March and April brought much more than lambs and showers this year, to say the least, but one thing I’m really enjoying about May under quarantine is that it’s Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month AND the first time in a long while that I’ve tried to garden. Gardening for me = putting some supermarket herbs into pots, plus getting extra credit for keeping alive the volunteer tomato plants that cropped up in our yard. Like everyone else, I’ve had good and bad days, but the more optimistic, hopeful ones always involve puttering around outside in my “garden” and reading. I’m excited to share some AAPI reads I pulled from my bookshelves and hope you’ll get lost in one of these reads this month.
Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee
This is a marvelous book, a classic really, and if you’ve never read it, you must. It contains one of the most compelling openings of a novel – where the protagonist Henry Park describes the note his estranged wife leaves him:
You are surreptitious
B+ student of life
First thing hummer of Wagner and Strauss
Yellow peril: neo-American
great in bed
______ analyst (you fill in)
Henry Park, it turns out, is a spy of sorts. This is one of the OG immigrant narratives of dislocation, with a suspenseful plot, incredibly crafted and clever prose, and psychological depth in spades. I pulled this off my shelf for this blog and just started re-reading it and couldn’t stop because Lee’s writing just draws you in, it’s so good.
Palm of the Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata
Attention span short much these days? Yet still aspiring to reach a higher literary plane in your reading? This collection of stories by Nobel Prize-winning author Kawabata might be the ticket. These stories are gems you can imagine holding in the palm of your hand, offering painterly transporting vignettes, some stories just a single page and none more than four. Featuring named and unnamed characters and types (the law student, the boy, the wife, the maid), the stories carry a fairy-tale and parable quality while respecting the reader enough not to telegraph an obvious message or lesson.
Buy Palm of the Hand Stories here.
Kim JiYoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
Originally published in South Korea in 2016, this novel became a huge bestseller in Korea and abroad and was just released in the U.S. last month. The story follows thirty-three-old mother and wife Jiyoung whose psychological break-down manifests in the impersonation of other women in her life. Spare in length and prose, the novel reminds me a bit of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian in its stark delineation of a severely patriarchal culture.
Buy Kim JiYoung, Born 1982 here.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I can’t rec a list of Asian and Asian-American reads without a shout-out to my sister, Min Jin Lee. If you somehow never read Pachinko, then quarantine is a great time to immerse yourself in her award-winning, deservedly celebrated, and deeply satisfying novel. If you’re a Westerner, you might at first feel like you are reading about another place and time (Korea and Japan in the first half of the last century), but will soon feel the ways that its exploration of race, family, and society resonate with the here and now.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Unless you were in early quarantine through the entirety of 2019, you have likely heard of this multiple-award winning debut novel by Ocean Vuong. I thought I would include it since we have just celebrated Mother’s Day and the novel is composed as a son’s letter to his illiterate mother, transcribing his personal history and the history of Vietnam through stunningly vivid images and experiences.
Buy On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous here.
Looking for more book recommendations? TBF staffer Nicole Wielga recommends coming-of-age books for Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month here.