Epic Novels, Sweeping Sagas: An APA Heritage Month Reading List
This week’s reading list comes to us from Asian American Writers Workshop Executive Director Jafreen Uddin, and is a continuation of our efforts to amplify Asian American voices in literature, in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Jafreen’s selections coalesce around the Asian American epic novel.
Every day at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, we work to create and nurture a space for stories that might otherwise go unheard. One thing we know for sure is that the Asian American experience is as vast and diverse as the canon of works that compellingly depict it. Some of my personal favorites, a few of which I’ve listed below, are the epic novels—the ones that span geographic, cultural, and generational lines to tell stories about family, love, and the many ties that bind us together. The backdrops against which many of these books are set are grand and seemingly distant from our modern lives today: from the opium trade between China and India, to the twilight of the American Gold Rush; from the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, to the devastation of the Vietnam War. But the journeys of these characters—both literal and figurative—resonate in a way that only good literature can, transporting the reader to worlds and experiences far beyond their reading corner.
—Jafreen Uddin, executive director of the Asian American Writers Workshop
In this lyrical love story, themes of belonging, migration, and tragedy enter the fore, as we’re transported into the dual worlds that protagonist Zubaida Haque occupies. Although she has left a romantic connection behind in America and placated her family by settling down in Bangladesh, Zubaida continues to be confronted by the question of how much she can separate her future from her past.
In The Storm, Arif Anwar’s storytelling spans continents and generations, as he tells the story of Bangladesh’s struggle for independence through a number of intimate, interconnected accounts. As each character faces the cruelty and turbulence that life throws at them, they’re also reminded of the uplifting power of love and words to join each of their experiences and collective histories.
Set during the outbreak of the first Opium War, The Ibis Trilogy is chock-full of drama and rich personalities that illuminate our understanding of the legacies of colonialism and the rise of modern Asia. Named for the ship, the Ibis, that was tasked with a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean to fight in the Opium Wars, The Ibis Trilogy blends rich storytelling with sobering lessons about how our understanding of a global world was born.
In her debut novel, Tanwi Nandini Islam takes readers back to Brooklyn in the summer of 2003, the summer of the northeast blackout. Through it all, Ella, a young Bangladeshi girl, is growing up and coming to terms with her queerness, among other family secrets, in a city where cultures both clash and intersect.
In her debut novel, Mira Jacob takes readers on a multi-leg journey from 1970s India, to suburban 1980s New Mexico, to Seattle during the dot-com boom. When Seattle-based photographer Amina returns home to find her brain surgeon father talking to dead relatives, she’s forced to reckon with her family’s painful past, in a story that is simultaneously tender and cleverly hilarious.
When the Communist-backed army from the north invades teenage Haemi’s home in Korea, she and her family must relocate to a refugee camp, where she finds solace in spending time with her childhood friend Kyunghwan. As time unfolds, however, Haemi winds up marrying Kyunghwan’s older and wealthier cousin, even though she has always loved her friend, setting off a dramatic tale that explores difficult wartime choices, as well as a woman’s longing for autonomy in a changing world.
A 2017 National Book Award Finalist, The Leavers chronicles the lives of Peilan and her son Deming, who lose and re-encounter each other after leaving rural China and starting divergent lives in the United States. A transnational tale that interweaves narratives of adoption, homecoming, and immigration, Ko’s novel powerfully illustrates the unexpected ways in which lives can unfold across borders, languages, and time.
The first novel in English by celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, The Mountains Sing is a multigenerational family tale set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Steeped in the language and traditions of Vietnam, the novel brings to life the human costs borne of the conflict that tore apart a family and a country.
On a train headed toward the seaside town of Jarmuli, which is known for its temples, three elderly women witness an assault on a documentary filmmaker named Nomi, whose presence calls into question exactly why she’s in Jarmuli among worshippers in the first place. A vibrant novel that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Sleeping on Jupiter is a poignantly told story about a serene town with a dark history and the overlapping lives of those that come to visit.
Newly orphaned immigrants Lucy and Sam are fleeing the threats of their western mining town during the American Gold Rush—and figuring out how to bury their father. A breathtaking debut that is both epic and intimate, How Much of these Hills is Gold is a sibling story that explores the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong in a country that continually demonstrates its rejection of them.