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Simu Liu attends the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

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11 Great Books That Honour Asian Culture

Deepen your understanding and appreciation of Asian Heritage Month with fiction and non-fiction by writers from the diaspora / BY Nathalie Atkinson / May 13th, 2022

Kick off your reading list for Asian Heritage Month with our pick of 11 new  worthy titles. More than 20 years ago, the Honourable Vivienne Poy – the first Canadian of Asian descent appointed to the Senate – introduced a motion to recognize and reflect on Asian history and achievement during the month of May, which was formally adopted in May 2002. 

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1Breathless by Amy McCulloch

This debut adult novel from YA and children’s writer McCulloch, a self-described Chinese-White author, is a thriller about a journalist who undertakes a dangerous assignment to get an interview with a famous mountain climber. Set on an isolated trek up Mount Manaslu in the Nepalese Himalayas, the eighth highest mountain the world – which McCulloch climbed in 2019, the youngest Canadian woman to do so – it is about survival, as members of the expedition are killed off one by one. 

2Activities for Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen

Thirty-nine-year-old Asian-American Alice is caring for her dying father in the Bay Area while fixated on the life of Taiwanese-American performance artist Tehching Hsieh and his time on the New York art scene. The meditative subjects allow Chen, a New York-based poet, to explore ideas of loneliness, tedium, endurance and the passage of time in her probing debut novel.

3Dandelion by Jamie Chai Yun Liew

This debut novel from Liew, a University of Ottawa law professor and practicing refugee and immigration lawyer, is a coming-of-age story set in small-town Canada about belonging, motherhood and mental illness. The author, who has Hakka, Hainanese and Nyonya roots in Southeast Asia, grew up in Sparwood, B.C., the daughter of parents from Brunei. The novel was developed from a manuscript that won the 2018 emerging writer prize from the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop.

4Where the Silver River Ends by Anna Quon

In this book about a teacher who is looking for a fresh start abroad, Halifax-based Quon, a mixed-race poet and novelist, considers what it is to be an outsider living between cultures. While traveling to Bratislava in Slovakia, the heroine, Joan – a Canadian of Chinese heritage – forms a couple of unlikely friendships that help her deal with recent loss and her journey of self-discovery.

5Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

The Chinese Exclusion Act serves as the backdrop for this debut novel by the Austin, Texas-based Chinese-American author, about a young Chinese woman brought to America against her will. Set in the 1880s American West during the rise of anti-Asian sentiment, Daiyu’s journey commingles with elements of Chinese myth and folklore for a sweeping historical novel that American novelist Ann Patchett calls, “engulfing, bighearted, and heartbreaking.”

6We Were Dreamers by Simu Liu

The Canadian actor now famous as the star of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s first Asian superhero film, shares his immigrant origin story in this memoir about China, Canada and Hollywood. Lui writes about how he did national math competitions, but opted out of an accounting career to pursue his dreams (with stock photography modeling along the way) and made history. It’s as great as Shang-Chi’s runaway San Francisco bus fight scene.

7When We Fell Apart by Soon Wiley

Min’s search for meaning behind his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance becomes a search to understand his bi-racial identity in Seoul. Born in California to an American father and Korean mother, he can move in certain areas of Korean society by virtue of his ethnicity and in others because of his ex-pat status. This is a suspenseful literary novel about bicultural identity by Korean-American author Wiley, who lives in Connecticut.

8Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home by Eric Kim

Kim, a New York Times recipe developer and cooking columnist, grew up in Atlanta as the son of two Korean immigrants, and his debut is a mix of recipes rooted in that upbringing. It’s about a son learning to cook in his mother’s kitchen, complete with essays on leaving home and the meaning of holiday family meals, and traces how innovative culinary traditions are born. Think: Cheeseburger Kimbap (bulgogi with American cheese), plentiful jalapeños (because staple Asian ingredients like shishito peppers were scarce), grits seasoned with toasted sesame oil and dried seaweed, and unctuous Gochujang Chocolate Lava Cakes. No wonder Nigella’s a fan!

9We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama

Two sisters flee their Tibetan village after the 1959 Chinese invasion, and years later, come across a Tibetan artifact that may have healing powers. This anti-colonial novel is a much-anticipated debut by Vancouver-based Lama, who was raised in a community of Tibetan exiles in Nepal and now works as an advisor for Greenpeace. (May 24)

10Nuclear Family by Joseph Han

As a child, the South Korean-born author Han was sent to live in Hawaii with his grandparents. He has said this novel about a fictional Korean-American family restaurant in Honolulu (with portions set in the Korean Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea) came about partly from imagining what his family would be like if they’d stayed in the restaurant industry. Told in short chapters from the perspectives of various family members, it’s seriously affecting on issues of identity, migration and anti-Asian vandalism, while also being bitingly funny. (June 7)

11Rise by Jeff Yang, et al.

This must-have compendium was on another recent Zed Books roundup, but it bears repeating (as does Nghi Vo’s dazzling new novel Siren Queen). Rise highlights the history, milestones and evolving Asian cultural identity from the nineties to now – from The Joy Luck Club to Crazy Rich Asians. It’s an illuminating reference book by a cadre of A-list culture journalists that was years in the making.


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