May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, celebrate by reading these writers, their recent books, and the books they love! Visit our page at Bookshop.org to order these books and support independent bookstores. Or order online directly from your favorite local bookstore.
Introduction by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
A few slim weeks ago, I did an event at the American Writers Museum with T Kira Madden—a brilliant memoirist of Chinese, Hawaiian and Jewish descent. My second novel, Starling Days, was about to come out, and it was supposed to be one of the first events on a tour that would take me to universities and bookshops across state lines. At the American Writers Museum I was able to talk about how I’d tried to write a book about love, mental illness and the precarity of adulthood. But reports of the virus were getting worse and so this was to be my last event. Talking to T Kira about race, queerness, craft, and literary loves was the last time that I was in a crowded room. We gesticulated with sanitized hands.
Since then the pandemic has raged and reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans travel through the news. So many of my friends describe feeling anxious at even a simple supermarket trip. I received a message from Nate, Content & Communications Coordinator at the Museum. He was reaching out to me in my capacities as a writer whose book tour was affected by this virus and as a supporter of Asian American literature. He reminded me of a comment I’d made at the talk. I mentioned that as a teenager looking to understand my mixed race background, I’d skimmed the shelves at my local bookshop looking out for any Asian name. I even focused on the end of the alphabet because that was where I’d had the most luck. So he wanted my help in putting together an article celebrating Asian American writers.
We talked about how to structure an article to celebrate the work of Asian American writers. Names flooded into my head. There were so many: Eileen Chang who died in America and is the only writer both I and my grandmother love. Ruth Ozeki, the first half Asian writer whose work I found. Alexander Chee who showed me it was okay to write about being mixed race and okay not to write about it, to dive and delve into all the ways we are human. Esmé Weijun Wang who I admired first as a blogger, then as a novelist, and now as an essayist. Charles Yu whose work is strange and sad and funny in a way that somehow seems like home. More and more names came to mind. And so I decided get some help.
Here are nine Asian American novelists with exciting new books just out or about to be released. I’ve asked them to introduce themselves, their books, and some Asian and Asian American writers they love.
Let’s begin at the end of the alphabet—
C Pam Zhang: How Much of These Hills is Gold
C Pam Zhang was born in Beijing but is mostly an artifact of the United States. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The Cut, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and elsewhere. Zhang lives in San Francisco and is still looking for home. Follow C Pam Zhang on Twitter.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold is the American epic I always wanted to read, a reclaiming of the mythology of the West. It’s a renunciation of the typical white cowboy narrative, and centers on two children of immigrants who seek to bury their dead father and find a place to call home.
A writer who offered her a way to combine folklore and imagination— I was in middle school when I first pulled Laurence Yep’s Dragon of the Lost Sea off a library shelf. I was transported. I hadn’t encountered anything quite like that series: a mythology peopled at the fringes by characters familiar to me from folklore, yet boldly carved around inventions of Yep’s own. The books sang with authority, humor, yearning, and heart.
Yao Xiao: Everything is Beautiful, and I’m not Afraid
Yao Xiao is a cartoonist and illustrator living in New York. Yao was born in China and emigrated to the United States in 2006. After graduation with a degree in Illustration from the School of Visual Arts, Yao sought a way to document her experiences as a queer immigrant and developed a series of comics incorporating illustration and writing. Her debut graphic novel, Everything Is Beautiful, And I’m Not Afraid was published by Andrews McMeel in 2020 and has received praise by Publishers Weekly and Ms. Magazine. Her work has been nominated for the Ignatz Award and recognized by the Society of Illustrators. Follow Yao Xiao on Twitter.
Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid captures the feelings of a young sojourner in America as she explores the nuances in searching for a place to belong. This graphic novel explores the poetics of searching for connection, belonging, and identity through the life of a young, queer immigrant. Inspired by the creator’s own experiences, Everything Is Beautiful, and I’m Not Afraid has a memoir quality to its accounts of what it’s like to navigate the complexities of seeking belonging—mentally and geographically.
A book that helped her find her authenticity— Growing up reading Chinese language literature, one of the first writers I fell in love with was Sanmao from Taiwan. The reflective essays and travel journals by Sanmao opened up a possibility of writing for me as a woman–a non-traditional, free-spirited kind of writing that would be considered sentimental and trivial by a very male literary tradition at the time. Her writing didn’t quite “fit in,” as it traverses freely between languages, geographic locations, memories and dreams, and it gave me the inspiration to respect the observer in me and write in my authentic voice.
Sejal Shah: This is One Way to Dance
Sejal Shah’s essays, stories, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Conjunctions, Guernica, the Kenyon Review, Literary Hub, Longreads, and The Rumpus. Her debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published in June by the University of Georgia Press. She lives in Rochester, New York, has recently completed a story collection, and is at work on a memoir about mental health and academia. Follow Sejal Shah on Twitter.
This Is One Way to Dance is a collection of essays I wrote over twenty years about race, place, and belonging–about growing up Indian in non-Indian places, and about the search for home and love when your life doesn’t resemble the lives you grew up around. These essays ask and attempt to answer the questions: How do you move in a way that your losses don’t define you? How do you keep limber? I think of writing as a somatic practice, a composition of digressions, repetitions–and movement transformation, incantation.
Three writers who influence her— Cathy Park Hong’s recent essay collection, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning has been a text to which I keep returning. I’ve read her earlier essays and have been a fan of Hong’s writing and thinking for a long time. I appreciate that she gave voice to and created language for what she termed “minor feelings”: the racialized experiences of Asian Americans so often dismissed in the US. She uses humor and anger and wrote about Richard Pryor’s stand-up, important artistic friendships, anti-blackness in Asian American communities, shame, anger, looking for a therapist, and the experience of being depressed. I admire Alexander Chee’s essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: his narrative voice, his enviable stylistic range and subject matter (rose gardens, tarot, coming of age) and his writing is just beautiful. I also return to Rahul Mehta’s short story collection from several years ago, Quarantine. I love the presence of Gujarati words and Gujarati characters; there’s also a quiet and keenly observant sensibility in the stories that resonated with me.
Amy Quan Barry: We Ride Upon Sticks
Born in Saigon and raised on Boston’s north shore, Quan Barry is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the author of four poetry books; her third book, Water Puppets, won the AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and was a PEN/Open Book finalist. She has received NEA Fellowships in both fiction and poetry, and currently lives in Wisconsin.
Set in the coastal town of Danvers, Massachusetts, where the accusations began that led to the 1692 witch trials, We Ride Upon Sticks follows the 1989 Danvers High School Falcons field hockey team, who will do anything to make it to the state finals—even if it means tapping into some devilishly dark powers.
A book whose language influenced her— Like a lot of folks, I’m a huge fan of lê thị diễm thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For, which to my mind defies genre but is generally referred to as a novel that chronicles the experiences of a Vietnamese family who has emigrated to the U.S. Though my second novel, We Ride Upon Sticks, is a comedy, lê’s precision with language is definitely something I always have in mind. Her impulse may be highly lyrical, but arresting imagery and crystalline syntax are a must no matter what tone you’re hoping to evoke.
E. J. Koh: The Magical Language of Others
E. J. Koh is the author of the memoir The Magical Language of Others and the poetry collection A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry. Her poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Academy of American Poets, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, and World Literature Today. Koh is the recipient of Prairie Schooner’s Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing and fellowships from the American Literary Translators Association, Kundiman, MacDowell Colony, Vermont Studio Center, among others. Koh earned her MFA at Columbia University in New York for Creative Writing and Literary Translation. Follow E. J. Koh on Twitter.
After living in America for over a decade, Eun Ji Koh’s parents return to South Korea for work, leaving fifteen-year-old Eun Ji and her brother behind in California. Overnight, Eun Ji finds herself abandoned and adrift in a world made strange by her mother’s absence. Her mother writes letters, in Korean, over the years seeking forgiveness and love―letters Eun Ji cannot fully understand until she finds them years later hidden in a box. The Magical Language of Others weaves a profound tale of hard-won selfhood and our deep bonds to family, place, and language, introducing―in Eun Ji Koh―a singular, incandescent voice.
A book that she feels deals with these times— Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings, says in her New York Times essay “The Slur I Never Expected to Hear in 2020”: “To be Asian in America during the time of coronavirus is to feel very alone.” Hong confronts the reckoning of Asian Americans amid the resurgence of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, a glimpse of the imperceptible challenges ahead and the work to be done.
Meng Jin: Little Gods
Meng Jin was born in Shanghai and now lives in San Francisco. A Kundiman fellow, she is the author of the novel Little Gods, and her narrative prose has been published or is forthcoming in Vogue, the Threepenny Review, the Bare Life Review, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. Follow Meng Jin on Twitter.
Little Gods is a portrait of a Chinese woman physicist named Su Lan who emigrates to the United States after her husband’s disappearance on the night of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. It is an immigrant story in negative, inverting the traditional narrative in which the immigrant arrives on the shores of the new land like a blank slate, to be made into a new person through overcoming obstacles of assimilation. Instead, Little Gods illuminates the fullness of the first life, and the first self that lived and acted and desired before the decision to leave. Told after Su Lan’s death from the fragmented gazes of those who orbited her, it is finally a story about the ways in which we are known–and unknown–to others and to ourselves.
A novel that gave her courage— Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know was one of those impossible books–impossible in that I’m still wondering, how is this book possible?–that opened my eyes to just how much a novel can do. A Gatsby-esque story about a Bangladeshi mathematician named Zafar, it uses Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem as an aesthetic and thematic organizing principle for exploring such disparate topics as the 2007-2008 financial market collapse, the war in Afghanistan and post 9-11 geopolitics, the history and legacy of British colonialism, and much more–all while rooting fervently in individual narrative and consciousness. What moved me most, perhaps, was seeing in literature for the first time a clear example of the kind of story I wanted to tell, about the particular emotional dissonance of a person born a poor Asian peasant finding himself in adulthood negotiating the entangled world of the Western elite. I read Rahman while still trying to crack open my own novel, and his book gave me the courage to attempt many scary things.
Alexandra Chang: Days of Distraction
Alexandra Chang is from Northern California. She currently lives in Ithaca, NY with her husband and their dog and cat. Days of Distraction is her first book. Follow Alexandra Chang on Twitter.
Days of Distraction is a coming-of-adulthood story told from the perspective of a 24-year-old Chinese American woman who, at the opening of the novel, works as a technology journalist in San Francisco. The book follows her as she goes through some big life transitions, like leaving behind her career to move across the country with her boyfriend to upstate New York. In the process, she finds herself facing misgivings about her role in their interracial relationship. Captivated by the stories of her ancestors and other Asian Americans throughout history, she confronts the question: What does it mean to exist in a society that does not notice or understand you?
A writer who offered her humanity— Yiyun Li has been one of my favorite authors since before I began writing fiction. Her work has not only taught me so much about craft—I return again and again to her stories and novels for the precise, elegant prose, and the intensely feeling characters whose ordinary lives are made important, substantial, and brilliant through her telling—her books have also gifted me with greater clarity and warmth toward humanity. Her fiction has provided a lens through which I feel I can experience the mystery of living in the world with others. She is an incredibly wise writer, and her work has influenced my own in more ways than I can count.
Frances Cha: If I Had Your Face
Frances Cha was a travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul. She grew up in the United States, Hong Kong and South Korea. Currently, she lives in Brooklyn with her family and spends about three months out of the year in Korea every year. Follow Frances Cha on Twitter.
If I Had Your Face is a debut novel set in contemporary Korea. It follows four young women who live in the same apartment building in Gangnam as they struggle to carve out a life for themselves in the glittering, extreme city of Seoul.
A novel she loves for its cinema and subversion— Janice Lee’s The Piano Teacher is an incredibly beautifully written novel set in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasions in the 1940s. Even though I lived in Hong Kong for years I was unfamiliar with the historical backdrop of the book, and I loved everything about it. I would pore over how cinematic it was and try to dissect how that was achieved. I also loved how it would subvert expectations of race and class and love.
George Abraham: Birthright
George Abraham is a Palestinian American poet and PhD candidate at Harvard University. They are a Kundiman fellow, a board member for the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), and a recipient of the College Union Poetry Slam’s Best Poet title. They are the author of the debut poetry collection, Birthright (Button Poetry, April 2020), as well as the chapbooks the specimen’s apology (Sibling Rivalry Press) and al youm (the Atlas Review). Their work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, the Paris Review, LitHub, West Branch, and Mizna. Follow George Abraham on Twitter.
Birthright emerged from the intersection of so many lonelinesses: the loneliness of a college campus >1000 miles from home, housing the loneliness of neurodivergence, housing the loneliness of an entire diaspora, predicated on the loneliness of the very existence of a thing to call “diaspora.” I needed to write a book that not only dissected that loneliness by building shape, space, and language for histories like mine, but curse the imaginations, the systems behind the self I was that could not See my Self, the self that worked against my own existence. I needed to take back the word “Birthright” from every colonial machine that stole it from the Palestinian diaspora; I needed to give it a new memory, a new life, dis/re-membered from what it was written into.
The Many Works that influenced them— The entire process of writing Birthright was shaped and guided by so many Asian diasporic writers, from Suji Kwock Kim’s Notes from the Divided Country which led me to the ancestral calling, to the landscape of memory, that Began my journey, to Philip Metres’ Sand Opera which first taught me how form and visual space can be subversive vessels for such histories & memories of, to Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK which forced me to interrogate the bloodshed and complacencies of the English language & find a language for Self and history that was not only aware of, but set on deconstructing, the contradictions of narratives like mine existing in English. Writing such a history could not have been possible without the Palestinian diasporic writers who helped built my imagination before me, namely Hala Alyan, Zaina Alsous, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Randa Jarrar — my work is forever indebted to all of them and the ways they have re-defined what Palestinian diasporic literature can look like. The later parts of the editing process could not have happened without the work of Craig Santos Perez, which gave me permission to take up space & (re-/un-)claim the spacial and temporal ecological landscape that was Birthright, and Jan-Henry Gray, whose friendship & brilliant/formally innovative book, DOCUMENTS, gave me the language and permission I needed to confront complications of writing in and among Palestinian diaspora, under the current colonial enterprises of America and the gazes induced thereof.
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