This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Never in my life, I’m 31 for context, have I experienced more media and literature with a grounding in AAPI culture. Also for context, I am a Korean-American adoptee who grew up in Iowa with little to no representation or background in my birthplace for most of my childhood. Especially in recent years, I’ve noticed a significant increase in stories influenced by AAPI folklore, and for all age groups as well.
I think it’s also not surprising that this influx of stories is not fully representative of all AAPI cultures. Today it is much easier to find books on Korean/Japanese/Chinese folklore than Afghan, Lao or Samoan. This list is not exhaustive, but I wanted to make sure I created an inclusive list that would show how broad the AAPI label is and highlight how important it is that all of these countries, islands and territories have representation today, and tomorrow – literature and media.
All of these books are worth reading and rereading if you’ve already had the pleasure of devouring them once. And not just in May when we “officially” recognize the achievements and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but all year.
Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport
This book follows a Hawaiian Polynesian family through several generations, beginning with the meeting of a white sailor and the daughter of a Tahitian chief. As our story begins, Pono, the matriarch of the family and a pure Hawaiian, is visited by her four granddaughters, all of mixed descent. Pono begins to tell them secrets from her childhood that she wishes she had told them before her, interspersed with her own story of being born with mystical powers and the alienation she endured.
Potiki by Patricia Grace
Focusing on the lives of several Maori living in a community on the coast of New Zealand, Potiki it constantly changes narrators as we meet a cast of characters who are threatened by a developer who wants to buy the community. This is told primarily through the eyes of Roimata, who questions his ability to rebel against the developers and how best to care for his child, Toko, who seems to be able to predict future events.
Chitra Banerjee Diavkaruni’s Palace of Illusions
A retelling of the Indian epic, the Mahābhārata, this book is told from the perspective of Panchaali, the wife of the Pandava brothers. We follow Panchaali’s life, beginning with her childhood and her strange birth and her experience as a woman with five husbands who is taken for a ride, while she harbors feelings for another.
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Kerewin has always felt in the middle, be it because of her heritage (she’s part European, part Maori), her identity (she’s asexual and aromatic), or even her work (she’s an artist who can’t create). One night, she is visited by a stranger who later learns that her name is Simon and her Maori foster father, Joe. The three become an unlikely trio of outcasts, representative of the merging of Maori and European civilization and the healing, and pain, that comes with it.
Yangsze Choo’s Ghost Bride
Based on Chinese folklore, this book has it all: romance, adventure, and mythical intrigue. Li Lan is from a wealthy family, but her current bankruptcy has pushed her to the bottom of the list in terms of marriages. So when she is proposed to be a ghost bride for a powerful Lim family, she is torn between fighting for her soul and the safety of her life. Phantom marriages are often used to placate the souls of the restless and recently deceased, and for Li Lan it might be worth it.
Red Winter by Annette Marie
The first book in a trilogy, Emi is destined to become the living host of a goddess and has been in hiding for a long time to avoid the creatures that yearn to hunt her. But one day she saves the life of one of her hunters, a fox spirit named Shiro, who is now in her debt. The tricky thing is that Emi can’t reveal who she really is, or else Shiro would kill her. But she can definitely use Shiro’s ability to get her where she needs to go… will she be able to keep her secret from her?
Folklore of Angela Mi Young Hur
Elsa has dedicated her life to her work as a particle physicist. Now stationed in Antarctica, she’s pretty sure she’s managed to escape the ghosts of her family, but then her imaginary childhood friend pays her a visit. A combination of circumstances requires Elsa to return home and face generations of trauma, mental illness, and ancient curses that have been haunting her. What could this have to do with the Korean myths and legends her mother always warned her about?
Hungry Ghost by HS Norup
When Freja arrives in Singapore to spend the summer with her father and stepmother, she learns that it is Hungry Ghost festival month. During this month, spirits are said to roam the streets freely and families must try to appease their dead ancestors. Freja is especially homesick and misses her mother, but then she begins to see the ghost of a girl in a white dress. The ghost’s name is Ling, and she learns that her pasts could potentially be connected.
Lani Wendt Young’s Ocean Kiss
Inspired by the culture and mythology of Tonga and Samoa, this book looks at the very real threat of climate change to people living in the Pacific. There are so many moving parts at play, whether it’s a family drama, supernatural beings, or the ways we could all be protecting the ocean. Our story centers on Daniel, a marine biologist who has abandoned his Tongan heritage. But when an ancient weapon is unleashed on the island of Niua, Daniel must decide to embrace Tongan culture or turn his back on it forever.
A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman
This might be something of a cheat, but this anthology of East and South Asian folklore is a perfect read for May. Fifteen best-selling authors have written unique short stories representative of their own cultures and backgrounds, including the talents of authors such as Rahul Kanaki, Cindy Pon, and Roshani Chokshi.
Want more books based on AAPI culture or with main AAPI characters? Check out these other Book Riot lists: