10 May / Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with 12 New Titles [in The Booklist Reader]
While Columbus is credited with discovering the Americas, notable scholars and historians have argued that Chinese explorers traveled around the world in the early 15th century and created a surviving map that shows America on its route. Imagine if those ancient explorers had stayed.
The history of Asians who did stay in the Americas dates back to the late 16th century, when Filipino sailors landed in California. Other Asians arrived in small numbers through the intervening years, the first large-scale influx happening in the mid-1800s, when Chinese migrants were drawn to the West Coast because of the potential for Gold Rush wealth and the promise of jobs building the transcontinental railroad.
Despite the common belief that these immigrants came to “Gold Mountain” to escape the hardships in their home country, the more accurate explanation is mutual economic need between nations. With the end of legal slavery in 1865 throughout the United States, growing labor demands – especially on the West Coast which lacked the legacy of African American enslavement – sought other “colored” workers for manpower.
Racial tension, resulting from white Americans’ fear of losing jobs to more recent immigrants, led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act – the first institutionalized racist immigration law to single out immigrants by ethnicity. Immigration from Asian countries was severely curtailed for almost a century, until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act finally lifted anti-Asian quotas.
The term “Asian American” grew out of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, and was especially effective in politically uniting Americans of Asian descent. From less than 1% of the U.S. population in 1970, Asian Americans now make up 5.6%, according to the 2010 Census. Asian Americans were the nation’s fastest-growing minority population between 2000 and 2010. And yet, despite a history older than the nation, Asian Americans are still too often perceived as foreign, as “other.” In 1978, Congress began the process of acknowledging Americans of Asian descent with actual legislation; the Public Law permanently designating May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month finally passed in 1992.
And why May? The official explanation: “The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.”
The irony can’t be ignored: that “Official photograph from the ‘Golden Spike’ Ceremony,” taken May 10, 1869, unapologetically and absolutely erased the Chinese American workers out of a now-iconic picture. In 2002, however, descendants of the transcontinental railroad workers, along with activists and supporters, began gathering in Promontory Summit, Utah, to reclaim their Chinese American history in what has become an annual, authentic, APA Heritage Month photo opportunity.
To learn more about the Asian Pacific American experience beyond racism, railroads, and reclamations, resources are many, and books abound. We are the stories we tell. And the latest crop of stupendous fiction by Asian Pacific American authors, all published (or soon-to-be published) this year, is certainly worth of reading – and celebrating – this heritage month and beyond. Here are an exceptional dozen to get you started …
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui
“A book to break our heart and heal it,” blurbs fellow Vietnamese American refugee Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer) across the top of the Bui’s cover. While the narrative might feel familiar – parents and young children escape war to start a new life on the other side of the world – Bui’s version, presented in panels of black, white, and shades of reddish brown (as if she’s melded her very bones and blood onto the page), proves astonishingly original. Expect Bui to share Nguyen’s podium sooner than later.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
“We are all migrants through time,” observes Pakistani-born, Princeton and Harvard-educated Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist). The impulses driving such movement, especially when rooted in violent conflict, is at the core of Hamid’s exceptional fourth novel. In an unnamed city, Saeed and Nadia meet, find love, and plan to share a future, but a militant takeover forces them to flee their homeland. Hamid reveals their tenuous journey from a dream-like distance – escape, for example, happens through “doors” only accessible via the right contact at the right price – that perfectly blends reality with fable-like parable. Both mellifluous and jarring, Exit West is a profound meditation on the unpredictable transience of human existence and the immeasurable cost of widespread enmity.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
“Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days,” Deming Guo muses on the evening of his 22nd birthday, summing up a lifetime of leaving – and being left – that has defined his short life thus far. Deming, the adopted son-of-two-professors, is also known as Daniel Wilkinson and provides half of the dual narrative of Ko’s achingly insightful debut novel; the other half belongs to Deming’s “Mama,” a woman who goes by Peilan Guo, Polly Guo, and Polly Lin. In an uncertain world, the pair become their own doppelgängers, imagining other lives, searching to live beyond mere survival.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (September)
The morning after Mia Warren and daughter Pearl return the rental key in the Richardsons’ mailbox, the youngest Richardson, Izzy, sets “little fires everywhere,” destroying the family home. How such a desperate act could happen in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a pristine suburb where “[t]here were rules, many rules,” is the focus of Ng’s (Everything I Never Told You) stupendous sophomore title. After providing a home-to-rent, the wealthy Richardsons also quickly integrate Mia and Pearl – nomads who finally plan to “stay put” – into their sprawling lives. When Elena Richardson’s close friend adopts an abandoned Chinese baby whose birthmother’s return causes a community rift over custody, she and Mia find themselves on polarizing sides. “[E]verything. . . beautiful and perfect on the outside” crumbles, observes Izzy, the family’s barometer of truth – about identity, parent-child bonds, and most of all, love. The consequences devastate and illuminate both.
Lee-groupies are sure to be gleeful: Lee’s entertaining, heart-pulling latest takes us back to quirky Rosarita Bay, a fictional California seaside town, a setting that Lee introduced in his fabulous debut collection, Yellow, and returned to in his hysterical novel, Wrack and Ruin. For now, Rosarita Bay may be on the brink of bankruptcy, but it’s still just the right place for former musician Yadin Park, who four years ago inherited a ramshackle house from a grandmother he barely knew. He’s currently in the carpet business, contentedly dating the boss’s daughter, and still manages to write songs in his strung-together home studio even though his hearing is degenerating. And then who should reappear in his life but his old lover and music partner who found the success – at least publicly – that he never did. Here’s what happens when loneliness and hope collide.
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Soli is still a teenager when she becomes pregnant during her journey from her native Mexican village to northern California. She enters the United States illegally, eventually finding a job as a nanny with a Berkeley couple. Not far from where Soli works, Kavya, the daughter of Indian immigrants, lives a very different life as half of an educated, financially secure couple growing more frantic with each failed attempt to become parents. Both women will welcome the same child into their hearts; only one can claim motherhood for keeps. Sekaran’s (The Prayer Room) latest uses engaging storytelling to explore hot-button topics of immigration, citizenship, entitlement, and the socioeconomic implications of modern parenthood.
Mad Country by Samrat Upadhyay
Upadhyay’s (Arresting God in Kathmandu) latest superb collection showcases eight stories, set mostly in Nepal, that piercingly explore politics, racism, family dysfunction, cultural chaos, even tourism. In the eponymous “Mad Country,” a high-powered businesswoman is imprisoned without cause; in “Fast Forward,” a newsmagazine’s founder becomes both famous and infamous when the government targets her publication. A young American woman reinvents herself as a part of a Nepali family in “Freak Street;” and a Nepali student in the U.S. finds himself in volatile Ferguson, Missouri in “America the Great Equalizer.” In the collection’s most inventive, disturbing story, “Dreaming of Ghana,” a man finds a naked, dark woman in the street and takes her home until he loses her to his best friend.
The Mountain by Paul Yoon (August)
In Yoon’s (Once the Shore, Snow Hunters) second collection, loss and longing cause men and women to move, and often keep moving, sometimes in search of sanctuary, other times seeking escape. A doctor returns from war to his childhood home where his mother died, damaged strangers briefly share comfort, the loss of a baby disintegrates a couple’s marriage, childhood friends become uncertain of their relationship as adults, an international migrant searches for connection, a father devotedly follows his peripatetic daughter through the decades. Criss-crossing the globe from the Hudson River to Shanghai, Sakhalin Island to Incheon, rural England to autonomous Spain, Yoon proves himself a literary alchemist, transforming tragedy into beauty with deft reminders of our universal connections.
After nearly a quarter-century spent in Minnesota, Teera returns to her native Cambodia, fulfilling her aunt’s dying wish that part of her ashes be delivered home. Having witnessed, decades earlier, the decimation of the rest of her family, Teera is now completely alone. She seeks the Old Musician, who has sent her a shocking letter claiming he knew her father. At the temple where Teera will relinquish her aunt’s remains, the Old Musician waits. By delivering the precious musical instruments of a dead man to his daughter, the Old Musician hopes for some semblance of atonement, of forgiveness. Presented in alternating chapters over three “movements,” Ratner’s (In the Shadow of the Banyan) sophomore title is a mellifluous composition for two voices in echoing counterpoint.
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal
Satyal (Blue Boy) returns to Ohio – this time the Cleveland suburbs – to bring together two couldn’t-be-more-different Indian Americans for friendship, fun, and more. Harit, a men’s furnishings department store salesman, is in mourning after the loss of his older sister; his mother, catatonic with grief, can only be coaxed out of her silence when Harit dons a sari and pretends to be his dead sibling. Ranjana seems somewhat better-adjusted, but the gulf in her arranged marriage is made ever more obvious when her only child goes to college; her only true fulfillment is writing vampire romances that she’d never share with her family. When the unlikely pair finally meet in a fancy restaurant and bond over the gooey challenge of French onion soup, an unexpected, unique relationship begins to take shape.
Lee’s (Free Food for Millionaires) exquisite, haunting epic crosses almost a century, four generations, and three countries, depicting an ethnic Korean family that cannot even claim a single shared name because, as the opening line attests: “History has failed us.” In 1910, Japan annexes Korea, usurping the country and controlling identity. Amid the tragedies that follow, a fisherman and his wife survive through sheer tenacity. Their beloved daughter, married to a gentle minister while pregnant with another man’s child, initiates the migration to Japan to join her husband’s older brother and wife. Their extended family will always live as second-class immigrants and no level of achievement, integrity, or grit can change their status as reviled foreigners. Two Japanese-born sons choose diverging paths; one grandson hazards a further immigration to the other side of the world. Incisively titled (pachinko resemble slot machines with pinball characteristics), Lee’s profound novel of losses and gains explored through the social and cultural implications of pachinko-parlor owners and users is shaped by impeccable research, meticulous plotting, and empathic perception.
Although publishing ten months after Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, this collection precedes his novel by decades (the earliest entry dates from 1997). The eight stories encompass migration, loss, and disconnect as characters navigate and stumble through memories, experiences, and perceived realities. Two siblings reconnect in “Black-Eyed Women” decades after their deadly boat escape from Vietnam. The children of refugees serve as both witnesses and enablers to their dislocated parents in “War Years,” “Someone Else Besides You,” and “Fatherland.” Unlikely connections haunt two of the most resonating stories: an aging man with dementia begins to call his wife by someone else’s name in “I’d Love You To Want Me,” while an organ recipient meets the donor’s family in “The Transplant.”