Despite living in Canada, Asian American stereotypes followed me throughout my childhood. I wasn’t particularly good at math or science. Numbers and equations were like dense foreign languages to me. “But aren’t all Asians good at math?”
The only time I understood math was when my tenth grade teacher stood in front of the chalkboard and explained that “numbers tell the story of the universe.”
Now, stories I could understand. It’s why I became a writer. I found comfort, adventure, and connection in books.
Until recently, though, there was never much representation for Asian American or Asian Canadian women like myself in these stories.
Though the industry is amending this, publishing still has a long way to go. In Lee & Low Books’ 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey, which aims to “establish concrete statistics about the diversity of the publishing workforce”, 76% of respondents were white.
Meanwhile, when Asian American stories are acquired, writer Jennifer Yen shares how the industry “wants diverse characters, but they want diverse characters that are stereotypical.”
Storytelling is not new to our community, but we continue to fight to make room for ourselves on bookshop shelves.
The following list is nowhere near exhaustive, but may serve as a starting point if you’re like me: in search of stories that show us Asian women as we are — real and raw.
I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib reflects how life between cultures can be complex, vibrant, and joyful - even when Asian American stereotypes draw a different picture.
NPR Editor Malaka Gharib’s graphic memoir speaks to how colorful life as a mixed Asian American can be: “her mother is from the Philippines, and her father is from Egypt, so Gharib grows up in California with an extended Filipino American family and visits Egypt every summer.”
Growing up, I often heard stories from Asian Americans who primarily went to white schools. But like Gharib, I was surrounded by a very diverse student body up until I attended college. Her spotlight on the question “What are you?” resonated deeply with me, as well as how jarring it was to find yourself in white-dominant spaces for the first time as a young adult.
For Malaka Gharib, the question “What are you?” was an opportunity for her to proudly share her heritage. But she quickly learned that for many, it was more complicated and often, an Othering experience. This pushed her to reflect on how she was perceived by her peers, family, and culture.
In an interview with the New York Public Library, Gharib shares how her American dream differs from her parents’: “Mine is being comfortable with yourself, and achieving the highest version of yourself. For me, it is being comfortable with my own cultural ethnicity and identity, but also being comfortable enough to call myself an artist and maker.” It is for this reason, she shares toward the end of her book, that she decided to leave home and pursue an "impractically artistic career".
After moving away and getting married, Gharib realizes that to her, “family was her identity.” Redefining that in this new chapter for her meant drawing from her Egyptian and Filipino heritage, but also her American upbringing.
In this way, her memoir indicates how diverse our stories are. Asian Americans not only look different, but have unique experiences.
This book is for those of us who will never really fit into one box or two. As you turn the pages, you can’t help but question why there even needs to be a box, period.
Super Important Filipina Thoughts by Alia Ceniza Rasul proclaims that our voices, funny and chaotic as they may be, matter against Asian American stereotypes.
“There is more than one poem about suman,” reads the official summary of comedian Alia Ceniza Rasul’s poetry book. Super Important Filipina Thoughts is a collection of exactly that.
Wanting to validate herself while dealing with writer’s block, Rasul started posting her poetry on Instagram. Her work explored what it means to grow up Filipina — it can be messy, hilarious, and beautiful.
She began the process with “a stage fright of thoughts” but by the time her book was published, she realized that every thought she had was important enough to be shared, no matter how small or silly.
Honestly, “a stage fright of thoughts” has followed me most of my life.
Impostor syndrome is familiar to many of us, but researchers like Dr. Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora studies at the Univeristy of Texas at Austin, conclude that “a lack of representation can make minorities feel like outsiders, and discrimination creates even more stress and anxiety when coupled with impostorism.”
Rasul’s poetry is here to be read and is far from docile. Her book and approach to art demonstrate that self-love is a commitment. “I didn’t choose to be Filipina, but I didn’t fully live until I embraced it,” she writes.
This self-acceptance is clear in how she highlights Filipino cuisine. Across diasporic cultures, food is a love language. Food is also a way to pass down our traditions and stories rather than merely a way to feed yourself in “easy and fast” convenience.
Food is a vessel of our culture and speaks to who we are. But for many of us growing up, parts of who we are, especially visible elements like food, were deemed unacceptable.
One of Rasul’s poems, “The Filipino Grocery List,” speaks to the relevance of the purple yam ube. As a kid, I always felt the need to over explain ube, to defend why I liked it so much. Some of my classmates would call it “weird.” In Rasul’s book, she is unapologetic about embracing and celebrating these small but impactful parts of our culture.
We shouldn’t have to explain ourselves away.
If you’ve ever felt impostor syndrome, Super Important Filipina Thoughts is a poetry collection that hilariously and loudly reminds us that our stories matter. Your story and thoughts are super important.
Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun extracts stories from the food she grew up with to impart the complexity Asian American stereotypes lack.
Some Are Always Hungry by Korean American Jihyun Yun is another poetry book that uses traditional food to underline facets of immigrant identity.
The winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, Yun’s collection is heavy in both theme and imagery. It is a sensory experience that has you feeling the tension or comfort of the family dinner table. Yun’s words show us how raw our archives of intergenerational trauma can be.
Here are a few lines from the titular poem, “Some Are Always Hungry,” which resonate with me deeply:
“We pass the last chicken thigh between us, / three generations of girls at the table / scraping around a pot that dwindles / to root and broth over blue-gas flames. / Our eyes are the same, they do not stray … I hate to watch her eat / the way she squalls like one / just discovering plenty / and fearing she will never trust it.”
While reading Yun’s poetry collection, I could see the differences in my own multigenerational household. I can be sitting at a table with my grandmother and mother, eating the same dish but with varying approaches.
Our journeys have led us to the same place. Our trust in the system, in each other, in ourselves — or lack thereof — can show up very, very, very differently.
That’s because trauma doesn’t magically go away when we cross borders or settle into new homes. With many of the poems taking the form of recipes, Yun reminds us that our food is steeped with memories and our paths are never as clean-cut or harmless as we’d like them to be.
But like any memorable recipe, different flavors bring a dish together. Our experiences are never one note, cloyingly sweet or inedibly bitter, but are complex enough to reveal something new or profound when we pay closer attention.
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong illustrates how we as a community need to reexamine our narratives and unlearn the Asian American stereotypes sold to us.
A Pulitzer Prize finalist and slated for television adaptation, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning is now considered a modern classic.
The book from poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong is a blend of memoir and cultural criticism in a way that echoes the nature of our lives. We don’t live in a vacuum; the personal exists within the universal and vice versa. As for Hong, she was raised by Korean immigrant parents.
Like Rasul, Hong wrestled with writing about her experiences. Did she have the authority to speak to the Asian American story? Did her own stories have cultural relevance? It’s the nature of these questions that sparked “Minor Feelings” to begin with.
According to the New York Times, the difference between minor and major feelings is that “major emotions propel typical narrative arcs and moments of revelation. Minor feelings don’t lend themselves to catharsis or change; they’re ambient and chronic.”
The steady accumulation of these minor feelings mirror the rise of Asian American hate. And like our feelings, racism against our community is minimized, too. In my own life, it’s taken the last few years to be more vocal about the racism I have faced.
Hong understands that discussing race with a white person “takes all your powers of persuasion. Because it’s more than a chat about race … It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality.”
Admittedly, I had a nasty break-up due to a build-up of minor feelings with my white best friend. This passage stings. (In a good way.)
Minor Feelings leaves you questioning what legacy we want to leave behind for Asian Americans. As Hong writes, there’s a difference between feeling indebted and feeling grateful. We have to be more conscious and thoughtful when writing about race.
Hong was recently named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021. “Poets, especially Asian American female poets, don't dream about being on the Time 100 List. But it happened and I'm on the cover,” she tweeted about the milestone.
As a fellow poet and writer, this meant everything to me.
In my final year studying Creative Writing & Publishing, I wrote a paper about the current state of diversity in the publishing industry. Throughout my degree, I was told and shown and believed in how adaptable publishers are.
But there is more work to be done. For starters, publishing needs to adapt by getting more Asian editors and publishers through the door.
Clearly, being Asian is not and will never be a monolithic experience. The more stories we engage with, the more we understand how complex and nuanced it is to be Asian in North America. That begins with storytelling roles being more accountable and accessible to communities like ours.
In the past, stories like ours may have been burned and discarded by our colonizers. Things may look different, but we still have a duty to protect, celebrate, and uplift our stories.
It’s not just about telling the world who we are. We’ve been here all along.
It’s about showing up for ourselves. We can only start to combat Asian stereotypes in the media and even the ways society dehumanizes us when we fully embrace who we are: from the minor feelings and “little” thoughts to our lingering traumas and big dreams.