Books and Films to Check Out for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

From novels and memoirs to documentaries and feature films, alumni and faculty make recommendations
Book covers and movie posters. From novels and memoirs to documentaries and feature films, alumni and faculty make recommendations for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
Photo collage: Momo Shinzawa
May 18, 2021

Share

For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, we asked Tufts alumni and faculty to recommend books and films that give voice to Asian and Pacific Islander stories. The offerings they suggest range widely, helping us see different sides of the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience.

BOOKS

Citizen 13660, by Miné Okubo. In this graphic novel, Miné Okubo documents the day-to-day experience of Japanese Americans who were relocated from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Topaz Relocation Camp in Delta, Utah. The annotated illustrations focus on telling details—the toilets partitioned “conversationally in pairs,” and internees digging the holes and putting up the fences that would contain them. The drawings are informal and intimate, giving an insider’s sense of this human tragedy. No other book will put you so quickly and directly in the shoes of the Issei and Nisei, the Japanese immigrants and their children, who were unfortunate enough to become America’s prisoners of war.Charles Inouye, professor of Japanese literature and visual culture

Free Food for Millionaires, by Minjin Lee. Lee is probably better known for her second book, Pachinko, but the one I prefer is her debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires. The protagonist, Casey Han, is flawed but relatable, and her struggle to make it in New York after graduating from a top university in the Northeast, while staying true to her identity, is one that many can identify with. —Julie Mak, J92

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee. Chee’s personal essays chronicle the many lives he has lived—from exchange student to AIDS activist, from food server at society functions to talented unknown with big dreams—all of which attest to the vivacity of youth and the myriad possibilities that lie ahead. —Rafaelito V. Sy, A89

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan. I recommend this bestseller from 1989 that has now become a classic. Her narratives are wonderful and have resonated with millions, regardless of race. And that’s what good literature is: universal in its appeal. I also highly recommend Jamie Redford’s brilliant documentary Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, part of the American Masters series that is available for streaming on PBS. —Diana Fong, J79 

Miss Burma, by Charmaine Craig. This novel interweaves a woman’s tale of survival with a nation’s history of war, civil strife, and dictatorship. With emotional depth, Craig’s characters come alive as they navigate through a landscape of high drama and cinematic vividness. —Rafaelito V. Sy, A89

The Patron Saints of Nothing, by Randy Ribay. Set in the midst of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war against drugs, the novel is about a Filipino-American teen who returns to the Philippines in search of answers to his cousin’s senseless death. Gripping and poignant, it explores the themes of national identity, immigration, and family loyalty. —Rafaelito V. Sy, A89

When the Emperor Was Divine. By Julie Otsuka. This spare and evocative novel about the internment of Japanese Americans in early 1942 follows their journey out of California and into the Utah desert. These poetic and unsentimental perspectives on the shamefulness of the moment are hard to forget. A human and humanizing masterpiece. —Charles Inouye, professor of Japanese literature and visual culture

Zion Earth Zen Sky, by Charles Inouye. This memoir of mine is still a few months away from publication, but I thought I would mention it because it continues the journey covered in the other two books I recommend, Citizen 13660 and When the Emperor Was Divine. My own story starts where they end, in a valley just over the mountains from Delta, Utah. This haiku-filled memoir sings the story of my life among a different group of people who were also persecuted and ended up in the same dusty place. I’m unusual in that my faith in restored Christianity led me back to where I came from—to Japan, and to the life of discovery that has saved me (and many Tufts students) from being a monocultural American with few or no choices to explore. —Charles Inouye, professor of Japanese literature and visual culture

FILMS

Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066. This award-winning documentary film focuses on the false information and political influences that led to the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. —Susan Chinsen, J99 

Always Be My Maybe. It might not be highbrow, but I thought this movie was groundbreaking in expanding how Asian Americans are portrayed in popular culture. Besides being a fun rom-com in its own right, it portrays the Asian American experience in a nuanced way that had not been captured before. Plus, it contains one of the best cameos ever! It’s streaming on Netflix. —Julie Mak, J92

Asian Americans. A five-hour film available for streaming on PBS, it is told through intimate personal stories, and casts a new light on U.S. history and the ongoing role that Asian Americans have played. —Susan Chinsen, J99, and Erika Lee, J91

Better Luck Tomorrow. Directed and co-written by Justin Lin, this film focuses on a group of over-achieving Asian-American high school seniors as they slide into criminal behavior. —Susan Chinsen, J99

Far East Deep South. In this documentary, brothers who grew up in San Francisco discover that their paternal grandfather, who they never knew because he had not raised his son, had lived and died in Mississippi. When they take a family trip there to learn more about him, they discover that the history of Chinese in America has a deeper tie to the South than they had originally anticipated. A slice of the past that I had no idea about. The video is streaming on Kanopy. —Julie Mak, J92

The Half of It. Directed by Alice Wu, this Generation Z take on Cyrano de Bergerac follows high schooler Ellie Chu, who helps an inarticulate jock win over a girl who Ellie happens to be in love with. Text messages alternate with letters in this modern adaptation, and each correspondence leads to an escalation of affection and confusion as to who has developed special feelings for whom. The film is a testament to the power of words to charm someone into falling head over heels in love. —Rafaelito V. Sy, A89

Nailed It. This 2019 film by Adele Pham, which first aired on PBS, documents the genesis and legacy of the Vietnamese nail salon and its influence as an $8 billion American industry. —Susan Chinsen, J99

Who Killed Vincent Chin? A documentary that premiered at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival, directed by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena, it examines the aftermath of the killing of Chin, an engineer in Detroit, who was beaten to death by two white men in 1982. —Susan Chinsen, J99

Women Warriors: A Solidarity Reading, presented by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Hosted in early April in the aftermath of the horrific murders in Atlanta, Georgia, a diverse group of Asian female writers share their works to grieve, heal and empower. I was so moved by readings that showed both vulnerability and resilience. The video is available on YouTube. —Julie Mak, J92