May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! How will you continue to celebrate the many heritages that enrich the United States? We have some book recommendations with reviews by UVA Library staff of narratives highlighting the Asian diaspora. The reading list below was crowdsourced by Katrina Spencer, UVA Librarian for African American and African Studies. For research queries centered on Asian American and Pacific Islander experiences, histories, and lives, contact the Library’s Director of Research in the Arts and Humanities Chris Ruotolo.
If you prefer listening to content concerning Asian American life, check out Jerry Won’s podcast Dear Asian Americans to hear from numerous, additional, contemporary voices.
“Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu, 2020
This witty, satirical novel, structured as a screenplay, tells the story of Willis Wu, a second-generation Taiwanese American living in Chinatown and trying to make it as an actor. His dream is to become a star, playing the role of a lifetime — the “Kung Fu Guy.” Yu does not just write a moving and hilarious tale, but also delivers a scathing social commentary on immigration and assimilation in the new world. The novel includes a timeline of the legislation that victimized Asian immigrants from 1859 to the Immigration Act of 1924, which completely prohibited immigration from Asia to the United States.
— Wei Wang, Research Librarian for East Asian Studies
“They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei
This graphic novel is a study in contrasts: it covers the racist past and present in the memoir of an actor, George Takei (famous for his role in Star Trek, which depicted an utopian future); a child’s experience of adventure vs. a parent’s experience of trauma; the government’s incarceration of Japanese-American citizens that recruited those same citizens to fight fascism in Europe. Ultimately this book is about the contrast between America’s ideals and its reality, and who gets to define who is and isn’t American and who is and who isn’t patriotic.
— Tim Morton, Manager of Resource Acquisition & Description
“On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong, 2019
This is the first novel by Vietnamese-American poet, essayist, and novelist Ocean Vuong. An immigrant tale and a work of autofiction, this story takes the form of a letter from the author to his illiterate mother. The novel travels forward and back to the traumatic experiences of his mother and grandmother as refugees of the Vietnam War and his own experiences of childhood and young adulthood as a young, queer immigrant growing up in Hartford, Connecticut. It is a rich and deeply beautiful book.
— Rose Oliveira, Accessioning Archivist
“Severance” by Ling Ma, 2018
It is impossible to read Ling Ma’s 2018 fiction novel “Severance” now without drawing comparisons to COVID-19. But the novel is not a horror tale of contagion. Rather, it paints an eerie picture of how humanity clings to normalcy and daily rituals, alternately seeking and eschewing identity and belonging. The meditations on identity, isolation, and belonging are the truly haunting aspects of this compelling read.
— Rebecca Coleman, Research Librarian for Architecture
“Love After Love” by Ingrid Persaud
This novel opens a window into Trinidad and its Indian diasporic community. The plot centers on Betty Ramdin and her family, and her close friend Mr. Chetan, a fellow teacher at Ms. Ramdin’s school. Explosive secrets damage relationships between the characters, but the title suggests that one can continue to love even after love is broken. Betty’s son, Solo, eventually moves to New York City to live with his uncle’s family — a reminder that “Asian” immigrants to the United States may come from diasporic communities elsewhere — and we get a glimpse at the tensions between different Caribbean immigrant communities.
— Keith Weimer, Research Librarian for History and Religious Studies
“The Collected Schizophrenias” by Esmé Weijun Wang
In these essays, Taiwanese American writer Esmé Weijun Wang invites the reader into her world of mental illness, specifically schizoaffective disorder. In unguarded prose and a candid voice, Wang shares the unrelentingness of her illness and reveals the scaffolding she has built to weather hallucinations and delusions, and other manifestations of the disorder. Wang offers a forward-looking, hopeful thread throughout, and the reader ultimately becomes as invested in Wang’s mental well-being as she is herself.
— Brenda Gunn, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and Preservation
“The Refugees” by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Short story collections are tricky: they always leave the reader wanting more. The titular refugees in these eight stories — mainly Vietnamese immigrants to the United States — feel to the last like they inhabit careful, complete worlds. In stunning and clear prose, Nguyen offers us a glimpse into their lives and the lasting traumas that affect them all.
— Erin Pappas, Research Librarian for the Humanities
“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
Trigger Warning: suicide
This fiction novel follows a multiracial family struggling to fit into its own society. The first-generation Chinese-American father struggled unsuccessfully to blend into predominantly white surroundings and the white mother was raised not to aspire beyond domesticity. Both stifled by constructs of race and gender, they place their broken dreams in their daughter’s hands and fail to see the excessive stress their hopes place on her mental health. Ng’s artful, intimate, and time-leaping writing conjures endless compassion and poignant reflection on exclusion.
— Katrina Spencer, Librarian for African American and African Studies