15 Seminal Novels By Asian American Authors Everyone Should Read

Not just The Woman Warrior or Joy Luck Club.

From the first waves of immigration and imperialism to today’s Crazy Rich Asians era, Asian American literature is as diverse, deep, and varied as our experiences.

To celebrate AAPI literature, here are 15 seminal novels by AAPI authors:


Waylaid by Ed Lin

Kaya Press / Via

Ed Lin’s unwaveringly funny coming-of-age novel centers around a Taiwanese-American boy struggling to grow up as he helps his parents rent rooms to johns and hookers at their sleazy motel on the Jersey Shore. Surrounded by a revolving door of lonely old men, families fleeing poverty, and prostitutes, all the 11 year-old narrator wants is to lose his virginity. Slowly, he loses his grasp on family, friendship, and childhood as he becomes obsessed with sex.

Waylaid is raw and unrelenting, exploring the dark edges of the immigrant dream and the human yearning for any form of distraction and happiness, no matter how fleeting or artificial.


The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Houghton Miflin / Via

The Namesake follows the Ganguli family as they move from sunny Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they have no family to greet a newborn son and the closest thing to kurmura is rice crispy cereal. Indian tradition dictates that the maternal grandfather names the firstborn son- but without family near, they need to put a name on his birth certificate, so Gogol is named after his father’s favorite Russian novelist. As Gogol carves out his own America, stumbling along the first-generation path, Lahiri reveals with sharp insight the conflicts of honoring tradition in a new world and the ways each of us not only defines our own American experience, but ourselves.


Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers by Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong

University of Washington Press / Via

Okay, this isn’t a novel. BUT. This seminal anthology of Chinese-American, Japanese-American, and Filipino-American writers jump-started mainstream interest in Asian American writers in an unprecedented way. Shawn Wong and Frank Chin (who later became established scholars, writers, and philosophers in AAPI canon) were barely drinking age when they started the project, and the anthology is fueled by frustration with the cultural emasculation of Asian males. (For a similar story in the 2010’s, see Eddie Huang).

The anthology uncovered many lesser-known AAPI writers, such as the late great John Okada and Diana Chang, who are now staples in AAPI literature.


No-No Boy by John Okada

University of Washington Press / Via

John Okada was a quiet man who led a quiet life as a soldier, librarian, and father, carving out hours every night after working a desk job with military discipline. He published one novel and died largely unrecognized until Chin and Wong dug up his masterpiece when assembling their anthology. I don’t know if he set out to write the next great American novel, but No-No Boy should be up there in the pantheon with The Great Gatsby and On The Road.

Depicting life after the prison release of a “no-no boy” who refused the WWII U.S. army draft because the U.S. stripped himself and other Japanese Americans of citizenship rights, Okada captures a generation of America’s lost honor in startlingly perfect prose.


The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Algonquin press / Via

Not all Chinese-Americans are doctors, engineers, or lawyers. In fact, the past few decades have seen undocumented Asian immigrants overtake Latin ones. Lisa Ko follows Deming Guo, a Chinese-American boy born to an undocumented Chinese factory worker mother. Their hand-to-mouth lives in New York City slums are dickensian, but they have each other and the little family they build around them. When Deming’s mother is arrested and deported in an ICE raid, Deming is adopted and raised by white surburban parents as Daniel Wilkinson. The Leavers smolders with the pain of invisibility as Deming struggles with the trauma of a broken identity.


America Is In The Heart by Carlos Bulosan

Penguin Classics / Via

America Is In The Heart is one of the most influential U.S. working class literary classics written in the pre-WWII period, the time of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath. Essayist, poet, novelist, and labor organizer Carlos Bulosan’s semi-autobiographical novel takes us through the narrator’s childhood in the rural Philippines and the hardships faced by land-poor peasant families impacted by US imperialism after the Spanish American War of the late 1890s. Bulosan’s experience as a labor organizer is reflected in his portrayal of the intense racial abuse Filipino migrant laborers endured in the orchards, fields, cities, towns, and canneries of California and the West Coast in the 1930s. Along with his penetrating essays, this novel established Bulosan as one of the most important 20th century social critics.


How Much Of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

Penguin House publishing / Via

Like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, How Much Of These Hills Is Gold begins with the quest to bury a body. Lucy and Sam, 12 and 11, are the newly orphaned children of Chinese laborers who died trying to achieve the American dream. Fleeing a western mining town that refutes their existence, they embark on a journey through the California hills to bury their father’s body. They encounter tiger paw prints, giant buffalo bones, and the ghosts of a plundered landscape along the way as they seek to free themselves from their past and reimagine their future.


The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Atlantic / Via

Winner of 2016’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (along with seven other awards), The Sympathizer is a haunting epic of betrayal and love narrated by a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist double agent who comes to America following the Fall of Saigon. While this “man of two minds” builds a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles, he covertly reports back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. With the grip of a Graham Greene spy novel, The Sympathizer explores, as Janis Joplin so eloquently summarizes, how “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, but nothing don’t mean nothing if it ain’t free.”


China Boy, Gus Lee

Plume (penguin house) / Via

Gus Lee’s China Boy is another coming-of-age story that hits you in the gut as much as it hits you in the heart. Growing up in 1950’s San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood with mostly Black and Brown people, “China Boy” loses his beloved Shanghainese mother early, and his military father marries a shrewish white American woman who sees him as a reminder of her competition and reviles Chinese tradition as savage and backwards. As the Communists win the war in China, China Boy’s battle is on the streets of his neighborhood, where every afternoon his step mother locks him out of the safety of the house and he is relentlessly beaten by bullies. Every night, he comes home to a stern, silent father and more often than not a dessert of discipline from his stepmother.

Eventually, he makes friends (with the only other boy on the block as skinny as he is), joins a boxing gym, and reclaims his voice. China Boy is a raw, gripping story of losing innocence and finding belonging.


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko book cover / Via

Min Jin Lee’s magnificent second novel is a historical epic about four generations of a Korean immigrant family exiled from their home and struggling to survive drastic historical shifts in 20th-century Japan. They are proud and they love each other, but are swept along in the arc of several wars and political and cultural shifts. Beginning in early 1900s Korea under Japanese occupation, teenage daughter Sunja is impregnated by a Yakuza and marries a young minister who brings her to Japan.

The cruelty of WWII-era imperialist Japan may be less familiar to western audiences; many Korean and Chinese children grow up hearing horror stories from our grandparents about the atrocities the Japanese committed during occupation (even the Nazis were appalled). Get comfy, this is a cover-to-cover kind of book.


Severance by Ling Ma

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Via

You may be shocked to find out that Severance came out in 2019, because Ling Ma’s post-apocalyptic book about a fictional pandemic eerily predicted many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originating in the global manufacturing center of Southeast China, airborne virus “Shen Fever” quickly sweeps the world and turns people into zombies. Masks, social distancing- nothing helps, and there is no cure. Our young Chinese-American protagonist, newly orphaned, is one of a tiny group seemingly immune to the virus and continues to grind at her mundane Bible manufacturing job in Manhattan, refusing to leave the city as her colleagues drop around her until she’s the only one left in the city.

Zombie literature highlights what a society values en masse- in “Night Of The Living Dead,” the zombies congregate in the mall because that’s where they spent the most time alive. Severance strikes a modern yuppie note; free of family or identity, is corporate America all we have to live for?


Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee

Hyperion Fiction / Via

Immigrant conflicts often stem from the ways we have broken off, or remain tied to, tradition-and how much our personal choice factors into it. Desirable Daughters portrays this conflict with compassion and realism. Bharati Mukherjee follows three Calcutta-born sisters on their diverging paths as they grow up in a rapidly evolving world. Weaving together richly colored stories of the sisters’ childhood memories, ancestors, and Indian history, Mukherjee paints a fascinating generational shift.


Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

Penguin Random House / Via

Sometimes the only way to buck the roles we’ve been assigned is to laugh at the players. Willis Wu lives life as Charlie Chan’s Number One Son– he’s just a Generic Asian Man prop. As a bit player in a Chinatown procedural cop show (aptly named “Black and White”), Willis dreams of being Kung Fu Guy, the best role he thinks a yellow guy can attain. Through chance, Willis finds himself stumbling into a wider world rife with secrets, history, and buried legacies.


The Book Of Salt by Monique Troung

Houghton Miflin / Via

It’s Paris, 1934, and Vietnamese cook Binh is part of a different Lost Generation. As Binh’s employers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, leave for America (symbolic, no?) he weighs his options about where to go next: Will he go with “the Steins” to America, stay in France and risk the war, or return to his native country? The Book Of Salt takes us through Binh’s unreliable narration as he recalls the secrets and routines of his famous employers, his childhood in French-colonized Vietnam, his adventures as a sailor, and his experience as an exile in many senses of the word.


Shark Dialogues, Kiana Davenport

Plume (penguin house) / Via

Shark Dialogues has all the makings of a great HBO series. The fateful affair of a runaway Tahitian princess and a 19th-century Yankee sailor sweeps through a century and a half of tempestuous Hawaiian history, taking us on a magical, provocative, and erotic journey. Kiana Davenport is one of the few native Hawaiian writers to make such a big splash, and she’s opened doors for a wave of Pacific rim literature.

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