Deep Dive into Asian American Authors with Chris Dunn
Asia Society at Home
Discover your newest binge and get to know our staff a little better with the Asia Society Texas Center team's favorite ways to stay entertained indoors! With our Deep Dives we take you on a journey into the obsessions of individual staff members for an in-depth look at a specific art form or cultural production.
Chris Dunn is Asia Society Texas Center’s Marketing and Communications Manager. Formerly a newspaper photojournalist, Chris is a native Houstonian whose favorite pastimes include enjoying the local culinary scene with friends and family and traveling with her medium-format film camera in tow. Since stay-at-home began, Chris has continued her explorations through cooking shows and books.
Why I'm focusing on Asian American authors
Growing up as a second-generation Chinese American, I was an avid reader who neither sought out nor happened upon books featuring or focusing on Asian Americans. While Middle-earth, Avonlea, and Laura Ingalls Wilder's various childhood homes were very familiar to me, I recall reading only one children's book centered on an Asian American experience: Lensey Namioka's Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear. Encountering a book character who resembled me was a rare and startling occurrence.
When I resumed recreational reading several years ago, I found myself gravitating to books written by and about Asians and Asian Americans, with each title tackling issues around cultural identity and memory. While I can relate to some of these books, there are others that represent an almost entirely new-to-me experience — which I think is a beautiful reminder that identity is an infinitely evolving thing, perceived and projected in countless ways.
It's been exciting recently to see Asian and Asian American authors earning press, getting their works adapted to TV and films, and carving out space for more authors to come. This Deep Dive represents just a snapshot of this moment, as I'm sure my recommendations will evolve over time.
What I am currently enjoying
Right now, I'm in the middle of Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. When I choose what book to tackle next, I generally read up on the author and scan reviews while trying to steer clear of "spoilers." All I initially knew about this book was that it's written as a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read. There is a lot to unpack in this novel about a Vietnamese American family, and Vuong's writing imparts both a rawness and grace that have surprised and moved me several times so far.
Find it on: Penguin Random House
What I find myself returning to again and again
Fiction isn't my genre of choice, so it's surprising that I've happened to read multiple debut novels by Asian American authors. But just like the movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians opened doors to more productions, Kevin Kwan's fiction bestseller was the first in my accidental spree of other Asian American authors' debut novels: Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurant, Vanessa Hua's A River of Stars, Jade Chang's The Wangs vs. the World, Lucy Tan's What We Were Promised, Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, Jenny Zhang's Sour Heart: Stories, and Chia-Chia Lin's The Unpassing.
These titles do veer more East Asian American, and I plan to shift my attentions to elsewhere in Asia and other experiences. But even within that East Asian American framework, each novel explores identity in very different ways despite sharing common themes, such as first-generation immigration (Sour Heart, A River of Stars), wealth (Crazy Rich Asians, What We Were Promised), poverty (The Unpassing), and intergenerational dynamics (The Wangs vs. the World, Everything I Never Told You, Number One Chinese Restaurant — honestly, every single book on this list). All these differences and similarities speak to the complex multitude of experiences that Asian Americans face, and support that our stories cannot be encapsulated by a single book (or movie).
Of these novels, I'd recommend starting with Everything I Never Told You and A River of Stars. While Celeste Ng's more popular second novel Little Fires Everywhere is magnificent in its examination of two families' dynamics, I found Everything I Never Told You even more devastating because the intricacies of race and identity play more prominently in the intimate fissures of a single family. Meanwhile, A River of Stars has almost a fantastical feel as its characters navigate love, family, and belonging in their search for independence and interdependence alike.
Projects that I am looking forward to
While I enjoy exploring different Asian American experiences via novels, I naturally gravitate towards nonfiction — the more challenging it is, the better! So, immediately after reading Jia Tolentino's New Yorker review of Cathy Park Hong's Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, I added this essay collection to my to-read list. Based on some excerpts in Tolentino's review, I get the feeling that these essays may hit uncomfortably close to home to my own experiences growing up. But I believe that discomfort represents opportunities for growth, and I look forward to reading this title soon.
Find it on: Random House Books (with links to purchase)
An author that excites me is
This isn't an easy prompt, because I try to read a variety of authors to expand my exposure and understanding of different perspectives. Recently, however, I've finished Erika Lee's The Making of Asian America: A History and Helen Zia's Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, and am anxious to read more.
If you are interested in Asian American history, these books are essential but very different. The Making of Asian America, published in 2015, is broader in scope and necessarily covers a lot of ground, from the 1500s through the present day. Asian American Dreams, published in 2001, focuses more on the modern age as Asian Americans of varied backgrounds have endeavored to unite and be heard, whether in labor, education, pop culture, or politics. Though much has happened in the 19 years since Asian American Dreams was published, it remains critical reading to understand how Asian Americans, both as a whole and as subgroups, have interacted in the U.S.'s binary racial landscape.
Both Lee and Zia are established historians: Lee is a writer and professor featured in PBS and WETA's groundbreaking documentary Asian Americans, and Zia is a journalist and activist who's documented and represented Asian American issues since the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin. In particular, I'm excited to read Lee's America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States and Zia's Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution.
My wildcard recommendation is
Ling Ma's Severance has been on my to-read list for almost a year, but I only got around to this debut novel when placing my first stay-at-home book order in March. Glancing at the synopsis and reviews, I knew this novel's events are triggered by the fictional Shen Fever, originating in China as "a plague of biblical proportions." I'm a sucker for punishment, so of the five books I'd ordered, Severance was the first that I read.
Severance is great — there's a reason why it won the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction. I really enjoyed its fresh take on the immigrant/"outsider" novel, coupled with satire, dystopia, and wry commentary on capitalism and office bureaucracy. It's also alarmingly prescient in this time of COVID-19 and distancing, which may be a little much for some readers — but I personally was delighted and aghast by more than a few circumstances and details in the novel that are eerily similar to what is unfolding across the globe today.
Find it on: Ling Ma's website
For more reading, I also recommend the following:
- Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman is a delightful and odd novel.
- Jose Antonio Vargas' Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen is a powerful, fast read on the journalist and activist's journey since learning he is undocumented.
- Nicole Chung's All You Can Ever Know is a heartbreaking and revelatory story of the author's adoption and her search for her birth family.
- Peter Ho Davies' The Fortunes presents a clever framework of Asian American history as seen through fictional and nonfictional characters alike.
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About Asia Society at Home
Though Asia Society is temporarily closed, we are dedicated to continuing our mission of building cross-cultural understanding and uplifting human connectivity. Using digital tools, we bring you content for all ages and conversations that matter, in order to spark curiosity about Asia and to foster empathy.
About Asia Society Texas Center
With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and West. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.