10 Essential Poetry Books by AAPI Authors
It’s May, which marks the monthlong annual celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. In Book Riot’s What Readers Should Think About When They Encounter the Label “AAPI,” Anne Mai Yee Jansen so aptly states, “[T]ake some time to experience various avenues of cultural production! But you should do so with an understanding of what this label means, who it attempts to describe, and what it risks erasing.”
Highlighting a mix of backlist titles and 2022 and 2023 releases, this remains one list, compiled in a moment and limited to books I’ve read, and isn’t exhaustive in any way. So, please reference additional lists of poetry and lists across genres, and please read AAPI writers all year long.
As I will. I recently added Craig Santos Perez’s From Unincorporated Territory [åmot] and George Abraham’s Birthright to my TBR list. Janine Oshiro’s Pier waits on my book cart, Goldie. Etel Adnan’s Sea & Fog zigzags its way to me. At the end of my poetry bookcase, I placed Aria Aber’s Hard Damage, Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come for Us, and Monica Sok’s A Nail the Evening Hangs On on top of my to-reread stack.
Now, let’s celebrate these 10 incredible collections by AAPI poets. May you spend May and more with them as well as other AAPI authors and works.
Ask the Brindled by No‘u Revilla
From an “‘ōiwi abecedarian” to contrapuntal and erasure poems, this poignant debut examines community, the history and mythology of Hawai‘i, intimacy, and so much more. Chosen by Rick Barot as one of the five winners of the National Poetry Series in 2021, Revilla’s brain-rearranging poems and the layered meanings and appearances of mo‘o astonish. A book I want to add to the nightstand stacks of every reader, some standouts among standouts include “Mercy,” “After she leaves you, femme,” and “Shapeshifters banned, censored, or otherwise shit-listed, aka chosen family poem.”
Buffalo Girl by Jessica Q. Stark
Unfolding in three parts, Stark’s sophomore full-length collection features prose poems to “liberal erasures” of a variety of Little Red Riding Hood stories. Accompanied by vibrant collages, starring Red Riding Hood illustrations and black-and-white pictures of the writer’s mother, I’ve been propping the book open to images with a pink page holder in my writing space. (Today, I gaze at page 79.) This meditation on fairy tales and flowers, Vietnamese American identity and mother-love, stealing and violence is unforgettable. Beginning with “Against Knowing,” the captivating poem — with its repetition, short lines, and single period at the end — propels the reader forward: “Against naming, too / Against notion, ruling, / circumstantial love”
Burning Like Her Own Planet by Vandana Khanna
In this moving exploration of Hindu goddesses, specifically Parvati and Sita, Khanna’s compelling poems delve into feminism, girlhood, holiness, and love. If you, like me, admire the gorgeous title, it also appears in the final line of “Because You Forgot Me, I Am Weird in the World.” Take in its second and final stanza, a memorable quatrain: “The forest crowds around me to stare— / blank-eyed, free of conscience. Those / eyes see what I’ve become: a bride / burning like her own planet.”
Customs by Solmaz Sharif
Comprised of three parts and opening with “America,” a 36-word poem, Sharif’s much-anticipated second collection reflects on cypress and doors, home and loneliness, letters and poetry. A few touching poems I continue to think about long after reading and recently rereading the book in a couple lamplit hours: “Beauty,” “Self-Care,” and “Without Which.” And I want to leave you with some beauty from “Beauty”: “My life can pass like this / Waiting for beauty / Tomorrow—I say”
Feast by Ina Cariño
Meditating on desire, childhood, family, and migration, Cariño’s electric collection includes three sections, “takipsilim,” “ulan,” and “balintataw.” The stunning language and images fill me with awe. A glimpse of “when I say hello to the oldest apples”: “maybe I am unloved because I want to deal / in the currency of ghosts—to traffic in such / precious things as broken rosaries, jars of ash.” At the moment, I find myself obsessed with “I Sing Despite the Tender Stench Outside,” “names are spells, & I have four—,” and “Perishable,” too.
From From by Monica Youn
While reading Youn’s inventive fourth collection, keep sticky flags, a notepad and pen, and highlighters within reach. I felt wrinkles forming in my brain, especially as I sipped the fifth part, “In the Passive Voice,” not wanting to miss anything. Interrogating Asian American identity, anti-Asian racism, magpies, and language, this sprawls across pages, and I look forward to studying this book and diving into the poet’s backlist. I believe Blackacre calls me next.
Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah
From prose poems to self-portraits and make-up homework to “Hidden Register”s, I devoured Faizullah’s extraordinary sophomore collection in a single evening. This dazzling examination of the body, grief, hunger, and roof-sitting yanked on my heartstrings. Seriously, I will never get over the ending couplet of “Consider the Hands Once Smaller,” “I don’t know why we don’t know our own holiness, / but once you were a little girl, and so was I.” Wow, right? And that title!
Return by Emily Lee Luan
One weekend, I fell brain over toes for this remarkable debut collection about food, grandfather-love, loss, and Taiwan. Beautiful pieces like “Lunar Year,” “When My Sorrow Was Born,” and “Sunflowers” hitched my breath in my throat. In 回 / Return, my eyes were drawn to all of the water: rivers, sweat, a pool, saliva, a runoff, lakes, rain, a draining sink, and ocean. I can’t wait to hold a hard copy and trace liquid across the pages, savor the brilliant language, and scribble notes in margins.
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
Deeply hilarious and tender, this debut collection feels destined for classic-dom. It explores God and expectations, love and sadness, dreams and nature. Since finishing, I’ve been excited to reread it. So many page tops and bottoms dog-eared. So many lines and stanzas adorned with hearts. And since finishing, I’ve been excited to read more by this poet. After relishing Explodingly Yours recently and reading Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency twice during 2022’s last quarter, I revisited early favorites. Two lines from “Ode to My Envy” continue to haunt me, “I’m envious of the clouds who can from time to time / fall completely apart & everyone just says, It’s raining,”
‘Āina Hānau / Birth Land by Brandy Nālani McDougall (June 13)
And to close out this list, I delight in sharing one of my most eagerly awaited poetry titles of 2023. McDougall’s propulsive second collection about Hawai‘i’s culture, Kanaka ‘Ōiwi identity, memory, and parenthood gripped me so. Fascinating illustrations by Allison Leialoha Milham foreground each of the four parts. My mind keeps returning to “Symbolism,” “This Island on Which I Love You,” and “Prepositions,” to name only a few poems. If you haven’t already, preorder this breathtaking book for yourself and a friend.
If more posts featuring AAPI writers interest you for May and always and forever, check out these:
- 10 Pacific Islander and Pasifika Authors You Should Know About
- 11 Books Based in AAPI Folklore
- 13 New LGBTQ Books by AAPI Authors to Read ASAP
- The Best Memoirs to Read for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
- New Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature for AAPI Heritage Month and Beyond