This East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) Heritage Month, we want to spotlight authors whose books transcend the confines of the Eurocentric literary canon. Curating our own personal canons of books which embrace the diversity of the literary sphere allows us to become more empathetic people, widening our understanding beyond the white, western logic and exposing us to experiences and cultures that have been inaccessible in our high school syllabuses. This ESEA Heritage Month is particularly ground-breaking since Foyles bookshop in London held ‘ESEA Lit Fest’ on Friday 23rd September, the first festival in the UK focussed wholly on writers from that region. In a publishing industry which is predominantly white, it is exciting to see steps being made from within to diversify.
Here is a collection of ESEA authors whose texts span romance, historical, fantasy and literary fiction, as well as non-fiction. Find something new, whether that be a harrowing history or a light-hearted romance to cosy up with on a lazy Sunday.
BookTok provides us with foolproof books for when you are looking for some light relief deep in summative season. For a light-hearted read, try Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. Immerse yourself in the pure opulence that permeates the pages of this books and fantasise the realities of being young and crazily rich. Kwan also provides an interesting depiction of how emigration impacts culture in the clash between overseas and mainland Chinese characters. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang and If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha variously explore the complexities that arise when a desire to defy gender conventions collides with the irresistible nature of love.
The establishment of the International Booker Prize in 2005 was fundamental in affording critical acclaim to such writers from ESEA backgrounds who write in their native language, thus broadening the bounds of the literary sphere to include translated works. One such recipient of this prize, Han Kang, is a must read. Kang’s lyrical prose combines specific historical moments in Korea with questions of universal significance: humanity (Human Acts), identity (The Vegetarian) and how to communicate when you are silenced (Greek Lessons).
Debuting on the Women’s Prize longlist, Cecile Pin’s Wandering Souls traverses post-war Vietnam and Thatcher’s Britain through three siblings who have been divided by the atrocities of war. Exploring the struggle to assimilate, post-immigration disenchantment and intergenerational trauma, Pin’s text is a poignant domestic saga of the physical and psychological scars that are inflicted in wartime and how these are felt by the immigrant.
A list of ESEA author would be incomplete without mentioning the masterful works of Haruki Murakami. Writing in the magic realism style, Murakami constructs transportive worlds which combine fantasy and reality. He explores themes of loneliness and self-discovery – although largely from the male perspective and his depictions of women are problematic. His most well-known novel Norwegian Wood is a perfect university read, as the protagonist reminisces on his days as a college student.
Sure to be a modern classic is Pachinko, the expansive and complex historical saga by Min Jin Lee. Focussing on morality, sacrifice, the ties that binds us and love, Lee’s texts chronicle the journey of a young mother through the generations a she must balance the demands of family and society, all whilst struggling against the indifference of history.
The first anthology of its kind, the essays in East Side Voices, collected by Helena Lee, are written by a variety of diasporic East and Southeast Asian writers in the UK. The essays reflect on identity, family and the ambivalent sense of belonging in the diaspora community and deal with the entire spectrum of the nuanced ESEA experience in Britain today. Particularly exciting is the presence of both established writers and the new voices that are amalgamated in the collection.
My personal favourites for lyrical writing, richly rendered characters and female protagonists whose strength comes from their vulnerability are: Mild Vertigo by Mieko Kanai, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.
Image credits: Woomiusee