(Asian American) Book Recommendations
One of the strengths of this magazine, in my opinion, is the extent to which we write. It’d be easier for us to make short op-eds and graphic diagrams and it’d be easier for you to watch short clips or look at a list. But, both us and you are committed to an unspoken contract between writer and reader, in which we write and you choose to read. Now, while such an established dynamic is a strength, I wanted to take this blog to direct your attention to other pieces of writing that have followed me through this year. Pieces that I, as a reader, chose to enter such a relationship with.
I titled this “(Asian American) Book Recommendations” to indicate that, while these books intersect with my own Asian American identity (and likely many others), they don’t all fall within the bounds of Asian American literature. Some of these books I read for history classes, others I saw online and ordered to my dorm (now packed away), and even more were randomly found while wandering in the library. For each I wrote a brief synopsis and some of my own thoughts, links are included in each title.
In no particular order and containing minor spoilers:
1. No-No Boy by John Okada (1957)
Set in post-WWII Seattle. Ichiro Yamada, a former student at the University of Washington, has spent two years in an internment camp and two years in federal prison for refusing to fight for the U.S. Once his home, Seattle is now entrenched with new, generally discriminatory, dynamics driven by the outcome of the war. For his refusal to fight in the US military (indicating loyalty to Japan), and his resulting designation as a “No-No Boy", Ichiro faces extreme ostracism from the Japanese American community. This book was originally assigned for my Asian American literature class but I would have found it enthralling regardless. This perspective is rare and it’s worth noting the significance of its release in 1957. The initial response was either silent or, from some within the Japanese-American community, encouraging the push for silence. However, fast forward to the literary revolution that was Shawn Wong, Frank Chin, Jeff Chan, and Lawson Fusao Inada, No-No Boy now become a staple read within the modern Asian-American literary canon. The story itself is entirely dark but never dramatic. Okada paints the somber perspective of someone who once held hope but, due to the interpersonal fallout of war’s unfair whims, is hated for a decision he cannot change. Plus it’s in Seattle, so I kind of have to recommend it.
2. The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong edited & translated by JaHyun Haboush, foreword by Dorothy Ko (1735-1816/1996/2013)
This is a collection of four autobiographical memoirs set during the Joseon Dynasty. Lady Hyegyeong was the wife of Crown Prince Sado and the mother of King Jeongjo. Each memoir, written for a different audience, describes Prince Sado’s death by filicide (his father, the king, locks him in a rice chest to die) with varying detail. Although the memoirs include necessary details on Prince Sado’s death for historiographical purposes, Lady Hyegyeong's writing provides a unique window into the life, thoughts, and opinions of a girl and women growing up and participating in the tense court politics of late 1700s Korea. All four memoirs were intended for a private audience; Lady Hyegyeong never meant for them to reach the general public, let alone be published almost 300 years later. The story of Prince Sado’s death has been turned into multiple K-drama’s and thus, when reading these memoirs, it’s this strange experience of truly living these fantastical stories out in real life. Lady Hyegyeong tone and syntax changes through the memoirs and, although I can only really read the translated version, this creates an exciting, ever changing narrative of true royalty.
*Note the spelling of Hyegyeong vs Hyegyong with a macron is dependent upon what system of romanization is being used.
3. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (1999)
A collection of short stories exploring the different narratives that bridge Indian and Indian American identities. Lahiri's prose artfully achieves an accurate depiction of a unique human experience; each story illustrates the different ways identity can be formed and interacted with from the relationship between White American tourists and Indian tour guides to the intricate dance of modern dating. She naturally incorporate international politics, intergenerational immigrant dynamics, and traditional marital expectations into each story, weaving a beautiful web of triumph and defeat. These stories are touching, confusing narratives of entirely relatable characters in entirely relatable scenarios that manage to completely enthrall any reader. Lahiri's writing showcases her empathy for others' thoughts and feelings. Each story brings you to a completely different world and geographic location, yet displaying another aspect of an Indian or Indian-American identity.
4. All I Asking For is My Body by Milton Murayama (1975/1988)
A three part novel set pre-WWII, Kiyoshi (Kiyo) Oyama runs wild across Pepelau, Hawaii while navigating Japanese-Filipino agriculture labor dynamics and intergenerational expectations with regard to wealth and deeply entrenched familial order. The first part depicts true childhood for Kiyo, a time of neighborhood "gangs" and money making schemes resulting in harsh moral realities. The second part, titled "The Subsitute", establishes the role of mother within Kiyo's world with themes of impending sickness alongside childhood reasoning. The last and longest part, titled after the book, narrates Kiyo's adolescence as Pearl Harbor looms large. Life's reality crashes into the narrative with Kiyo's older brother forced to quit school, his father quits his fisherman job and the whole family moves to a sugarcane plantation, Kiyo becomes aware of family debt, and the impending war. With an ambiguous ending, this book gives agency to the humanity of the early agriculture immigrants in Hawaii. It begins the task of conveying the complexity of their individual lives alongside their place within the larger web of early 20th century diaspora.
5. Babel by R. F. Kuang (2022)
Set in 1830's England, magic is linguistically woven inside silver bars that the global economy, and England's imperialism, depend on. Within the University of Oxford, the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation (nicknamed Babel) oversees the production and magical encoding of the silver. Robin, an orphan from Canton, is adopted by a Babel professor and raised to enter the institute. However, as he enters the world of elite British intelligence, the institutions abuse of power is all too clear. Like many other books by R. F. Kuang, she has yet again placed a powerful historical critique within a fantastically alternative world. The older we get, the more many begin to shy away from fantasy in place of realistic fiction and non-fiction "adult" books. To me, Kuang's writing pushes against such a sentiment, and argues for the power that well-written and thought-out fantasy has to unveil the realities of our lives. Her prose is dually accessible and intriguing, with deeply researched notes and footnotes to complicated linguistics. Babel is a complete joy to read.
I hope you enjoy any or all of these books and I'd be happy to chat about any of them!