Hello! For the month of May I am excited to celebrate Asian-American heritage. Each week will highlight either someone with Asian-American heritage or some aspect of Asian-American culture.
This week I am focusing on books that I think are worth reading, both fiction and non-fiction.
Wild Swans by Jung Chang is one of the best biographies I have ever read. This book covers the lives of three generations of Chinese women: grandmother, mother, and the daughter, who is the author. It spans from 1909-1978, during which we witness the overthrow of the last Chinese empire, life as a warlord concubine, the Japanese invasion, occupation, and war, the rise of Communism, civil war, both the charisma and disillusionment of Mao, and the Cultural Revolution.
Chinese history and culture is not a common subject taught in America, as you know, so when I started reading this book for my Women’s Studies class in college, my knowledge of China was limited to what I knew of my own family. While the overthrow of the empire was intriguing, the real meat of the narrative is the rise of Communism. Both the author’s mother and the author were members of the Party, and that personal, first-person perspective and witness to the totalitarian power of Mao is something everyone should read. It’s not an easy read; the content is heavy and tragic, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the difficulties that others have faced, especially in a culture so different from our own.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim is the autobiography of a young woman who escaped from North Korea. She, her mother, and her sister started their journey while at the brink of starvation from a country-wide famine. It took them nine years to get to freedom. Kim’s story is a tragic, one-step-forward-two-steps-backward tale, and again, this is a difficult read. Knowing that there are countless others who attempted escape and are presently trying to escape North Korea is a terrible thought, but something we can’t ignore.
There are several popular autobiographies written on escaping from North Korea. This is the one I happened to read, but I would recommend reading at least one, if not necessarily this one.
Moloka’i by Alan Brennert tells the story of a young girl who is separated from her family and quarantined to the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i. I picked this up because I hadn’t read much literature about Hawaii or anything about leprosy, and because I enjoy a well-written historical novel. While the characters are fictitious, their stories are based on real people and events within the community of Kalaupapa. While the author is not Asian, I wanted to highlight this book since it covers such a unique part of Asian-Pacific history.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan is a fun, fast-paced read. Since the book was made into a movie, I’d imagine that quite of few of you are familiar with at least the title, if not the premise, which is exactly as it sounds. It’s a fictional story of upper, upper elite Chinese families living in Singapore, told from the perspective of the girlfriend who is definitely not upper class.
What I enjoyed the most about this novel, however, was that the author takes such attention to detail and cultural references. Almost every page has a footnote explaining some aspect of Asian culture that is mentioned in the narrative, whether it be the complex infrastructure of Asian families, language and slang, or some other piece of culture that is inherent to Asian readers but foreign to everyone else. While it’s a light read, it’s a long read, mostly for the footnotes. I supposed you could try to skip reading them, but to do so would be to miss out on the rich culture of Singapore.
I have read other books by Asian or Asian-American authors besides these four, but these were the four that stuck with me the most. Let me know if you have read any of them or plan on reading any of them. I’d love to discuss them with you!
Thanks for reading.