Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month with literature: 7 must-reads for May

Illustration of a figure wearing headphones surrounded by floating, glowing books against a blue and orange sunset background.
Angela Bi/Staff

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May marks the celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time reserved to honor the legacy of a prominent, diverse population in the United States. To commemorate 2022’s tribute to the rich history and multicultural beauty of the AAPI community, this compilation of contemporary literary works comprises a mere glimpse into the vast, remarkable realm of books written by Asian and Pacific Islander authors worldwide. 

The Unpassing” by Chia-Chia Lin

Situated in the harrowing, melancholic Alaskan wilderness, “The Unpassing” paints a poignant portrait of a Taiwanese immigrant family with dynamic and evocative prose. Immobilized by his sister’s death and haunted by an unfulfilled search for identity, Gavin navigates questions of family, the meaning of home and the violence of uprooting in a gripping narrative surging with emotional gravity. Conveying the complexities of diasporic grief and yearning, Lin’s contemplative musings are all-encompassing, carrying an intensity that lingers far beyond the novel’s arrestingly stunning last word. 

“The Vanished Birds” by Simon Jimenez

Time is synonymous with music in “The Vanished Birds,” the debut novel from Filipino American Simon Jimenez. Creating a space opera of symphonic proportions, Jimenez traverses millennia with fine-tuned writing, the rhythms of which undulate through coruscating tales of identity, love and family. 

“The Vanished Birds” follows a skyborn boy with latent interstellar powers, a resolute spaceship captain and a jaded yet prodigious scientist. Nestled in the throes of a neocolonial future, the novel’s myriad of circumstellar characters are challenged by impermanence and uncertainty. Each captivating and luminously rendered in Jimenez’s melodic composition, the protagonists’ mesmerizing story shapes a brilliant debut from a tremendous literary talent.

“How to Wash a Heart” by Bhanu Kapil

“This is the voice of this book: an immigrant guest in the home of their citizen host.”

Brittle welcome and finite hospitality: Poet Bhanu Kapil parses these limits through “How to Wash a Heart,” a profound poetry collection inspired by the experience of an immigrant asylum-seeker in California. “The art of crisis/ Is that you no longer/ Think of home/ As a place for social respite,” writes Kapil. “Instead, it’s a ledge/ Above a narrow canyon.”

In this probing examination on how rupture, loss and belonging collide in the complex relationship between host and guest, Kapil’s intricate verse untangles the inscrutable constraints of deceptive inclusion. Formatically innovative and rich in pathos, the collection sews together violence and questions of recovery in the confrontation of a connection driven by division. 

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong

The bare, irrepressible honesty of Ocean Vuong’s writing defies description — a fact amplified by the resounding incandescence of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” Written in epistolary form as a letter from son to mother, the novel is an indelible, aching meditation on the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the familial fragments surrounding it. Guided by this bittersweet filial relationship, Little Dog’s address heaves with gnawing vulnerability as he scrapes against the boundaries of his physicality, emotion and sense of self.

Tenderly eviscerating and sweepingly raw, Vuong’s deft artistic brilliance is unparalleled in scope. Framing tension and intimacy within its study of identity, his first novel is a piercing, revelatory conversation — a dialogue of feeling that is perennially beautiful.

“The Poppy War” by R.F. Kuang

“Destiny is a myth,” proclaims the Phoenix, a refulgent god in R.F. Kuang’s blistering, exhilarating historical fantasy. Following the corrosive life of Fang Runin, an orphan climbing the ranks of an elite military academy, “The Poppy War”’s reeling concoction of electrifying action, shamanic magic and riveting characters is delicately balanced against a setting influenced by 20th-century China. Informed by the events of the Second Sino-Japanese and Opium Wars, each explosive page surges with palpable sensation, suspending Kuang’s thrilling narrative in heartrending ink. 

“Iep Jāltok” by Kathy Jetnīl-Kijiner

A landmark work from Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnīl-Kijiner, “Iep Jāltok” is a chronicle of open-mouthed lyricism forged by searing explorations of colonial trauma, history and climate change. Tarrying in its testimony lies a bracing urgency and a demand to be heard, varnished in the undiluted candor of its speaker’s native tongue. 

Forgoing embellishment to cut bone-deep to brutal truths, Jetnīl-Kijiner writes with incisive clarity and compelling insight, simultaneously articulating powerful Marshallese narratives and interrogating modern societal crises. Equal parts homage and rallying cry, the collection is a revealing expression of exigence sketched in striking, emotive verse.

“Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner

Michelle Zauner can do it all. Perhaps known more widely for piloting the dreamlike whimsy of alternative pop band Japanese Breakfast, Zauner’s literary debut configures a forceful, touching memoir with unrelenting lucidity. Candidly depicting the grief of losing her mother, her pursuit of identity and the centrality of her Korean heritage, Zauner offers saturated prose and spectral memories that vigilantly color the propulsivity of her reflections. Through and through, “Crying in H Mart” is a tour-de-force that wrests both devastation and vitality from the experiences of its vividly voiced writer. 

Contact Esther Huang at ehuang[email protected].