The Woman Warrior
Maxine Hong Kingston
The exemplar. The classic. Published in 1975, before memoirs were typically written by nonfamous, nonwhite people. Maxine Hong Kingston is defiant as she captures the history and mythology of her ancestors, the lives of her family of Chinese immigrants and first-generation Asian Americans—lives that were often overlooked—and casts them with a wondrous and profound visibility.
Brother, I'm Dying
A heart-wrenching account of how the political is inherently personal. The story revolves around two brothers, one who moved to the United States and one who stayed in Haiti. Edwidge Danticat portrays the bond between her father and uncle with utmost love and dignity, while she is also able to recreate scenes of violent upheaval that took a huge toll on her remaining family with vivid and visceral detail. Read the book and weep.
The Buddha in the Attic
Written in collective first-person, in exquisite prose, this book tells the story of a group of young women chosen by mail, by photographs, brides who traveled from Japan to San Francisco by boat. Most of them were virgins until the first night they met their husbands. Through a chorus of voices, Julie Otsuka evokes their experiences of fraught adjustment, isolation, estrangement, and eventual detainment at concentration camps during WWII. She demands attention and humility toward a shameful part of history that is necessary to confront.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
The scope and depth of this book are remarkable. It brings the reader to so many places, through so many places, exterior and interior: Vietnam, Connecticut, the vast and perpetuating trauma of war, the intricate private wounds between a single mother and her only son, the raw turmoil of first sexual encounters. Ocean Vuong is masterful as he contains the elusive impact of these converging and conflicting places in a distinct and palpable moment, and every moment startles. Every sentence is breathtaking.
The Line Becomes a River
When history is disclosed as it is happening, as it is continually being skewed and misconstrued, that makes a book’s attempt at truth all the more urgent and essential. Even though his grandfather came from Mexico, even though his mother insisted on preserving his heritage by traveling to Mexico, by exposing him at a young age to the goodness and richness of the culture, Francisco Cantú decided to become a border patrol agent. He wanted to see for himself. He lives and writes to understand as he gracefully interweaves the otherwise suppressed sides of the border. The side that is complicated anguish, both of those who risk their lives to cross and those who compromise their values to protect. The side that is bureaucracy and desensitization. The side that is camaraderie and connection. The side that is magnificent and usurping desert landscape. And his compassion, insight, and keen eye for beauty reinforce the primordial, that the border existed long before it was a border, that it doesn’t belong to feuding nations or clashing political agendas. It belongs to itself.
Elizabeth Miki Brina
Perhaps this notion seems obvious: we can’t separate ourselves from history. It determines our circumstances and perspective. It is deeply and intimately intertwined with our lives and identity. However, for those who belong to dominant cultures, history can be taken for granted. They were raised amidst their history. They were taught and celebrated their history as a matter of fact and importance. For those who belong to marginalized cultures, history can be denied or hidden. We had to seek our history, discover our history. We had to learn our history on our own.
I was thirty-four years old when I first began to learn my mother’s history, my history, Okinawan history. I grew up not knowing my mother or myself. I knew my mother was missing several of her teeth, but I didn’t really know why. I knew my mother got very drunk and sobbed inconsolably, but I didn’t really know why. I absorbed and internalized her shame and grief, and for most of my life, I blamed her, only her.
My mother was born in 1948, three years after the Battle of Okinawa, which completely destroyed and devastated the island. She was born into poverty and chaos, coming of age during a time when Okinawa was an occupied territory of the United States, when the U.S. military established a massive complex of bases and military personnel committed horrendous crimes every day. Learning this history allowed me to understand the trauma my mother experienced and witnessed, the trauma I inherited.
In my memoir, Speak, Okinawa, I try to portray the process of learning my history, of grappling for an explanation, a process that was painful yet ultimately redemptive.
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Here are five books by authors who excavate and reclaim a version of obscured history, and inspired me to do the same.
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