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Asian and Asian American Books that Changed Us

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    The EL Education Asian-Pacific American Affinity Group

Members of the EL Education Asian-Pacific American Affinity Group share books that made them feel seen, heard, and understood. 

The City in Which I Love You By Li Young Lee

I was sixteen years old and a member of my high school contemporary poetry writing group when I came upon Li Young Lee. We gathered together on Saturday mornings to share our poems and engage in productive and unfiltered critique.  We learned about poetry by writing and most importantly we learned how to close read, give and take feedback.  The first time my own poem was up for discussion, they told me only ONE line should be retained.  I fought back tears, but they were right.  Three drafts later, I had a poem I was really proud of. 

Li Young Lee’s narrative poems build intimate stories of the Asian American and human experience (family, love, loss) with gorgeous imagery and voice.  I modeled many of many juvenile poems after him and was lucky enough to see him read years later.

- Ingrid Wong

"It wasn’t until college that I was exposed to the stories and history of our peoples."

Genie Kang

They Called us Enemy by George Takei

There’s something about real life stories told through the eyes of a child that have always interested me.  And as a history buff, I always longed to hear the stories of APIA’s and would have loved to have read this as a student.  But alas, it wasn’t until college that I was exposed to the stories and history of our peoples.  Below is a summary of the book from Amazon and a review from the Los Angeles Times.

“In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard. They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.”

What does it mean to be American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime.”

Los Angeles Time Review

-Genie Kang

"It was my first glimpse into the power of representation, storytelling, and healing that comes simply with standing in one’s own skin." 

Alison Lee

Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep

At a time in my prepubescent life where I was scarfing down YA novels that predominantly featured determined, effortlessly beautiful white suburban belles (think: Sweet Valley High series, etc.) or subversively feminist fantasy series also featuring determined, effortlessly beautiful white teenagers (think: Tamora Pierce novels), this story about a Chinese American girl navigating her cultural identity in 1960s San Francisco shook me to the core. Seeing a heroine who looked like me, living in a community like mine, speaking vocabulary from my homeland, navigating relationships and cultural dynamics like my own, opened my scope for not only what I defined as American, but the possibilities for who I could become. I remember, after reading about the magic of the jade owl necklace the main character inherited from her grandmother, wearing the jade peach necklace my own grandmother handed down to me to school for the first time. It was my first glimpse into the power of representation, storytelling, and healing that comes simply with standing in one’s own skin. 

-Alison Lee

Her Wild American Self by M. Evelina Galang 

I was lucky enough to grow up in a community surrounded by first-generation Americans. Our immigrant parents believed their American born children would fulfill their American Dreams. They believed in education and hard work. We navigated Eurocentric values and standards of beauty and a diasporic sense of home and family. Success in school and assimilation were mental and physical battlefields. M Evelina Galang’s Her Wild American Self, was the first time I’d see an author capture these nuances and I am forever grateful. 

-Karmela Herrera Billones

Muna Madan by Laxmi Prasad Devkota
English translation by Pallav Ranjan

I was in second grade when I encountered the following verse from Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s epic poem ‘Muna Madan’ in our Nepali Literature class. 

   क्षेत्रीको छोरो यो पाउ छुन्छ, घिनले छुँदैन 
    मानिस ठूलो दिलले हुन्छ, जातले हुँदैन ।
(A Kshyatria (considered a noble caste) touches your feet with respect, brother, 
A man’s greatness is determined by his heart not by the caste or social status)

Growing up in a family with lower socio-economic status in Nepal, this verse left a deep impression on me and was a reminder/motivation for me to focus on being a good person and helped me to come to terms with my social identity. This book and Devkota’s writing in general pushed me to move through the world in pursuit of kindness and doing good for others—a path that has led me to EL. 

Fun fact: The writer and I were both born on the day of Laxmi Pooja (a religious day during Diwali festival) and were hence named Laxmi. 

-Laxmi Rajak

Brown Skin, White MindsFilipino-American Postcolonial Psychology by E.J.R David

I did not have many books that reflected my family’s experience growing up as others here have shared. In college, I was able to take an Asian-American History course that was the first of its kind that allowed me to read several texts and anthologies on the Asian-American experience. At that time, when I was a Senior in college, I remember thinking, “Why am I just seeing this now?”

Last year, my niece recommended Brown Skin, White Minds to me, a book she read and was deeply impacted by in her college Asian-American course. She also reflected, “Why am I just seeing this now?” This led to us having a family book club to read and discuss this book, which turned out to be a powerful and life-changing  experience for us all.

The book includes a collection of studies and stories that capture the experience of navigating different worlds growing up, and the mental toll that takes across generations. For my family, it was the first time we could see how a larger system was at play that interrupted and disrupted family and community dynamics. Seeing this allowed us to cultivate greater empathy for each other and instill a deeper sense of pride in our heritage and calling to support healing and well being for ourselves and others navigating similar challenges.

-Roel Mason-Vivit

I Was Born with Two Tongues (CD) by Anida Yoeu Ali, Marlon Esguerra, Emily Chang, and Dennis “Denizen Kane” Kim

I did not have any teacher of color, let alone an Asian American educator in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. I sat through classes feeling restless about the one-sidedness of texts and the lack of positive representation of stories like mine. In senior year, I started an Asian American club as a protest against the usual school programming. We invited community organizers and artists who later became mentors of YAWP: Young Asians With Power. Marlon and Anida were educators, artists, and storytellers—equipping us with histories told from perspectives of APA. They also gave us space to cultivate our art and voice as vehicles for change. “Race And I’m Running” and “Letter To Our Unborn Children” were  lifesavers.  

-Rominna Villaseñor