10 Books About The Search For Asian American Identity
There are many books that capture the immigrant experience, from countless different points of view. They’re usually gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. But what about one rung down on the ladder, the experience of children of immigrants? They (we) are often caught between the values and culture of our parents and the American society we see in front of us. Sometimes these two can be in sync, but so much more often, they clash with one another. It’s easy to turn your back on your culture, wanting so badly to fit in with the world you see around you.
The characters in these stories experience the same struggles. These books are beautiful, funny, and heartbreaking. They’re also very readable, and span genres from superhero comics to YA romances to noir mysteries and beyond (because who wants to read for fun but feel lonely and depressed when the book is over?). What they have in common is the struggle that is a formative part of every Asian American I know, whether they immigrated at a young age or have families who have been here for generations. It’s one that I myself have gone through, shedding every part of me I could that gave me away as different (other than my skin color and name), before realizing I could be stronger and better if I accepted the person I was. These 10 books feature characters on a quest, searching for their Asian American identities.
1. 'Pioneer Girl' by Bich Minh Nguyen
Does the American Dream exist anymore? It’s alive and well in the stories of immigrants, who have adopted this narrative as their own. It’s front and center in Pioneer Girl, which is the story of Lee Lien, who is unemployed after pursuing a PhD in literature. She moves back home and begins poking into a mystery centered on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, that begins to consume her. It’s an interesting story, but it’s also so much more than that. All her life, Lee has defined herself by who she’s not: not quite Vietnamese, not quite American, not good enough for her mother, not fitting into her white Midwest town. Through these quintessential American books, Lee begins to craft her own identity, to figure out who she really is.
2. 'Secret Daughter' by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
How would you feel if you didn’t look like the people around you? If even your family, the people who are supposed to give you a sense of identity, looked different than you do? That’s what Asha is going through. She was born in India, to a poor family, and her mother and father adopted her and brought her to the United States. But Asha is curious about her heritage and feels torn between the people who raised her and where she came from. This excellent novel tells a lyrical story from multiple points of view—Asha’s birth mother, her adopted mother, and Asha herself—that creates a powerful tale of home and belonging.
3. 'Mambo in Chinatown' by Jean Kwok
The daughter of a Chinese ballet dancer, Charlie Wong longs for something better than her job as a dishwasher. Twenty-two years old, and she’s barely even left New York’s Chinatown, but she’s willing to sacrifice everything to make sure her younger sister has a great life. That is, until she sees a job advertisement for a receptionist at a dance studio. Suddenly, Charlie is seeing possibility everywhere—but also is struggling between cultural expectations, being a dutiful daughter and sister, and what she wants out of her life.
4. 'American Dervish' by Ayad Akhtar
This gorgeous and thoughtful novel features a young Pakistani American boy, Hayat, who lives a typically American, secular existence. But everything changes when his mother’s best friend, Mina, comes to visit from Pakistan. Mina is very religious, and Hayat feels illuminated when he learns more about his Muslim faith from her. As he becomes more unhappy in his personal life, he turns more and more to Islam for solace. Can Hayat be both an American and a Pakistani Muslim? How can he reconcile the pull between his identities?
5. 'Priya in Heels' by Ayesha Patel
This adorable romance novel features a main character who’s focused on being a proper Indian daughter and pleasing her parents. Priya has done everything right for her traditional Indian parents. Now in her medical school residency, she knows she’s expected to marry an Indian man that her parents choose for her. But then she meets Tyler. At first, his charms have little effect on her, but slowly she realizes she might be falling for him. But she can’t do the unthinkable and go against her culture and heritage—or can she?
6. 'American Born Chinese' by Gene Luen Yang
Gene Luen Yang is a celebrated graphic novelist, and his fictionalized memoir chronicles the life of a boy, Jim Wang, who’s the only Chinese-American student in his class. He is determined to become the most American kid at his school — to fit in perfectly in his new environment. But his cousin, Chin-Kee, threatens to ruin all that. Chin-Kee is from China, and he spells disaster for Jim’s social life. It’s a touching and poignant story of wanting to fit in, even at the expense of turning your back on your culture, and how you can reconcile your heritage with who you are.
7. 'The Making of Asian America' by Erika Lee
The title of this book might sound heavy, and in the interest of full disclosure, so is the content. This nonfiction history of Asian immigration to America clocks in at over 500 pages, but it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s full of details on the history of different immigrant communities and how Asians have remade themselves and forged new identities in order to fit in as Americans. It’s sad and difficult at times, but also well worth the read.
8. 'Ms. Marvel' by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, and Takeshi Miyazawa
The authenticity of Marvel’s Pakistani American superhero Ms. Marvel comes from her editor, Sana Amanat, and writer G. Willow Wilson. Together, these women have created an incredible teenager in Kamala Khan, who respects her family and Islamic faith, but also recognizes the importance of using her power to do good. But what happens when her culture clashes with being able to do good work? Kamala is smart, funny, and easy to fall in love with. If you don’t think superhero stories can be meaningful and relevant, think again.
9. 'Follow Her Home' by Steph Cha
Juniper Song is a young Korean American woman living in Los Angeles and obsessed with Philip Marlowe. Therefore, when her good friend Luke asks her to look into a private matter for him, she excitedly agrees. Luke thinks his father might be having an affair with a young Korean woman, but Juniper quickly sees that it’s much more complicated than it seems. This novel has excellent commentary on racism and immigrants, as Juniper navigates her way through the Korean community in LA. Admittedly while this first book is weak at times, the series becomes far stronger in subsequent novels Dead Soon Enough and Beware Beware.
10. 'Born Confused' by Tanuja Desai Hidier
Born Confused features an immediately sympathetic character in Dimple Lala, who’s spent each minute of her seventeen years resisting her Indian heritage and parents’ wishes. But after enduring heartbreak, she finally decides to give into their wishes and agrees to meet a boy they approve of. She knows nothing will come of it… until she sees him later at the club. Is the “good” Indian boy actually her dream guy?