7 Novels that Awakened My Asian American Awareness

Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, I never questioned my ethnic identity. Unlike the usual story of being caught between two worlds, the U.S. and the country of my parents, my cultural identity was firmly in place. Whenever anyone asked me. “What is your ethnicity?" I confidently responded, “Chinese. My parents are from Hong Kong.”

I grew up safely in this tight-knit Asian American community, not realizing the struggles my people experienced throughout the country. It was not until college that I finally understood that Asian Americans are indeed a minority in the United States. 

My first year I took a class in minority literature, and I just barely began to understand an entire discourse I had not known existed. Two years later and nearing the end of my fourth class in Asian American literature and culture, I am now far more aware of the Asian American experience. The twenty-some novels I read for these classes influenced how I perceive myself and the Asian American community. These seven left the greatest impressions on me. 

1. Unaccustomed Earth 

Written by the talented Jhumpa Lahiri, this collection of short stories is a masterpiece. Lahiri skillfully switches between different perspectives, such as in the titular story, “Unaccustomed Earth” between the protagonist, Ruma and her father. Even though the father is an elderly Bengali man, Lahiri easily slips into his point of view in a way that is believable and moving. It is also a great depiction of a father-daughter relationship, which is not often seen. 

Lahiri writes beautiful prose, and it can wrench raw, palpable emotions from the reader. I particularly liked how she depicted alcoholism and the death of a family member. Lahiri also wrote Interpreter of Maladies, another short story collection, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. 

2. Norwegian Wood 

I know that it’s not technically an Asian American novel since Haruki Murakami is a Japanese man living in Japan, writing in Japanese. However, he has been influenced by plenty of European and American authors, and his novels have been translated into 50 languages. The version of Norwegian Wood that I read was translated into English, and its extremely popular internationally. There was even a film made from the novel, released in 2010.

The novel is about Toru Watanabe and his relationships with two women: Naoko and Midori Kobayashi. Through Toru, it depicts the disillusionment of Japanese youths in the wake of World War II, a disillusionment that was shared by many youths around the world at the time. I loved how Murakami focuses on the nuances of human relationships and the harrowing effects of suicide. The novel left a deep mark on my consciousness, and I continued to think about it weeks after I finished reading it.

3. Bound Feet and Western Dress

In the past, when I thought of Asian American fiction, I thought of novels that focused on the traditions and practices of Chinese culture. Bound Feet and Western Dress initially felt like one of those novels, but it’s so much more. As a nonfiction dual memoir by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang about the life of her great-aunt Chang Yu-i, it reads with the ease of a fiction piece. 

The author alternates between her story and her great-aunt’s story, intentionally blurring the lines between the two women. An Asian American reader might identify with Natasha more easily at first, but eventually will find in Yu-i an early feminist figure. The novel follows Chang Yu-i through her childhood, her marriage to famous Chinese poet, Hsu Chih-mo, and their divorce. 

Born in 1900, Yu-i is raised to be an obedient, dutiful and filial daughter, yet her divorce with Hsu forces her to become a strong, independent woman. Even after the divorce, she and Hsu Chih-mo remain incredibly close. As a woman in the 1930s, on the cusp of modernity and right as China is entering the world stage, Yu-i’s story is amazing and worthy of admiration. 

4. The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and rightfully so. Nguyen’s writing is detailed and intricate. He certainly loves his adjectives, but the novel is bursting at the seams with meaning and layers. Nguyen also often alludes to the history of Asian American fiction, for he is always aware that the genre is made by his predecessors. 

Written in first person point of view, the narrator explains in the first sentence that he is a spy. In fact, he is a North Vietnamese spy planted in upper ranks of the South Vietnamese government. The narrator is half-Vietnamese and half-French, the perfect person to be a spy since he can sympathize with many sides. It is an unique Vietnamese perspective of the Vietnam War, and also a view of the Vietnamese American community after they escaped to the States in the wake of the Fall of Saigon. 

5. Native Speaker

One of the novels Nguyen alludes to often is Chang-Rae Lee’s novel about Henry Park, an industrial spy. Park wears many masks, planting himself in different situations to fit others’ expectations of him. Park has an intense desire to assimilate, which complicates his relationships with his wife and his father. Things are further complicated when his job places him in the campaign of newcomer politician, John Kwang. 

My favorite aspect of the novel is the portrayal of Park’s tension filled relationship with his father. Even though it is a father-son relationship, I could still identify strongly with it in the way Park conveys his emotions. Park uses silence as a weapon, yet he expresses his love much in the same silent way his father does. I also liked Lee’s depiction of the differences in communication between Park, a Korean American, and his wife Lelia, a Caucasian. 

6. No-No Boy

Out of the seven novels listed, these last two left the greatest imprints on me. Apparently when it was first published in 1956, No-No Boy was largely ignored by the public, shuffled to the side as part of America’s ugly past. However, it made a comeback in the mid-1970s, after author John Okada had already died, and now it’s largely acclaimed. 

The story’s protagonist is Ichiro Yamada who is labeled a “no-no boy” after refusing to serve in the U.S. Army and swear loyalty to the U.S. The novel explores the reasons behind why Ichiro felt compelled to say “no” twice, despite being born in the States. Through Ichiro’s eyes, it captures the effects of the internment camps on the Japanese American community, especially for those many no-no boys, who were alienated by their own community. 

After the war, the Japanese Americans returned to their hometowns, in Ichiro’s case back to Seattle, back home. However, how could they feel at home in a country that viewed them as enemies? The story focuses on the Japanese American community’s postwar life, and how they struggled to pick up the pieces of their lives in the wake of the internment camps. Ichiro’s story was deeply moving, and I think it’s one of the best novels I ever read.

7. Everything I Never Told You 

I first read this my senior year of high school and I am not exaggerating when I say it changed my life. I had already been accepted as an English major to a university, but I was still kind of wary of the path I was choosing. Reading this novel sealed the deal for me; after this English literature defined my life. 

Celeste Ng’s prose is utterly beautiful, and terribly heartbreaking. Like all great works of literature, it is wonderfully ambiguous and within the ambiguity you find layers of meaning. Centering around an interracial marriage between Chinese James Lee and Caucasian Marilyn Walker, it details their struggles of living in Ohio in the 1970s. 

The couple have three children: Nath, Lydia and Hannah, yet one day Lydia turns up dead. The family spend the rest of the novel scrambling for details, wondering what could have caused her death. Ng explores many undeniable truths about human nature and family, like how the ones you love the most can hurt you the most. Just as in Ng’s prose, it is in the spaces of silence and the unspoken that the truth lies.