Diverse literature and narratives are crucial tools helping us understand the stories of those in the melting pot that is the United States. With the increased media coverage of hate crimes against Asian Americans, their voices, representation and stories are crucial to learning about those who identify as Asian American.
When most people think of Asian American literature or any literature featuring characters of Asian descent, they mainly think of Kevin Kwan’s hit novel Crazy Rich Asians, which later became the iconic movie adaptation. However, although Crazy Rich Asians allows a peek into Asian and Asian American lives, it highlights a very small percentage of the overall population. Most of the characters come from generational wealth, and although the movie portrays their glamorous lifestyle and highlights the beauty of Singapore, there is more to Asian and Asian-American narratives than glitz and glamour. Outside of the gold and excessive amounts of money, there are stories of struggle, love and ambition behind numerous Asian American and Asian immigrant narratives.
In my senior year of high school, I wrote my English thesis about the importance of Asian-American literature in mainstream American society. I poured through and analyzed these books for over a year, but every time I returned to these stories, I always found a new perspective or a new detail that elevated my experience and emotions toward the story all over again. With this list, I want to share with you some of the narratives I hold dear to my heart.
- The Joy Luck Club
Written by Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club tells the narratives of four first-generation Chinese-American women: Jing-mei (June) Woo, Waverly Jong, Rose Hsu and Lena St. Clair. The book revolves around their struggles through their lives as both children and adults. It also follows their mothers who are part of the same mahjong club in San Francisco from their childhood in China to their adulthood. Tan discusses prominent, recurring topics in Asian American literature like parent-child, specifically mother-daughter, relationships, immigrant experiences, the challenge of finding a place in different cultures and the power of language and communication.
Although Obasan is technically an Asian-Canadian narrative, many of its themes and contents are still extremely relative to American society as a whole. Joy Kogawa, the Japanese-Canadian author, wrote Obasan because she was inspired by events in her own life to portray the true nature of what it was like to be a Canadian citizen of Japanese descent during World War II. Obasan follows the narrator and main character Naomi, a schoolteacher, who recalls her childhood memories during World War II as the Canadian government conducted heavy discrimination against Canadian citizens of Japanese backgrounds, such as confiscating their possessions and sending them to internment camps. Obasan teeters between Naomi’s life as an adult and periods of her life as a child as she and her family are forced to relocate from their home in Vancouver to abandoned towns to avoid persecution. Reading Obasan feels like listening to a plea, begging you to listen and learn about the shadow that looms over Canada’s past.
- The Kitchen God’s Wife
Like The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife follows a similar storytelling dynamic with the same play on perspectives throughout the novel. The Kitchen God’s Wife focuses on the story of Winnie Louie (Weili) and her life in China during World War II as she tells her already grown-up daughter Pearl the story about how she emigrated to the United States. The novel focuses mainly on Winnie’s struggle as a woman challenging a patriarchal society as well as her story as an immigrant, trying to find a better life for her and her daughter by leaving her oppressive husband. Tan focuses the narrative on Winnie’s story instead of both her and Pearl’s perspectives simultaneously, creating the feeling as if the reader is intensely listening to a relative tell a story about his or her youth.
- Interpreter of Maladies
Written by Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of nine brilliant short stories published by several different magazines where each one tells a different story revolving around the themes familiar to the subgenre of Asian-American literature: South Asian-American literature. Many of the recurring themes include immigrant narratives, the idea of balancing two different cultures and the importance of communication. Each short story beautifully tells a new perspective from India to the United States and everywhere in between.
- Everything I Never Told You
Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng’s debut novel that tells the story of the Lees, a bicultural family living in 1970s Ohio. It follows the story of the suicide of its protagonist, Lydia Lee, the events that led up to her death and her family’s mourning. The story beautifully switches from the events before her death to the present as you see different perspectives from each of the characters in Lydia’s life except Lydia herself. As you read the novel, determining why Lydia died is like a complicated puzzle you’re on the brink of solving, but you just cannot find the last few missing pieces. Nevertheless, there will not be a dry eye when you finish this novel.
Currently on my shelf:
1. The Sympathizer
2. America is in the Heart
4. No-no Boy
5. The Namesake
6. Scent of Apples
7. The Story of a Brief Marriage
With that being said, I am not saying you should read the entirety of my suggested list and the ones I have currently on my shelf to completely understand Asian-American narratives. However, diversifying your reading list and listening to Asian-American narratives is a small step toward giving the Asian-American community representation in mainstream media.