As you may have inferred from the title, May is Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month. Asians are probably the fastest growing ethnic group within America, but despite that, many Americans or even Asian Americans do not know much about the majority of Asian cultures. Though the month of May is about to end, I want to highlight some books by AAPI authors that I have read and enjoyed in the past year.
crying in h mart, BY MICHELLE ZAUNER
I read Crying In H Mart last year and it was probably the first time I enjoyed reading a memoir. Though this book was very heartbreaking and profound, I really appreciated the author’s writing and how she talks about her experience growing up as a mixed race in America. She talked about her struggles with fitting in, her Asian mom’s expectations of her, and very detailed descriptions of Korean food that her mother used to cook for her. More importantly, the author talked about how her mother’s cancer diagnosis and death is what ultimately helped her reckon with her own identity.
SYNOPSIS: An unflinching, powerful memoir about growing up Korean American, losing her mother, and forging her own identity. In this exquisite story of family, food, grief, and endurance, Michelle Zauner proves herself far more than a dazzling singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With humor and heart, she tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother’s particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.
As she grew up, moving to the East Coast for college, finding work in the restaurant industry, and performing gigs with her fledgling band–and meeting the man who would become her husband–her Koreanness began to feel ever more distant, even as she found the life she wanted to live. It was her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, when Michelle was twenty-five, that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.
EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, BY CELESTE NG
I read Everything I Never Told You this month and similar to Crying In H Mart, this book is about a mixed race family and highlighted how race plays a huge role in the upbringing of the children, and how sometimes this causes mixed race children to feel lost about their sense of identity.
SYNOPSIS: Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, BY CELESTE NG
Little Fires Everywhere is also written by the same author as Everything I Never Told You. And although this book doesn’t centre around an Asian family, there is one story line that revolves around a single mother who is Chinese and her journey into getting custody of her birth child against the adoptive family who is white. The white family knew little to nothing about Chinese culture and made no efforts at all to preserve the child’s heritage. They even changed her name from May Ling to Mirabelle. There were several displays of cultural appropriation throughout the book which just shows us how Americans lack the understanding and empathy towards the minority groups. This book has also now been adapted into a limited TV series starring Reese Witherspoon and I highly recommend you read & watch it!
SYNOPSIS: Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother- who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town – and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at an unexpected and devastating cost.
BEFORE THE COFFEE GETS COLD, BY TOSHIKAZU KAWAGUCHI
I read Before The Coffee Gets Cold this month, and it is the first Japanese fiction that I’ve read. The book is split into four parts and is structured like a play. It makes for an easy and quick read! Read my review HERE.
SYNOPSIS: What would you change if you could go back in time? In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.
In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer’s, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.
But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold. Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time?
CRAZY RICH ASIANS, BY KEVIN KWAN
You already probably heard about the movie Crazy Rich Asians that was released in 2018. That movie garnered several nominations and awards and was probably the first film that really highlighted Asian talents. The movie was of course based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan. The story follows a New-Yorker named Rachel Chu who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family only to find out that he is extremely wealthy. Soon she realizes that she is unwelcome by his family.
SYNOPSIS: Crazy Rich Asians is the outrageously funny debut novel about three super-rich, pedigreed Chinese families and the gossip, backbiting, and scheming that occurs when the heir to one of the most massive fortunes in Asia brings home his ABC (American-born Chinese) girlfriend to the wedding of the season.
When Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home, long drives to explore the island, and quality time with the man she might one day marry. What she doesn’t know is that Nick’s family home happens to look like a palace, that she’ll ride in more private planes than cars, and that with one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors on her arm, Rachel might as well have a target on her back.
Initiated into a world of dynastic splendor beyond imagination, Rachel meets Astrid, the It Girl of Singapore society; Eddie, whose family practically lives in the pages of the Hong Kong socialite magazines; and Eleanor, Nick’s formidable mother, a woman who has very strong feelings about who her son should—and should not—marry.
What are some of the books you read to celebrate AAPI Heritage month?