25 Books by Asian and Pacific Islander Authors Everyone Should Read
Refresh your to-read list with these engaging books by Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Asian authors.
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The best novels, short stories, memoirs, and more by Asian and Asian Pacific authors
“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet,” writes Jhumpa Lahiri in her first novel, The Namesake, which was adapted for film in 2006. Not only do books transport us to new locations, but they also allow us to inhabit experiences different from our own. Seeing through someone else’s eyes is one of the most powerful aspects of reading, and authors from the Asian American Pacific Islander community offer a myriad of perspectives. With violence against Asians on the rise in America, supporting AAPI creators and reading Asian American books is even more urgent.
Equally as important as reading stories different from our own is being able to find a reflection of one’s community in literature. Growing up in the United States in the 1990s, I rarely saw my Chinese American family reflected in media or art. Subconsciously, this made me feel like we weren’t valued, and I couldn’t see my place in society. While the number of books, films, podcasts, and shows that feature AAPI stories has increased over the years, many communities still feel unreflected. The diversity of the AAPI community is vast—it encompasses people of East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander descent, which includes over 50 ethnic groups and 100 languages.
Instead of a list of only mainstream best sellers, we’ve compiled 25 books for you that are critically acclaimed, groundbreaking for their communities, and indicative of the multitudes of stories by Asian American authors, Pacific Islander authors, and Asian authors. May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a great time to start reading books by AAPI authors if you haven’t yet. If you like this roundup, also check out our lists of best books, books by Black authors, books by Latinx authors, Native American books, and children’s books about diversity
1. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
We’re kicking off our list with this 2019 coming-of-age memoir by T Kira Madden. In stunning prose, Madden writes of childhood and adolescence in Boca Raton as a queer girl of native Hawaiian, Chinese, Irish, and Eastern European Jewish descent. To read this book is to revel in its humor and insight, sometimes bright and sparkling, other times singed with pain. With boundless love, Madden makes vivid her parents’ struggle with drug addiction, the loss of her father, and her kinship with other fatherless girls. Her writing extends the boundaries of family and the possibilities of what a memoir can be. The New York Times hailed it as “a fearless debut,” and author Chanel Miller called it “the book I wish I’d had growing up.”
2. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
In this 2019 debut novel by acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese son pens a letter to his mother, who will likely never read it, as she speaks little English and cannot read. She works brutal hours at a nail salon, coming home late to battle PTSD from what she witnessed as a child in Vietnam. Each line on each page of this book shimmers, evidence of the magic that occurs when poets transfer their deep attention to language into the world of novels. In sentences that will make your heart ache, the narrator writes to his mother what he will not say to her aloud. He tells her how it felt to endure her abuse. He tells her of his summer job on a tobacco farm, where he fell in love with a boy addicted to opioids. Through words for his mother, we begin to contemplate what it means to live in America and what it means to have this brief and beautiful time on earth.
3. Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
One of the most powerful and necessary Asian American books, Minor Feelings is a must-read revelation. Author and poet Claudia Rankine said, “to read this book is to become more human.” Indeed, for Asian Americans, Hong put into words so many experiences that have remained silent and invisible within us. Having language for these minor feelings—”minor” as in the melancholy music scale, but also feelings that have been dismissed as minor by others—is like uncovering whole layers of the human experience, both for those inside and outside of the Asian American community. Hong lends her lived experiences, sharp insights, and research to these beautifully and honestly written collected essays. This 2020 book will be adapted for the screen by A24 and actress Greta Lee.
4. Good Talk by Mira Jacob
As children learn about the world, they often ask questions that make us rethink what we take for granted. In this 2018 graphic memoir, author Mira Jacob’s six-year-old son is full of questions—some poignant, some funny—all of which lead to very good talks. As rifts in their family surface with the 2016 presidential election, these questions grow in complexity, causing Jacob to reflect on her own American experience and sense of identity. With pictures and dialogue, the format is at once powerful and inviting. Good Talk is one of the most honest books about race relations in America and is told with immense love, humor, and insight.
5. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Before this book was a phenomenon on Apple TV, it was a National Book Award Finalist and Roxane Gay’s favorite book of 2017. Pachinko is Min Jin Lee’s second novel (her debut, Free Food for Millionaires, is also excellent) and its scope is ambitious and sweeping. Following four generations of a poor Korean family, the story illuminates the heartrending choices that must be made without financial freedom and how fortune can fluctuate between generations but wounds of displacement linger. The length of this book may appear intimidating, but Lee’s writing is transportive, and before you know it, you’ll have traveled the years and countries with this family and will have a hard time leaving them. Luckily, you can see them reimagined on Apple TV, then check out our list of other books that have been made into popular TV shows.
6. The Parted Earth by Anjali Enjeti
If you can’t get enough of intergenerational stories like Pachinko, this 2021 debut novel by Anjali Enjeti is one to check out. Enjeti is one of the most exciting new Asian authors and also published a nonfiction book, called Southbound, the same year. This novel begins in 1947 during the Partition of India, when British colonizers sliced borders between India and Pakistan along religious lines, causing devastating displacement for millions of people. Scholars have called it the largest migration in human history, and Enjeti brings the reader into a family story to intimately show the loss and reverberating pain of this time. Across 70 years, three generations of women, and the continents where they sought to find themselves, The Parted Earth gifts us with a poignant family saga. If you enjoy listening to audiobooks, this is one you won’t want to miss. It and narrator Deepti Gupta won the Audie award for “best female narrator of 2022.”
7. The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh
Another recommendation for fans of intergenerational stories: The Magical Language of Others. This 2020 award-winning memoir is a meditation on absence, forgiveness, and the ever-moving forms of mother-daughter relationships. When teenage Eun Ji’s parents move to South Korea for work, she finds herself facing adolescence in America without them. Through letters written in Korean, her mother tries to reach her, apologize to her, and communicate her love, but it is not until years later that E.J. translates the letters and goes back in time to understand her young self, her mother, her grandmothers, and how they are all linked, a continuation of one another. Koh is a poet and a translator, and her intimate relationship with language lights the pages of this book, making for a revelatory reading experience.
8. Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport
This 1994 novel has become a modern classic of Hawaiian literature. At well over 500 pages, this rich and multifaceted narrative is hard to summarize, but at its heart, it’s the story of Pono, a matriarch and seer of the future, and her four granddaughters, each distinct from one another and from her. Written in lyrical language that evokes the crash of waves and the lushness of the forest, Shark Dialogues weaves Hawaiian history with mythology and family secrets with family duty. It gives generously to the reader, unleashing a plot as wild and potent as nature itself. Through the stories of Pono and her mixed-heritage granddaughters, Shark Dialogues adds to the tapestry of Asian American books, showing parts of Hawaii never published before. If you like this story of powerful women, check out our roundup of feminist books.
9. Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So
For fans of short fiction, there is no more beautifully written choice than this 2021 short story collection about Cambodian American life in Central Valley, California. Each story showcases the mastery of Anthony Veasna So, a young debut writer who died the winter before this book was published. So’s characters pulse with life, the older generation survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide, the younger generation deft wielders of humor to process this trauma. Though self-contained, the stories are interconnected by characters who share a community. Maly first appears as the beautiful, charismatic cousin of a narrator. Her deceased mom is said to be reincarnated as a baby, and the family is throwing a party to celebrate her return. Maly reappears in a story when that baby is in her 20s and working as a nurse. Maly’s boyfriend has his own story at a Buddhist temple, where he stays to mourn the death of his father. There is some comfort in the way these characters return, as So himself continues to live in the legacy of his brilliant stories.
10. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Stories of Your Life and Others is for readers of both short stories and science fiction. Published in 2002 to critical acclaim and awards, this collection was over ten years in the making. Chiang spent five years researching linguistics to write one of the stories in this collection, Story of Your Life, which was the basis for the film Arrival starring Amy Adams. The sci-fi story centers on a linguist who learns to communicate with visiting aliens and in the process begins to experience time differently. All of Chiang’s stories will make you pause and think more deeply about the reality we live in as well as the reality he presents to us. Working with big concepts like free will, love, time, and knowledge, he brings them to sharp focus with stories that are intimate and full of humanity.
11. All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Published in 2018 and studded with awards and accolades, All You Can Ever Know is Nicole Chung’s insightful, complex, and nuanced account of her adoption. Growing up, her adoptive parents told her a simple and sweet version of how their family came to be. As Chung ventures into adulthood, pregnancy, and parenthood, she begins to question her origin story and seeks answers. In a memoir that is as page-turning as it is thought-provoking, Chung uncovers family secrets, beautiful surprises, and a new origin story that is anything but simple. She writes with great compassion for her birth family and her adoptive family and generously shares with readers her experience as a transracial adoptee.
12. The Leavers by Lisa Ko
The Leavers is a story of immigration, separation, adoption, identity, America, China, work, art, and so much more. If this sounds ambitious, it is, but Ko’s skillful writing seamlessly weaves all these themes through the lives of unforgettable characters. The heart of the story unfolds between Deming and his mother, Polly. One day, when he is just 11 years old, she disappears, leaving him alone and confused. Did she choose to leave, or was she taken away? This question is never absent from his mind, even as he is adopted and ushered into a new life with a new name. Eventually, he will learn that the truth of what happened to his mother is far more complicated than he imagined. This beautiful book surfaces questions about what we each owe one another and what we owe ourselves. It’s no wonder this debut novel was on NPR’s Best Books of 2017 list.
13. This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila
In this 2013 debut short story collection, Kahakauwila takes back the narrative that exoticizes Hawaii as only a vacation spot and lets the voices of the islands tell their own tales. In the first story, a young tourist’s misadventure is narrated by the groups of local women who observe her. In the collective “we” voice, we hear from hotel housekeeping staff, surfers, and businesswomen. Kahakauwila’s fresh use of this chorus to guide us sets the tone for this collection of six distinct yet connected stories. She traverses divides between class and race, mainland and island life, and makes the reader question preconceived ideas of paradise. Each story will make you eager for the next. Joyce Carol Oates calls it “vividly imagined, beautifully written, at times almost unbearably suspenseful.”
14. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
Award-winning author Ruth Ozeki’s 2021 novel plays with form and what is real in ways both delightful and heartbreaking. Just as he enters adolescence, Benny Oh loses his father. After this, he begins to hear the voices of objects, not in words but in tones. A pencil, a window, a pair of scissors—he hears their moods, histories, and desires. At the same time, his mother fills their house with objects in her grief, a fortress of protection that makes Benny’s life at home unbearably loud. The only place he can find solace is in the library. Here, he’ll find a voice that leads him to tell his own complicated and difficult story. A book that is as wide in scope as it is deep in compassion, The Book of Form and Emptiness will have you viewing the world differently when you are finished.
15. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi was a talented neurosurgeon who also studied literature, and his 2016 memoir tells a story from both sides of death’s threshold. After a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, he began to pen this book, a reflection on his life, his dreams, his mortality, and the end. In writing that is evocative and precise, he speaks right to the heart of all our fears and hopes. He invites us into his life and death in an intimate way that allows us to grapple with our own impermanence.
16. The Body Papers by Grace Talusan
Winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, this 2019 memoir-in-essays traces Grace Talusan’s journey from the Philippines to New England and back again. After an expired visa, her family lived in fear of deportation, and Talusan lived in fear of her grandfather’s abusive nightly visits. Through these essays, we see how a body documents trauma, how the documenting of bodies can create trauma, and how the keeping of secrets can harm bodies across generations. By voicing what was previously silenced, Talusan offers strength and protection to those who follow. Moving, courageous, and masterfully written, this memoir is not to be missed.
17. Know My Name by Chanel Miller
When “Emily Doe” was assaulted by Brock Turner in 2015, the media and the courtroom focused on what a promising young man he was. He went to Stanford. He was a swimmer. But what about the woman he assaulted? They tried to paint her as unreliable, as disposable, but “Emily Doe” wanted the world to know she was Chanel Miller, an artist, a writer, a woman of exceptional promise who raised her voice to fight for all survivors of sexual assault. Her victim impact statement went viral on BuzzFeed, and this 2020 memoir went on to win prizes and influence laws. This book shines a light on the lonely, harrowing experience of survivors and stands as a beacon of hope on the road to healing.
18. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Celeste Ng is one of the most well-known Asian authors and is lauded for stories that thread suspense with psychological insight. Little Fires Everywhere is her second novel, published in 2017 and adapted for television by Hulu in 2020. It follows the Richardsons, a well-meaning and picture-perfect family in the suburbs whose lives are shaken up by the arrival of a single mother who rents a house from them. The two mothers develop a strained relationship as their children’s lives become entangled, and uncomfortable truths are revealed. As the Richardsons’ house burns, we turn pages to find out who started the fire and why. Popular among book clubs, this story will keep the conversation going.
19. Black Ice Matter by Gina Cole
Although not as widely read as some of the blockbuster books on this list, Black Ice Matter deserves more attention. In 2017, it won Best First Book of Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, where judges called Cole “a new, assured and vibrant voice.” Of Fijian heritage, Cole resides in New Zealand and centers this collection of short stories in the Asia-Pacific region, including New Zealand and Fiji. With writing that is deft and vivid, she plumbs extremes of hot and cold, modern society and prehistory, life and death. Across each of these 13 tales, Cole’s voice rings clear through the darkness.
20. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami is perhaps the most famous modern Asian author; a native of Japan, his work has influenced many writers of the Asian diaspora over his more than 40-year career. It’s hard to choose just one of his novels from a body of work that includes over 20 books of fiction and nonfiction translated into 50 languages, but we’re highlighting Norwegian Wood, the book that first propelled him to mainstream attention in 2000. It is less surrealist than many of his other novels but features the sense of melancholy and loneliness that often appear in his work. Toru and Naoko rely on each other after the suicide of their friend, but Naoko is unable to shake her grief. When another woman enters Toru’s life, he must figure out who he wants to be and who he wants to love. Themes of regret, coming of age, and grief permeate the novel, as does a nostalgic and tragic love story.
21. The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
For readers looking for a more happy-ending romance, The Bride Test delivers a story of heart, hope, and very steamy love. Author Helen Hoang was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2016, and she’s been writing romance novels with neurodiverse characters ever since. The Bride Test, published in 2019, is her second novel and follows Khai, a handsome and eternally single young man. His autism makes him particular about who he spends time with, and he experiences emotions differently from his family. He thinks he’s incapable of love until the beautiful and tenacious Esme arrives from Vietnam. You can’t help but root for these characters and will fall in love with them as they find love with each other.
22. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
As far as pop culture Asian American books go, this one has become iconic: Chances are, you’ve seen the film version or at least heard of Crazy Rich Asians. Featuring the first all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, the movie’s release was a groundbreaking moment for Asian Americans. Even if you’ve seen the film, the 2013 novel will be hard to put down. The premise is the same: Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young begin dating in New York, but when they go to Nick’s home in Singapore, Rachel learns his family is rich—like, crazy rich—and not everyone is happy about their relationship. The book also holds so many more delicious layers, family secrets, and tender moments. It’s fun from beginning to end, and if you enjoy it, you’ll be pleased to learn there are two more books in the trilogy.
23. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Often considered one of the most impactful Asian American books, The Joy Luck Club was prolific author Amy Tan’s debut novel. Published in 1989, the beauty of its sentences still holds up, and its interconnected stories of four mothers and four daughters are timeless. When Jing-mei’s mother dies, she is invited to take her place at the mah-jongg table during the weekly meeting of the Joy Luck Club, bridging the gap between these two generations. Each chapter is a vignette told from the point of view of either a mother or a daughter. Their juxtaposed perspectives reveal how much is unsaid between them and how much is misunderstood. Through each character’s story, we explore themes of resilience, familial pressure, generational differences, and finding roots.
24. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
For the younger generation (or if you’re just looking for a light YA book), Jenny Han’s To All the Boys series is a true pleasure. In this first book of the trilogy, Lara Jean shies away from romance, except in her head. She has never had a boyfriend, but she’s written love letters every time she’s had a crush—then hidden them, never to be opened. When someone mails her five letters to five past crushes, her love life might actually leave the page and become more than a fantasy. With humor, sweetness, and just a touch of teenage angst, Lara Jean lets us trade all of our real-life dramas for hers. If three books aren’t enough, you can watch the three movie adaptations on Netflix. Speaking of movies: Here are some great Asian movies to watch right now.
25. Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Winner of the 2021 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature, this is Malinda Lo’s sixth novel, and her mastery of the form is clear. Beautifully written and deeply researched, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is both a YA story and historical fiction, taking place in 1954 in San Francisco. At a time when it is dangerous to be Chinese or queer, seventeen-year-old Lily Hu begins to learn what it means to be both. As she and her classmate, Kathleen Miller, find themselves drawn to each other more and more, Lily grapples with what her family would think, how her queerness might endanger them, and how much risk comes with love. With the tension of McCarthyism, racism, and homophobia humming in the background, this high-stakes story soars with hope.