If you’re like me, you’ve been counting down the days until Hollywood’s first all-Asian cast in 25 years hits the big screen. To celebrate, I’ve compiled a list of 13 books by Asian and Asian American authors that shouldn’t be missed. Some are funny and wise, some are heartbreaking, and all will have you turning out the lights in the early hours of the morning.
1. Chemistry by Weike Wang
Fall in love with the quirky, humorous narrator of this compact novel about self-discovery. In a series of poignant vignettes, a young woman navigates pressure from all sides — her parents, her boyfriend, and her graduate degree in chemistry. Pushed to the edge, she must finally focus her attention inward to decide what she truly wants for herself.
2. Train Man by Hitori Nakano
Train Man is a novel based on the true story of one man’s journey in pursuit of a woman he met on a train. Introverted and nervous, our hero turns to a cohort of netizens eager to guide him toward love. Comprised entirely of online message board posts, this book was an instant best-seller in Japan. It’s addictive and heartwarming, with characters you can’t help but root for. The author’s name, "Hitori Nakano," is a play on a Japanese phrase that means “one of many,” referring to the wider online message board community. The true author remains anonymous.
3. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
Author Xiaolu Guo reflects on society in this meditative novel about love and the loneliness of being a world away from home. When Zhuang Xiao Qiao arrives in England from China for the first time, she finds it impenetrable — that is, until she meets the man for whom she has written this story, the one she refers to simply as “you.” He helps her learn English, but they soon discover it isn’t enough for them to understand each other, and that, sometimes, lovers must invent a language of their own. If you enjoy Xiaolu Guo’s writing, I also highly recommend Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth.
4. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
Draw back the curtains at the Beijing Duck House and meet the multigenerational staff that runs everyone’s favorite Chinese restaurant: Jimmy Han, proprietor and would-be entrepreneur; Ah-Jack, the charming waiter faced with the end of his career; Nan, the fearless manager; and a hardworking team of chefs and servers that round out this lively cast. A funny and heartwarming novel about unlikely love and loyalties that last a lifetime.
5. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
When a friend kills herself, our narrator is left not only with her grief, but with her friend’s dog, a Great Dane, who is also grieving. Together, they learn to cope and find hope in each other. This novel touched me to the core and is the wisest I’ve read in years.
6. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
Lilliet Berne is a soprano at the height of her career when she finally lands her dream role as the lead in an original opera. The only problem? The libretto is based on her life and the past she’s taken pains to hide. So begins Lilliet’s journey to solve the mystery of who could have exposed her, taking us from her meager beginnings on the US frontier to the scandalous, sumptuous world of the Parisian elite. A beautifully written novel of grand proportions.
7. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Beneath the comfortable and controlled façade of Shaker Heights, tensions are brewing. The affluent Richardson family finds their lives turned upside down when two vagabonds — Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl — move to town. Artsy and scrappy, the Warrens quickly capture the attention of all four Richardson children. But as the two families’ interests divide and Mia’s secrets come to light, budding friendship turns to disaster.
8. The Makioka Sisters by Junichirō Tanizaki
Set in Osaka, Japan, in the years leading up to the Second World War, The Makioka Sisters follows a prestigious merchant-class family in their search for a match for the youngest sister, Yukiko, before she becomes too old to be marriageable. As old society values crumble to make way for the new, the Makiokas discover that even they must change with the times.
9. Hunger: A Novella and Stories by Lan Samantha Chang
The short stories in this collection are all powerful, but the titular novella left me shaking. A tale of artistic dreams, diminishing hopes, sibling rivalry, and the immigrant experience, “Hunger” travels an entire lifetime in just over a hundred pages. I dare you to not cry.
10. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Nikki is the daughter of Indian immigrants who has spent her life avoiding the stifling customs of her family and community. When she lands a job teaching creative writing to a group of Punjabi widows, she encourages them to liberate themselves through storytelling, and soon the women are writing erotic tales that they must keep secret — especially from a group of conservative young men who have named themselves the Brotherhood.
11. The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang
When one rash act brings self-made millionaire Charles Wang’s makeup empire to the verge of collapse, he embarks on a road trip across the US to collect his loved ones and search for redemption. Told from the perspectives of each member of the Wang family, this is a sharp and comic riches-to-rags story that will make you reconsider the term “model minority.”
12. Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
Strange Weather in Tokyo is a sensitive novel about the serendipitous relationship between a middle-aged woman and her old grade school teacher. Simply and earnestly told, this is a profound exploration of human connection and the ways love can be found in surprising new places.
13. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Set during and after the Vietnam War, this might be the funniest and smartest spy novel you’ll ever read. Viet Thanh Nguyen creates a sharp and captivating exploration of race, identity, and politics in the US in the 1970s. It’s satirical but never dismissive, intelligent but never inaccessible. Through the eyes of the narrator — a communist sympathizer — the story of the Vietnam War is told as it has never been before.
Lucy Tan grew up in New Jersey and has spent much of her adult life in New York and Shanghai. She received her BA from New York University and her MFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she was awarded the 2016 August Derleth Prize. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Asia Literary Review and Ploughshares, where she was the winner of the 2015 Emerging Writer's Contest. What We Were Promised (Little, Brown) is her first novel.
What We Were Promised is out now.