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Storytelling: Prosek Highlights Contributions by Asian American & Pacific Islander Writers

Sue Watt

Throughout May, Prosek will be celebrating Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in recognition of the contributions made by the AAPI community to America and its heritage. One of the many contributions we’re celebrating at Prosek is the influence that the AAPI community has had on storytelling in America.

As PR professionals, storytelling is a large part of our jobs, so this post is a tribute to the AAPI storytellers out there. We’ve listed our favorite books written about AAPI individuals and/or families as well as authors who are of AAPI heritage themselves. 

What is Asian Literature?

Asian literature is fiction, poetry, drama, essays, and other works written in English by Asian immigrants and Americans of Asian ancestry. It became an official literature category in 1970s, and since, the category has expanded to include works by those of South Asian and Pacific Islander ancestry. The earlier works of AAPI writers predominantly focused on the AAPI family and communal adaptations to life in America. Chinese American immigrants were the first to publish in English toward the end of the nineteenth century. The primary purpose of their works was to combat negative racist stereotypes against Chinese by the popular American literature and other forms of writing at that time. As more Asians and Pacific Islanders immigrated to the US, the stories shifted to also capture the AAPI immigrant experience. Some known works include: 

  • When I Was a Boy in China (1887) by Yan Phou Lee – An autobiography retelling the author’s conversion to Christianity and his immigration journey from China to the U.S. 
  • My Life in China and America (1909) by Yung Wing – An autobiography about his education in the U.S. and journey back to China as an outsider.
  • Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912) by Sui Sin Far – A collection of fictional short stories that’s based on the author’s own experiences as a bi-racial woman in America.
  • A Daughter of the Samurai (1925) by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto – A memoir that pays tribute to the struggles of the first generation of Japanese immigrants. It retells the story of a young Japanese woman leaves the only home she’s ever known for married life in nineteenth-century Ohio. 
  • East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee (1937) by Younghill Kang – The author casts a sharply satirical eye on the demands and perils of assimilation.
  • America is in the Heart (1943) by Carlos Bulosan – This semi-autobiographical novel offers a window into the racial discrimination and criminalization experienced by Filipino migrant workers in California and the Pacific Northwest during the Great Depression.
  • Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945) by Jade Snow Wong – An autobiography about the author’s childhood and young adulthood, being raised by a fiercely traditional Chinese family in San Francisco, and her struggle to attain an education despite her family’s staunch opposition.
  • Flower Drum Song (1957) by C. Y. Lee – A humorous retelling of life in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The novel was also adapted into a Broadway musical in 1958, followed by a 1961 film.
  • The Woman Warrior (1976) by Maxine Hong Kingston – A thinly disguised autobiographical tale of a Chinese American girl growing up in Stockton, California’s Chinatown who overcomes both outside indifference and Chinese misogyny.
  • When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989) by Le Ly Hayslip – A memoir presenting a Vietnamese woman’s view of the Vietnam War and the postwar Vietnamese American immigrant experience.
  • Interpreter of Maladies (1999) by Jhumpa Lahiri – A collection of short stories about first-generation Bengali immigrants.
  • Mao’s Last Dancer (2003) by Li Cunxin – A memoir recounting the author’s journey from a young, impoverished village boy destined to labor in the fields of China to a world-famous professional dancer.
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) by Ocean Vuong – A debut novel that is written in the form of a letter from a Vietnamese American son to his illiterate mother. It is a confessional missive that captures the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, and a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity in America.

Shift in Focus

As the AAPI community matured, these storytellers moved beyond the immigrant experience themes and autobiographical works. Some of these stories still feature Asian American and Pacific Islanders characters and sometimes retain a focus on the AAPI heritage, while more authors have shifted their stories to expand into other literary genres and subgenres such as historical fiction, romance, science fiction, and young adult. Here’s a sampling of books to add to your reading list:

  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng – The novel is about two families living in 1990s who are brought together through their children.
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han – Sixteen-year-old Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she’s written for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.
  • Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu – A novel that explores a topic that isn't typically talked about in South Asian American fiction—queer identity. The story follows Lucky and her husband, who are both gay, and lying to their Sri Lankan families about it. After Lucky’s grandmother suffers an accident, Lucky returns to her childhood home and reconnects with her first love, Nisha, who is preparing for an arranged marriage with a man she’s never met.
  • Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang – Feeling stuck in her job as a tech writer and feeling like she’s in the shadow of her Ph.D. candidate boyfriend, narrator Jing Jing plots her escape. Seeking answers in her life, she struggles with her interracial relationship and millennial disillusionment, among other problems.
  • If I had Your Face by Frances Cha – Four women in modern-day Seoul have unique ambitions in the ever-changing city; their problems, however, are quite familiar to those who understand the demands of intense beauty standards. The young women strive to advance their careers, meet dreamy boy band stars, and start their own families.
  • Severance: A Novel by Ling Ma – This eerie, satirical science fiction novel follows Candace Chen, a millennial who works a tedious job as a Bible product coordinator in New York City. Suddenly, Shen Fever takes over the world — and the symptoms include forcing people to repeat old routines compulsively without consciousness until they die.
  • The Farm by Joanne Ramos – In this richly developed dystopian novel, Jane, a Filipino immigrant, leaves her baby daughter to become a Host at Golden Oaks, a spa-like environment where surrogates are housed. It’s also a place where surrogates are not allowed to leave, and in which their daily lives are controlled.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of AAPI writers that worth exploring. Here are our favorite five to start:

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing additional blog posts around AAPI Heritage Month. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for these, but in the in the meantime, happy reading! Feel free to comment below on who your favorite AAPI author is or book focused on AAPI characters.

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