11 Stellar Books to Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and we are ready to celebrate! In the past we’ve shared Fun Facts about Filipinos, and Quotes from Famous Filipino Americans. This year we hope to expand your knowledge of the diverse books available by Asian American and Pacific Islander authors.
When I was younger, there weren’t that many Asian American and Pacific Islander authors who were in the spotlight, but today there is a much larger collection of books to choose from which is totally awesome! Thanks to the current #ownvoices trend on social media that promotes #diversebooks and recognizes that #representationmatters, more than ever Asian Pacific American authors are seeking to share their stories, culture, and heritage.
Since this is a Filipino American blog, many of the books below are from Filipino American authors. But I’ve included a few other selections as well that highlight stories and authors from many different parts of Asia and the Pacific. Enjoy!
Disclosure Statement: This post may contain some affiliate links. However, as always, all opinions are my own. Read full blog disclosure statement here.
By Mae Respicio
Written by Filipino American, Mae Respicio, this book takes place in the Bay Area of California. The main character, Lou Bulosan-Nelson, is a middle school girl who lives in a cramped home with her mom and lola. As an exemplary student in woodworking class, she dreams of building her own tiny house on the land that was given to her when her father died. This tiny house would give her and her mom their own home as well as the freedom she has long desired. When she discovers that her family’s financial situation is becoming more strained, Lou pushes on to build the house before the time runs out.
Even though this book is aimed at a younger audience, I absolutely loved it! Lou’s character – introverted, awkward, intelligent, determined, a dreamer – reminds me of myself at that age and I felt myself cheering her on as she worked to overcome obstacles in order to reach her dream. For an adult, this is definitely a quick read – but don’t underestimate the depth and sincerity of this story. I found myself tearing up in several sections of the book at heartfelt moments and conversations between family members and friends. Sometimes we underestimate the emotional courage and strength that young people have in persevering through difficult times or in the aftermath of tragic events.
I also loved how this book was filled with bits of Filipino cultural traditions, from practicing Tinikling for the community center festival to eating Filipino junk food. It also instills a lot of pride in the Filipino community, recognizing the struggles of past generations in paving the way for a better life for their children.
By Andrew X. Pham
Although born in Vietnam, Andrew was raised in California after having immigrated to America with his family. Later in his twenties, after a tragic family event, Andrew sets out on a bicycle journey across Mexico, Japan, and finally Vietnam. Feeling like a foreigner in his land of birth, Andrew continues on, searching for identity and a sense of belonging.
I remember reading this while I was living in the Philippines and it really got me thinking about my own journey of searching for my roots. I loved both the current day descriptions of Andrew’s journey through Vietnam on a bike, but also learned a lot about the history of the country as he recounts his family’s story of leaving everything behind for a safer future.
3. THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN: A HMONG CHILD, HER AMERICAN DOCTORS, AND THE COLLISION OF TWO CULTURES
By Anne Fadiman
This book chronicles the story of Lia, a child from a Hmong refugee family, who was diagnosed with epilepsy. Language barriers, cultural behaviors, unsympathetic doctors, and the parents’ suspicion and refusal to administer certain medications or treatments due to lack of trust all lead to conflict in treating Lia’s condition. The book shows the perspective from both Lia’s family as well as from the doctors and nurses, revealing that the issues at hand could have improved with a willingness to understand each other and an openness to learn more.
I found this a fascinating and eye-opening read. Sometimes we are quick to judge another culture’s strange customs or dismiss someone’s beliefs as backward, superstitious, or less advanced. A lot of times, people don’t understand the struggles of families who are displaced from their home country through violence or ethnic discrimination, only to struggle again in America trying to adapt to a completely different way of life and language. This book shows that personal relationships with those who are completely different from you can change your perspective on the world. It also nudges the reader to think more about and address personal biases and stereotypes that exist in all of us.
This is the only book I’ve included that isn’t by an Asian Pacific American author but I thought the content was so good and it touches on important immigrant/refugee topics.
4. SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE: A JOURNEY TO THE PHILIPPINES IN SEARCH OF ROOTS, BELONGING, AND IDENTITY
By Deborah Francisco Douglas
Half Filipino but raised in an American household, Deborah Francisco Douglas had always longed to know more about her Filipino heritage. So when a thick government-issued envelope arrived at her door announcing her assignment to the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer, she snatched the opportunity and set out on a journey of self-discovery, travel, and adventure.
Arriving in the mountain town of Baguio City, Philippines, she was introduced to a life of obnoxious roosters, bucket baths, and kids shouting her name every time she walked down the street. Despite her attempts to get involved in the community, her desire for belonging and identity did not materialize as quickly as planned. Realizing that “Filipino time” means nothing ever happens in a hurry, Deborah braces for the journey ahead, hoping to find answers, and above all, to find herself.
I couldn’t write a post on Asian Pacific American writers without including my debut memoir! Filled with warmth and humor, Somewhere in the Middle captures the simple joy found in ordinary moments and in the people we share our lives with, shedding new light on what it truly means to find the place where you belong. Whether you’re hoping to unearth your own cultural roots, volunteer abroad, or find your next travel adventure, this memoir offers inspiration for all those yearning to discover who they are and where they belong in the world.
By Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
When Nour’s father dies, her family moves from their New York home back to Syria to be close to family. But violence in their Syrian town is escalating and soon a bomb explosion forces Nour’s family to leave Syria in search of a safer place. They travel across several countries facing dangers along the way but learning to lean in to each other for courage and support.
Written by Syrian American, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, this book spoke deeply to my inner child – a child that loves fairy tales and stories of adventure – but at the same time immersed me into seriousness of the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing violence in their country. Told in a very unique style, the story transitions back and forth between the modern day journey of Nour’s family, and a heroic fairy tale once told by Nour’s father. When those two seemingly different stories finally unite, you discover that heroic deeds are not just found in fairy tales.
By Pati Navalta Poblete
Written by Filipino American Pati Navalta Poblete, this memoir describes the life of Pati growing up in a California neighborhood and the cultural clash she experiences when her Filipino grandparents immigrate to America and begin to live in Pati’s house. She reflects on the mix of Filipino and American cultural values that make up her life and what that means for her own identity as a second generation Filipino American.
This was one of the first books I found about Filipino American identity and the desire to discover what it means to be Filipino. I enjoyed the stories centering around family and culture and found ways where I could relate to her experience.
By Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, Illustrated by Kristi Valiant
I chose to include a children’s book in this list because it’s never too early to start sharing stories with a younger generation. I just love reading this story and watching cute little Cora cook with her mother. She reminds me of myself in the kitchen, wanting to help my mom cook while sneaking a taste of the food when she wasn’t looking. And it includes a recipe for pancit in the back of the book!
By Leslie T. Chang
Leslie Chang, a Chinese American journalist, follows the lives of several young Chinese women who, like many of their generation, have migrated to large cities to work in the factories. These woman travel to the city in search of jobs and the hopes of bettering their lives. While some workers experience horrible or inhumane conditions and treatment at the factories where they work, there are still many others who lead happy, content lives – they are earning a salary, can live independent from their parents, can have social lives and experience modern city conveniences, etc. This unique portrayal of factory girls in China showcases the varied lives of migrant workers and the rapidly changing landscape of China’s economy and culture.
I ended up reading this book as part of a research project in grad school and became fascinated with learning more about China. I found it was interesting how modern day life interacted with the country’s history, tradition, and culture in a such a complex way. (BTW, If this interests you too, check out Peter Hessler’s books River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving). Factory Girls was a great nonfiction read!
Want to Read:
I have heard good things about these books so while I can’t give a personal recommendation yet, I thought it’d be worth adding them in case you want to check them out for yourself.
By Kevin Kwan
Written by American-Singaporean novelist Kevin Kwan, this book tells the story of a new York professor, Rachel, who travels with her boyfriend, Nicholas, back to Singapore to meet his family and attend his best friend’s wedding. Nick has never told Rachel that his family happens to be one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. From the moment of arrival, Rachel realizes she is completely out of her element and worse, that acceptance by Nick’s family may be out of her reach.
Ok, I saw the movie and absolutely loved it! Yes, I loved the romance part of the story and the hilarious cultural commentary which reminded me of Filipino culture at times. But I was also pleasantly surprised that it showcased what it’s like being Asian American and the feeling of being in the middle of two cultures. Rachel is a Chinese American woman who has many cultural ties to her heritage, but she is also clearly American in many ways. I liked seeing how she struggled with that balancing act, but eventually found a way to navigate through it all. Can’t wait to read the book!
10. THE BODY PAPERS
Although born in the Philippines, Grace grows up in America in the New England area. While confronting racism at a young age, enduring sexual abuse by a family member, and eventually finding out her family’s illegal immigration status, Grace learns how to deal with her struggles through writing and telling her stories. With the opportunity to return to the Philippines on a fellowship, she seeks to connect with her roots and find an essential part of who she is.
Psst! If you live in the L.A. area, I will be speaking at an authors event along with Grace Talusan on June 29th, 2019 at the Philippine Expressions Bookstore. Follow the Halo-Halo, Mix-Mix account on Instagram to get updates.
By Malaka Gharib
A coming of age memoir that highlights the mix of Filipino and Egyptian cultures that makes up Malaka’s life. Trying to live a balance of her immigrant parents aspirations of a better life in America, her mixed cultural identities, and her desire for fitting in as an American kid, Malaka tells her story through pictures and words in this unique graphic novel.
There are so many great Asian Pacific American books out there! What are your favorites? Share them in the comment section below!
By the Way
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