To celebrate AAPI month, Culture Writer Zenna Hussain has compiled a list of her favourite books by Asian-American and Pacific Islander authors, a selection which ranges from Chinese LGBTQ+ fantasy to character-driven dystopian sci-fi
Asian-American and Pacific Islander History Month commemorates the arrival of the first Asian immigrants in America on May 1st, 1871. With over 40 countries represented, AAPI month is a time to celebrate the diversity of Asians and Pacific Islanders and raise awareness of the complexities of their lives, experiences, and oppressions. Despite the invisibility that still surrounds many Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, they are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups, as evidenced by their increasing representation on television in Bridgerton, Crazy Rich Asians, and Squid Game, to name but a few.
East Asia: These Violent Delights – Chloe Gong
TW: Violence, blood, gore, weapon use.
These Violent Delights is a Romeo and Juliet retelling with the historical backdrop of 1926 Shanghai torn by two rival gangs, communists, and foreigners. Two star-crossed ex-lovers must put aside their blood feud and band together to save their city from the madness and monster that has taken over. Despite the gangster and fantasy elements, These Violent Delights is rooted in its Chinese heritage, with lyrical prose written in what appears to be a love letter to Shanghai whilst simultaneously challenging western imperialism, white privilege, and colonisation. Juliette Cai defies the stereotype of the docile Asian woman, as a former flapper and proud heir of the Scarlet Gang, while dealing with an identity crisis after living in America, figuring out who she is, how to love, and how to defeat the monster and save her people.
Beautiful, atmospheric writing, a dark aesthetic, gangsters, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender representation all culminate in this fantasy-inspired book that perfectly encapsulates a Chinese American experience.
Southeast Asian: The Farm – Joanne Ramos
The Farm by Joanne Ramos is the story of single mother Jane, who is chosen to be a ‘host’ at the Farm—a surrogate mother for the Farm’s uberwealthy, white clients. The farm boasts personal trainers, a massive payout, and everything is paid for. The catch? For nine months, your body belongs to the Farm and your client, as you must devote yourself to creating the perfect baby for your wealthy clients. In the midst of an increasingly sinister plot Jane must reconnect with her outside life while pregnant, fragile, and consumed by worry for her child, and risk losing her delivery fee—or worse.
The Farm, as a character-driven novel, focuses on developing voices more than plot, working in its favour. From the Filipino immigrant Jane, who chooses to carry another woman’s child in order to protect her own, to the liberal, white, do-gooder Reagan, whom Ramos explores privilege through, to Mae, a Chinese American, who outsources her fellow Asians for profit, the Farm raises heart-breaking questions about motherhood, wealth disparity, and the commodification of bodies in the global south for the benefit of western vanity and desire. The Farm, described by some as a dystopian sci-fi, is not as far from reality as we would like.
South Asian: Life of Pi – Yann Martel
TW: Starvation, cannibalism, death
Life of Pi, perhaps one of the most well-known South Asian books, inspired a Hollywood blockbuster adaptation and is recognised by both Asian and non- Asian readers. The book, published in 2001, is a fantasy adventure that recounts the protagonists Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel and Bengal tiger Richard Parker’s survival from a shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean. However, the book delves into so much more. Beginning in India, Pi weaves stories of his childhood, his family’s zoo, humorous tales of how he got his name, and overarching religious themes as Pi chose to embrace three religions: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.
Life of Pi, an increasingly insightful novel, explores issues of spirituality from the start, with incredibly vivid writing, questions of God, and a plot twist at the end that will have you questioning the entire novel and leaving you thinking.
Central Asia: A Thousand Splendid Suns-Khaled Hosseini
TW: child abuse, miscarriage, misogyny, violence
A Thousand Splendid Suns is the heartbreakingly beautiful story of three decades of Afghan history, from the Soviet invasion to the Taliban, summed up in the stories of two women, Mariam and Laila, born 20 years apart but linked by their brute of a husband, Rasheed. Mariam, as an illegitimate daughter, has been shunned and mistreated all her life. Her marriage to Rasheed, a hypercritical, misogynistic sadist, results from her mother’s death and her father’s apathy. Laila, his second wife, has had a much more privileged life; she was born twenty years later and had a happy childhood with childhood sweetheart Tariq. Years later, however, Kabul is subjected to frequent rocket attacks, forcing her family to flee, resulting in the death of her parents and her marriage to Rasheed. The remainder of the novel is concerned with the aftermath, and the consequences of Mariam and Laila’s lives intersecting.
While The Kite Runner focused on a father-son relationship, Hosseini sees A Thousand Splendid Suns as a ‘mother-daughter story.’ The book is a striking and heartbreaking story about family, friendship, and survival. The story conveys an indestructible love while simultaneously teaching Afghani events in an unforgiving time.
West Asia: A Girl Like That-Tanaz Bhathena
TW: Sexual assault, abuse, death
Tanaz Bhathena’s A Girl Like That begins in the manner of a middle eastern Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. Standing over the wreckage of the car crash that took both of their lives, Zarin Wadia and Porus Dumasia debate moving on. Deceptively happy cover aside, A Girl Like That is a brutal critique of rape culture, slut shaming, and misogyny within middle eastern and Indian cultures. Zarin, a Zoroastrian Indian ex-pat in Saudi Arabia, is a truly messy female character who has been subjected to child abuse, sexual abuse, and cruel treatment, all her life. Her life is pieced together through her auntie and uncle, Porus, and the religious police, who learn she was so much more than ‘A Girl Like That.’
The book is neither easy nor happy, but it is significant. From its initial beginnings of the couple’s death, it is clear to see the book will not have a happy ending, and that is probably what makes it all the more moving, a tragic unavoidable tale meant to inspire change or at least awareness.
Pacific Islanders: This is Paradise: Stories– Kritsiana Kahakauwila
Kristiana Kahakauwila’s short story collection This is Paradise explores the island of Hawai’i, challenging the notion of Hawai’i as a paradise while also conveying Hawaiians’ love, loyalty, and way of life as inextricably linked to their island. Kahakauwila captures the grit of Hawaii through the deep tensions between locals and tourists, fable and reality, facade, and authenticity. This is Paradise explores stories ranging from a young woman attempting to avenge her father by following in his footsteps as a cockfighter, to a young, closeted man who falls into a relationship with his father’s caretaker, to a tourist who falls victim to the city’s darker side.
The setting of Hawaii, the use of pidgin, and the desire to belong, establish roots, and call Hawai’i home are all hallmarks of This is Paradise. Kahakauwila’s powerful collection of short stories has the potential to teach non-Hawaiian’s about the culture and dispel the cliché hackneyed view of Hawaii that many of us have, while also being familiar and comforting to Pacific Islanders.
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