Several of our favorite Taiwanese American authors have written our intricate heritage and history into monuments of fiction. In recent years, Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island and Julie Wu’s The Third Son have received glowing accolades for their artistry in turning complex histories into heartwarming narratives centering human relationships. For anyone looking to understand the Taiwanese experience and immigration story, we recommend you start your collection with these two books, both of which reflect on the legacies of Japanese and Chinese occupation. Another notable contribution is Jennifer J. Chow’s The 228 Legacy, a story about how the shadows of the February 28, 1947 incident (called 228) loom over three generations, forcing both personal and political secrets to light. We also include an honorable mention for the English-translated version of Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle, which recently made headlines as it entered the final round of the Man Booker International Prize. He is widely considered the most influential writer of his generation in Taiwan. All of these works render accessible Taiwan’s history without simplifying or romanticizing it; through their dynamic characters, we are better able to understand how Taiwan’s memory and presence can be kept alive in the stories of her people.
The Taiwanese American experience comes in all forms, and these authors curate captivating story lines driven by tragedy, family tension, and the eternal struggle to understand a fluid, multifaceted identity. Debuting this year on the New York Times’ Bestseller list is Emily X.R. Pan’s beautiful debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, which tackles the subjects of depression and suicide through a young woman’s journey to meet her maternal grandparents in Taiwan for the first time. Anelise Chen’s debut “experimental” novel, So Many Olympic Exertions, blends elements of sports writing, memoir, and self-help to explore what it means to live after the narrator’s friend dies by suicide. In the dark, multigenerational novel by Esmé Weijun Wang, The Border of Paradise, she transports readers into the world of an iconoclastic midcentury family from Brooklyn to Taiwan, then to California. For more romantic drama revolving around millionaires, check out Lianna Shen’s bildungsroman of a Taiwanese Canadian in A Chance of Clouds. These works complicate and challenge the idea of a homogeneous Taiwanese American narrative by incorporating startling truths of the human condition: those of mental illness, of poverty, of failed relationships, of mixed-race identity, and more.
Living the Life
Many Taiwanese American authors have written novels loosely inspired by their own experiences or the people around them. Here are a few noteworthy titles to check out: The critically-reviewed Taipei by Tao Lin follows a young Brooklyn-based author who lands in Taiwan. As his drug addiction spirals out of control, he confronts issues of self-esteem and loneliness. Closer to home, Stephanie Wu (also the editor-in-chief of Mochi Magazine) chronicles the hilarious to disastrous experiences of friends and frenemies in The Roommates: True Tales of Friendship, Rivalry, Romance, and Disturbingly Close Quarters. San Francisco/Bay area audiences will relate to Anna Yen’s novel, Sophia of Silicon Valley, where the protagonist has to fight dragons in both the male-dominated tech and finance industries, and at home, where she is the baby of overbearing parents and a perfect older sister. Another juicy new release is Stephanie Suga Chen’s Travails of a Trailing Spouse, which starts with a successful, accomplished female lawyer who sets aside her career to follow her husband to his new job in Asia. For the young at heart, start with Gloria Chao’s American Panda, which follows a young 17 year old student at MIT who struggles to balance family expectations and personal passions. We include Taiwanese author Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man here as an added extra. Her contemporary tale of a Taiwanese gay man who reflects on his life, loves, and intellectual influences has been described as “among the most important recent novels in Taiwan.”
Unique Taiwanese Experience
In these books, an unexpected connection to Taiwan adds dimension to our collective journey: Julia Lin’s Shadows of the Crimson Son details the life of a man born in Taiwan under Japanese colonization and raised in Manchuria who fights for Taiwanese democracy after immigrating to North America. Milo L. Thornberry’s Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror is an autobiographical account of his time in Taiwan during the 1960s, a period defined by martial law and the civil uneasiness it imposed. A translated classic, Orphan of Asia by Wu Zhuoliu, is widely regarded as “a groundbreaking expression of the postwar Taiwanese national consciousness.” T.C. Locke’s memoir Barbarian at the Gate: From the American Suburbs to the Taiwanese Army is a different perspective on assimilation; a white American is enlisted for Taiwan’s mandatory military service and eventually finds a home and family in Taiwan and its people.
The most authentic experiences of our Taiwanese American community come from first-hand memoirs and biographies. In recent years, celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s personal memoir, Fresh off the Boat, has become familiar to many because of its adaptation into the eponymous ABC prime time TV show. But his memoir, while centered around food and family, also uses humor to examine Asian American masculinity, the model minority myth and his many ways of subverting it, and what it means to find a sense of belonging in America’s black-and-white paradigm. We also recommend another profound and timely memoir that broaches the question of how Asian Americans can approach the mainstream discourse on race relations. Teacher-turned-lawyer-turned-teacher-again Michelle Kuo’s critically-acclaimed Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, deservedly made it into Oprah’s recommended summer reading list. In it, Kuo navigates the too-familiar crossroads between filial duty and a life led by the greater good. In a similar vein, Dr. Pauline Chen–an accomplished transplant surgeon–steps away from her chosen profession to rediscover the meaning of humanity in Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality.
With over 2300+ adoptions from Taiwan to the U.S. since 1999, this topic and population deserves more care and attention within our community. Read both Mei-Ling Hopgood’s Lucky Girl and Marijane Huang’s blog-turned-memoir Beyond Two Worlds. They are heart-wrenching yet touching stories on the search for identity and family in Taiwan.
Collections, Reflections, and Shorts
The following wonderful collections and themed essays shed light on the Taiwanese diasporic journey. In Dmae Roberts’ The Letting Go Trilogies, this accomplished two-time Peabody Award-winning writer and radio producer deals with love and loss through the lens of her biracial experience. In Brenda Lin’s Wealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound, she presents another angle in interconnected essays that explore her transnational identity. For our North American counterparts, Julia Lin’s Miah is the first Taiwanese Canadian story collection ever published and gives a rare look into their unique immigrant stories. If you’re seeking a bit of humor, revisit Teresa Wu and Serena Wu’s hit blog-turned-book, My Mom is a Fob: Earnest Advice in Broken English from Your Asian-American Mom. They reclaimed this formerly derogatory term, applying it instead to the heartfelt and hilarious ways that Asian mothers adapt to American culture, from the perspective of those who love them most–their children. For those with the travel bug, you will be entertained by Lonely Planet Taiwan author Joshua Samuel Brown’s Vignettes of Taiwan, an anthology of short stories and travel essays, which grew out of his years and love for the island. Finally, we take pride in a recently published creative collection spearheaded by TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s Andrea Chu and her co-editors Kevin Ko-wen Chen and Albertine Wang: Chrysanthemum: Voices of the Taiwanese Diaspora, available only for a limited time through blurb.com. In it, you will find excellent works by 20 creators exploring the concept of “liminality” or in-betweenness. We also send a shout-out to award-winning writer Timothy Tau, whose short stories, some set in Taiwan, have been published in various magazines and online publications.
The creative rhythm of words and imagery allows for a more evocative meditation on identity, history, and heritage. Your contemporary Taiwanese poetry collection should start with these: Leona Chen’s Book of Cord, Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang, and Irene Hsiao’s photo-poetic Letter from Taipei. We also highly recommend the classic, No Trace of the Gardener, by Yang Mu who was born in Taiwan in 1940 and immigrated to the US in 1964.
The Dark Side
Are you a fan of mystery and crime stories, or those that challenge the darker side of humanity? Be sure to check out all of Ed Lin’s books, but especially these two, which are set in Taiwan: Ghost Month and Incensed. Francie Lin’s The Foreigner is a riveting story full of Taiwanese secrets, shady business, and the criminal underworld exploring what it means to be a foreigner even in one’s own family. Can half-Taiwanese detective Lana Lee solve a murder by shrimp dumpling? Find out in Vivien Chen’s Death by Dumpling. In Winnie M. Li’s Dark Chapter, a Taiwanese American tourist in London falls victim to a horrifying act of violence. We laud Winnie for bravely writing this raw and shocking account of violence, based on her own experiences, and the courage it takes to overcome such trauma with unflinching honesty.
Our Taiwanese American sci-fi writers are all rising stars, and we wouldn’t be surprised if their books were one day adapted into films! Lawyer-turned-author Charles Yu, previously named a “5 under 35 Honoree” by The National Book Foundation, has published three books: Third Class Superhero, Sorry Please Thank You, and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Check out the latter, a novel where the main character–named after himself–searches for absolution to a father-son relationship. Another talent, Wesley Chu, is now writing his third sci-fi trilogy series, but look to Death of Tao to see how he weaves Taiwan in as a setting. Hollywood has noticed… his novel Time Salvager was optioned to Paramount, with Michael Bay attached to direct. For fans of dystopian stories reminiscent of Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll want to read one of The Washington Post’s 5 Best Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels of 2017, Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male, which envisions a dark future for China in the aftermath of its One Child policy. From critically acclaimed author Cindy Pon comes Want, an edge-of-your-seat sci-fi thriller, set in a near-future Taipei, about a group of teens who risk it all to save their city. While so many of the aforementioned works pay tribute to Taiwan and Taiwanese America’s histories, these science fiction writers move the conversation forward to more thoughtful contemplation on how the future might take shape.
A Youthful Take
These are for the kids, the teens, and young-at-heart: Grace Lin’s book series is loosely based on her own childhood experiences growing up as a Taiwanese American. Pacy Lin is the main character in Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days. You will recognize your own childhood in her anecdotes about red envelopes and cutting her hair for Lunar New Year. Love her books? She has published over 40 other titles. One of our favorite Teen & Young Adult authors is Justina Chen, who gives young women a powerful voice through her stories and real-life book launch partnerships. Her first novel, which features a half Taiwanese protagonist, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies), won the 2007 Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature. Also check out Return to Me, which is loosely based on events that happened to her own family. For Fifth Grader competitive drama, check out Peg Cheng’s The Contenders. Another accomplished pop-culture author who needs no introduction is Taiwanese-Chinese American Gene Luen Yang. His iconic, best-selling graphic novel involving a new immigrant from Taiwan, American Born Chinese, is an essential introduction for young Asian Americans grappling with dual identities. Kids will also be surprised to learn that he’s a writer behind Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels. The youngest of our talented group of authors is Rosalie Chiang who, at just 10 years old, worked with her father Robin to publish A is for Albatross: Birds A-Z. We heard that she’s writing another nature book. The talent starts young.
Little Bites of Culture
James Beard award-nominated writer & blogger Cathy Erway’s The Food of Taiwan is more than a recipe cookbook as it uncovers and details the unique histories and culinary influences of Taiwan. The late Cora Cheney’s Tales from a Taiwan Kitchen is a collection of traditional Taiwanese tales that reflect the varied cultural heritage of the island. Sit down, enjoy a Taiwanese snack, and learn from them both.
Thank you for supporting these authors, many of whom donated their books to the Taiwanese American Cultural Festival exhibit where TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s Ho Chie manages the Cultural Exhibit Booth. All titles are available on Amazon.com. Purchase their books to show your support. THE TAIWANESE AMERICAN CULTURAL FESTIVAL IS SPONSORED BY TAFNC & TAP-SF.
Original newsletter by Ho Chie Tsai. Article text by Ho Chie Tsai & Leona Chen.