As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month gets under way, several Bay Area authors recommended books that span genres and continents.
Leora Kava recommends Epeli Hauʻofa’s “We Are the Ocean: Selected Works,” a collection of essays, fiction and poetry.
“Before reading his essay ‘Our Sea of Islands,’ I had never heard or seen history written by a Pacific Islander for Pacific Islanders. A Tongan anthropologist, poet, novelist and educator, Hauʻofa narrated and examined the complicated, everyday, intergenerational, messy, sacred, hilarious and world-shifting perspectives of Pacific Islanders,” said Kava, a professor at San Francisco State University and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology “Indigenous Pacific Islander Eco-Literatures.”
“I look to Hauʻofa’s trickster style — slipping between and subverting rules of academic and narrative writing — as both map and permission. Each read reminds and challenges me to pay attention to my histories and ethics as a storyteller and diasporic daughter of Tongan descent.”
Tom Lin’s pick, the anthology “The Chinese and the Iron Road,” also revives those histories. Co-edited by historians Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the essays explore and restore “the effaced history of the Chinese laborers who built the transcontinental railroad.”
“It’s hard to overstate how sorely we needed the real human stories and history contained in this collection, and how long overdue those stories are — when I was writing my book only a few years ago, what little information was out there about the Chinese railroad workers was often sensationalized, apocryphal or plainly racist,” said Lin, the Carnegie Medal-winning author of “The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu.”
The importance of bearing witness is underscored in Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s recommendation, “No Escape” by Uyghur activist and lawyer Nury Turkel.
“Like many Americans, I have been raised in ignorance of the genocide and surveillance state the Uyghur people in China have been subjected to for decades,” said Tokuda-Hall, the author, most recently, of “Love in the Library” and “ Squad.” “Perhaps most discomfiting is the way Turkel makes clear the connection between our own Silicon Valley technology, which has been used aggressively by China to create the most high-tech surveillance state the world has ever known.”
Grace D. Li selected Weike Wang’s “Joan Is Okay,” about a Chinese American physician in New York City just before the arrival of the pandemic.
“I read this in a single breathless sitting, and it put into words so many of my complicated emotions about being Chinese American during these strange, uncertain times,” said Li, author of “Portrait of a Thief.” “The prose is spare and incisive, with glimmers of sly, unexpected humor, and Wang’s examination of Chinese American identity feels both urgent and enduring as she tackles family, fulfillment and the American dream.”
Shruti Swamy’s recommendation — “Cold Enough for Snow” by Jessica Au — examines mother-daughter dynamics on a trip to Japan. “An extremely quiet, atmospheric book that is as much about the relationship between the daughter and mother as it is the distance between them,” said Swamy, author of “A House Is a Body” and “Archer.” “Au is able to use the sharp and beautiful observations of her protagonist, who speaks in a voice directly and pleasantly rhythmic, as well as the pressure of the unsaid, to sustain the tension of the novel. … It’s a magic trick of a book, so perfectly constructed you can’t see the seams.”
Away from home, we often gain insights about ourselves and where we left — especially if we’re returning to our ancestral homeland, as in Sabina Murray’s “The Human Zoo.”
Ricco Villanueva Siasoco says it “resonates for its depiction of the outsider-within-insider culture (with) a knowing, cosmopolitan Filipina who returns to Manila after many years in the US”
“The prodigal daughter, whose impending divorce serves as a quiet undercurrent for a narrative ostensibly about the nation’s corrupt president and a writer’s search for home,” said Siasoco, author of “The Foley Artist.” “Murray does wonders in capturing the zeitgeist—and the wondrous chaos—of transnational Americans.”