Though I read voraciously as a child, I rarely saw myself reflected in the books I read—except for the Asian caricatures who appeared briefly in the pages of Steinbeck or Louisa May Alcott. Although I admired Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, I wanted to be the girls in books by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume and Cynthia Voigt.
Just last month, I picked up a used book that I remembered reading as a child. It had a silver Newbery Honor medal on the cover and I thought my 7-year old nephew would feel proud to read a real chapter book. We curled up and I began to read aloud to him, but then stood abruptly and did something I’ve never done before—out of anger, I threw the book in the trash. What I expected to be a sweet story about an interspecies friendship, The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden, had a whole chapter, “Sai Fong,” dedicated to a racist stereotype. I didn’t want to be the one to introduce that humiliating depiction to my nephew, and have him realize that he was included in that caricature. What scares me most about that moment is that I didn’t even remember the racist depiction. I have taken in and normalized so many images in my reading life, including ones that assert white supremacy.
As an adult, I’ve tried to be more proactive in seeking out diverse voices in literature. A writing teacher once told me that buying a writer’s first book was very important, as the success of that book determined opportunities for a second book, and so I try to support these authors early in their career—especially those by writers of color and other underrepresented voices in literature—so I can continue to read their work later on.
The books I chose for this list are recent works that I’m excited about. Many are by Asian or Asian American women, but even those categories are limiting in their own ways. While Laurel Fantauzzo is half-Italian American and half-Filipino and grew up in the U.S., she has lived in the Philippines for the past several years and published her first book there. Monica Macansantos was born and raised in the Philippines and also spent time in the U.S. during early childhood and graduate school, but is not Filipino American. While I’ve never known cartoonist Lynda Barry to identify explicitly as Filipino American or Asian American, in the opening piece, “Forestorybackward,” I see words that she might have picked up from her Filipino relatives right away.
These identity categories aside, these are all books that take risks and offer a special reading experience unlike any you’ve had before–and they’re all new. By buying them, you’ll be supporting these authors’ voices not only now, but in the future.
1. Laurel Fantauzzo, The First Impulse, 2016
Laurel Fantauzzo’s nonfiction debut, The First Impulse, explores Nika and Alexis’s love story, their last days, and what came after. Film critics Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc fell in love long distance: Nika was in Slovenia and Alexis was in the Philippines. Alexis wanted Nika to join him in Manila. He published an open letter to her in Rogue magazine, writing, “The first impulse of any good film critic, and to this I think you would agree, must be of love.”
In January 2009, Nika joined Alexis in the Philippines. Nine months later, they were murdered in their home. The case is still unsolved. Considering that upwards of 3,500 people have died in extra-judicial killings since July, theirs is just one in thousands of unsolved murders.
Like Alexis, Fantauzzo is mixed-race Filipino, grew up in North America and, as an adult, chose to live in the Philippines. She writes about the difficulties of writing this story, both internal and external. She notes that, “My silence was born from my fear of my name appearing on someone’s merciless list.” What answers she’s able to uncover are as compelling as the many questions she poses, including “What story does a human body carry?”
2. Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, February 2017
Memoirists write about memory, which makes Lee’s courageous memoir about the acute damage to her memory fascinating on multiple levels. Lee writes with power and clarity about the stroke and its consequences, including the gains and losses of her mind and body. She writes, “The erasure of an ability on which I relied heavily, which I considered a core part of my identity and intelligence, was shattering—for the next two years, when I said, ‘I don’t feel like myself,’ what I meant was that I missed my memory, needed my memory, clamored for my memory, grieved my memory.”
In considering the stroke that changed her life, Lee illuminates and refracts our notions of reality, identity and the self. Nothing is ever the same again, and she must find what is most important to her. When she begins the book, she is a wife, but not a mother; by the book’s conclusions, even these roles shift profoundly.
3. Min Jin Lee, Pachinko, February 2017
Good novels come to readers who wait.
Fans of novelist Min Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires have been waiting a long time for her second book, Pachinko, and the decade of patience is rewarded. Pachinko is everything I want in a family saga novel, a deep dive immersion into a complete world full of rich and complex lives to follow as they tumble towards fate and fortune.
The book opens with, “History has failed us, but no matter.” Starting in 1910, during the time of Korea’s annexation by Japan (a history that I failed to learn about until reading the novel), we follow 80 years in the life of a family, from humble beginnings in a small village in Korea to the shimmering sights and sounds of big cities in Japan. Characters are swept up in historical forces, such as World War II, and profoundly changed by medical realities like cleft palate, infant death and tuberculosis, which today don’t have the same impact.
Don’t be intimidated by this almost-500 page book. Try the first chapter, only several pages long, and you’ll see: Pachinko will break your heart in all the right ways.
4. Vanessa Hua, Deceit and Other Possibilities, September 2016
When I first read Vanessa Hua’s short story, “The Deal,” several years ago in The Atlantic’s Fiction for Kindle, I loved the single and eagerly anticipated the album. I was thrilled when I saw the news that Willow Books would publish her first short story collection as the grand prize winner of their prose contest.
“The Deal” follows a pastor on a service trip in East Africa with a group of volunteers eager to save some souls. On the one hand, Pastor Noh gets what he deserves. And yet, Hua finds a way to humanize characters who behave badly, including the American in “Line Please,” who uses his celebrity in Asia not only for numerous sexual conquests, but to build a collection of thousands of images of these people on his cell phone. Some of these characters may make us want to turn away, but Hua finds a way to humanize all of them.
5. Monica Macansantos, Playing with Dolls (A Short Story), February 2016
Monica Macansantos is an exciting voice in literature. Playing with Dolls, a Kindle Single, follows a young woman from a wealthy Filipino family as this family’s ties begin to unravel. The relationship between the father and daughter is fascinating, but Macansantos also pays attention to the family’s helpers, people who are an integral part of the family’s daily life, but not often visible in literature. Macansantos’s essay, “Becoming A Writer: The Silences We Write Against,” published in TAYO Literary Magazine last year, recently was distinguished on the notable list in Best American Essays 2016.
6. Lynda Barry, The Greatest of Maryls, August 2016
I bought my first Lynda Barry books at New Words, a feminist bookstore in Cambridge, in the mid-1990s, right around the time that I started writing characters that reflected my own experience and identity. Before that, my characters were white. I’m not sure which came first, reading Barry’s comics–in which Filipinos sometimes appeared, swearing in Tagalog or smoking a cigar–or my realization that I could write about people who looked like me. In my mind this was all part of the same awakening.
Barry’s comics get at what it feels like to be a young, creative person. I also loved that her work featured girl characters, Marlys, Maybonne and Arna, and told their stories in their voices.
I loved these books until the pages fell out of them. I saved the worn books, held together with elastic bands, to give to my nieces, but this hardcover collection of Marlys comics is a much better reading experience.