AAPI books to read this month: Changemakers share their top recommendations

Eshe Ukweli is a 2023-2024 Frances Ellen Watkins Harper reporting fellow. Explore her work.

The Biden administration and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center celebrated this year’s Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month with the theme “Bridging Histories, Shaping Our Futures.” The joint motif serves as a tribute to the interconnectedness of histories that make up the American story.

“The 2024 theme is an homage to our ancestors and invites all Americans to delve into the legacies, triumphs, and challenges that have shaped AA and NHPI communities,” a statement released by the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders said. “It embodies the spirit of our collective journey — one rooted in resilience and hope — and encourages us to forge intergenerational connections to honor our past and pave a durable path forward.”

This month The 19th spoke with AAPI changemakers on the continued importance of literature, representation in media and the community lessons they’re using to shape their own futures. Here’s what they had to say.

Jill Tokuda

Okinawan American; U.S Representative, Democrat of Hawaii

(Courtesy of Jill Tokuda)

Rep. Jill Tokuda serves Hawaii’s Second Congressional District. To Tokuda, a proud Yonseior fourth-generation descendant of immigrants, AAPI month represents the importance of the shared history of her youth, and offers a reminder to participate in its preservation as well as its advancement.

“I tell everyone AANHPI history is our history,” she said, using an abbreviation for the month that includes the term Native Hawaiian. “I’m very blessed I grew up in Hawaii, where we are a majority minority state. And when we look around, we see ourselves, we see ourselves in the community and leadership and business and politics —  everything is AANHPI. And so, growing up, it was hard for me to differentiate the two, that we had to celebrate it separately, that it had to be identified separately,” Tokuda said.

Embodying her history and working for its advancement year round, Tokuda carries her culture with her through language, speaking Hawaiian at floor speeches, and wearing kimonos, and choosing traditional patterns and prints that represent her people. Tokuda finds the importance of AANHPI literature in its ability to inform future generations of previous triumphs and tragedies. It also holds everything from collective memories to cultural nuances, like how to properly pronounce Indigenous names, she said — something empowering and insightful in present-day literature.

“It’s the things we seek to save. And when they want to take us down, it’s the first thing they’ll battle to burn. And so to me it’s historically over the millennia, that is what we keep to show what is important to us, is true to us,” she said.

Tokuda’s top pick:

  • “Asian American Dreams” by Helen Zia: “To me it’s a perfect cult classic … It just blew me away. It pulled together so many elements that started to make sense.”

She also recommends:

  • “Our Missing Hearts” by Celeste Ng: “For all of us, whether you’re a AANHPI or not, it’s important to read, in terms of really what could happen, in some cases what has happened when we allow fear and hate to guide us.”
  • “Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight: Patsy Takemoto Mink and the Fight for Title IX” by Jen Bryant: “It’s deeply personal only because it was the book that made me decide to run for Congress. It is a very simplified but powerful story.”
  • “Uchinanchu: A History Of Okinawans In Hawaii” by The Center For Oral History, University Of Hawai‘i At Mānoa And Hawai‘i United Okinawa Association: “Read about us, understand what I say when I say I’m Okinawan and the culture and the history.”

AAPI Heritage Month: Leaving our mark on American democracy

This story is part of our AAPI Heritage Month coverage. This month, we’re telling the stories of people who are carving out space as the nation gains new citizens and another generation of American-born AAPI people comes of age. Explore our work.

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

Thai-Indonesian American; Transdisciplinary artist and educator

(Courtesy of Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya)

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya is an award-winning transdisciplinary artist, community builder and educator based in Brooklyn. To the neuroscientist-turned-artist, AAPI history is a reclamation of displaced roots and stories, a practice that Phingbodhipakkiya believes can be used to foster new connections to the present and upend racial stereotypes. Phingbodhipakkiya attended elementary school in Georgia, where AAPI stories were largely left out of her education — something that has brought her anger and grief over the years. But today Phingbodhipakkiya feels emboldened by the legacy of her people and history.

“From Mamie Tape to Larry Itliong to Bengali Harlem, the truth is that we have always challenged systems, raised our voices and shaped our spaces. To know this history is to stand firmly in the legacy of a people who have boldly fought, deeply loved, built bridges and foundations and seeded futures. For a group of very diverse people who are unfortunately too often seen as  perpetual foreigners, it’s revolutionary to know that we are quite literally the history of this land but maybe we didn’t always know it,” Phingbodhipakkiya said.

Legacy and the connection between past and present serves as a guiding motif for Phingbodhipakkiya, often informing her work as an artist. Shaping physical space through art and thus influencing the lives of many both inside and outside of the community, Phingbodhipakkiya believes the true impact of carrying AAPI culture with her today is its ability to orient communities towards authenticity and sustainability. A part of that impact is literature, and its ability to connect communities.

“We champion our culture when we are unapologetically authentic to ourselves, when we embrace our multitudes,” Phingbodhipakkiya said. “Books and literature help us unearth the histories living within us. They help us grow our empathy and care and imagine more just futures for all of us.”

Phingbodhipakkiya’s top pick:

  • “The Making of Asian America” by Erika Lee: “Our community is often featured as a mere footnote in the American saga, and Professor Lee gives us all the opportunity to educate ourselves on our own expansive history”

She also recommends:

  • “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self” by Alex Tizon: “We rarely get to hear Asian men share their journeys of finding love, self-acceptance and belonging as outsiders, and few have expressed that more honestly and thoughtfully than Tizon.”
  • “What My Bones Know” by Stephanie Foo: “A former NPR journalist and the daughter of abusive Malaysian immigrants, Foo’s memoir captures the grief and hope that comes with healing from complex trauma.”
  • “Good Talk” by Mira Jacob: “Funny, heartfelt and full of memorable dialogue, Jacob’s graphic memoir portrays an Indian American mother struggling to explain immigration, Donald Trump and 9/11 to her mixed-race son.”

Diana Hwang

Asian American; Founder of the Asian American Women’s Political Initiative

(Courtesy of Diana Hwang)

Diana Hwang is the founder and executive director of the Asian American Women’s Political Initiative, which works to elevate AAPI women in politics and government. She sees AAPI Heritage Month in two parts: a celebration of a continued story of a people and a warning to ensure previous wrongdoings do not repeat themselves.

“AAPI Heritage Month is, of course, always about celebration, and joy for AAPI communities. But right now, specifically, and particularly at this time, it’s also about remembering our heritage, remembering and knowing our history so that we can continue to fight,” she said — to prevent history from repeating itself.

Hwang finds power in working for AAPI communities against discriminatory policies and deep-rooted sentiments of not being “American enough.” Pushing back against scapegoatism, Hwang finds AAPI culture and pride necessary not only to build communal capital but also to heal.

“We are the only national-level political leadership organization for Asian American Pacific Islander women. That is a tool for us to build power. But I think more than anything, it’s about creating a space where we can show up as our whole selves. And I think when I talk about our work, people just assume it’s about electing candidates, and it is. But at the base, it’s about being visible, not only as a community, but as people.”

Literature remains a tool for communities to be learned about but also to see their own identities reflected in. For Hwang, AAPI literature is a mirror that, when polished, offers readers new understandings of self and has the power to change the trajectories of lives.

“‘Free Food for Millionaires’ was the first book I read in my 20s where I saw myself in a character — where she was an Asian-American woman. We all are like, looking for ourselves. Right? That’s the power of art and media and books. …That is what these months are for. It is about visibility and visibility on several levels. Visibility, externally, but (also) to ourselves.”

Hwang’s top pick:

  • “Free Food for Millionaires,” by Min Jin Lee: “I remember crying at her book signing, telling her how powerful it was for me to just see myself in this book.”

She also recommends:

  • “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace” by Le Ly Hayslip: “Being able to see yourself in authors, in the author stories, but in the historical way.”
  • “We Who Produce Pearls: An Anthem for Asian America” by Joanna Ho and Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya: “It’s really both a celebration of us of our history, but also like a call to action.”
  • “Asian American Feminisms and Women of Color Politics” edited by: Lynn Fujiwara and Shireen Roshanravan: “We are part of a larger movement fighting for justice for our communities. We are women of color, we work with women of color.”


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