For our winter Pacific Reader issue, we reached out to regional authors who have published works this year as well as frequent International Examiner contributors and others well-versed in Asian and Pacific Islander literature for their suggestions and favorite reads in 2021.
Tamiko Nimura is a co-author of the graphic novel We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration, published in 2021. She is a frequent writer for the IE. She recommends:
As a longtime fan of Ruth Ozeki, I did read her most recent Book of Form and Emptiness. It was a good read, but I’ll need to revisit it, I think, to really have it sink in; like many of her books, it deals with complex issues in smart, quirky, and highly readable ways. And I still highly recommend Naomi Hirahara’s mystery novel Clark and Division.
I’ve also been reading a fair amount of “genre fiction” lately, and it’s been delightful to be immersed in stories featuring Asian American characters and familiar (to me) settings like the San Francisco Bay Area and Austin, Texas. Naomi’s recommendations led me to Dial A For Aunties by Jesse Sutanto, which will soon be made into a movie. Sarah Kuhn and Emiko Jean’s YA novels (I Love You So Mochi and Tokyo Ever After, recently and respectively) are so much fun, with settings in both Japan and the United States, and Japanese American protagonists traveling between the two countries. Finally, Helen Hoang’s linked romance novels (The Kiss Quotient, The Bride Test, The Heart Principle) have been a revelation. Hoang is herself autistic, and several of her main characters are also autistic; some of her characters are first-generation immigrant, others are restaurant owners, economists, fashion designers, sex workers.
These are all books I couldn’t have imagined as a young reader and scholar of some 30 years ago; they broaden and deepen representation of Asian Americans in pop culture, and I’m thrilled to see how well they’re doing.
Anne Liu Kellor is the author of her memoir, Heart Radical, published in 2021. She has also written for the IE. She recommends:
This year I was especially blown away by memoirs from my fellow Asian American women writers. I loved Made in China by Anna Qu, a classic coming-of-age memoir when it comes to form (riveting scenes and sensory detail, focused on her younger years), but not at all ordinary when it comes to her story (Qu’s mother moved to the U.S. when she was young, leaving her in the care of her grandparents; Qu was reunited with her a few years later, but treated like a maid and second-class citizen in her mother’s new home). Ultimately, Qu probes at deeper questions like, what constitutes abuse?
I also adored Tastes Like War, by Grace M. Cho, which is more of a hybrid text. It weaves together the story of Cho’s childhood growing up mixed-race Korean and White in a rural, racist town in Washington state, with passages that probe into her mother’s past life as a prostitute in Korea, and her mother’s eventual schizophrenia. Cho’s exploration of the legacies of war and the correlation between racism and mental health woke me up in a profound way.
Finally, How to Raise a Feminist Son by Seattle’s own Sonora Jha is a must-read for parents raising boys, and then some.
Sharon Hashimoto is the author of the collection of poetry, More American. It was published in 2021. She is a frequent writer for the International Examiner. She recommends:
It was my pleasure to discover Charles Wu’s Interior Chinatown where his characters went from stereotypes to real life figures. Interior Chinatown was full of unexpected turns and surprises within a screenplay format where the main protagonist, Willie Wu, is a bit player in the procedural cop show, Black and White. Against this creative structure, Charles Wu writes with humor and perception. A fast first read, the book demands a second careful appraisal to discover the nuances of irony, hyperbole, and irony. The “interiority” or Willie Wu’s meditations about his father, mother, wife and daughter were my favorite parts.
Discovering new short story writers is always a joy, and reading Caroline Kim’s Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories shows breadth and range. From Kim’s fictional reimagining of an episode at a medieval Korean court where a prince turns dark in seeking his father’s acceptance to a diary format in a science-fiction story, each character is well drawn with an intriguing emotional center.
Vince Schleitwiler lectures on American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington. He is a frequent writer for the International Examiner. He recommends:
My holiday gift-guide features We Hereby Refuse, Frank Abe and Tamiko Nimura’s graphic account of Japanese American wartime resistance; Naomi Hirahara’s deep-focus historical crime fiction, Clark and Division; The Unsung Great, Greg Robinson’s treasury of Nikkei history profiles; and Sesshu Foster and Arturo Romo’s hallucinatory, radical counter-history of East LA dirigible transport, ELADATL.
Meanwhile, I’ll be over here digging into poet Truong Tran’s Book of the Other, which speaks truth to the everyday shame, fear, and economic bondage that sustains white supremacy in liberal institutions, and Palmares, the long-awaited release by the reclusive Black novelist and quiet-as-it’s-kept genius Gayl Jones.
Karen Maeda Allman is the Author Events Co-coordinator and Bookseller at the Elliott Bay Book Company. She recommends:
My top picks for 2021:
Jane Wong, How Not to Be Afraid of Everything (poetry)
Naomi Hirahara, Clark and Division (mystery set during the WW II resettlement)
Jung Yun, O Beautiful (novel set in North Dakota, featuring a multiracial Korean American)
Grace M. Cho, Tastes Like War (memoir, Korean American, multiracial and from Chehalis)
Frank Abe, Tamiko Nimura and Ross Ishikawa, We Hereby Refuse (excellent graphic novel suitable for adults and young adults)
Nobuko Miyamoto, Not Yo Butterfly (memoir)
Victoria Chang, Dear Memory (essay, but feels like prose poetry)
Kim Thúy, Em (novel)
I look forward to Hanya Yanigahara, To Paradise, a novel from Knopf in January 2021. She’s the author of A Little Life, one of my all-time favorite novels.
Jill Wasberg is the editor in chief of the International Examiner. She recommends:
Back when I was a kid (queue me shaking my old lady fist in the air), the only Asian character I had in my reading repertoire was Claudia Kishi from the Babysitters Club series. And I’m not knocking Claudia, she was outstanding. But really, that was it for Asian women.
Fast forward to 2021 and getting about 80% of my reading recommendations from the IE, and I read three outstanding memoirs this year by not just Asian women, but mixed-race Asian women. I enjoyed and I recommend Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner, Speak Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina and Heart Radical by Anne Liu Kellor. All three explore mixed race and Asian identities, are beautifully written, and do a deep dive into those first-gen/second-gen parent-child issues many of us are all too familiar with.