7 Essential Books That Capture the Young Asian American Experience


The literary world has been exploding with talk about writers of color. Roxane Gay's 2012 article "We Are Many. We Are Everywhere." reignited the conversation surrounding their under-recognized voices, and was followed by an exciting Nation column aiming to improve coverage of these writers. In June, NPR criticized the publishing industry for staying "stubbornly white." And just this week at the literAsian festival, Asian-Canadian novelist Madeleine Thein bemoaned the under-representation of writers of color in Canadian literary awards.

As a reader of color, I appreciate the attention given to this issue. One of the greatest rewards of reading is seeing yourself — your unarticulated hopes, dreams, and fears — rendered on the page in a way that is at once recognizable and enlightening. Though I loved to read growing up, for years I stayed away from writing by or about Asian Americans  — partly because it was scarce, and partly because I feared I would find just more versions of Disney Mulans, Lucy Lius, and Amy Tans. I was suspicious that a book would turn out to be a literary fortune cookie — something that Americans recognize as Chinese, but that is absolutely foreign to actual Chinese people. I didn't know what I was missing.

Let's take a moment to thank the books that not only established my faith in the power of Asian American literature, but that also helped me finally see myself in literature as a young Chinese-American. Today, these books point to a robust tradition that is clamoring for new voices.

1. 'Waiting' by Ha Jin

Regular Rumination

"Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu." So starts Waiting, Ha Jin's National Book Award-winning novel about love, loyalty, and a changing China under the Cultural Revolution. Lin Kong is a young doctor who waits 18 years for his peasant wife Shuyu to divorce him so that he may marry the love of his life, the educated and fashionable Manna. More than simply a stunning piece of writing, Waiting presents portraits of Chinese people so true that they may incite uncontrollable sobbing. Here are the secret heartbreaks and unfulfilled dreams of parents and grandparents, brutally and beautifully exposed. 

Waiting was the first book I ever read by a Chinese-American writer, and it fulfilled an urge I didn't know I had: to read books about people like myself and my family. 

2. 'A Thousand Years of Good Prayers' by Yiyun Li


Yiyun Li's short stories are marvels. They are sometimes strange and twisted, but always deeply compassionate, illuminating the dark sides of history and the human soul with an almost impossible level of elegance. The stories are about China and Chinese America, but there is no air of exoticism or literary tourism. "Immortality," a story in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers about the rise and fall of a Mao look-alike, is one of the most astounding stories you will ever read. 

A MacArthur fellow, Li was included in he New Yorker's list of 20 best writers under 40, and has received various other accolades. She is "the real deal" when it comes to Chinese-American fiction. 

3. 'A Gesture Life' by Chang-Rae Lee

East Asian men are dealt a shoddy hand in American racial stereotyping; they are portrayed as quiet, passive, and unassertive at best. Doc Hata, the Japanese-American protagonist of A Gesture Life, seems at first to fit this profile snugly. But Chang-Rae Lee's strange, dark story of love, honor, and family makes these qualities feel as heroic and deeply human as the anti-sociability of Dostoyevky's Underground Man. 

Though Lee is better known for his breakout Korean-American novel, Native Speaker, his prose in A Gesture Life is his best, carrying the quiet seeping wonder of Marilynne Robinson or Kazuo Ishiguro. Its accumulative force is staggering.   

4. 'Mona in the Promised Land' by Gish Jen


Asians can be funny! In fact, Asians can be hilarious. So proves Gish Jen in the laugh-so-hard-your-abs-hurt Mona in the Promised Land. The book centers on Mona, a Chinese-American high schooler who falls in love with a Japanese boy who can barely speak English, decides to convert to Judaism after he flips her (literally and metaphorically), starts to date a Communist "authentic inauthentic Jew," helps her best friend harbor a homeless pancake flipper in her basement, and so forth. Mona goes beyond being a bizarre and incredibly witty tale. Through humor, it unapologetically presents the sorest and most politically incorrect issues of identity, race, and class. 

5. 'Coming of Age in Mississippi' by Anne Moody


Now wait. This isn't a book by an Asian American at all. This is an autobiography of a young African American woman who grows up in Mississippi at the start of the Civil Rights Movement!

That's right. This book has absolutely nothing to do with me, a Chinese-American woman who has never lived in Mississippi, except for the fact that I picked it up at a garage sale when I was a kid and reread it well over a hundred times during the course of my adolescence. Why was I drawn to this book? And why is it on this list? Because as a young reader, I identified fiercely with stories of slavery and the Civil War as told in African American literature. For whatever reason, Asian American literature was not as abundant or available as these books when I was a child, and so this was what I picked up. Moody's inspiring story of real-life adversity, though quite foreign to me, was the closest I could get in literature to understanding my own struggles and sense of alienation as a minority living in the United States. 

6. 'The Woman Warrior' by Maxine Hong Kingston

"Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese?"

This sentence embodies the crux of Kingston's imaginative, genre-bending memoir of growing up as a Chinese-American. It is also wisdom that, unfortunately, many critics did not take from her work. The reception of The Woman Warrior was wildly positive, but Western audiences assumed that Kingston spoke for all Chinese-Americans, rather than with her own incredibly "peculiar" voice. The result was backlash from writers such as Frank Chin, who criticized Kingston for her inaccurate portrayals of certain myths. But Kingston's writing is bold, exhilarating, and cannot be pigeonholed into the binary of fact and fiction. If anything, The Woman Warrior is a book that calls for even more deeply individual and strange works of Asian American writing.

7. 'Dogeaters' by Jessica Hagedorn

Hagedorn is Filipino, American, and hip. "I don’t care if he's a little gordito, or pangit, or smells like dead goat. That's Boomboom Alacran, stupid. He's cute enough for me." Here was Junot Diaz's electric urban language before Junot Diaz had arrived. Finding Dogeaters excited me about the possibilities of the Asian American novel, and the diversity of the Asian American literary voice. It is a novel as much about finding a voice after imperialism as finding a voice after immigration.