For most people who study literature in school, be it at the high school, collegiate, or graduate level, we embrace the Western canon at the exclusion of other work, and to truly grow as a reader it takes a conscious unlearning. For me, I’ve found tremendous meaning in contemporary works by BIPOC writers.
In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, here are ten books from the past few years that I adore and recommend wholeheartedly, all by Asian American writers. As an Indian American reader there is a joy in representation, but also a deeper feeling when it comes to reading stories that I don’t know, cannot relate to, and am compelled by all the same.
I write this knowing that AAPI is a vast category, and my own reading has several blind spots. This list is lacking in works by West Asians and Pacific Islanders, among other groups, and I point this out to acknowledge that I am still learning and growing as a reader, and am always open to recommendations.
By Elaine Hsieh Chou
- If you know Chou from her devastating article in The Cut in March, I invite you to explore the creative, nuanced manifestations of her rage. This debut novel expands our concept of the campus novel and adds satire, formal experimentation, and most of all, a plot that keeps you reading till the wee hours of the night. Ingrid Yang’s self-loathing is equal parts heartbreaking and relatable for not only many Asian American readers, but a slew of burnt out millennials trying to find their place in the world.
By Vaishnavi Patel
- One can never have enough mythology retellings, and Vaishnavi Patel breathes new life into one of the most well-known tropes of the Ramayana, that of the villainous, one-dimensional queen. Kaikeyi is an exploration of the queen who banishes Lord Rama to the forest, but her persona is so much more than that. From her origins as a warrior in her own right to her status in the eyes of the gods, this novel questions forgone conclusions and engages us from the beginning in a memorable tale of old.
By Mary H.K. Choi
Simon & Schuster
- Gone are the days of tired, cookie-cutter young adult novels. Yolk brings a much-needed maturity to the genre by featuring complex family dynamics, unlikeable protagonists, and the freewheeling atmosphere of New York City. Jayne Baek and her sister, June, relate to each other without maudlin sentiment or histrionics. The narrative feels grounded in something real, but at the same time embraces chaos and young love. They’re young, dumb, and broke, and you can’t stop reading.
By Julie Otsuka
- One of the newest additions to this list, a book I finished just days ago and think about over and over. Challenging our ideas of point of view and never wasting a word, The Swimmers is a triptych, each narrative self-contained and yet building upon the others. When we’re in the pool, we’re inundated with the casual socialization and community so many of us missed in the pandemic. When we’re out of the pool, we feel the isolation and loneliness within and without a family. Describing this book in any more detail only spoils the surprise. Take my word for it.
By Shruti Swamy
- This was one of my favorite novels of last year, bar none, and makes this list for reasons including the truly personal. Swamy’s novel is a character study not of Vidya herself, but that of the Woman Artist. Can such a person truly exist in a society where so much is asked of her? Can she thrive? The novel comes alive in its extended dance passages, a love letter to the classical Indian art form. Beyond dance, it speaks to anyone who has had to make room for art, and struggles.
Arsenic and Adobo
By Mia P. Manansala
- When it comes to comfort reads, some like an epic fantasy, others a romance. For me, it’s a cozy mystery, and Manansala’s debut brings together the joys of a small town, delicious food, a gaggle of aunties, and stakes just high enough. Manansala’s book is a worthy addition to the white Western canon of cozy mystery, and places Filipino-American identity at the forefront.
The Magic Fish
By Trung Le Nguyen
Random House Graphic
- Deviating from many books on this list, Nguyen’s book is a YA graphic novel blending the magical and the painfully real. Like many others, it features the weighty impact of generational trauma. With gorgeous artwork and a story meant to be devoured in a day, Nguyen’s work is great for all ages and truly deserving, despite its recent challenging in some school districts, of a broad young audience.
By Akil Kumarasamy
- Published in 2018, this is the oldest of the books on the list, but one I think about as I wait patiently for Kumarasamy’s upcoming novel. This short story collection follows two brothers named for central characters in the Mahabharata, as they emerge from the aftermath of war and navigate the world as members of the Sri Lankan diaspora. This collection is deeply tragic and not for the faint of heart, but its attention to detail and tender beauty makes it truly stand out.
By Charles Yu
- I’m far from the first person to sing this novel’s praises, and its National Book Award in 2020 is nothing short of deserving. Drawing inspiration and formal elements from TV and movies, the novel creates an all-too-real depiction of Asian Americans in show business. Don’t be fooled by the serious subject matter, this book weaves humor into the narrative with expert dexterity. Let the greatest barrier to reading be the Courier New font, and you’re in for a treat.
By Sanjena Sathian
Many recent books have skewered the model minority myth in the Asian American community, and Sathian’s debut novel may be the most creative take yet. The concept is simple: ambition extracted from the owner’s gold, and the rest spirals out into high-stakes theft, parental disappointment, excruciating miscommunication, and more. I found myself in the characters of both Neil Narayan and Anita Dayal, for better or worse, and you may too.
So many books just missed the chopping block of this list, and I could have waxed poetic for pages and pages. Let this list be a starting point rather than prescriptive reading, and be sure to honor the works of AAPI and other BIPOC writers year round. Life is ultimately way too short for a reading diet of solely musty dusty classics.