To honor Asian American Pacific Heritage Month, we have pulled together a reading list of notable books from Asian American authors and literary composers who use their creative writing skills to construct narratives celebrating their Asian American identity while maintaining the values instilled by their immigrant families. These five books intricately probe the intersecting themes of equity, inclusion, diversity, family values, and adversity by examining the complex journeys of belonging.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
In this work of nonfiction, Charles Yu interprets the reality of Asian American actors in television and their path to the Big Screen in Hollywood. Interior Chinatown was crafted based on the experiences of many Asian American actors trying to break into the film and television business exemplified in the life of fictional character Willis Wu, who struggles to land bigger roles due to marginalization. The narrative openly illustrates the clichéd stereotypes in an easy-to-read, entertaining screenplay format, which serves as an informative guide in understanding the complexities of race, stereotypes, and adversity in the industry.
Charles Yu first began writing during his college years at Berkeley while majoring in molecular and cellular biology with a minor in creative writing. Though he wrote poetry during his undergraduate years, it was not until several years after attending law school that he transitioned to a full-time career in writing. You can now see his work on television; he currently writes for the HBO series “Westworld”.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Categorized as a character-driven novel, Celeste Ng follows the lives of a modern Chinese-American family living in a small Ohio town in the late 1970s. The novel jumps in time to explore generational divisions and rifts within the nuclear family in the wake of a tragedy. Ng tactfully weaves together a story that explores Chinese-American family values and what it means to raise children in the United States while maintaining the culture of one’s past. The book further examines the dichotomy parents and children face reconciling the two to fit into a broader society.
Everything I Never Told You was Ng’s debut novel, which she wrote in a span of six years, writing a total of four different full drafts. The book has several elements that pull from Ng’s personal childhood. Her family moved around and ultimately ended up in Ohio, where Ng attended high school and dealt with similar themes presented in the book, including racism, assimilation, and the nuances of family dynamics.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Amy Tan illustrates four mother-daughter relationships based on her real-life experiences growing up in an immigrant Chinese-American family. Set in San Francisco in the early 1950s, the story is told in four parts, 16 interlocking stories, that depict the lives of four women and their mothers who gather to play mahjong and earn money. This book dives into the different relationships and entanglements of adjusting to their new lives in the U.S. After a successful release, the book was chosen to be developed into a movie of the same name.
While writing The Joy Luck Club, Tan drew inspiration from her personal relationship with her mother and extended family in China. As an adult, Tan discovered that her mother had been previously married in China, and had left her family behind to escape an abusive relationship. Daisy Tan, Amy Tan’s mother, took the author and her brother to China to introduce them to her three previous children from her first marriage. Amy Tan would later examine the intricacies of her mother-daughter relationship in subsequent books.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
C. Pam Zhang carves out the voice of two orphaned children of Chinese laborers on the West Coast looking for a place to bury their father during the Gold Rush. The novel traverses themes of acceptance, the true meaning behind “the land of opportunity”, and the beginning of race exploration in the United States. Zhang crafts the story to tug at the heartstrings of every individual and our intrinsic necessity to belong to a community or society, as well as our need to leave behind a legacy.
According to Zhang, the story of How Much of These Hills is Gold came to her in a dream. Not intending to turn it into a novel, Zhang had written it as a short story that was then remastered and expanded with time. When asked about the inspiration for the novel, the author attributed her childhood books and ‘places’ that offered a creative ability to draw setting details to capture her dream into a physical piece of writing.
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Dubbed a literary classic, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston surveys multiple intersecting identities: Chinese, American, female, and immigrant. Blending autobiographical and mythological elements, Kingston delves into her childhood memories of being a girl raised in the United States by Chinese immigrant parents. She struggles to balance her two worlds: her upbringing in California and her mother’s anecdotes and customs of life back in China. With the help of her vivid imagination, she fills in the blanks to merge her two worlds together to understand her family's past and current present.
During the writing process, Kingston dedicated her writing process to diligence. Her approach was to write non-stop until the story began to fall into place. Kingston wanted to blend her writing with old Chinese folktales that she heard as a child, plunging into her cultural roots. She had originally titled the book Gold Mountain Stories. However, the publisher would end up changing the title due to marketing concerns, ultimately deciding on The Woman Warrior.