A reading guide on the Asian American experience from Viet Thanh Nguyen, Charles Yu and more

Collage of recommended AAPI reading
(Penguin Books / Top Shelf Productions / Anchor / Vintage / Grove Press / Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

On the Shelf

An Asian-American reading list

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If there’s one lesson we keep having to learn in the United States, it’s that ignorance breeds hate and hate breeds violence. Below is a list of more than 40 books on the experience of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in this country, including poetry, essays, memoirs, histories and some of the best fiction of the last couple of decades. Suggestions come from Times staff; novelists including Viet Thanh Nguyen, Charles Yu and Steph Cha; poet Victoria Chang; and a group of scholars from Asian American Studies departments in California and beyond.

Prominent Asian American film critics and experts determine the 20 essential Asian American film titles of the past 20 years.

Oct. 4, 2019

Memoirs and Essays


Of Color
Jaswinder Bolina

A smart, touching book of essays on what it means to grow up as a son of Punjabi immigrants. Bolina explores the complexity of being told to leave America but having nowhere else to go and articulates the conundrum BIPOC writers face: choosing between being a “writer or a minority writer.” —Victoria Chang

All You Can Ever Know
Nicole Chung

A Korean girl adopted into a white family, Chung starts to question the cognitive dissonance of her upbringing — race never mentioned at home but in daily encounters out in the world — when she’s expecting a child of her own. The story of a complicated birth family and a generation of adoptees struggling to fuse multiple identities.

Book jacket for "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places
Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts

The war in Vietnam was fought in the name of the Vietnamese peasantry, yet Hayslip is perhaps the only Vietnamese American author of that background. Her gripping account takes on war, revolution and sexual violence. —Viet Thanh Nguyen

Minor Feelings
Cathy Park Hong

From Theresa Cha to Richard Pryor, from the Los Angeles riots to micro-aggressions, Hong makes a passionate case in these essays for Asian Americans to own their feelings and their rage. —VTN

Book jacket for "Minor Feelings" by Cathy Park Hong
(One World)

Home Was the Land of Morning Calm
K. Connie Kang

The former Times reporter’s 1995 memoir, capturing a journey from Korea to Japan to the U.S., has become a classic. “Kang has written a book about searching for stability and identity,” Michael Stephens wrote in The Times, “but she has also provided a blueprint about how to survive in the human universe.”


The Woman Warrior
Maxine Hong Kingston

The canonical text of Asian American literature, this book lays out the paradigm for Asian American women claiming their voices and stories in the face of patriarchy and racism. —VTN

The Karma of Brown Folk
Vijay Prashad

It opens with an inverse of W.E.B. Du Bois’ opening in “The Souls of Black Folk.” Where Du Bois writes, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Prashad asks: “How does it feel to be a solution?” —Sanjena Sathian

The author of “Gold Diggers,” a novel set in Atlanta’s South Asian community, mourns the security she once felt among strip malls that are now crime scenes.

March 18, 2021

This Is One Way to Dance
Sejal Shah

A narrative and lyric collection of linked essays that movingly reflects on growing up as the daughter of Gujarati immigrants, filled with as much dancing and joy as sorrow and pain. —VC

Book jacket for "They Called Us Enemy" by George Takei
(Top Shelf Productions)

They Called Us Enemy
George Takei

The star of the original “Star Trek” TV series is also a survivor of Japanese internment, the subject of his poignant graphic memoir about a 5-year-old boy — Takei — whose protective father told him they were going “on vacation.”


Fiction and Poetry

The Galleons
Rick Barot

A master poet, Barot’s poems stretch horizontally across history, like the Spanish ships that sailed in the name of colonialism, capitalism and conquest. Drawing on his personal history, including his grandmother’s arrival to America from the Philippines. Barot writes with the precision of a jeweler and the scope of a space traveler. —VC

"Your House Will Pay," by Steph Cha

Your House Will Pay
Steph Cha

Cha’s thriller doubles as a loving, riveting and sharply observed portrait of two communities in Los Angeles. —Charles Yu

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

A beautiful and difficult work about war, religion, colonization and patriarchy that defies categorization, written and composed by an artist far ahead of her time — who would herself fall victim to horrific violence when she was raped and murdered in 1982. —VTN

American Woman
Susan Choi

A reimagining of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, braiding in the story of a Japanese American radical woman. A truly great American novel. —SS

Yankee Dawg You Die
Philip Kan Gotanda

The brilliance of Gotanda’s enduring hit play lies in its ability to convey decades of Asian-American struggle to be seen through the prism of an unlikely friendship, all with righteous anger, heartbreak and abundant humor. —Michael Ordoña

Book jacket for "Dogeaters" by Jessica Hagedorn
(Penguin Books)

Jessica Hagedorn

An inventive, fast-paced novel set in the era of martial law in the Philippines. Against a backdrop of Spanish and American colonization, the novel mixes queerness and pop cultural satire with a deadly serious plot about sexual violence and communist revolution. —VTN

Born Confused
Tanuja Desai Hidier

The first South Asian young-adult novel, which meant so much to many people my age. —SS

Novelist Steph Cha writes that the face of anti-Asian violence has always been white. It’s the face of a system that devalues and scapegoats Asians.

March 18, 2021

M. Butterfly
David Henry Hwang

Hwang’s Tony Award-winning masterwork, inspired by a true story of Chinese-French espionage, grabs the Western stereotype of the submissive Asian — embodied by Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly” — and throttles it savagely, subversively and with such style that one can’t help but be dazzled. —MO

Book jacket for "M. Butterfly" by David Henry Hwang

Immigrant, Montana
Amitava Kumar

In this autofictional novel of ideas, Kumar puts forth the notion that the sexuality and selfhood of an immigrant is just as important as his geopolitics, history and ideology. —SS


The Buddha of Suburbia
Hanif Kureishi

It’s not about American experience but a British Indian man. Still, it’s a bold comic novel that turns on its head the idea of what an “immigrant novel” should be. —SS

The Boat
Nam Le

A story collection that plays with and challenges autofictional modes in the context of Asian American authorship before the term “autofiction” even existed. —Meng Jin

The Gangster We Are All Looking For
Le Thi Diem Thuy

Lyrical, haunting, spare and totally ahead of its time. —MJ

Book jacket for "A Gesture Life" by Chang-rae Lee
(Riverhead Books)

A Gesture Life
Chang-rae Lee

I love this book so much it’s hard to even explain why! Something about the rhythm of the language allowed me to recognize a piece of my consciousness as no other book had until that point. —MJ

Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life
Yiyun Li

A personal love for too many reasons to list, but also a rare unflinching and honest look at mental illness, which is often stigmatized in many AAPI communities. —MJ

Steph Cha shares a meal and some notes on performing identity with the “Interior Chinatown” author.

Feb. 19, 2020

Dear Cyborgs
Eugene Lim

A beautifully queer mediation on the politics and art of protest in Asian America via the superhero genre, showing how anticapitalist acts of refusal can be reimagined in everyday ways. —Keva Bui

Rolling the R’s
R. Zamora Linmark

A formally experimental coming-of-age novel of queer Filipino youth in Hawai’i. —Takeo Rivera


Sally Wen Mao

Mao’s first book of poems is ambitious in subject matter and in electric language, exploring migration and what it means to see and be seen. Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, haunts these pages, attempting to give voice to often-voiceless women of color. —VC

Cover of the book "The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
(Grove Press)

The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen uses the spy novel to examine the unstable, provisional status of Asian Americans, particularly refugees, whose sympathies are vast and complicated. Dense and moving and blisteringly funny. —Steph Cha

Cilla Lee-Jenkins trilogy
Susan Tan

Lee-Jenkins is working on becoming a famous writer, but first she must navigate her identity as a mixed Chinese and white child while her family undergoes some big changes. —Sarah Park Dahlen

Tracy Quan, a novelist and an advocate for sex workers, urges more focus on American “puritanism” as an underlying cause of the Atlanta-area spa killings.

March 19, 2021

Family Life;
A Life of Adventure and Delight
Akhil Sharma

Sharma writes badly behaved and troubled immigrants and he’s not afraid to go to dark places that much immigrant literature seems to avoid. His characters are deeply flawed and deeply human. —SS

I Hotel
Karen Tei Yamashita

The Great Asian American Novel traces the rise of the Asian American movement through one of the landmark events in its history, the fight by activists, organizers and students to defend San Francisco’s I Hotel, home to elderly Filipino workers. —VTN


American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang

In substance and form, this graphic novel, which moves fluidly from realism to satire and myth and back again, unlocked deep truths for me about identity. —CY

Interior Chinatown
Charles Yu

A smart, engaging, powerful book about the literal roles — Generic Asian Man, Pretty Oriental Flower, Kung Fu Guy — of Asian Americans in the narrative of our home country. It’s also a fun, high-concept National Book Award winner you can read in one day. —SC

Book jacket for "Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream" by Pawan Dhingra
(Stanford University Press)


Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America
Vivek Bald

Essential reading about the South Asian diaspora, including undocumented immigration, from before we were all seen as doctors and engineers. —SS

Myth of the Model Minority
Rosalind Chou

A history of how Asian Americans became labeled as a “model minority” — partly as a way for white politicians and leaders to attack Black and Brown communities — and the tragic legacies of that label. —Oliver Wang

Life Behind the Lobby
Pawan Dhingra

Dhingra examines the predominance of Indian Americans in U.S. motel ownership and their marginalization — as well as their success — as part of the American immigrant experience. —Catherine Ceniza Choy

Book jacket for "The Making of Asian America" by Erika Lee
(Simon & Schuster)

The Making of Asian America
Erika Lee

A solid primer on Asian American history that spans the 19th through 21st centuries. In a review for The Times, Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote that Lee “manages the sweep of her history and its multitudes deftly” in an achievement both “monumental” and “long overdue.”

Little Manila Is in the Heart
Dawn Bohulano Mabalon

Mabalon thoroughly documents the vital role of Filipino men and women in California’s agricultural economy as workers, labor organizers and historic preservationists. —CCC

The Sun Never Sets
Ed. by Sujani Reddy, Vivek Bald and Miabi Chatterji

A collection of work by a generation of leading scholars fills in gaps left by earlier histories, spanning more than 100 years of South Asian migration to the U.S. and covering life, work and activism. —Preeti Sharma

"Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California"
(Duke University Press Books)

Strangers From a Distant Shore
Ronald Takaki

A seminal and comprehensive history; Times critic Bharati Mukherjee called Takaki’s method “extraordinary, seaming together meticulous scholarship, impassioned analysis, popular culture and personal memoir.”


Yellow Peril!
John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats

A historical overview exploring the ways Asian Americans have been scapegoated by racist fears throughout the decades. —OW

About 68% of the anti-Asian attacks documented during the pandemic were verbal harassment, 21% were shunning and 11% were physical assaults.

March 16, 2021

From a Native Daughter
Haunani-Kay Trask

The United States imagines that it is not a colonial country but Trask insists otherwise in this defiant argument for Native sovereignty and against the militarization and tourist invasion of Hawai’i, whose image as “paradise” masks its role in the American empire. —VTN

Unbound Feet
Judy Yung

A wealth of evidence (oral histories, portraits, memoirs, census records) is woven together into a coherent but richly detailed narrative of the evolving lives of Chinese American women in San Francisco over the first half of the 20th century.

Book jacket for "Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People" by Helen Zia
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Asian American Dreams
Helen Zia

A mix of memoir and reporting by a longtime Asian American organizer and activist. —OW

Contributors: Keva Bui, Steph Cha, Victoria Chang, Catherine Ceniza Choy, Sarah Park Dahlen, Meng Jin, Wendy Lee, Rong-Gong Lin II, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Michael Ordoña, Takeo Rivera, Sanjena Sathian, Preeti Sharma, Alex Tatusian, Oliver Wang, Donna Wares, Jennifer Yamato, Charles Yu