In a 2015 interview with Fiction Writers Review, writer Bich Minh Nguyen was asked how her Vietnamese American background influences her authorship.
“Whether I’m working on fiction or nonfiction, I write toward subjects that are interesting or complicated to me,” Nguyen said.
While Nguyen’s books — from her debut memoir “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” to her latest novel “Short Girls” — often center stories about Vietnamese American experiences, living in the Midwest and the cultural relevance of food, they also more broadly discuss themes like “identity, immigration, location (and) dislocation.”
These subjects that can “never fully be resolved” — as Nguyen describes them — are prevalent in many literary works from Asian American and Pacific Islander authors.
In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, here are ten works by Asian American and Pacific Islander writers that shed light on these ever-complex themes.
‘No-No Boy’ by John Okada
Often heralded as the first Japanese American novel, “No-No Boy” by John Okada follows Ichiro Yamada, a “no-no boy” who has refused to disavow his Japanese heritage and fight in the U.S. Army during World War II, as he struggles to return to normal life after being released from an incarceration camp.
Filled with stunning prose and gripping scenes, “No-No Boy” proves itself as an ever-relevant and gut-wrenching depiction of silence and its consequences.
‘The Best We Could Do’ by Thi Bui
Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir “The Best We Could Do” portrays one family’s experience fleeing Vietnam amidst the American War and their subsequent adjustment to life in the U.S. The book primarily follows the lives of Bui’s parents, providing insight into the refugee experience and how the ways we view our parents can change.
The memoir’s pastel color palette, which feels viscerally nostalgic, is accompanied by equally captivating poetic prose. In her book, Bui asks a complicated question: “How much of me is my own and how much is stamped in my blood and bone, predestined?”
‘The Making of Asian America: A History’ by Erika Lee
Erika Lee’s nonfiction tome “The Making of Asian America: A History” is a great place to start for those curious about the ever-evolving presence and impact of Asian Americans on the history of the United States.
Though one book cannot detail the full complexity of Asian American history, Lee’s work closely examines the migrations of many different ethnic groups and makes clear how Asian Americans have always been central to the U.S.
‘If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi’ by Neel Patel
“If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi” features 11 short stories from author Neel Patel, each starring a different first-generation, Indian American protagonist struggling with what it means to embody their ethnic identity. Patel’s stories explore failed relationships, the highs and lows of secret affairs and the pressure of living up to parental expectations.
The quality of Patel’s writing remains top-notch throughout the short stories and the collection often reads like a poem, beautifully portraying Patel’s assessment that the “friction of life has a way of turning sharp edges into smooth ones, smooth edges into sharp ones, until you’ve become a duller, slightly misshapen version of your former self.”
‘My rice tastes like the lake’ by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa
‘My rice tastes like the lake’ tells the story of a Buddhist woman in exile, and her quest to describe her identity through poetry. Each poem is meticulously planned, demonstrating a mastery of language and the art of poetry.
This collection of poems by Tibetan poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa is simultaneously intimate and surrounded by a shroud of mystery, creating a dizzying effect for the reader that’s a privilege to experience. The book is hauntingly beautiful and undoubtedly unforgettable for both long-time lovers and newcomers to poetry.
‘Ghost Of’ by Diana Khoi Nguyen
Before Diana Khoi Nguyen’s brother committed suicide, he cut himself out of all the family photos in their childhood home. Once Nguyen noticed the absences in these pictures, she took it upon herself to write poetry in the empty spaces she found. “Ghost Of” is a collection of these poems and serves as a haunting exploration of grief and memory that details the intricacies of familial relationships.
“Ghost Of” is unconventional in its visual form — as the book is filled with family photos — but that’s what makes the collection of poems so striking in both syntax and visual complexity.
‘Darius the Great is Not Okay’ by Adib Khorram
Darius Keller is an Iranian American high schooler about to take his first trip to Iran. Initially intimidated by his lack of Farsi and Iranian culture, Darius finds comfort in his new neighbor Sohrab, leading to an unforgettable summer.
In addition to providing beautiful descriptions of the Iranian city of Yazd, “Darius the Great is Not Okay” is a moving exploration of teenage mental health, as Darius navigates living with clinical depression.
‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme
Kerewin Holmes, the protagonist of “The Bone People,” is many things: Maori, European, aromantic, asexual, an artist and living in exile from her family. Though she enjoys her solitude, Holmes’ life is changed forever when a boy tries to steal from her.
Kari Hulme’s writing style is unique and ever-evolving throughout the novel, shifting from the third person to the first person to even poetry in places and always making sure to keep readers turning the page with anticipation.
‘Afterparties: Stories’ by Anthony Veasna So
This short story collection by Anthony Veasna So explores the lives of Cambodian Americans living in California. The protagonists of these stories range from drunken brothers attending a wedding afterparty to a high school badminton coach obsessed with his past. Each story takes unexpected twists and turns and, even when dealing with difficult topics, is filled with humor.
In addition to providing readers with a diverse cast of characters, So’s stories explore the impacts of generational trauma with dutiful sensitivity and care.
‘The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories’ by Ken Liu
Imbued with a sense of fantasy and science fiction, “The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories” by Ken Liu explores the complexities of figuring out what it means to be Chinese and American at the same time, and how parts of our identities can often feel like they are competing with one another.
The collection is filled with diverse stories that undulate between making the reader smile, cry and question the very fabric of reality. Liu’s love of language also permeates throughout the book, with his poetic writing style making each page a pleasure to read.
Indigo Mudbhary is a University news senior staff writer covering student government. In her free time, she enjoys running around Providence and finding new routes.