12 Asian Writers to Watch
By Kate Bartlett
Love the surrealism of Haruki Murakami and his cats? Or the caustic wit of White Tiger author Aravind Adiga? Exciting Asian writers are everywhere, both in Asia proper and throughout the diaspora. With a cultural heritage as diverse as the sprawling continent itself, this eclectic group of wordsmiths is worthy of a few trips to the bookstore. Let’s crack the books on these fine authors.
asian american authors
Sanjena Sathian. A former OZY editor, Sathian once rented an entourage to stalk her like a Hollywood star for a story. We are admittedly biased, but Sathian no longer needs to fake it. Having joined the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2017, she just released her debut novel, Gold Diggers, to critical acclaim. The coming-of-age tale peppered with magical realism has been snapped up for TV by comedian Mindy Kaling. Beginning in Sathian’s hometown of Atlanta, the novel centers around the Indian American writer’s idea of belonging — a theme Sathian has been grappling with after the shooting of six Asian American women in Atlanta last month.
Kevin Nguyen. This Brooklyn resident’s debut novel, New Waves, was named one of NPR’s best books of 2020. It also garnered high praise from fellow Vietnamese American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen and Little Fires Everywhere author Celeste Ng. An editor at The Verge, Nguyen sets his story at a tech startup and explores topics of both race and discrimination. The book “captures beautifully the subtle strains of being disenfranchised, poor and lonely in New York,” The New York Times says, teasing the plot as if Jay Gatsby had worked at a startup.
Simon Han. With his 2020 debut novel, Nights When Nothing Happened, Han examines the Chinese immigrant experience through a story about a family living in Texas — one he can relate to, having been born in Tianjin, China, before settling in Carrollton, Texas. TIME called it a “haunting” novel that asks “whether immigrants in America can ever feel truly safe.” Despite the Cheng family’s achievements in their adopted country and safe suburban life, each of the main characters suffers from terrible insomnia, allowing a sense of unease to permeate the novel.
Anthony Veasna So. Many Khmer Americans feel torn between two worlds, as I discovered while working as a journalist in Cambodia. Tragically, the author of this short story collection — who once described himself as “a grotesque parody of the model minority” — died last year at 28. His collection focuses on intergenerational relationships between traumatized refugee parents who escaped the Khmer Rouge and their American children.
the new feminists
Cho Nam-Joo. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is this Seoul-based writer’s debut novel. While it’s centered around an “extremely ordinary” housewife living a humdrum existence, don’t be fooled: It caused such a sensation in South Korea that it has been made into a movie. One national assembly member bought a copy for each of his fellow 298 legislators because he was so taken by its biting social commentary on gender inequality in South Korea. Published domestically in 2016, the book came out in English last year and has been the most talked about South Korean novel since Han Kang’s haunting feminist treatise The Vegetarian.
Mieko Kawakami. If you’ve seen the Olympics-linked stories of sexism in Tokyo, you won’t be surprised to learn the patriarchy is alive and kicking in Japan. That could explain why Breasts and Eggs, a book about a woman who loathes sex but wants to have a child “without a man,” shocked the nation when it came out in 2019 (with the English translation published last year). Shintaro Ishihara, a former Tokyo governor, deemed it “unpleasant and intolerable,” but readers disagreed: The novel became a runaway bestseller. It even won praise from Murakami, despite Kawakami having earlier criticized the septuagenarian’s books for sexism.
Lauren Ho. Malaysian-born, Singapore-based Ho traded in a soaring career in law for life as a writer. Her 2020 debut novel, Last Tang Standing, generated comparisons to the hit book and movie Crazy Rich Asians. This chick-lit gem centers around a Bridget Jones-esque character named Andrea Tang, a 33-and-fabulous singleton, who, to her family’s chagrin, doesn’t need a man to feel complete.
Avni Doshi. Her debut novel Burnt Sugar, nominated for last year’s Booker Prize, shocked India with its fraught mother-daughter relationship and main character’s postpartum depression. The book uses dark humor to examine family ties and expectations of motherhood, with the Booker judges calling it “utterly compelling … sometimes emotionally wrenching but also cathartic.” Doshi was born in New Jersey but moved to Mumbai and says the idea for the book stemmed from her own uncertainty about whether to have children.
race and war
Kamila Shamsie. This Karachi-born writer deals with confusion around identity in her stunning 2017 novel, Home Fire, in which a British Pakistani youth runs off to join the Islamic State group in Syria, to the horror of his two thoroughly modern sisters. The contemporary take on the ancient Greek play Antigone is a globe-trotting read, one that spans London, Massachusetts, Istanbul and Raqqa. A thought-provoking examination of belonging, it’s a must-read for anyone trying to understand the post-9/11 world.
Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Her first novel published in English, The Mountains Sing, is a generational epic recounting the effects of war through the lens of a single family. Unlike many recent novels about Vietnam, the author focuses on the nationalists who built a communist state after fighting off the French, Japanese and Americans. Nguyen was born in Vietnam, studied in Australia and currently lives in Jakarta.
Alexandra Chang. This debut novelist lives in Ithaca and used to write about tech for Wired magazine, which helps explain the tech journalist protagonist Jing Jing in Chang’s Days of Distraction. The novel tackles complicated situations around race that others may gloss over. One such example? While a promised salary bump never comes and microaggressions abound in the newsroom, Jing Jing longs for the confidence of her white boyfriend. Chang’s secret power is making the seemingly banal gripping, much to the pleasure of her readers.
Megha Majumdar. The New Yorker compared this young Indian writer to William Faulkner. In A Burning, the New York-based Harvard graduate tells the fictional story of a Muslim woman jailed for terrorism after posting a Facebook comment in the wake of a Kolkata bombing. “It’s a book that encourages a reader to think about injustice,” she told the Guardian, adding that the work stemmed from her alarm at politics in India and her fears about the erosion of secular values.
- Kate Bartlett, OZY Author Contact Kate Bartlett