5 Books to Explore Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage

We have provided watchlists for expanding your knowledge of the diverse communities within the legal profession. Now, put your reading glasses on for our reading list.

May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. This celebration encompasses a huge variety of backgrounds and cultures from all over the Asian continent and the Pacific Islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

As we’ve mentioned, the number of AAPI attorneys is growing within the legal community, but this community remains underrepresented in law firms, especially at the partner level.

Our reading list contains recommendations from AAPI attorneys in Illinois. As Illinois attorney Gary Zhao said with his recommendations, the goal is to dispel stereotypes about AAPI individuals and inform readers about the complexities and strengths of diverse AAPI cultures. Harmful stereotypes are especially relevant now as we see an increase in violence toward the AAPI community.

“Most Americans are only aware of recent attacks on AAPIs during the Covid pandemic. However, these books, whether fiction or nonfiction, show that discrimination against AAPIs has long existed in America,” Zhao said. “It has always been a struggle to live as an Asian American in the U.S. There are still many Asian immigrant groups in America today that struggle with poverty, violence, discrimination, lack of health care, lack of education opportunities, and a host of other issues faced by many marginalized minority/diverse communities.”

Read on for books that will expand your understanding of the vibrant and complex AAPI community.

1. Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara (2021)

This historical fiction novel follows a family that is relocated to Chicago after the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. Following Pearl Harbor and the period of internment, Chicago’s Japanese population grew from 400 to more than 20,000. After relocating, many faced discrimination and racism. The novel’s main character navigates these challenges and her feelings of displacement while also investigating her sister’s death.

Author Naomi Hirahara dedicated 30 years of study to Japanese American history before writing the murder mystery. “The book is well researched, as the author discusses resettlement of Japanese Americans in Chicago during and shortly after WWII,” Zhao said.

2. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)

This epical historical novel recommended by Illinois attorney Peter W. Su follows one Korean family from 1910, through the Japanese occupation of Korea, the family’s immigration to Japan, World War II, and until 1989.

Author Min Jin Lee is a Korean American immigrant. Her work as an author and journalist frequently deals with discrimination and stereotypes surrounding Koreans and Korean Americans.

The book has received many accolades, including being a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2017. In March 2022, Apple TV released a series adaptation by the same name, which was renewed for a second season.

3. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (2006)

Su also recommended this book turned TV series. “Yang’s graphic novel weaves together the Monkey King myth, an adolescent coming of age story, and a racial caricature. In the end, all three threads combine highlighting the multiplicity of Asian American identity,” Su said.

The novel discusses similar stereotypes and discrimination from an imaginative, young adult perspective. This format gives insight into younger generations of immigrant families and the challenges of growing up as an AAPI individual in America.

With law schools welcoming more diverse classes than ever in the past two years, it’s important that the legal community welcomes them and understands the challenges that those as young as the protagonist can face.

Disney+ is currently producing a TV adaptation of the novel.

4. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (2021)

Named for the North American Asian food market, “Crying in H Mart” is Michelle Zauner’s memoir of her mother’s death. Zauner is a singer and guitarist in the indie band Japanese Breakfast.

When her mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer, Zauner found herself using familiar aspects of her Korean culture, like cooking traditional foods, as comfort.

Beyond being a poignant story of grief, the memoir weaves in Zauner’s complicated feelings about growing up between Korean and American cultures and complex mother-daughter relationships.

This book will also receive a big-screen adaptation. Japanese Breakfast will provide the soundtrack.

5. Strangers From a Different Shore by Ronald Takaki (1989)

This comprehensive history of decades of AAPI experiences in America mentions several key legal moments among its many vignettes, according to Sandra Yamate, CEO of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession.

The book reminds readers that the only ethnic group ever explicitly excluded from entering the United States were the Chinese, that a lawsuit brought by an Asian American attorney established birthright citizenship, and that it was an Asian American litigant whose case resulted in the principle that a law that is neutral on its face but when applied in a discriminatory manner is a violation of the 14th Amendment.

“Takaki’s book is an outstanding compilation of the histories of several Asian ethnic groups and although he was not a lawyer, the law plays a huge role in these histories. I think it is the best introduction to Asian American history that is available,” Yamate said.

What books and other media are you consuming to learn more about AAPI heritage? Share in the comments below.

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