Posted on April 28, 2021 at 6:00 am
I had never eaten gimbap before I was invited by a high school friend to her home to try one of her Korean mother’s specialties. I was very excited. Then, I was shocked to learn that this popular sushi-style rice dish included hotdogs. Aren’t hotdogs as “American” as apple pie?!
This introduction to Korean culture made me realize I’d never even wondered how my friend’s mom had come to the U.S. or what her experience was like. I’d never considered how foods like hot dogs and spam reached Korea, Japan, and Hawaii. Over the years, I’ve learned to always be grateful when others are kind enough to share their food and culture with me. After all, food is nourishment—a tangible form of nurturing, of love.
The surge in recent hate crimes committed against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has made me reflect on how this expansive community has influenced my life, expanded my horizons, and made me a better person. I would like to highlight some AAPI artists and authors whose work can help inspire us, remind us of our shared humanity, and unite us.
This list is by no means comprehensive, there are many unique experiences and stories out there. Luckily, there are also generous, loving creators and writers willing to let us see their worlds through their eyes. Here are some of my favorites.
As the saying goes, the way to one’s heart is through one’s stomach, so let’s start with cookbooks.
Aloha Kitchen, by Alana Kysar, shares so much more that cuisine. A Maui native, Kysar traces her cultural and agricultural influences, teaching the history of Hawaii with every tasty bite.
Indian-ish, by Priya Krishna, is bright, funny, and full of intriguing recipes like caramelized onion dal, Malaysian ramen, tomato rice with crispy cheddar, and so many great ideas for quinoa!
Smoke & Pickles, by Edward Lee, shares the journey of a former Top Chef competitor from Brooklyn to Louisville, blending of his Korean roots with Southern cuisine along the way.
Maangchi’s Big Book of Korean Cooking, by Maangchi, shows you how to make your own gimbap, bulgogi, and so much more.
Paper Son, by Julie Leung is the remarkable story of Tyrus Wong, lead artist for the Disney film Bambi. His lush pastels changed animation forever, and his legacy of advocacy for Asian American artists lives on.
It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way, by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad, is a reminder for me of one of my most prized childhood possessions—my beloved copy of Gyo Fujikawa’s A Child’s Book of Poems. Only now have I learned how truly profound and revolutionary her work was.
Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the story of a girl named Minli and her journey to find the fantastical world of Chinese folklore. Lin is a prolific children’s author who creates magical illustrations and never fails to spark imaginations.
Linda Sue Park’s Prairie Lotus shares the story of witty heroine Hanna who struggles to fit into small town life in the 1880s Midwest, where even her skin gives away her mixed heritage.
American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, is part fantasy, part history, part coming-of-age tale with three interwoven stories that explore racial stereotypes and Chinese American identity. Oh, and the Monkey King makes an appearance!
Displacement, by Kiku Hughes, is a touching mix of truth and fiction that leads the reader through time and generations, exploring the world of Japanese Internment camps in the 1940s through the eyes of teenage Kiku.
This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, is a deceptively simple, charming exploration of two teenage girls navigating their identities and approaching adulthood during a seaside summer vacation.
The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui, tells her family’s journey from Vietnam to California while caring for her first child, using her own childhood experiences to re-examine the nature of parental love in times war.
Monstress, by Marjorie Liu is full of steam punk and art deco imagery. This gorgeous series follows Maika Halfwolf, a war refugee struggling to survive in a world where humans battle Arcanics at every turn. Yet it may be the monster inside Maika that she needs to fear the most.
Gish Jen’s near futuristic fantasy The Resisters is an intriguing change of pace for the author, delving into racism, artificial intelligence, climate change, and that oh-so-American of past times: baseball.
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, is about the mysterious death of a young Chinese American girl and explores the history of a family breaking apart in 1970s Ohio.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, is told through a son’s letter to his illiterate mother and cracks open a family history spanning from Vietnam to California.
The Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, may just be the most aromatic, mouthwatering novel I’ve ever read. In the tradition of magical realism, a spice shop in Oakland becomes a tantalizing setting for spells and love.
Insurrecto, by Gina Apostol, is the story of an American filmmaker and her Filipino translator who must work together to navigate Duterte’s Philippines and its problematic history with the U.S., with each woman creating her own narrative along the way.
Good Talk, by Mira Jacob, is just as beautifully written as Jacob’s stellar debut novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. Good Talk is equal parts brutal honesty and hilarity as Jacob explores how to answer her young son’s questions about identity, race relations, and who we can trust when the answers get murky.
All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung, is about her experience being raised in a small town in southern Oregon by white parents who didn’t allow themselves to see the prejudice directed toward their Korean American daughter. Chung shares her story and all it encompasses with candor and empathy.
On the cusp of graduating from high school, Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi realized their education had a huge gap—honest exploration of race and identity in the U.S. Tell Me Who You Are shares what Guo and Vulchi discovered when they deferred college and set out to learn through first-person interviews just what this country’s racial identity truly encompasses.
Go Home! edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is a brilliant anthology of multigenerational, multiethnic voices who illuminate—through memoir, fiction, and poetry—what home means to those whose must bridge racial, cultural, and institutional divides to create their own sanctuary.
I Hope We Choose Love, by Kai Cheng Thom, contains essays and poems, in which trans activist Thom examines the pitfalls of the social justice world when empathy is lost and division takes over. Her clear explanations of complicated terms like “Oppression Olympics” and “Identity Politics” have lessons and a solution for us all.
Despite being better known for her spoken-word poetry, Sarah Kay’s vivid depictions of that ultimate American symbol of a melting-pot metropolis—New York City—leap from the pages of No Matter the Wreckage to elucidate the terror and beauty of American multiculturalism.
Mitski: When the vampire queen Marceline is singing in the animated show Adventure Time, Mitski is her voice. Her last two albums, Puberty 2 and Be the Cowboy, delve into national and personal identity, with stunningly lovely results.
Jhene Aiko: This neo soul artist’s recent album Chilombo was recorded in and inspired by Hawaii. Her mesmerizing freestyle was a delightful audio retreat in the chaos of 2020.
Japanese Breakfast: If you haven’t seen the X-Files parody video Japanese Breakfast made for their new release “Be Sweet” (official video on YouTube), now is your chance! Then go check out their 2017 release Soft Sounds from Another Planet.
As the poster proclaims, this little gem is “based on an actual lie,” creating a plotline headed straight for a cultural clash. The Farewell, by filmmaker Lulu Wang, is worth seeing just for Awkwafina’s scenes with the famous Chinese actress playing her grandmother, Tzi Ma.
The Rider, by talented director Chloé Zhao, has already cleaned up at the Golden Globes. This film is your chance to watch Zhao hone her skills portraying the bits of the American landscape that are still wild.
The Wedding Banquet, by Ang Lee, is a film with humor, delicious food scenes, and indomitable love. This early work by the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain is not to be missed.
Along with the titles I’ve shared here, you can explore and celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage with three OverDrive booklists for adults, teens, and kids.
I hope you get the opportunity to explore the plethora of AAPI communities, the worlds of experience, brilliance, deliciousness. I am hopeful that there is a way through the vitriol and violence. In the words of Kai Cheng Thom:
“When we lose faith in the things that matter, it is easy to turn to anger. . . . in the midst of despair, I have come to believe that love—the feeling of love, the politics of love, the ethics and ideology and embodiment of love—is the only good option…”
Tags: aapi, adults, Asian American, books, cookbook, fiction, gimbap, graphic novels, kimbap, memoir, movies, music, nonfiction, Pacific Islander, reading