I saw the acronym AAPI around a lot before I finally learned what it meant: Asian American Pacific Islander. (Being that I’m on the other side of the world, I think it’s kind of fair enough that I didn’t clock it sooner.) A proposed alternative – APIDA, or Asian Pacific Islander Desi American – has been floating around, but AAPI is still the standard parlance, as in AAPI Heritage Month (May). Looking over my shelves, I realised I had a lot of books by AAPI authors, so I thought I’d put together a list of some of the best. Here are 13 must-read books by AAPI authors for anyone looking to expand their literary horizons in that direction.
The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang
The Heart Principle has all the hallmarks of a Hoang classic: a diverse cast of characters and a lot of no-holds-barred open-door lust. It’s a little unrealistic (the first bloke that Anna matches with on Tinder is the winner – really?), but all the best romance novels are. What really sets it above Hoang’s earlier novels, though, is the dark turn the story takes at the end of Part One; Anna receives a devastating phone call that changes everything. It made for an all-too-real jarring contrast between sex and sadness. This is one of the best books by AAPI authors for romance fans. Read my full review of The Heart Principle here.
Bonus: check out my review of Helen Hoang’s debut novel, The Kiss Quotient, here.
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
Good Talk is “a memoir in conversations”, promises the blurb, “a bold, wry, and intimate graphic memoir about identity, interracial families, and the realities that divide us”. Jacob’s six-year-old son began asking tricky questions about race, identity, and politics, which led Jacob to re-evaluate her own life experiences and conversations from her past. She reproduces those memories in this illustrated memoir, from her parents’ migration to the United States to the election of Donald Trump. Jacob’s recollections, images, and dialogue are deceptive in their simplicity (and, let me be clear, I mean that in the best possible way). Read my full review of Good Talk here.
Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice For Murderers by Jesse Q Sutanto
Jesse Q Sutanto has written some of the most delightful and engaging books by AAPI authors of the past few years – and the good news is, she is prolific! Even though she’s probably best known for her best-selling Dial A For Aunties, but I get most excited for Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice For Murderers. First off, it’s got a great title! And the story is heaps of fun too: a “little old lady” who lives in Chinatown discovers the body of a dead man in the middle of her tea shop. In his hand is a flash-drive, and Vera Wong
suspects knows that she’ll do a better job of tracking down the person who’d kill for it than the police ever could.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
You might be tired of essay writers being hailed as “the voice of a generation”, but it’s kind of understandable when you read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. This collection is a “trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives”. Looking at cultural prisms in turn – the advent of social media, the rise of the scamming ethos, the scourge of optimisation under capitalism – Tolentino examines all the ways in which we deceive ourselves, and the truths we work hard to avoid. This is one of the most insightful and searing books by AAPI authors you’ll find on the New York Times Best-Seller List.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere is Celeste Ng’s second novel, the one that catapulted her to book club stardom – it’s probably one of the most widely-read books by AAPI authors today. It was famously endorsed by Reese Witherspoon, who said: “It’s a deep psychological mystery about the power of motherhood, the intensity of teenage love, and the danger of perfection,”. Plus, it’s just masterfully written. It’s an issue novel, but one that doesn’t beat you over the head with a foregone moral position. It’s a psychological thriller, without the hack writing or “plot twists” you can sniff out a mile off. It’s a family drama with a family that actually feels like a family. Read my full review of Little Fires Everywhere here.
Bonus: read my full review of Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, here.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
For a fluffy young-adult rom-com, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has a spine-chilling premise. Lara Jean has written a letter to every boy she’s ever loved (five total), letters that were supposed to be for her eyes only… until one day, under mysterious circumstances, the letters are mailed to the boys in question. It’s every teen girl’s worst nightmare, but don’t let that put you off! It sets the stage for a thoroughly delightful read. Along with the Netflix series, this book has gone a long way for improving AAPI representation in young adult media. Read my full review of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before here.
In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park
Any list of books by AAPI authors is incomplete without an incredible story of resilience in seeking refuge from oppression. That’s what you’ll get in In Order To Live, Yeonmi Park’s true account of how she escaped the most brutal totalitarian regime in the world. Against the odds, Park has gone on to become an advocate for human rights and support for victims of human trafficking; her memoir has drawn attention to the horrors that take place away from the media spotlight. Above and beyond what Park sacrificed to make it to freedom, she faces execution as a “defector” (one with a very public face, no less) if she ever returns to North Korea. Read my full review of In Order To Live here.
A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
A Tale For The Time Being has a brilliant premise: a writer finds a diary, locked inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on the beach in remote coastal Canada. She suspects it to be debris from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. She reads the diary, and finds herself increasingly obsessed with the life and inner world of 16-year-old Nao, the diary’s keeper. The story itself actually lives up to the high bar the blurb sets. It takes some weird detours into metaphysics and philosophy, but it still comes to a satisfying (though pleasingly not saccharine) conclusion. Read my full review of A Tale For The Time Being here.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
In 2016, the name Brock Turner made headlines around the world. He was sentenced to just six months in jail after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman on the Stanford campus in California. His victim, identified then only as Emily Doe, wrote an impact statement which was shared online; it went viral, and reached millions around the world within days. Three years later, Chanel Miller stepped forward and identified herself as Emily Doe, the until-then anonymous victim of the man whose name has become inextricable from conversations about sexual assault, sentencing, and #MeToo. In Know My Name, Miller reclaims her name, her story, and the years lost to her silent battle. Read my full review of Know My Name here.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
Theater kids are a real “type”, aren’t they? The ones in Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise are no exception. There they are, back in the ’80s, pursuing their dreams in the high-stakes competitive environment of a private performing arts school. Two freshmen students, David and Sarah, fall in love, the passionate teenage kind that we all recognise (if not remember). There wouldn’t be anything remarkable about that, but there’s a day of reckoning coming, for David and Sarah and their teachers and friends. The protective bubble of their insular world is about to pop, and the fall-out won’t spare any of them.
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier
Pizza Girl is one of those broadly underrated books by AAPI authors that has a small but very dedicated fan base. The story revolves around an eighteen-year-old pregnant pizza delivery girl who becomes obsessed with the stay-at-home mother who phones in a desperate order. The main character is equal parts pitiable and frustrating. She just can’t seem to hold it together, and she makes terrible decisions – again and again – that will make you want to clip her ear. But she’s also strangely heroic, staring down the barrel of a life she doesn’t want and doing her best to find a way out of it. Read my full review of Pizza Girl here.
How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
Doing the rounds of writers festivals and book talks, Alexander Chee kept getting the same question over and over: “how much of your fiction is autobiographical?”. Setting aside the ridiculousness of asking that question of a gay Korean American in the 21st century when his last book was about a 19th century soprano singer living in Paris, the idea stuck in his head and ended up becoming this collection of essays. How To Write An Autobiographical Novel grapples with changing identities, the transformative power of drag, the loss of a parent, and the changing political landscape of Donald Trump’s America.
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
The Farm is a dystopian novel – but it doesn’t necessarily seem that way at first (isn’t that the way all the best ones begin?). The luxury Golden Oaks retreat, hidden in the Hudson Valley, seems like a dream come true: every amenity, every luxury, all of it provided at your whim and, best of all, you don’t pay a cent. In fact, you’re paid to be there! So what’s the catch? Well, you’ll be cut off from all your friends and family, for one. And you’ll be growing a baby for somebody else, for another. It’s hardly a surprise that it attracts desperate women, and one of them – Jane, from the Philippines – is about to learn what happens when you break the rules of the Farm.
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