held beliefs surrounding schizophrenia, from the portrayal of these afflictions in literature and popular media to the fantasy of “a cure.”
Part memoir, part manifesto, Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America explores Sharmila Sen’s experience emigrating from India to the United States at age 12, when she was suddenly thrust into a society that saw her as a racialized being. From watching TV shows like General Hospital, to perfecting the art of the Jell-O no bake dessert, she dove deep into attempting to assimilate. Through exploring these experiences, Sen grapples with questions such as what it means to be white, why whiteness retains the magic cloak of invisibility while other colors are made hypervisible, and how much the notion of whiteness figures into Americanness.
Kristiana Kahakauwila’s debut collection of short stories, This is Paradise, paints a rich and varied picture of life on the islands of Hawaii. Each story is told from a different perspective—from a young woman who wants nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a famous cockfighter, to an old patriarch who wants to settle the affairs of his family farm before his death. Kahakauwila’s stories remind us of the universal longing for a place we can call home, to belong and feel safe in.
As a child, Aimee Nezhukumatathil called many places home, but no matter where she was transplanted or how forbidding the landscape may have been, she was able to turn to our world’s fierce and funny creatures for guidance. Nezhukumatathil finds beauty and kinship in things as disparate as the smile of an axolotl and the feathers of a peacock, and even in the parts of nature often considered strange and unlovely. A joyous book about strength and resilience, World of Wonders asks us to tap into our own childlike curiosity about the world around us and teaches us that it is only by looking past the distractions of day-to-day life that we can fully appreciate the world’s gifts.
Living for Change tells the story of a woman who transcended class and racial boundaries to pursue her belief in a better society. In addition to telling the story of her remarkable life, Boggs paints a picture of some of the most impactful events in recent history—from the Cold War, to the Civil Rights Era, to the rise of the Black Panthers and their efforts to rebuild crumbling urban communities. Living for Change is an exhilarating look at a woman who dreamed and believed that a better world is possible.
The Best We Could Do is a poignant and breathtaking chronicle of the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects of displacement. In documenting her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, Thi Bui examines the strength of familial bonds, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home. In what Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it,” The Best We Could Do interweaves Bui’s poetic writing and haunting illustrations to bring her family’s journey to life and provides inspiration to all those who search for a better future and long to understand the past.
Kazim Ali’s stunning book relays his journey back to the cities and small towns of Manitoba, where he spent his childhood. Having passed through disparate homes, Ali goes searching for the lush waterways and forests of Jenpeg, near where he grew up as a child. During his search, however, he finds not news of Jenpeg, but of the local Pimicikamak community, who are facing environmental destruction and broken promises from the Canadian government after having evicted Manitoba’s electric utility from the dam on Cross Lake. In a place where water is an integral part of social and cultural life, the community demands accountability for the harm that the utility has caused. In this book, Ali explores questions of land, water, and power and considers what it means to lose—and find—one’s connection to a place.