May is Asian-American/Pacific Islander Heritage month, which aims to recognize the contributions and influence of AAPIs to American culture and achievements. In honor of this month, we have compiled a list of notable contemporary Asian-American/Pacific Islander writers spanning dozens of genres and styles.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Korean-born novelist, artist and filmmaker Theresa Hak Kyung Cha immigrated to the United States with her family during the Korean War. Tragically, Cha was unable to produce many works as she was murdered in New York City just a week after publishing her first novel, Dictée. Dictée is an avant-garde nine-part text concentrating on several different women: Joan of Arc, Cha’s mother (Hyun Soon Huo), Demeter, Yu Guan Soon, and Cha herself, amongst many others. In this unusual autobiography, Cha explores immigration, oppression, and the fragmentation of memory by compiling many different images, poems, documents, narratives, and stories. Cha was fluent in French, English, and Korean, and not only did she experiment with translation and language in her works, but she took them apart and reconstructed them. Though Dictée only began receiving significant critical attention when republished in 1990, it is now considered central to Asian-American literature as a poignant commentary on identity and culture.
Born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 1988, Ocean Vuong immigrated to the United States and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, in the early 90s. Vuong’s first chapbook, Burnings, was selected by the American Library Association as a notable book on non-heterosexuality, and his second chapbook No was released in 2013. Three years later, Vuong released his debut poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, and, in 2019, his first novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was published. His writing became known for its eccentric form and unpredictability crafted while depicting an incredibly common yet unsung immigrant narrative. Vuong is currently an associate professor in the MFA Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His tumultuous life has made his perspectives unlike any other: citing some of his greatest influences as Thanh Nguyen and James Baldwin, Vuong claims he is a new voice added to the American chorus we’ve been hearing for 250 years.
Born in England to two Indian parents, Jhumpa Lahiri is an award-winning author. She has published a number of books, including a Pulitzer-prize winning short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Her second collection Unaccustomed Earth debuted at number one on the New York Times best seller list, an extremely rare occurrence. Her novel The Lowland was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and long-listed for the National Book Award for Fiction. In 2015, Lahiri received the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. After moving to Italy with her family, Lahiri published an original novel Dove mi trovo in Italian. In English, her writing is characterized by a fairly plain style brought to life by dynamic characters and a captivating storyline, often focusing on the life of Indian-American immigrants. Many of her works are semi-autobiographical as she draws on her own experiences to describe the difficulties of cultural assimilation and the balance of conflicting identities.
Lê Thị Diễm Thúy
At six years old, Lê Thị Diễm Thúy and her father left their village in Vietnam in a small fishing boat. After being picked up by an American naval ship, they settled in San Diego. Once she graduated from Hampshire College, a prose piece of hers was picked up by an editor who convinced her to expand it into a full-length novel, The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Thúy’s work often explores memory as an immigrant and the fragmentation of family, trying to paint pictures of life as it truly is. About her style, Thúy has stated that she “goes about things in an oblique way. It’s like a sidelong glance. This doesn’t mean I don’t like the sharp stab of directness — only that what I like more are all the moments leading up to that moment of directness or that expression of rage… how long rage was silenced before it exploded and at what cost.”
Though she was born in present-day Kolkata, Mukherjee considered herself an American writer. Her works often touch on the subjects of immigration and American culture, as well as the balance between multiculturalism and homogeneity. Mukherjee writes about the humiliation and pain associated with people from the Third World relative to those in North America, taking her intimate experiences and turning them into dynamic stories. Some of her most notable works include the collection The Middleman and Other Stories and novels Jasmine, The Tiger’s Daughter, and Wife. In terms of style, she is known for her imagination and originality, as well as meticulous symbolism and elegantly crafted metaphors. Mukherjee passed away in 2017 due to complications of rheumatoid arthritis.
Born in Mount Kisco, New York, to a Japanese mother and German father, Kimiko Hahn is a distinguished scholar and poet in the MFA program of Queens College, City University of New York. Hahn’s work often explores the intersections of her conflicting identities, but also more unsung parts of the Asian-American narrative, such as sexuality, gender, love, violence, and grief. Her unique mix of ethnicities and experiences also allows for a completely unprecedented style influenced by writers from all over the world. Her first collection of poems, Air Pocket, was first published in 1989 and soon followed by another collection, Earshot, in 1992. The latter, Earshot, won the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and her 1995 collection The Unbearable Heart won the American Book Award. Hahn is an incredibly versatile scholar and writer, having excelled in several aspects of the writing field.
Gina Apostol was born in Manila, Philippines, and grew up in Tacloban. Apostol earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University, after which she began teaching and publishing her writing. Her third book and American debut novel, Gun Dealer’s Daughter, won the PEN/Open Book Award and was shortlisted for the 2014 Saroyan International Prize. Apostol has won many prestigious awards for her writing and has contributed to many reputed magazines, such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is known for her ability to make historical narratives incredibly gripping with her character development and writing style. In a blog post, she writes that she likes making sentence structure and syntax resonate with the character’s emotions, varying her style according to “[the character’s] temper and times, as well as the book’s need.”
Berssenbrugge was born in Beijing to Chinese and Dutch parents and grew up in Massachusetts. After earning her MFA from Columbia University, she settled in rural New Mexico. Berssenbrugge was highly active in the multicultural poetry scene in the 1970s, eventually cofounding the literary journal Tyuonyi. Berssenbrugge also became engaged in the New York City abstract art and Language poet scene, an avant-garde collective of poets. Her work is known for a balance of philosophical meditation and personal narrative and quick shifts between abstract and concrete language. She frequently toys with grammar and perspective, and enlists the medium of collage to take these odd juxtapositions even further. Berssenbrugge’s 1984 poetry collection The Heat Bird won the American Book Award, and more recently was nominated for the National Book Award for her 2020 collection A Treatise on Stars.
Preeta Samarasan is a Malaysian author hailing from Batu Gajah. In her teenage years, she received a scholarship from the United World College and attended its campus in New Mexico. Samarasan went on to study music at the University of Rochester and perform in festivals in France. Eventually, she turned to writing, and completed the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Her 2008 novel Evening is the Whole Day, which tells the mysterious story of a wealthy Malaysian-Indian family, has been praised for its inventive language. Samarasan often uses translated Tamil words and incorporates Indonesian syntax into her writing, which adds a musicality to her sentences. Evening is the Whole Day was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2009 for the Best First Book Award.
Poet, filmmaker, performer and educator Fatimah Asghar was born to Kashmiri and Pakistani parents, and was left orphaned by the time they were five. Their work has appeared in journals such as Academy of American Poets and POETRY Magazine, and has been featured on networks such as Teen Vogue, Time, and Huffington Post. Their chapbook After came out in 2015, and was followed by a poetry collection If They Come For Us in 2018. Asghar is the writer and co-creator of Emmy-nominated series Brown Girls, and the co-editor of 2019 anthology Halal If You Hear Me, which is dedicated to celebrating female, queer, and trans Muslim writers. Asghar’s work frequently touches on the subjects of their orphanhood and the partition of India and Pakistan, as well as their identity as a queer Pakistani Muslim. Asghar is an incredibly unique writer who frequently defies conventions of English and poetry, drawing from their idiosyncratic identity.
Born in 1963, Samrat Upadhyay is the first Nepalese-born fiction writer to be published in the West. Upadhyay immigrated to the United States at the age of 21 and is currently a professor of creative writing at Indiana University. His books and short stories are typically contemporary realist tellings of the current state of life in Nepal, the San Fransico Chronicle dubbing him a “Buddhist Chekhov.” Upadhyay’s first book, Arresting God in Kathmandu, is a collection of nine short stories that provide a personal perspective on everyday life in Kathmandu, Nepal. Published in 2001, Arresting God in Kathmandu won a Whiting Award for Fiction. His other works include The Guru of Love, The Royal Ghosts, and Buddha’s Orphans.
Sia Figiel is often acknowledged as the first woman contemporary writer in Samoa. She grew up around traditional Samoan singing, dancing, and poetry, which heavily influence her writing and art. Her first novel, where we once belonged, received a prestigious Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Some of her other books include The Girl in the Moon Circle and They Who Do Not Grieve. Figiel is also a reputed performance poet, having performed at the 25th annual Pacific Island Studies conference. She is known for incorporating traditional Samoan storytelling techniques into a more modern context, exploring themes of community identity in conflict with individuality. Figiel often tackles taboo sociopolitical topics in order to dispel stereotypes, which she defines as “creating something out of love.”
Jetñil-Kijiner is a poet and climate change activist from the Marshall Islands. Raised in Hawaii, she received her B.A. from Mills College in California and her M.A. in Pacific Island Studies from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Her first collection of poems, Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter, was published in 2017 and is considered the first poetry collection from a Marshallese writer. It focuses on the daily lives of Marshallese people and how they are disrupted by climate change. She is the cofounder of environmental non-profit Jo-Jikum, which supports Marshallese youth taking a stand on climate issues. In 2015, Jetñil-Kijiner was featured by Vogue Magazine as one of 13 Climate Warriors. Her poetry engages primarily themes of the environment, but also explores colonialism, migration, and racism. In 2014, Jetñil-Kijiner performed her piece ‘Dear Matafele Peinem’ at the United Nations Climate Summit.
Lee was born in South Korea in 1965 and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was three years old. After attending the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy for high school, Lee went on to receive a B.A. from Yale University and work on Wall Street in equities analysis for a year. He soon decided he needed a change of pace and obtained an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Oregon. His first novel, Native Speaker, won numerous literary awards including the prestigious Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Some of his other works include A Gesture Life, The Surrendered, and On Such a Full Sea. Lee’s works typically focus on issues central to the Asian-American experience: the legacy of ancestry, assimilation of culture, and the challenges of racism and exclusion. His work tends to center character, style, and theme over plot, prioritizing message over any story details. He currently teaches creative writing at Stanford University.