May is National Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, during which we honor the history and culture of AAPI communities around the world. To uplift AAPI voices, The Daily asked our writers for their recommendations on books that tell AAPI stories.
“Stay True” by Hua Hsu (Recommended by Dana Chiueh ’23)
New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu’s debut memoir is a must-read, not only because it took home this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Memoir or Autobiography, but also for its wrenching portrayal of Asian-American friendship spanning different immigration generations. Hsu grew up between California and Taipei like many people I know, while his best friend Ken is a fourth-generation Japanese-American who doesn’t take off his shoes in the house. The memoir revolves around the two’s complex friendship and search for belonging in America.
Above all, “Stay True” is a gentle meditation on adolescence and grief, and it immerses readers in a context largely overlooked by historical memory. Set in Berkeley in the 1990s, the book is full of quiet surprises that ring true without reliance on tropes; it’s doubly thrilling for those of us with a connection to the Bay Area. Unlike many of its contemporaries, “Stay True” excels in its portrayal of a diversity of Asian American experience: both the loneliness one feels after perceiving differences between fellow Asian Americans, and the beauty in learning from those differences.
“Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” by Nam-ju Cho (Recommended by Hana Dao ’24)
The release of this feminist novel, written as a male psychiatrist’s case study of a housewife, is key to understanding the feminist movement in South Korea. After being forced to give up her job to take care of her newborn daughter, she experiences depression and, quite literally, loses her sense of self. She is driven into madness, impersonating various other women in her life. This psychosis allows us to see the pervasiveness and severity of gender inequality through multiple lenses.
When I started reading the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I was surprised to find that I finished it within two days. Cho’s debut international bestseller is a profound glimpse into the everyday experiences of misogyny and sexism that Korean women face. This book holds such rich insight into the modern patriarchy and left me reflecting deeply on what it means to be a daughter, a sister or a mother when confronted with gender limits from both culture and tradition.
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong (Recommended by Leyla Yilmaz ’25 and Kirsten Mettler ’23)
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a novel in the form of letters from a 28-year-old Vietnamese American man (referred to as “Little Dog”) to his illiterate mother, who fled Vietnam during the war in the 1960s. Born into two different worlds, Little Dog and his mother, Rose, had two very distinct lives; it is hardly possible for one to understand the other’s troubles completely.
This narrative is intertwined with Little Dog’s teenage love affair with Trevor, whom he met working at a tobacco farm. Trevor is the son of the farm’s owner, and he represents a race and class entirely distinct from Little Dog’s. Through their relationship, Little Dog comes to understand his sexuality and reconsider his relationship to white America. Becoming a writer, departing from his social class and connecting more with the privileges of white America, the narrator grieves over the invisible wall between him and his mother. Their lives were so inherently connected, yet also separated by war, culture, class and language.
Vuong tackles the topics of immigration, family, sexuality and substance abuse with a raw honesty that maintains their seriousness without becoming didactic or melodramatic. Vuong’s novel is clearly written by a poet. Stunning imagery, smooth flow, and staggering emotional depth make the book difficult to put down.
“Oculus” by Sally Wen Mao (Recommended by Dana Chiueh ’23)
At the end of last September, I checked out Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus from the Los Angeles Public Library, took it to a jjimjilbang and proceeded to devour it. For lovers of Asian American poetry, reading “Oculus” feels like both a homecoming and a kind of privilege. I studied this collection for a whole quarter for my Levinthal tutorial and am still finding gems to excavate.
Honestly, I can’t believe I hadn’t read it sooner. Mao roams with an astonishing deftness across ideas such as technofeminism, the Asian woman as a cyborg and the politics of Chinese labor across borders. She draws heavily from both Asian American chronologies and contemporary Chinese issues.
It’s Mao’s commitment to raising the stakes of American racial politics through the lens of migration history that I find so compelling. Whether delving into the stereotyping of Anna May Wong — the first Asian American movie star — or workers’ riots at Foxconn, Mao’s poems arrive over and over again through rich diction and rhythm throughout the collection. Her upcoming release in August, “A Kingdom of Surfaces,” deserves our attention for sure.
“Portrait of a Thief” by Grace D. Li (Recommended by Carolyn Stein ’24)
I picked up “Portrait of a Thief” simply because I was at a bookstore and my friend placed the book in my hands. “Trust me,” she said, “You’re going to love this one.” I didn’t bother reading the plot summary and decided to trust her. And wow, am I glad I listened to her.
This book masterfully marries themes of decolonization, diaspora and identity with the personal stories of five Chinese-American college students. The story follows these college students as they decide to “take back” ancient Chinese art pieces that were looted to Western museums during colonial conquests. The art heist leaves you feeling exhilarated, but the personal stories of the protagonists are what ultimately leave you wanting more.
“Last Tang Standing” by Lauren Ho (Recommended by Sarayu Pai ’23)
“Last Tang Standing” by Lauren Ho undeniably nabs a spot in my list of favorite books, for its engaging storyline and hilarious characters. After reading the “Crazy Rich Asian” series, I was searching for a novel that touched on similar themes of Asian family issues in a way that defies racial stereotypes. “Last Tang Standing” did not disappoint.
In a style that emulates “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (in which the protagonist keeps a diary on the things she wishes for in her life), Ho writes of the romantic misadventures of career-driven thirty-something Andrea Tang. When Tang and an infuriating love interest are both vying for the partner position at her firm, drama ensues. Tang learns of the power of love and being true to herself — themes that I adored. The novel is a heartfelt riot.
“Frankly in Love” by David Yoon (Recommended by Anthony Martinez Rosales ’26)
“Frankly In Love” is a classic romantic comedy novel about a Korean young man who tries to please his parents by fake-dating a Korean girl, only to fall in love with her. Frank Li appeases his strict parents, helps out with the family-owned grocery store and maintains a secret relationship with a white girl — all in the middle of his college application season.
After picking up this book for my Battle of the Books competition during high school, I fell in love with its crisp humor. The novel navigates themes of family standards and love, while also weaving topics in relation to racism and privilege. I recommend the book to anyone wanting a fun read and a cute romantic comedy.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.