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18 of the Best Asian American Books to Read This Year

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Patricia Thang

Senior Contributor

Patricia Thang is an educator located in Los Angeles. Though a native Angeleno through and through, her heart also belongs to Tokyo, where much of her family is from. Besides books, she is an enthusiastic devourer of many things, including podcasts, television, and J-pop. She realizes there’s not enough time in the world to consume all of that content, but she’s trying anyway. Other endeavors to which she has dedicated herself include cuddling her dogs until they’re annoyed and taste-testing every vegan ice cream she can find. Twitter: @aintnopthang

A couple years ago, I made a conscious decision to actively track all the new releases by Asian American authors that I could find. The pursuit was completely personal; I simply wanted to know about and get excited for books where I could see myself and my community represented. What I have now is a complex system of spreadsheets that keep growing and growing, and eagerness for what seems to be an ever-expanding landscape of Asian American literature. The terrible downside to this wealth of choices is that it’s horrendously difficult to narrow it down, but I’ve done my very best to pick out some of the best Asian American books for you, dear reader, to check out this year.

This list is certainly not exhaustive, and it barely even demonstrates the entire breadth and scope of the beauty and diversity of Asian America, but I hope that it’s a start. I’ve done my best to provide a sampling of titles from various genres, as well as of stories about different communities under the Asian American umbrella and of stories about different parts of the United States. My mind would have exploded without any parameters at all, so I’ve focused on books that have come out within the past year (approximately), as well as some upcoming titles. Happy reading!

Best Asian American Fiction Books

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala cover

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

Let’s start off with a Book Riot favorite! Arsenic and Adobo is the first book in a culinary cozy mystery series about Lila Macapagal, who finds herself mixed up in a murder case when her ex dies at her aunt’s Filipino restaurant. With the help of her best friend, a network of aunties, and her trusty Dachshund, can Lila get to the bottom of the case without putting herself in harm’s way?

cover of O Beautiful by Jung Yun

O Beautiful by Jun Yun

Elinor Hanson, a Korean American woman trying to make it as a freelance writer, finds herself on assignment to investigate the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota, near the town where she grew up. There she discovers a chaotic, divided community of newcomers seeking success and fortune and long-time residents unwilling to accept anything they see as “other.” The deeper Elinor digs into her investigation, the more the ghosts from her own past become entwined with this story of the realities of a deeply troubled country.

The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin cover

The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin

Ming Tsu is a Chinese American assassin seeking to rescue his wife and exact revenge on those who kidnapped her. While the traditional western was a whitewashed illusion made by and for the colonizers, Tom Lin’s staggering debut reinvents the genre in an atmospheric and brutal portrayal of a new American West.

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian cover

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian

Neil Narayan, an Indian American teen growing up in the Atlanta suburbs, struggles under the weight of his family’s expectations. When he finds out that his neighbor is the beneficiary of a magical potion made from stolen gold, he sees an opportunity, but things don’t go as planned and end in tragedy. Years later, Neil continues to struggle with expectations, and realizes he needs to get his hands on that potion again.

After Parties by Anthony Veasna So

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So

Afterparties is a gorgeous short story collection centered around Cambodian American life. Through these vivid and tender stories of people navigating everything from race to friendship to sexuality, the reader is presented with an extensive view of this community.

Sparks Like Stars by Nadia Hashimi cover

Sparks Like Stars by Nadia Hashimi

Sitara Zamani lived a privileged life as the daughter of a prominent family in 1970s Kabul. However, when she was 10 years old, Sitara’s entire family was assassinated in a coup, leaving her the only survivor. Taken in by an American diplomat, Sitara is raised in the U.S., changes her name to Aryana Shepherd, and eventually becomes a renowned surgeon in New York. But one day, an unexpected patient sparks a desire to find the truth about that fateful night 30 years ago and sends Aryana back to Afghanistan and to the memories of a life she lost.

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li cover

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

Will Chen, a senior at Harvard, is offered a seemingly impossible job by a mysterious benefactor: to steal back five Chinese sculptures that had been looted from Beijing hundreds of years ago. Will finds himself the leader of a team of young Chinese Americans, all with uniquely complicated relationships with China and their identities, who can’t turn down the hefty sum they could earn from this job, or the chance to make a mark on history. Inspired by the true story of Chinese artifacts disappearing from various western museums, Grace D. Li has crafted not just a heist novel, but an examination and critique of the effects of colonialism that linger to this day.

The Fervor by Alma Katsu  cover

The Fervor by Alma Katsu (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, April 26)

I can’t wait for this upcoming title, which is one of my most anticipated of the year! In it, Katsu investigates the real-life horrors of Japanese American incarceration in World War II by juxtaposing it with supernatural horror elements from Japanese folklore.

cover of Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

Siren Queen by Nghi Vo (Tordotcom, May 10)

Award-winning author Nghi Vo’s newest novel is a take on Old Hollywood with a fantastical twist. Luli Wei, a young Chinese American actress desperate to become a star, is willing to do whatever it takes to find success in an industry that runs on ancient magic and dark rituals, even if that means becoming a monster herself.

The Last Karankawas by Kimberly Garza cover

The Last Karankawas by Kimberly Garza (Henry Holt and Co., August 9)

This stunning debut won’t be out for a while still, but it’s never too early to get great books on your radar! Garza’s novel is a complex, kaleidoscopic story of a close-knit Mexican and Filipino American community in Galveston, Texas. Garza gracefully moves through the lives of various characters as they contend with family history and the meaning of home while rumblings about the approach of Hurricane Ike spread through their town.

Best Asian American Nonfiction Books

Book cover for From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry

From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement by Paula Yoo

In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man in Michigan, was murdered in a hate crime in a time of rising anti-Asian sentiment due to the success of Japanese auto companies in the U.S. From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry is a meticulously researched examination of this crime, the protests and groundbreaking civil rights trial that followed, and the mobilization of what we now know as the Asian American movement. Though this is technically a YA title, it is a definite worthwhile read for people of any age to pick up in order to learn about a fundamental piece of American history.

Rise by Jeff Yang, Phil Yu, and Philip Wang cover

Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now by Jeff Yang, Phil Yu, & Philip Wang

At close to 500 pages, this hefty book is a thorough and comprehensive journey through the past three decades of Asian American history and culture. Rich with information and insight, this love letter to the Asian American community is presented in an accessible and entertaining format and features essays and graphics by a variety of guest writers and artists. It is a vivid celebration and an absolute must-read.

Beautiful Country book cover

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

The word for America in Chinese translates directly to “beautiful country,” but when Qian Julie Wang arrived in New York City at 7 years old, her undocumented family struggled in poverty to survive unnoticed as best they could. This heartbreaking and masterful memoir captures the too-often-overlooked, but uniquely American, experience of the devastating toll living in the shadows of a xenophobic society can have on immigrant families.

the cover of Another Appalachia by Neema Avashia

Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia

This essay collection paints a picture of Appalachia in stark contrast to the white male–dominated narratives that overrun our media. Through this compassionate and provocative exploration of identity, culture, and community, Neema Avashia, a queer Indian American woman who grew up in West Virginia, presents a far more complex and multifaceted view of rural America.

Mango and Peppercorns by Tung Nguyen, Katherine Manning, and Lyn Nguyen cover

Mango and Peppercorns: A Memoir of Food, an Unlikely Family, and the American Dream by Tung Nguyen, Katherine Manning, and Lyn Nguyen

I am always going to be shouting about how fundamental food is to Asian and Asian American culture, so I couldn’t write this list without including a food book of some kind. Tung Nguyen and Kathy Manning met in 1975, when Manning took in Nguyen and other Vietnamese refugees who had arrived in Miami after fleeing Saigon. This joint memoir tells the story of these two women, their partnership, and how they established the acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant Hy Vong. And it also includes recipes!

Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina cover

Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina

For much of her life, Elizabeth Miki Brina felt extremely disconnected from her mother’s heritage as a result of growing up in a predominantly white suburb of upstate New York and living a so-called typical American childhood. Brina’s mother was a war bride, brought back to the States by an American soldier she’d met while he was stationed in U.S.-occupied Okinawa, her home. Later in life, Brina begins to recognize and reckon with not just her own family’s fraught background, but also the complex and unjust history of Okinawa.

cover of Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American by Wajahat Ali

Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American by Wajahat Ali

In this memoir that is both hilarious and bitingly honest, Wajahat Ali tackles Islamophobia, white supremacy, and what it means to be American. You will both laugh out loud and be punched in the gut reading Ali’s commentary on current events and pop culture mixed with personal stories of growing up Pakistani and Muslim in the Bay Area.

Asian American Histories of the United States by Catherine Ceniza Choy cover

Asian American Histories of the United States by Catherine Ceniza Choy (Beacon Press, August 2)

This sweeping and inclusive history spans close to 200 years, centering the far-too-often overlooked but essential voices of Asian American communities and the roles they play in the shaping of the U.S. Historian Catherine Ceniza Choy sheds light on how anti-Asian hate and Asian American erasure have been major themes in Asian American history over the years, and, by reckoning with these begins to uncover a much more complete and true understanding of the American experience. It is one of the newest installments in the acclaimed ReVisioning History series, which includes An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, along with other critical intersectional histories of this country.

This list has focused mostly on the best Asian American books for adult audiences, but if you’re on the market for YA or children’s recommendations, these lists are a great start!

And for even more amazing reads from Asian and Asian American voices, check out these other fabulous posts!