Each May, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month honors the achievements, cultural contributions and rich histories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans today and throughout U.S. history. During AAPI Heritage Month, people around the country also join together to celebrate the distinct nationalities, cultures and histories that make up Asia and Oceania — and the ways their impacts have enriched the United States.
AAPI Heritage Month isn’t just a time for commemoration, though; it’s also an important time for education. As you begin learning more about the diverse cultural heritages recognized this May, understanding the lived experiences of members of the AAPI community is a vital way to build compassion and empathy and more fully understand U.S. history as a whole. And these memoirs can help you do just that through their heartfelt, honest storytelling that details the raw and real experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans.
‘All You Can Ever Know’ by Nicole Chung
In her memoir All You Can Ever Know, Korean-American author Nicole Chung details her upbringing after being adopted by white Catholic parents living in a small town in Oregon. The story she was told about the sacrifice her birth parents made — that they wanted to give her a better life in America — never satiated her curiosity about her identity. As a transracial adoptee, Chung faced racism her parents couldn’t understand and continually grappled with “the feeling of not quite belonging” — a feeling that shaped how she came to know herself. It was this ever-present suspicion and the difficulties it caused that laid the foundation for Chung’s eventual decision to reunite with her birth parents. This journey of building and rebuilding an identity is beautifully documented in All You Can Ever Know.
‘Know My Name’ by Chanel Miller
This memoir is a bit different than many others on this list. That’s to say that racial identity is not the central exploration in this memoir, though the impacts of race, gender, and immigration are integral to this story. You likely first heard of Chanel Miller as Emily Doe— specifically, the Emily Doe of the Brock Turner rape case whose powerful impact statement was published and shared widely in 2016. In her memoir, Miller details her experience navigating a “justice” system that degraded her at every turn while promising her resolve.
This memoir is also Miller’s opportunity to reveal herself to the world on her own terms, and make herself visible not just as a victim or survivor, but as an Asian-American woman and daughter of a Chinese immigrant mother. In this way she is challenging whitewashing of sexual assault survivors and offering an opportunity for other women of color to see themselves in her story.
‘Not Quite Not White’ by Sharmila Sen
In 1982, when Sharmila Sen was 12 years old, she immigrated to the United States from India. And upon her arrival, she began to notice that, everywhere she turned, it felt like people were pointing out or asking about her race — something she’d never needed to identify while living in India.
Sen’s memoir, Not Quite Not White, recounts how, during her formative years, American society began forcing upon her a “‘not-quite‘ designation — not quite white, not quite Black, not quite Asian” that complicated her process of self-discovery. Throughout her teen years, Sen attempted to assimilate into American whiteness as much as she could — until she finally reached a point where she couldn’t ignore the deep questions about race that persisted in her mind, specifically the meaning of whiteness and how it contributes to American identity. Not Quite Not White is a culmination of Sen’s process of answering these questions — and a “sharply honest story of discovering that non-whiteness can be the very thing that makes us American.”
‘Minor Feelings’ by Cathy Park Hong
Described as a blend of “memoir, cultural criticism, and history to expose the truth of racialized consciousness in America” Minor Feelings defies genre, opting for whatever medium best suits the author’s exploration of her own identity and rage. Hong’s examination of “minor feelings” that come from the racialized gaslighting of American optimism is both art and theory, and an important read for readers of all identities.
Cathy Park Hong was born in LA to Korean parents. She is the poetry editor for The New Republic and is a professor of creative writing. And if you’d like some poetry alongside your memoirs, her book Dance Dance Revolution also deserves a mention on this list.
‘Turning Japanese’ by David Mura
Poet David Mura is a “sansei” — a third-generation Japanese American — who grew up in Chicago hearing “more Yiddish than Japanese,” and he long felt a disconnect between his American identity and his Japanese heritage. At age 30, Mura was finally able to travel to Japan for the first time, settling in Tokyo where he and his wife decided to live for a year.
Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei chronicles the author’s experiences learning a new language, new arts, new ways of life — and more than a few new things about himself. During this exploratory time, Mura rediscovered his heritage and came to terms with his identity as an Asian-American while realizing that he’d long been living with the effects of discrimination. Turning Japanese illuminates the difficult process of working through what it means to have multiple cultural identities but not truly feel embraced by either.
‘Crying in H Mart’ by Michelle Zauner
“Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart,” begins Michelle Zauner’s memoir about navigating parental loss, coming of age and growing into her identity as a Korean American. It’s a striking introduction to “an exquisite story of family, food, grief, and endurance,” and the rest of Zauner’s story is just as captivating. Crying in H Mart tells the tale of the author’s upbringing as one of the only Asian-American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon, and tracks her journey moving to the East Coast for college as she dives into the world of music and gigs with her band, Japanese Breakfast.
Despite the fascinating trajectory of her adult life, Zauner frequently struggled with her mother’s daunting expectations and, later, the grief she experienced in the wake of her mother’s passing. It was only after enduring this loss that Zauner finally started to come to terms with her identity as a Korean American and fully explore her heritage as a way to keep her mother’s memory alive.
‘Lucky Child’ by Loung Ung
Until age 10, Loung Ung lived under the horrifying conditions of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during the late 1970s. After living the first decade of her life exposed to genocide, constant hunger and heartbreaking loss, Ung was the “lucky child” chosen to escape with her brother to America, leaving behind a sister and two brothers.
The process of assimilating into American culture while trying to work through the trauma of war and violence was complicated and haunting, and the author struggled for years to adjust to her new life. Lucky Child’s chapters alternate between detailing Loung’s experience in the United States and following her older sister, who lived a much different life in war-torn Cambodia, ultimately shedding a revealing light on the realities of genocide and the unique difficulties refugees often face.
‘Long Live the Tribe of the Fatherless Girls’ by T Kira Madden
Long Live the Tribe of the Fatherless Girls is an unflinchingly honest coming-of-age memoir that outlines the complexities author T Kira Madden encountered during her wealthy upbringing in Boca Raton, Florida. Her Chinese-Hawaiian mother grew up following the Mormon faith, her father was raised Jewish on Long Island and her great-grandparents were Buddhist — but conflicts stemming from these religious differences weren’t all the author was forced to contend with.
Although Madden herself experienced a privileged childhood where money was concerned, her parents both battled addictions and were largely absent, leaving her to fend for herself as a biracial, queer youth growing up exposed to white-collar crime and beauty standards she didn’t fit. Long Live the Tribe of the Fatherless Girls breaks open Madden’s struggle in processing personal traumas and confusion about personal identity to illustrate how surface-level appearances rarely reveal the extent of deep inner turmoil over our identities.
‘Little Manila Is in the Heart’ by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon
Little Manila in downtown Stockton, California, formed at the turn of the 19th century, when the United States claimed the Philippines as a colony and Filipino workers began immigrating to work in the state’s growing farmlands. Little Manila Is in the Heart takes a deep look at what life was like in the largest Filipino community outside the Philippines, until the neighborhood was actively dismantled due to the gentrification of “urban renewal” efforts in the 1960s.
Fortunately, Little Manila’s story didn’t end there, and the book further chronicles community efforts to restore the area and rebuild the businesses and institutions that provided support and a home for immigrant populations. Author Dawn Bohulano Mabalon’s memoir is one of collective experiences that uses her family history, newspapers and various archives to honor an important segment of Filipino-American history.
‘Sigh, Gone’ by Phuc Tran
Phuc Tran and his family immigrated to the United States in 1975, just as Saigon — formerly known as Ho Chi Minh City and the largest metropolitan area in South Vietnam — came under control of the communist People’s Army of Vietnam. In their new home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the family found it challenging to assimilate.
Tran dealt with intense feelings of isolation that led him to rebel during his teenage years, and this — paired with what felt like suffocating expectations from his parents — complicated his ability to navigate life and form his identity. But he found help in some surprising places. Sigh, Gone is a memoir of self-discovery in which Tran details how his close relationships to punk rock and classic literature helped him process the “bewildering experiences of abuse, racism, and tragedy” and led him out of the dark into adulthood.
‘Fairest’ by Meredith Talusan
Meredith Talusan’s Fairest is a chronicle of intersectionality — of the ways the author’s immigration status, gender identity and visible genetic condition coalesced into a lived experience that both conferred her privilege and stripped her of it. Talusan was born in a rural village in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States as a child. There, she found that her albinism caused her to pass as white, but she didn’t want that perception to erase her cultural heritage and had to fight to maintain a connection to her background.
She also recounts relying heavily on her grandmother for emotional support as she worked to express her gender identity and eventually transition. Throughout her childhood, her college years at Harvard and into adulthood, Talusan dealt with issues of class, race, gender and love, and Fairest honors this process of “reclaiming the right to self-identify” in the face of so many societal expectations and limitations.