In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, I want to share my favorite fiction works by Asian American authors!
When I began to read books by Asian authors with Asian characters, it was as if a whole world opened up for me. Reading these fictional stories rooted in Asian American experiences almost felt like digging into my own family history and our own unpacked trauma. As a child of Chinese Vietnamese refugees, it was especially empowering to read narratives about these experiences that had shaped my life, but that I knew almost nothing about growing up.
So, in no particular order, here are 10 works of literature by Asian American authors that have left a profound impact on me and my relationship to my cultural identity.
Note: I apologize in advance that this list leans heavily East and Southeast Asian (specifically Chinese and Vietnamese American as I identify with those cultural experiences the most). I would love to read more novels by other groups under the AAPI umbrella, including South Asians and Asian Pacific Islanders! Please share your recommendations if you have any!
At turns both darkly funny and achingly sad, this is one of my all-time favorite novels. It tells the story of a time machine technician who searches for his father, lost in time, while his mother is trapped in an endless loop of her own memories. An imaginative yet crushingly realistic analogy for the disruptive effects of immigration—a journey that is not unlike time travel—this novel will stay with you long after you read the last page.
Now a classic, canonical Asian American novel, The Woman Warrior was widely criticized by the Asian American literature community at the time of its publication because of its negative (but truthful!!) portrayals of Chinese American familial relationships. And, honestly, also probably because Maxine Hong Kingston was a woman disrupting the very male Asian American lit scene with unprecedented success. Anyway, I very much enjoyed this novel because I had never read anything like it before; it explores the tricky Asian American parent-child relationship with such directness yet such delicacy.
In this collection of short stories, Viet Thanh Nguyen writes profoundly human characters with precision, inhabiting the psyches of those affected by the Vietnam War and its aftermath—Vietnamese American refugees, those left behind, and veterans. There were several stories that struck me as so real I felt as if they had been told to me as memories rather than fiction. Nguyen’s characters are depicted with love and intimacy, as if they are family members, and that’s so important when Vietnamese American experiences are so often obscured or told through only the lens of American saviorism.
Told through the shifting perspectives of a multi-racial cast of characters in Los Angeles and Mexico, this magical realism novel imagines what would happen if the Tropic of Cancer shifts steadily northward. The answer, of course, is complete chaos, which includes gratuitous and explosive freeway accidents, a utopian homeless encampment, and an epic wrestling showdown at the US-Mexico border between the physical embodiments of the respective countries’ political and cultural conflicts. It’s, um, a lot, but absolutely brilliant, and this novel is one of the main reasons I love magical realism so much.
Lyrical and written more like poetry than a novel, this book fades in and out of the present and past with scenes from the narrator’s family history, as refugees from the Vietnam War who struggle to begin new lives in America. It’s more a meditation on trauma, loss, and healing than a plot that drives forward, but I love this loose structure because it makes a certain kind of sense to me that a story about a family losing their country and previous lives should be more free-flowing than linear.
Each sentence in this novel is exquisite. I loved this book more so for its incredibly vivid imagery and beautiful language than its plot, but I also fell in love with the novel’s premise: a world where magical doors begin transporting people between borders. What would our world look like if borders were, in effect, meaningless? This book seeks to answer that question through the story of two young lovers whose relationship transforms as they escape from their war-torn country through one of these doors.
When I decided I wanted to ditch science for writing, even though I spent four years of my life getting an expensive and anxiety-inducing degree in physics, I had no idea that my experience wasn’t unique. Turns out, quitting a more traditional path in favor of more creative dreams that we were afraid to pursue from the start due to pressure from immigrant parents is not uncommon for Asian Americans. Reading this book, about a Chinese American woman who leaves her chemistry PhD program and the ensuing emotional aftermath, was like holding up a mirror to my own life. Also, Weike Wang is wickedly funny in the most unexpected ways (and then, when you’re caught off guard, she wrangles your heart with emotional depth and leaves you crying in bed…I may or may not be speaking from personal experience).
A discourse on our toxic relationship to capitalism and consumerism disguised as a zombie novel, Severance tells the story of an Asian American female protagonist who survives a worldwide zombie apocalypse and joins a cult-like troop of survivors. If you are a millennial with lots of existential dread and a reluctant but inescapable codependency on consumerism (haha, ME AF), you’ll find lots to love in this quiet yet powerful novel. Expect more ruminating flashbacks from the protagonist’s past than the gory action scenes you might expect from a typical zombie story; the book moves at a steady and solemn pace that nevertheless had me turning the pages until it was over.
Celeste Ng’s second novel transports the reader to the affluent suburb of Shaker Heights as a single mother and her daughter disrupt this carefully planned world. Meanwhile, the town is also thrown into conflict over the contested adoption of a Chinese American baby. Ng writes characters that feel incredibly, solidly real, with a vivid and cinematic style (the book is being adapted into a TV series). The novel had me contemplating what it means to be a mother and the policing of motherhood along racial and class lines.
The first story I read by Ken Liu was the namesake of this short story collection, and it ripped my heart out. I dare you to read “The Paper Menagerie” and not cry! The other stories are just as imaginative, ranging from space age sci-fi to futuristic steampunk to historical dramas, but Liu’s prose never loses sight of what makes us human.
Ok, I just had to add one more! Among all of the intense and sad stories on this list, I had to throw this one in for my romance lovers. Helen Hoang writes both a wonderfully empathetic, cute, and funny autistic romance heroine and a very sexy, caring, and vulnerable mixed Asian male lead. It’s a steamy and quick read that will have you longing for more (luckily, Hoang just released her second romance novel this month). Yes to more romance novels with diverse main characters!
Let me know if you read anything on this list (so we can bond over our emotional investment in fictional characters, lol)! For more book recommendations, check out my “i read” highlight on my Instagram profile, where I keep a running list of book reviews.