6 Books by AAPI Authors to Read During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Alma Chow // The Watchdog

Kevin Kwan, author of the internationally bestselling novel “Crazy Rich Asians,” once said: “Asian literature is evolving with the people. It’s always a reflection on what’s happening to the culture at large.” 

Literature has always played an essential role throughout history. It has acted as a crucial method of preserving cultures that would otherwise be forgotten. Additionally, literature has historically played significant roles in igniting social change. 

We have seen books like “95 Theses” by Martin Luther, which in its publication brought on the protestant reformation in the 1500s; Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” which is credited to be the blueprint of feminism theory; and “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, which revolutionized the world’s understanding of evolution, providing an irreligious perspective on why we exist. Literature mirrors our society and will continue to be a tool for writers and activists alike to reflect on the current affairs of the world. 

In 2021, there was a 339% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes reported nationwide compared to 2020, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reports. For the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, an additional side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is the proliferation of hate crimes targeted towards them, ranging from snide comments to harassment and assault. 

Discrimination is often rooted in ignorance and the unwillingness to commit to understanding other cultures, which results in an ethnocentric perspective of society. It’s imperative for all of us to gain a deeper understanding of the diverse cultures at play and the issues we face before we can draft solutions to combat discrimination. 

In honor of AAPI Heritage Month in May, we should all come together in solidarity — whether you are part of the AAPI community or not — to gain a deeper understanding of the cultures of the AAPI community and the factors that contribute to the challenges we face today. No action can be taken to combat interpersonal or systemic-level racism unless all of us have a mutual understanding of the issues at hand and the complexities behind those issues. Here are six books by AAPI authors that talk about AAPI culture at large.

“No-No Boy” by John Okada
First published in 1956, “No-No Boy” follows a Japanese-American, Ichiro Yamada, in Seattle during the 1950s, the era post-World War II. Refusing to swear allegiance to the US and refusing to serve in the US Military, Yamada is torn between identities as an American citizen and as someone with Japanese heritage. Being thrown into an internment camp and then into prison, Yamada struggles with his identity, sense of belonging and guilt.

Throughout the novel, Okada scrutinizes the experiences of the Japanese-American community during the aftermath of the internment camps and the confusing, guilt-ridden identities many held during the time, as well as the struggle of reconciliation in a nation recovering from the scars of war and grappling with issues of race and identity.

“A Very Large Expanse of Sea” by Tahereh Mafi 
“A Very Large Expanse of Sea” is the story of a young Muslim-American girl during the aftermath of 9/11 as she is faced with discrimination against her purely because of her ethnicity and religion. In this young adult novel, Shirin, a 16-year-old, navigates high school, where she is faced with Islamophobia on a daily basis. As a result, she has become defensive and cautious against others. However, her worldview is challenged when she meets Ocean, a kind-hearted boy who tears down her barriers and challenges her perceptions.

Prejudice, racism, identity and the power of empathy are all explored in the story. It places emphasis on Muslim Americans’ hardships and perseverance in the aftermath of 9/11, emphasizing the necessity of understanding, acceptance and breaking down stereotypes.

“Kaikeyi” by Vaishnavi Patel
A retelling of the Sanskrit epic Rāmāyaṇa, “Kaikeyi” follows the title character, Kaikeyi, who has traditionally been regarded as morally ambiguous and selfish. “Kaikeyi” by Vaishnavi Patel retells the story of Kaikeyi in a non-traditional, feminist light. 

Patel shares, “​​I wrote this book for the Hindus who question their place in this religion because of patriarchy or fundamentalism, and for myself because I love my religion and want to see it become better.”

“Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu
Presented as a screenplay, “Interior Chinatown” follows Willis Wu, a Chinese-American actor who finds himself playing background roles like the stereotyped “Generic Asian Man” and dreams of landing a leading role like the “Kung Fu Guy”. Willis struggles to assert his individuality and worth in a society that reinforces racial stereotypes.

The book provides thought-provoking commentary on the experience of Asian Americans, the fight against stereotypes, and the quest for authentic self-expression and belonging in a culture that frequently fails to see beyond appearances.

“Babel: An Arcane History” by R.F. Kuang
This historical fantasy novel follows Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton who was brought to the United Kingdom to study languages which, in this world, translate to magic used in the Empire’s quest to become an unparalleled power by colonization. As the story progresses, Robin is torn between his identity, which is tied to his homeland, and the education he received in the UK.

“Island of Shattered Dreams” by Chantal T. Spitz
The debut novel of indigenous Tahitian Chantal T. Spitz is set in French Polynesia in the period leading up to the first nuclear tests. This historical fiction follows a family and their struggle to preserve their culture and traditions amidst the changes happening all around them. It explores themes of colonization, cultural preservation, and the impact of historical injustices on individuals and communities.

There are countless books unmentioned that are also worth delving into. As we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, it is critical for everyone, regardless of background, to gain a better understanding of AAPI cultures and the challenges they face. Only by working together can we combat discrimination and create a more inclusive and equitable society. 

For more AAPI books, check out Bellevue College’s AAPI Virtual Display or Goodreads’ comprehensive list of new book releases by AAPI Authors