Asian American and Pacific Islander authors from the Hawaiian Islands to the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and more hit the stands this year to tell stories representing their AAPI experiences and identities. From a fiction novel based on a mythical fire goddess to a memoir about a victorious transgender pageant queen, this list is nothing short of diverse. Read on to get the in-scoop on the most trending books by API of 2023.
“Lei and the Fire Goddess” by Malia Maunakea
As a Native Hawaiian, or Kānaka Maoli, author Malia Maunakea’s adventurous children’s novel “Lei and Fire Goddess” is a testament to her roots. The book follows a part-Hawaiian preteen named Anna Leilani Kama’ehu. Raised on her Hawaiian grandmother’s folktales and legends about family guardians, Anna finds that her friends in Colorado don’t believe in such things. When Anna returns to Hawai’i to visit her Tūtū or grandmother, her beliefs are tested by Pele, the legendary fire goddess of Hawai’i.
Although fiction, the novel features many parallels between Maunakea’s own identity and the natural history and spirituality in the Moʻolelo, or oral stories, of Native Hawaiian culture. The book even made a strong impression on the voice of Disney princess Moana, Auli’i Cravalho. “Lei and Fire Goddess” blend preteen angst and beloved Hawaiian mo’olelo in a way that hasn’t been done before,” she says. Nonetheless, expect a sequel in 2024 titled “Lei and the Invisible Island.”
“Hula” by Jasmin Iolani Hakes
Hakes was born and raised in Hilo, Hawaii, where the prestigious Merrie Monarch festival is held—a week-long premier hula competition that began in 1963. Hence, her novel “Hula” follows a Native Hawaiian girl named Hi’i Naupaka, who comes from a family rooted in the sacred dance. Hi’i strives to live up to her family’s legacy by winning the Miss Aloha Hula Competition, but all comes with a price.
With many parts to her identity, Hakes is a mixed-race, Filipino, Portuguese and Puerto Rican Hawaii local raising a part-Native Hawaiian daughter. Hakes raised her children in different parts of the continental U.S. and wanted her keiki to be in touch with their culture through hula. “I always had this understanding that the only reason we had any culture was because of hula,” says Hakes. “We have an oral history, and so all of our events, our gods and goddesses but also our geological events, our volcanoes, were recorded through dance… Hula was what we all stood on.”
“Yellowface” by R.F. Kuang
“Yellowface,” by R.F. Kuang, is a #1 New York Times Bestseller that speaks on the realities of the publishing industry, racism, and cultural appropriation. The fiction novel follows frenemies Athena, a successful Chinese-American writer, and June, a white writer who isn’t finding as much success in the publishing industry as Athena. When Athena dies suddenly in a tragic accident, June steals Athena’s most recently completed manuscript and passes it off as her own.
R.F. Kuang is attending Yale, pursuing a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Literature, and is on the 2023 Time 100 Next List for emerging leaders.
“Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America” by Julia Lee
Similar to the premise of Cathy Park Hong’s bestseller “Minor Feelings,” Julia Lee writes a memoir about the challenges with her identity growing up Asian in “black and white America.” Detailing her experience as a daughter of Korean immigrants who own a store in Los Angeles in the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood, Lee doesn’t know where she fits in. From the Los Angeles Riots to the beating of Rodney King and her discovery of the works of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, Lee searches for answers. Eventually, Lee realizes that the Asian American community must collaborate with Black and brown communities to fight for social justice and change.
“Horse Barbie” by Geena Rocero
Geena Rocero is an icon for the trans and LGBTQ+ community; despite childhood bullying, Rocero eventually became the highest-earning transgender pageant queen by 17. “Horse Barbie” is a memoir that follows Rocero’s journey from Manila, Philippines, to the United States, where she eventually changed her name and transitioned. But although documents confirmed her identity, she still did not feel safe. As a result, she spent eight years hiding her trans identity until she realized that she wanted everyone to see her authentic self. In a CBS Morning News interview, Rocero explains that she “entered an industry that was all about imagery, but I was not being seen.”
“When the Hibiscus Falls” by M. Evelina Galang
Before being a writer, activist and professor, Filipino American M. Evelina Galang is a daughter, sister, auntie, wife, madrastra (stepmother) and lola (grandmother). These same values mirror her collection of seventeen stories incorporated into her new novel “When the Hibiscus Falls.” The book follows generations of Filipino women who protect their heritage and legacy. Galang attended the University of Miami, earned a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship, and was a Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist.
“Holding Pattern” by Jenny Xie
Touching on breaking generational patterns, “Holding Pattern” by Jenny Xie is about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships combined with cultural and generational differences. In the novel, Marissa is the mother of Kathleen Cheng, a “professional cuddler” who cuddles for a living—a career choice that Marissa does not understand. Nevertheless, Marissa has relied on Kathleen for emotional support through her rocky marriage and depression. When Kathleen returns home, her mother is a brand new person who is no longer sad-drinking but happily in love—planning her wedding with a tech entrepreneur. The mother and daughter journey through challenges to hopefully, eventually, accept each other’s newfound identities.
“Wandering Souls” by Cecile Pin
“Wandering Souls” by Vietnamese and French writer Cecile Pin is a fiction novel that follows siblings Anh, Thanh, and Minh, who leave Vietnam by boat to Hong Kong, hoping to make it to the United States. Their reality is thrown into chaos as the siblings are put through refugee camps and detention centers and eventually end up in the United Kingdom, where they learn that the grass may not be greener on the other side. This genre-defying novel touches on the truth of war, history, and assimilation.
“Your Driver is Waiting” by Priya Guns
Not only is Priya Guns the author of the masterpiece novel “Your Driver is Waiting,” but she is also an actor and “full-time big cat bat coyote hyena,” as she describes on her Instagram bio. That said, Gun’s unique and quirky personality spills into her dark satire, “Your Driver is Waiting.” The novel follows Damani Krishanthan, a queer woman living in an anonymous North American City. After the sudden death of her father, Damani struggles to pay the bills as a rideshare driver. During a rideshare drive, Damani feels a spark of chemistry with passenger Jolene, a liberal white American who is all about social justice. But when Damani finally allows herself to be vulnerable for once, Jolene does something unspeakable, resulting in a roller coaster of chaotic events.
“Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City” by Jane Wong
Based on the idea of the “American dream,” “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City” is a memoir based on Jane Wong’s working-class upbringing. The novel occurs in the 1980s Jersey Shore, where Wong’s family runs a Chinese restaurant. Family members and siblings help to keep the restaurant afloat while Wong’s father is addicted to gambling, and the restaurant begins to lose money. The poignant memoir touches on family, food, and resistance.
This article appeared in Character Media’s Annual 2023 Issue.
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