The Book Club: a bookish column

Celebrating AAPI Month

Welcome back to “The Book Club,” my dear readers! Whether you did a lot of genuine reading or found yourself in a reading slump over Midterm Reading Period, I have book recommendations to get you through the month of May until finals. Given that May is traditionally recognized as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, this week’s recommendations will primarily feature AAPI authors or main characters so that you have the opportunity to do your part to acknowledge that cultural identity. Some of these will undoubtedly be well-known titles, but I will also introduce some newer titles in order to bring awareness to more AAPI voices. 

Drawing of books and moths. Illustration by Sisa Pallchisaca.

One of the better-known AAPI authors in today’s literary world is Ocean Vuong. Vuong is a Vietnamese American who started gaining popularity around 2019 when his novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” was released, though others know him for his numerous poetry collections. A common thread in his works, whether it’s literary or poetic, focuses on the intersectionality of identity between race and queer sexuality and how it interacts with familial – mainly maternal – ties. I would recommend reading anything by Vuong, especially his novel, as it not only contains beautiful prose but also presents itself as a classic AAPI bildungsroman. This then allows for one to learn more about the impacts of AAPI identity within a coming-of-age scenario: a plot setup that we are familiar with, but that is primarily used with white characters. 

If you would prefer to hear from a newer voice in the AAPI community, I would steer you towards “Natural Beauty” by Ling Ling Huang. Huang made her authorial debut in 2023 with her sinister novel that follows a young and nameless Chinese American as she finds herself slowly consumed by the creatures, creams and consumerism in the beauty industry. The plot features a significant amount of body horror as it explores how much “self-care” people will go through to be considered beautiful and how such drastic measures overlap with race and queerness. Whether it’s through our talents, identity or appearance, this is a novel that makes us question just how far we’d go to achieve perfection, and what we lose in the process. 

This final recommendation is one of my personal favorites and an excellent choice for fantasy readers. “The Chosen and the Beautiful” by Nghi Vo reimagines the events of “The Great Gatsby” through the eyes of a proudly queer and Asian Jordan Baker, who you may remember as Nick’s love interest in the original story. Vo often uses her novels to incorporate Chinese and Vietnamese culture and mythology into fantastical settings. Besides the new perspective, this retelling offers a magical Jazz Age and deals with genuine devils and the same old messy love story that somehow manages to be even messier than the classic. And, for those who read “The Great Gatsby” in high school and theorized that sparks were flying between Nick and Gatsby – let’s just say I think you’ll be pleased with the artistic choices Vo makes in this retelling. While the bones of the original story are there, as well as the same 1920’s allure and glamour, Vo manages to make this tale entirely her own. Jordan offers a unique, carefree perspective of our main character: she is queer as well as an immigrant with an incredibly high social status, which allows her to both experience and escape racism every day. While the pacing was a little slow-going at times, I became absolutely enthralled by the story in all its glamour. Though, if you didn’t like “The Great Gatsby” back in the day, you may want to stay away from this one — the overall atmosphere of both novels is roughly the same. 

Even if none of these books specifically caught your interest, try to see if you can find a book that’s by an AAPI author or features an AAPI character for your next read to help acknowledge AAPI Heritage Month; after all, we could all benefit from seeing the world through a different perspective.