In many ways, media representation may seem trivial compared to the other serious issues plaguing the Asian American community. It’s certainly a valid critique— the push for representation must also be applied to policies passed on a state and national level. Representation in media is merely one facet of equity. Without institutional reform, real change cannot be made.
But this is precisely why I believe representation is so powerful— whether people realize it or not, the content we consume around us dramatically impacts how we understand ourselves and others. We internalize what we see around us, affecting marginalized identities, especially the youth. Like many other Asian Americans, I grew up feeling constrained by a set of rules of what I could and should achieve, far from being an aspiring author or creative.
The novels I recommend in this list aren’t all necessarily about the Asian-American experience, nor are all the characters Asian. The authors are just Asian women like myself, writing a story, and I find inspiration in this, knowing that I myself can too.
1. The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han
Most people are probably familiar with Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, based on Jenny Han’s trilogy. Now, another set of her works has been adapted for television: The Summer I Turned Pretty, available to stream on Amazon Prime. Before The Summer I Turned Pretty was a TV show, it was Jenny Han’s breakout novel, narrating a summer romance between Belly and her childhood friends, Jeremiah and Conrad (Both are brothers! Scandalous!), which results in an exciting and sometimes heart-wrenching love triangle.
2. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Now a mini-series on Hulu, Little Fires Everywhere is an incredible commentary on motherhood and complex family dynamics. Celeste Ng examines two families in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, using characters Elena Richardson and Mia Warren as parallels. As Mia continues her stay in Shaker Heights, she begins to pose as a (perceived) threat to Elena’s carefully crafted life, family, and neighborhood, and secrets from both families come to the surface.
3. Legend by Marie Lu
A beloved YA classic, Legend by Marie Lu is set in Dystopian LA, now known as The Republic, where all nations are in a perpetual war. A nationwide exam called the Trail determines your social standing. Legend follows the life of June and Day, two characters living widely different lives— June is born into a prestigious Republic Family and Day resides in the slums. Their paths converge when Day becomes a primary suspect for the murder of June’s brother, resulting in unimaginable revelations.
4. A Forest of A Thousand Lanterns by Julie C Dao
I love a good anti-hero, and Julie C Dao delivers with A Forest of A Thousand Lanterns. Inspired by ancient East Asia and fantasy elements of various cultures, A Forest of A Thousand Lanterns follows Xifeng as she violently climbs the ranks to the top— beginning as a peasant girl and conquering the concubine structure, weaponizing her beauty and cunning nature, nothing is too much for the price of power.
5. Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Combining ancient Chinese elements, Mecha robots, and feminism, Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao has the most diverse and compelling cast I’ve read yet. Seeking vengeance for the murder of her older sister, Zetian seeks to destroy the system that caused it: cutting down any embodiments of misogyny, whether physical or structural. Exploration of Zetian’s female rage is on full display. Alongside the main plot, her love for the two other characters is also showcased. Instead of the classic love triangle, all the characters fall in love at their own pace, allowing a natural progression of their relationship.