Honoring Her Story: Authors to read this Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
We are Asian American women and social justice advocates. During the work week, we are organizing and mobilizing for the human rights of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women and girls; on nights and weekends, we are reading the work of AAPI authors whose stories illustrate the daily and generational struggles of our community. These authors put faces and names to the issues that we fight for — immigrant justice, economic justice, and bodily autonomy — and touch the hearts of millions who may otherwise overlook our experiences as AAPI women. As we start Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we highlight the works of just a few AAPI women authors and why the stories they tell matter to our community and our work as advocates.
AAPI heritage would be incomplete without the strength and sacrifices of Asian immigrant women in the face of war, displacement, and colonialism. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee follows a young Korean woman whose pregnancy and marriage bring her to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Amid the hardships of raising a family facing daily discrimination and persecution, Sunja, the protagonist, keeps the family afloat with her wit and perseverance.
Similarly, in the graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, cartoonist Thi Bui illustrates, literally, the plight of her family fleeing to the US as refugees from Vietnam and the fortitude of her mother and women in previous generations of her family. America Is Not The Heart also tells the heart-wrenching story of Filipina immigrants who try to escape a tragic, oppressive past by building new lives and families in the US.
In each of these books, the struggles against colonialism, occupation, and displacement dramatically undermined the autonomy and agency that these women had over their lives and how they were able to raise their families free from persecution. And while this has been the narrative of millions of Asian immigrant families, seldom have the stories that have been told in the mainstream centered the voices and sacrifices of the women who held it all together.
But AAPI women, more and more, are telling their own stories and shaping the narrative. In her graphic memoir Good Talk, Mira Jacob relives past conversations with her young, biracial son on his identity as a South Asian and white Jewish American living in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and Trump’s Muslim ban. Discussions with her son resurface the racism she encountered as a girl and walk us through her challenges in raising a child free from fear, violence, and hatred: “Will [our children] ever really understand it themselves? Will they ever change? I have no idea. Our burden is how much we might love them anyway.”
Through memoir and fiction, AAPI authors have also shed light on the complexities and nuances of transracial adoption. In her memoir All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung, a Korean-American adoptee to a white family, takes us on her journey to uncover the truth about her birth family that coincides with the birth of her own child, prompting questions about what it means to raise a daughter despite an unknown family history and the decisions that led to her adoption. And in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, a low-income, Chinese immigrant woman struggling to make ends meet in the suburbs of Cleveland fights for custody of her baby who she once abandoned and then was adopted by a white family. As both stories reveal, transracial adoption is never black and white — AAPI women in both instances, though scrutinized for their motives, did what they believed was best despite the circumstances. Like in Ng’s novel, stereotypes are often used against AAPI women to make judgments about their reproductive choices, often showing up in the form of sex-selective abortion bans or criminalizing AAPI women for their pregnancy outcomes.
In the era of #MeToo, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the violence suffered by hundreds of thousands of Korean women as “comfort women,” or military sex slaves during Japanese occupation. In A Cruelty Special to Our Species, Emily Jungmin Yoon uses poetry to tell the stories of these women, the raw atrocities they endured, and the aftermath and impact on their lives. Decades later, survivors are still seeking full justice.
AAPI women are still fighting for visibility in our stories as survivors of sexual violence: we are fetishized, perceived as submissive, and then battle shame and stigma within the traditional norms of our communities, leading to underreporting of sexual assault cases. In one of Rupi Kaur’s poems in The Sun and Her Flowers, she asks, “how can I verbalize consent as an adult if I was never taught to as a child,” poignantly reminding readers that how we deal with sexual violence and oppression are often informed by the cultures in which we were raised.
Stigma and silence is also why many don’t know that Asian American women suffer disproportionately high rates of mental illness and depression. Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here is Beautiful and Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After both shed light on the struggles of AAPI women in dealing with mental health issues and the toll it takes on families across oceans.
This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we invite you to read AAPI women authors and join us in understanding what AAPI heritage means for our collective liberation as women and as people of color. We hope that these stories evoke empathy, and in turn, drive you to build power with us, advocate for the issues that uniquely impact us as AAPI women, and learn more about our heritage. In the words of Emily Jungmin Yoon, “Even if a part of history may not seem to be relevant to their lives, it is — it is their reality too. An experience that is not mine is still part of the society and world that I occupy.”
Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the Executive Director and Jaclyn Dean is the Policy Manager of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF). NAPAWF is the only multi-issue, progressive, community organizing and policy advocacy organization for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women and girls in the U.S.