May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, when we celebrate the achievements of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans, as well as recognize their contributions to United States history and culture. As part of this acknowledgement and celebration, AAPI literature is an essential area to explore. To that end, I have put together this list of must-read nonfiction by AAPI authors that I hope provides both an effective starting point for readers looking to explore voices they haven’t heard much of before, as well as varied options for those who may already have some familiarity with AAPI literature but are looking for new angles to discover.
While fiction is a rich and amazing category of literature that allows authors to explore so many types of stories and circumstances with nuance and care, nonfiction is where things get really juicy. Because it’s true. And when we are talking about true stories written by AAPI authors, it means we get a firsthand look at the truth of AAPI experience and identity. Even for nonfiction that focuses on topics that don’t necessarily have to do with AAPI history or culture directly, that identity is still present in the voices of the authors and all their experiences that have colored their view of the world and the topics they discuss. And the titles in this list illustrate some of the best of these voices. Though this list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the amazing nonfiction by AAPI authors that exists out there, it’s a start and I hope that it encourages readers to seek out even more. Happy reading!
History, Politics, and Current Events
Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans by Ronald Takaki
Ronald Takaki was a renowned historian and ethnographer who devoted his career to advocating for equality for Asian Americans and other minority groups. Though Strangers from a Different Shore focuses specifically on the history of Asian Americans, Takaki was a prolific author whose goal was to write inclusive histories of a multicultural America, which included all minority and immigrant groups.
The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee
Erika Lee is an award-winning historian specializing in immigration history. When it was first published in 2015, The Making of Asian America was lauded as a definitive account of Asian Americans’ role in United States history, which was at that time a fairly overlooked subject. Today, it continues to be a seminal piece of scholarship on the topic.
Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon H. Chang
In the 1860s, thousands of Chinese migrants traveled to the U.S. to escape poverty and violence, and were put to work building the Transcontinental Railroad. In this groundbreaking book, historian Gordon H. Chang has managed to recover the long-lost stories of these Chinese workers and their incredible role in, quite literally, building America.
Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Lili’uokalani
Lili’uokalani was the only queen and last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii before it was overthrow in 1893. In this autobiography, she reflects on her childhood being raised and educated in the royal family, her ascension to the throne, and the eventual annexation of Hawaii despite her and her people’s appeals for Hawaiian sovereignty.
One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration 1924-1965 by Jia Lynn Yang
In 1924, U.S. Congress instituted a strict system of immigration laws that prevented large-scale immigration from various parts of the world, including much of Asia. Lawmakers and activists spent decades fighting for immigration reform, which finally culminated with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. One Mighty and Irresistible Tide chronicles this decades-long battle for equality in America’s immigration system, framed by the story of Yang’s own family’s migration to the United States.
Asian American Histories of the United States by Catherine Ceniza Choy
Asian American Histories of the United States is part of the ReVisioning American History series from Beacon Press alongside titles such as An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and A Queer History of the United States, among others, and is a fresh take on 200 years of history. In this vast and comprehensive history, Catherine Ceniza Choy emphasizes the importance of Asian American history to the understanding of U.S. history as a whole, covering the earliest migrations of Asians to this country all the way to the rise of anti-Asian hate in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here to Stay: Uncovering South Asian American History by Geetika Rudra
Geetika Rudra, the child of Indian immigrants, grew up in the United States slowly learning that the public perception of what it means to be American did not include people who looked like her and came with a lot more prerequisites than she believed as a child. But when she stumbled upon writing about an Indian man’s citizenship case from 1913, Rudra, a lover of history, was launched on a quest to find more stories about the long-but-unknown history of South Asians in America. In Here to Stay, she uncovers and introduces readers to these earliest generations of South Asian Americans.
Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheapest Goods by Amelia Pang
As stated in the subtitle of this book, there is a little-known cost to the cheap goods we are able to get in the U.S. That cost is the forced labor of political prisoners in China, including the Uyghur people, an ethnic minority that the Chinese government continues to exploit and abuse. Investigative journalist Amelia Pang reveals the truth behind these forced labor camps through extensive research and urges readers to begin more carefully interrogating our consumerist society.
Reppin’: Pacific Islander Youth and Native Justice edited by Keith L. Camacho
This essay collection brings together the voices and perspectives of scholars from diverse disciplines — from anthropology to education to musicology and more — to discuss Pacific Islander youth cultures around the world. It is an incredible and enlightening exploration of how Pacific and Pasifika youth are managing to connect with each other and engage in their cultures to help shape the futures of the urban communities they are part of.
Memoirs and Essays
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
This powerful and widely-lauded essay collection is perhaps one of the seminal Asian American works of the past decade. A provocative and raw exploration of the Asian American experience and racial consciousness, Minor Feelings combines cultural criticism and personal memoir to enlighten readers on the truths of living as a member of a minority group in America today.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker
At the age of four, George Takei and his family were incarcerated alongside thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II. In his graphic memoir, Takei offers an unflinching glimpse into the incarceration camps and how the adults around him responded to the cruelty they were faced with.
West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story by Tamim Ansary
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tamim Ansary became a prominent voice on the conflict between Islam and the west due to a viral email he wrote that discussed his personal perception of the United States’ threats against Afghanistan as an Afghan American. In this memoir, he further discusses his perspective on the conflict between two cultures, both of which he feels strong ties to, and his struggle to reconcile and find common ground between them.
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
Thi Bui’s graphic novel tells the incredibly poignant and heart wrenching story of her own family’s migration to the United States as refugees from Vietnam. It provides an intimate and emotional account of the Vietnam war from a perspective not commonly seen in American narratives. In addition to being a story about family and belonging and identity, Bui also beautifully explores the idea of memory and how identity can affect how one perceives and remembers certain events.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
In her searingly honest and gripping debut memoir, T Kira Madden grapples with her coming of age journey as a queer, biracial young woman living in a world of contradictions. Though Madden lived a life of extreme privilege, she also faced extreme turmoil dealing with substance abuse, a famous family, and trauma in all shapes. It is a gorgeous and piercing story of the immeasurable highs and lows of growing up.
The Properties of Perpetual Light by Julian Aguon
Julian Aguon is an Indigenous attorney and activist from Guam who works specifically at the intersection of human rights and environmental justice. In The Properties of Perpetual Light, Aguon utilizes poetry, prose, speeches, and more to tell deeply personal stories of his childhood in Guam combined with fierce political commentary. It is an incredibly powerful read that gives essential context for understanding the plights of Guam today.
Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life by Alice Wong
Alice Wong is a prominent disability rights activist and the founder of the Disability Visibility Project, as well as the editor of the essay anthology Disability Visibility. Year of the Tiger is her memoir recounting her own origin story and presenting her perspectives on issues of access, activism, power, care, and more.
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
Trick Mirror is an unflinching collection of cultural criticism, examining the self-centered and contradictory cultural moment we currently live in. Tolentino delves deeply into topics such as scammer culture, feminism, reality television, and more to challenge the reader to look at our world with a critical eye.
Dark Tourist by Hasanthika Sirisena
Dark tourism is a form of tourism that centers around visiting the sites of violence and tragedy. In this collection of essays, author Hasanthika Sirisena uses the concept of dark tourism as a framing device to examine the places where history and her own past meet and intersect. From civil war in Sri Lanka, where she was born, to a plane crash in North Carolina, where she grew up, all juxtaposed with defining moments in her own life, Sirisena explores the topics of home and identity and connection.
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang
In the wake of the Laotian Civil War, thousands of Hmong in Laos fled the country, first to refugee camps in Thailand, then to the United States in search of a new home and second chance at a good life. After the death of her grandmother, Kao Kalia Yang was inspired to share her own family’s story. This memoir is a stunning firsthand recollection of the family’s imprisonment in Laos, their escape to the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand, and their eventual move to St. Paul, Minnesota.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
From the acclaimed author of The Queen of the Night, this essay collection is Alexander Chee’s brilliant investigation of how life, art, and politics intertwine to change and define us. Chee reflects on his own identities and the defining moments of his own life to pose questions about how we form our own selves over time and experiences.
Ma and Me by Putsata Reang
Putsata Reang has always strived to be a perfect Cambodian daughter, wanting to make her mother proud. But at every turn, Ma’s expectations are impossible to match. Despite Reang’s dedication to her family and successful career, other parts of her life — her failure to attain a Khmer boyfriend, her coming out, her marriage to a woman — caused deep fissures in their relationship. In this stirring memoir, Reang explores ideas of generational trauma and the weight of duty.
Southside Buddhist by Ira Sukrungruang
Get a glimpse into the life of a Thai American from Chicago desperately trying to navigate identity and the complexities of life. Swinging like a pendulum between two cultures, two families, and his many selves, Ira Sukrungruang attempts to find and define himself as a whole as opposed to an amalgam of pieces.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
In this collection of essays, Esmé Weijun Wang fearlessly and honestly discusses her experiences with schizoaffective disorder. In addition to her personal stories, Wang also provides an astute analysis on the systemic shortcomings in education and medicine. This is a compelling and insightful firsthand account of mental illness and navigating a condition so misunderstood.
Science and Nature
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book is an elegant and sweeping history of cancer, covering thousands of years. Humanity’s battle with the disease has been one filled with advances and just as many setbacks, and this is as much a story of persistence and innovation as it is a story of failures and hubris. Over the course of nearly 600 pages, Mukherjee tells the thrilling and urgent tale of our long and continuing crusade to understand and defeat this “emperor of all maladies.”
Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos by Michio Kaku
Michio Kaku is an acclaimed theoretical physicist and futurist who has written numerous popular science books. Parallel Worlds is a fascinating overview of today’s leading theories in physics, from the theory of relativity to quantum mechanics to string theory. If you’ve ever had any curiosity about physics and the history (and future!) of the universe, Kaku is the author for you. For your dose of science with a pop culture twist, I’d also recommend his Physics of the Impossible, where Kaku examines technologies from science fiction — like time travel, force fields, and so on — through his deep understanding of the laws of physics. He also determines which ones might become possible someday.
Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui
I personally hate swimming, but I can’t deny that it’s a popular activity and sport for many others. And even if I don’t like the specific act of swimming, I do have to admit that there is a certain allure of water itself. And in this book, Bonnie Tsui, herself a swimmer, seeks to examine humans’ relationship to water and swimming on a deeper level. What results is a really captivating combination of anthropological reportage and personal narrative centered around the human urge to swim.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
As a child, Aimee Nezhukumatathil was transplanted time and time again, finding herself in different environments and situations frequently. But the one thing that remained constant was that she could find creatures from nature that could guide her. An established poet, Nezhukumatathil masterfully blends personal essays and nature writing through gorgeous prose and sincere wonder at the natural world, weaving a beautiful story of a young person of color learning to own her identity and not just withstand hostility, but come out stronger on the other side. Accompanied by lovely illustrations by Fumi Nakamura, World of Wonders is an exquisite and thoughtful piece of art.
Arts, Entertainment, and Literature
Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now by Jeff Yang, Phil Yu, and Philip Wang
Featuring numerous essays and art by a wide range of guest writers and artists, Rise is a detailed chronicle of the past 30 years in Asian American history, with a particular focus on pop culture. This is a must-read for those who want context for where Asian American culture is today in a fun, digestible format.
How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo
In this collection of sharp and stirring essays, Elaine Castillo interrogates today’s reading culture and the certain aspects of it that tend to be performative and hollow. Instead, she urges, we should strive to really reconstruct the way we develop relationships with the art and fiction we consume, more fully recognizing the ethical and political ramifications and engaging with it far more deeply.
Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart by Jen Sookfong Lee
For the child of immigrants, pop culture can be an easy escape from our families and a seemingly surefire way to find common ground and fit in with our peers. I certainly relate to having this belief as a child, and I also relate to author Jen Sookfong Lee’s experience of gradually discovering that the pop culture we may have tried to conform to was not necessarily intended for us. Using various pop cultural touchstones as a framework, she pieces together an intimate memoir exploring identity and belonging.
What is the role of literature in politics, and how can it effect real change, particularly in turbulent climates like the one we are living in now? Nafisi attempts to provide an answer to this question in this rousing guide to resistance through reading. She explores the works of various authors — including Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Ray Bradbury, and others — to help illustrate how literature is an effective means to engage with and confront our enemies.
Food and Cooking
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat
Instead of presenting readers with yet another book filled with precise recipes and overly gorgeous photographs, Samin Nosrat’s innovative approach to a cookbook strives to help home cooks actually build the skills and intuition to become more adaptable and better at cooking. Starting with an in-depth explanation of the four fundamental elements of cooking — salt, fat, acid, and heat — and accompanied by illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton, the book has really reshaped the expectations of what a cookbook can be.
The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World by Padma Lakshmi
This encyclopedia is a thorough and vital reference for those with a passion for food and cooking. Not only is it an excellent general guide to the incredible range of spices and herbs of the world, it also provides a wealth of historical background as well as suggestions for how to best utilize and feature these flavors.
Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown: Recipes and Stories from the Birthplace of Chinese American Food by Brandon Jew and Tienlon Ho
Mister Jiu’s is a Michelin-starred restaurant located in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This is partially a cookbook with innovative recipes inspired by traditional Cantonese cooking but with influence from modern Californian cuisine, and partially a history of how Chinese American food came to be. It’s a gorgeous exploration of the vibrant flavors that changed American cooking and a love letter to the neighborhood where it happened.
A beautiful and compassionate group biography of seven incredible immigrant women, spanning from World War II to the present day, who helped shape America’s culinary practices. Not only is Taste Makers an eye-opening piece of food writing, it is also a deep exploration of immigration and gender — posing the question of why some of these women’s work had been overlooked for so long — and a long-awaited celebration of them and their labor.
For even more reading to explore this AAPI Heritage Month, check out some of our other lists centering Asian and AAPI authors: