This year, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is sure to attract more readers and listeners than usual, moved by anti-Asian racism and harmful acts to attend the voices and experiences of AAPI authors. Here are just a few of the dozens of recent novels that reflect the growing diversity of AAPI stories being told today.
There’s nothing like a steadily approaching lava flow to create suspense. Gail Tsukiyama’s “The Color of Air” is a vivid depiction of Hawaii in 1935, when an eruption of Mauna Loa threatened the town of Hilo with destruction. After a decade on the mainland pursuing a medical career, Daniel Abe returns in disgrace to his home just as the goddess Pele vents her fiery spleen. The looming devastation combines with growing solidarity among oppressed laborers at a sugar cane plantation to break down the barriers segregating Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Filipino communities. Narrators Brian Nishii and Natalie Naudus gently evoke those cadences of the pidgin English common to these diverse groups, alternated with lyrical utterances of ghosts from the past. When the military attempts to stanch the molten river by dropping bombs in Pele’s lap, locals fear this act of hubris may doom them all. Tsukiyama captures the struggles and precarious hopes common to many Asian American and Pacific Islander groups.
Ten-year-old Gavin awakes from a weeklong coma to learn that he has survived meningitis, but his little sister Ruby has not; also dead are the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The tragedy that starts off Chia-Chia Lin’s “The Unpassing” is the first of many trials facing a Taiwanese family recently moved to Alaska, where both the people and the indifferent wilderness itself seem intent on alienating them. As further mishaps unfold and the family threatens to pull apart, Gavin wades through feelings of guilt. That all of this is not merely bearable but fascinating owes in no small part to the understated intimacy of Feodor Chin’s narration, perfectly suited to Gavin’s youthful apprehension and Lin’s keenly observed details, grounding the reader’s journey through the ineffable afterglow on the far side of dread, at the twilight of the American dream.
“When your sister murders three hundred people, you can’t help but wonder why.” This is the opening hook of Tiffany Tsao’s “The Majesties,” deftly baited by Gwendolyn — voiced with arch candor by Nancy Wu — the sole survivor of her sister’s extermination of the wealthy, domineering Sulinado by means of poisoned shark fin soup. Speaking to us from her comatose state, she introduces us to the glitz and glamour of Indonesian high society before plunging us into a tale of intrigue tinged with satire and horror far crazier than anything those “Crazy Rich Asians” ever dreamed. Wu’s expert pacing and fully realized revelations keep us guessing until the very end.
Another unusual mystery lies at the heart of Angie Kim’s “Miracle Creek,” dexterously narrated by Jennifer Lim. A mother stands accused of setting off the explosion of a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, killing her own autistic son and one other. Testifying against her is the Korean family who run the facility she destroyed, but as conflicting accounts emerge via Lim’s multifaceted performance, a story emerges far more complex and nuanced than we might have expected from a mere courtroom drama, surfacing the misunderstood trials faced by parents of special needs children, and the motivations of immigrants struggling for an economic foothold.
Life isn’t easy when you’re TNT, short for tago ng tago, or “hiding and hiding,” a catchy Tagalog term that captures the perpetual hustle required of undocumented immigrants. In his spirited reading of Lysley Tenorio’s “The Son of Good Fortune,” narrator Reuben Uy playfully embodies a wildly diverse cast of characters, most memorably the resilient matriarch Maxima, reveling in her former glory in Philippine action films, while paying the bills by scamming lonely middle-aged white men online. Her sheepish son Excel — “like the spreadsheet” — had escaped her gravitational pull, running away to a haven in the desert, but his misadventures there draw him back into her orbit, to draw upon her grit and ingenuity. Weaving in snatches of Tagalog and Taglish, Uy wrings every moment of sweetness from this rollicking story of second, third and fourth chances.