Spring Booklist: The Beauty and Strength of the Human Spirit Awakening

Celebrating four excellent AAPI contributions to American literature, here is a list of the books I suggest you read

The advent of spring in New York City was accompanied by a stronger than usual sigh of relief. Even if the despair and upheaval of 2020 had not quite left us, something about the abundant sunshine seemed to make it easier to handle. But alongside the renewed sense of hope, spring also delivered a long-overdue awakening for many Americans regarding the experiences of our fellows of Asian ancestry. The rise in reported attacks on people of Asian descent shone a light on the discrimination they continue to face, despite the stereotype of “model minority” that so many of us ascribe to this diverse group of people.

Beyond the grief I felt for the tragedy of the attacks themselves, these instances made me incredibly sad for the people who think that someone who doesn’t look like them doesn’t belong in America. What kind of education did they have? Where did their parents or teachers go wrong? Did they miss the part where nothing is permanent in human history, least of all where people choose to or are forced to live?

It made me think about my own education, both formal and lived. Since I moved to the U.S. as a young child, I don’t recall much about life before America, but I also grew up with plenty of neighbors who came from other countries, so being an immigrant never felt like something noteworthy in and of itself. It was just one of the myriad ways one could be an American in my little corner of Queens.

And when it came to formal schooling, my teachers had a diverse array of authors ready for us from middle school onwards. Novels like The Namesake sat alongside Fences and The Great Gatsby and I never bothered to make a distinction between “American” authors and foreign ones, because all names could be American names to my young brain. 

It was only later in life that I realized that not everyone viewed immigration through the same lens. And while it’s too tall of a task to try to undo years of miseducation with a simple blog article, I thought I could at least provide a reminder that many of our cultural treasures are priceless exactly because some aspects of them were not originally of this land. That the works of the dreamers who brought their ideas from elsewhere and molded them into something magical on the shores of this country are meaningful, in no small part, thanks to the struggle that it took to achieve them. And that these differences should be cause for celebration and joy. How tragic would it be if America was a synonym for a stale, unending sameness?

As a lifelong reader, I chose novels as my soapbox. The literary output of immigrants in America could fill volumes, but with the occasion of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month this May, I wanted to highlight a few contributions that the AAPI community has made to the American literary canon. I hope you find something great to read below!

A mathematician looking for answers to an unsolved puzzle also discovers new revelations about her family’s history.

This is probably the least publicized book on this list, but it comes first because I read it during a particularly bleak period last year. The perseverance displayed by Chung’s protagonist, Katherine, an American mathematician whose pursuit of a famously unsolved mathematical puzzle is woven beautifully with explorations of her past, woke me up. The glimpses we get into her ancestors’ travails are jarring reminders of the horrors that humans can cause to each other, but they are also wonderfully offset by the vibrancy and sheer will to live that Chung brings out of her characters. For many women, Katherine’s struggles to be taken seriously as a female mathematician will hit very close to home. But for any human, regardless of gender, the story of her life serves as a striking reminder of the beauty of never giving up.

An American-Indian tale of generational differences, assimilation and defining oneself.

This was the first “immigrant” novel I can recall reading as a teenager. I am being intentional in describing it as such. Even though many of the other writers to whom I had been exposed until then were immigrants or uprooted in some way themselves, their work wasn’t marked with the same label as Jhumpa Lahiri’s work (for reasons that would require their own thesis to unpack). Leaving that aside, this was the first book I remember dealing so obviously with the immigrant experience and I found it an interesting contrast against my own lived experience here, so I wanted to serve it up as a suggestion for other new Americans who might be interested in doing the same. 

The tumultuous history of Afghanistan is told through the experiences of two women, Mariam and Laila, as they try to make the best of what life has dealt them.

Hosseini first rose to fame with A Kite Runner, but it is his second novel that I remember best (not least because of the title, which is one of the most beautiful I have come across). I first came to appreciate Hosseini’s novels for the humanity they brought to Afghanistan. Until then, I had only learned about it through news reports about terrorism and despair. His novels did not magically erase these elements, but instead of sensational headlines, they used stories of ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances to make a point. A Thousand Splendid Suns was particularly strong in the way it highlighted the cost of these circumstances to women, with one sentence perhaps saying it all: “Learn this now and learn it well. Like a compass facing north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.” More than the suffering, what I took away from this novel was the incredible strength of the human spirit that allowed its protagonists to survive all that had come their way. 

In closing, I’m featuring a book that I haven’t yet read but have heard raves about: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, in which a son reflects on his life growing up as a gay Asian-American man in a story framed as a letter to his mother. Bringing together of-the-moment themes such as race, class, and masculinity with the age-old need to feel heard, Vuong tells a story that hits home for all who have ever felt stifled by the expectations of society, whether it be a familiar or foreign one. Vuong’s novel also beautifully illustrates the drive to survive that animates us all and how, even in the darkest moments, we are capable of finding the light and joy in the smallest of moments to keep us going.

This was but a fraction of the contributions that the AAPI community has made to American culture. More than anything, the human spirit’s strength and beauty shine through in each of these books for me. I hope they inspire you to pick one or two up and that you appreciate and celebrate them when they show up in your own life.

What other books by immigrants have you read that inspired you? Comment below and let us know!

Originally published by New Women New Yorkers: Source

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