Feature Image Credit: @kennedyreadsbooks
In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’ve rounded up the best books published in 2021 that speak to the intricacies of people from different regions and countries of Asia. These detail the experiences and narrative—whether that’s in the culture, cuisine, immigration, race, or gender—of those from China, South Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, India, Malaysia, Cambodia, and more. But with almost 50 countries in Asia, this list is by no means all encompassing.
With the recent attacks on Asian-Americans, reading multicultural books has never been more critical. The titles below explore inter-generational stories, pain and joy, coming-of-age and romance, hardships and adversity experienced and conquered. Here are our best 2021 books by Asian Pacific authors.
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy. Filled with ghosts, gods and family, this sharp and bittersweet story centers on Jessamyn Teoh, who realizes the voice she hears in her head is the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life, Ah Ma was the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister, and she slowly pulls Jessamyn into a dangerous business of revenge.
Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen
Journalist and author Te-Ping Chen takes readers through the modern diaspora of the Chinese people through compelling stories that help us understand what freedom and reinvention truly means. Called “gripping and illuminating,” author Jennifer Egan says “At the heart of Te-Ping Chen’s remarkable debut lies a question all too relevant in 21st Century America: What is freedom?”
Unfinished by Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Whether reflecting on her nomadic early years or the challenges she has faced while doggedly pursued her calling—from childhood bullying to the skin-whitening commercials she used to participate in—Priyanka shares her challenges and triumphs with warmth and honesty. Unfinished details her dual-continent twenty-year-long career as an actor and producer to her work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, from losing her beloved father to cancer to marrying Nick Jonas. The result is a book that is philosophical, sassy, inspiring, bold, and rebellious. Just like the author herself.
From Tokyo With Love by Sarah Kuhn
On the outside, Rika’s life seems like a fairytale. However, Rika would be the first to tell you that her life is anything but—she’s an orphan living with two bossy cousins, works hard for her aunt’s business, and doesn’t fit the princess mold. But then Rika begins to rethink her mindset when she locks eyes with Grace Kimura, America’s Rom-Com sweetheart. Rika thinks Grace is her birth-mother, and embarks on a journey to prove this true. Deep down though, Rika knows real life doesn’t have fairy-tale endings and she wonders if her search will provide the happy ending she wants.
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P Manansala
As one of Crime Reads’ “Most Anticipated Crime Books of 2021,” this first book in a new culinary cozy series full of sharp humor and delectable dishes—and thrilling mystery. The debut not only introduces readers to Filipino American food, culture, and Tagalog language, but also has an emphasis on family and cozy tropes.
Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi
New York Times best-selling author Mary H.K. Choi is known for pushing the boundaries of young adult fiction—and this comical yet deeply emotional story about two estranged sisters doesn’t disappoint. Jayne and June, once thick as thieves, moved from Seoul to San Antonio to New York together—but now they want nothing to do with each other. That is, until June gets cancer, and they have to decide how far they’ll go to save one of their lives. Even if it means swapping identities.
Kink Edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
If it’s edited by R.O. Kwon, you know it has to be good. This ground-breaking anthology of literary short fiction about love, sex, and desire comes from a prolific roster of writers, including Roxane Gay and Alexander Chee. Expect to be shocked and stimulated by the true power of these stories and their beautiful dispatches across the sexual spectrum of interest.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
A 2021 Most Anticipated Pick for Oprah Magazine and USA Today (among many others!), this book has been described by R.F. Kuang as “Gatsby the way it should have been written―dark, dazzling, fantastical.” Protagonist Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920’s American society with money, education and invitations to the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer and Asian, a Vietnamese adoptee treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her. But Jordan has a secret talent in connecting with lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. This coming of age story is full of magic, mystery, and glittering excess.
Anna K Away by Jenny Lee
Jenny Lee returns with the highly-anticipated sequel to Anna K—a modern retelling of Anna Karenina. When Anna, once New York City’s golden girl, has been brought low by a scandalous sex tape and the death of her lover, her father sends her to South Korea for the summer to hide her away. Meanwhile in the U.S., Lolly is moving on with her cheating boyfriend, while falling in love with a boy at theater camp. In Manhattan, Kimmie and Dustin struggle to consummate their relationship. And Bea has escaped from grief to LA, and has her heart stolen by a handsome stranger. Set over the course of a summer, Anna K Away is a story of heartbreak, love, loss, and adventure.
My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee
In Pulitzer Prize finalist Chang-Rae Lee’s My Year Abroad, Pong Lou, a Chinese American entrepreneur, brings Tiller, an American college student, on a trip across Asia and helps him dramatically transform his view of himself and the world.
The Dating Plan by Sara Desai
Desperate to get her meddling family out of her workaholic life, Daisy Patel decides to ask her childhood crush to be her decoy fiancé. Liam Murphy agrees to Daisy’s plan, since his inheritance of the family fortune is dependent on him being married. Too late, they realize that their history of heartbreak will make this fake relationship anything but convenient.
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The long-awaited follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer, which has sold more than one million copies worldwide, The Committed follows the man of two minds as he arrives in Paris in the early 1980s with his blood brother Bon. The pair try to overcome their pasts and ensure their futures by engaging in capitalism in one of its purest forms: drug dealing.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
A marvelous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Lowland and Interpreter of Maladies—her first in nearly a decade—about a woman questioning her place in the world, wavering between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. This was a most anticipated 2021 novel by O, The Oprah Magazine, Time, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and more.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Named a best book of April 2021 by TIME, Entertainment Weekly, Glamour and more, this beautiful mother-daughter memoir was an instant New York Times best seller. It’s a powerful raw portrait that Zauner paints, lyrical and radiant, about growing up Korean American, losing her mother, and forging her own identity. With humor, heart and family photos, Zauner tells of growing up as one of the few Asian American kids at her Oregon school, the struggle over mother-daughter expectations, and finding her identity after her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, bringing her to reclaim the gifts of language, history and flavors her mother had given her.
Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian
This Good Morning America Buzz Pick is soon to be a series produced by Mindy Kaling, and was called “Dizzyingly original, fiercely funny, deeply wise” by Celeste Ng, #1 bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere. A magical realist coming-of-age story, Gold Diggers skewers the model minority myth to tell a hilarious and moving story about immigrant identity, community, and the underside of ambition. It begs the question: How far would you go for a piece of the American dream?
Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto
Part thriller, part rom-com, Jesse Q. Sutanto’s Dial A for Aunties will give you the good laugh we could all use these days. When Meddelin Chan accidentally kills her blind date, her meddling mother and aunties come to the rescue. However, when they accidentally ship the corpse to the biggest wedding party their business has planned, they must ensure it doesn’t ruin the day. To make matters worse, Meddelin’s great college love shows up at the wedding. Can she escape murder charges, charm her ex, and pull off the wedding all in one weekend?
Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen
A stunning debut novel about an immigrant Vietnamese family who settles in New Orleans and struggles to remain connected to one another as their lives are inextricably reshaped.
Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean
Á la Princess Diaries, Izumi Tanaka has felt like she never fit into her mostly white suburban Northern California town. It has always been her mother and Izumi – or Izzy – against the world. But when Izzy discovers a clue to her birth father who is none other than the Crown Prince of Japan, Izzy suddenly becomes a princess. When she goes to Japan to meet him, it is anything but a fairytale and suddenly she has to learn thousands of years of traditions overnight.
The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang
Quan Diep is on the road to success as CEO of a new high-profile retail business, suddenly making him the object of all the single ladies’ desires. Camilla has certainly noticed him, the girl who brushed him off several years ago. So has her sister Anna, a violinist who struggles with burnout, who claims to detest him. But who is she fooling? Can she keep up the charade, keep him from falling for her engaged sister Camilla, and keep a critical real estate deal afloat all at the same time? A sizzling new romance with anguish, desire, perfectionist characters and enigmas.
Seeing Ghosts by Kat Chow
For readers of Helen Macdonald and Elizabeth Alexander, an intimate and haunting portrait of grief and the search for meaning from a singular new talent as told through the prism of three generations of her Chinese American family—and what it means to lose, love, and hope.
Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So
Following Anthony Veasna So’s tragic death in December 2020, the author “on the brink of stardom,” as The New York Times calls him, will release his debut collection of vibrant stories about everyday Cambodian-American life—immersive and comic, yet unsparing—that offers profound insight into the intimacy of queer and immigrant communities. A Roxane Gay’s Audacious Book Club Pick!
The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Her
After having gone missing in 1426 Korea, Hwani and her sister are finally found unconscious in a forest, an event that tears their family apart and causes the sisters to become estranged from one another. Years later, Hwani returns home after her father, a detective, has disappeared while investigating the disappearance of 13 other girls in that same forest. When Hwani picks up on her father’s trail, she not only finds her sister, but also uncovers secrets and memories that might just reveal what really happened so many years ago.
China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
A captivating novel about two unforgettable characters seeking to free themselves—one from the expectations of women in early 20th century Punjab, and the other from the contemporary Indian diaspora—yet separated by more than half a century, united by blood. This is a story of oppression, resilience, and the search for freedom. At once sweeping and intimate, vivid and gripping, and partly inspired by the author’s own family history, China Room is a deeply moving novel from a contemporary master.
Heart & Seoul by Jen Frederick
From USA Today best-selling author Jen Frederick comes a heart-wrenching yet hopeful romance that shows that the price of belonging is often steeper than expected.When Hara Wilson’s father unexpectedly dies, the Korean adoptee heads to Seoul to rediscover her roots…and just so happens to find a forbidden love.
House of Sticks by Ly Tran
An intimate, beautifully written coming-of-age memoir recounting a young girl’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to Ridgewood, Queens, and her struggle to find her voice amid clashing cultural expectations.