Looking past the many stereotypes imposed on their communities, a broad range of Asian American and Pacific Islander authors are poised to deliver thoughtful, inspiring, and carefully rendered accounts of their history and contemporary life. The recent series of attacks on AAPI people is profoundly disturbing. But this dark moment also points to the resiliency and determination of these communities.
PW reached out to a variety of publishers for comment on publishing titles by and about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Among those we spoke with are Christina Amini, the executive publishing director, adult, at Chronicle; Neelanjana Banerjee, the managing editor at Kaya Press; Ruoxi Chen, an editor at Tordotcom; Sarah Crichton, the editor-in-chief of Holt; Susan Ferber, an editor at Oxford University Press; Lindsey Hall, an editor at Tor; Cindy Hwang, the v-p and editorial director of Berkley; and Margo Irvin, an acquisitions editor at Stanford University Press. (Below we focus on titles for adults; for an extensive roundup of 2021 AAPI books for children and teens, go to publishers-weekly.com/aapiyoungreaders.)
Does your program have a history of publishing works on the history and culture of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in North America?
Hwang: Berkley has always sought to publish diverse voices, including those representing the AAPI community. In the past five years, there has been a push for AAPI writers, particularly those writing romance, to write stories that center their culture, heritage, and specific experiences. The success of books by many authors of color, including authors in the AAPI community like Helen Hoang, Jesse Q. Sutanto, and Uzma Jalaluddin, has shown that readers want compelling, engrossing stories and are eager to read about experiences that are both like and different from their own.
Crichton: While we have published books by and about members of the AAPI community, some examples being Lillian Li’s debut novel Number One Chinese Restaurant and Catherine Cho’s beautiful memoir, Inferno, admittedly it has not been a particular focus for us. But following some significant staff changes over the past year and a half, we are committed to publishing new voices and ideas, which of course includes titles that focus on the history and culture of the AAPI community, such as our forthcoming July releases: Georgina Pazcoguin’s Swan Dive, a memoir chronicling her rise to be the first Asian American female soloist at the New York City Ballet, and Leana Wen’s Lifelines, an insider account of public health and Wen’s inspiring journey to serving on its forefront.
Banerjee: Kaya Press has been doing this work for more than 27 years at this point. We were founded as a publisher of AAPI diasporic literature and continue to do that work to this day.
Ferber: Before I started at Oxford University Press over two decades ago, there were some works already on the list about Asian American history and culture. It’s been an area that I have expanded over the years, along with the broader list on the histories of race, ethnicity, and immigration. Because my list is in American and world history, it’s very natural for me to work on topics about diaspora, international relations, and migration, and not to be limited by nation-state histories or to specific geographies.
Irvin: Stanford University Press has a long-standing commitment to publishing scholarly books in AAPI studies. Our interdisciplinary Asian America series has been running since the early ’90s, when Stanford professor Gordon Chang saw an opportunity to support the growing field of Asian American studies. Over the past three decades, the kinds of books we’ve published in the series have evolved with the field as the discourse has increasingly come to focus on transnationalism, diaspora, and intersectionality.
Chen: Over the past decade, Tor has been known for and seen success in publishing Asian works in translation. Regarding publishing AAPI authors and stories, we still have room for growth and expansion, and have been lucky enough to have been trusted with some incredible stories from AAPI authors that are pushing the field forward in a myriad of ways—exploring the past, the future, and even worlds beyond our own.
What is your acquisition strategy in this category, and is your focus on fiction or nonfiction?
Amini: On our adult trade list, we focus on nonfiction. We will continue to broaden the range of BIPOC voices, authors, photographers, stylists, and contributors to our books to make sure our publishing reflects the diversity of the world we live in. This spring we published a memoir with recipes, Mango and Peppercorns, which is a stirring tale of resiliency, family, friendship, and food from Vietnamese refugees Tung Nguyen and Lyn Nguyen, who started a restaurant with Katherine Manning in Miami. We believe in bringing new voices to the fore, as well as cultivating long-term, collaborative relationships with our authors. For example, groundbreaking cookbook author Nik Sharma has published two cookbooks with us. We will partner together more in the years to come.
Hwang: Berkley’s primary focus is on fiction, and I personally acquire mainly romance and women’s fiction. Berkley is actively looking for AAPI authors, as well as other authors from underrepresented communities, for our entire fiction program, from romance and women’s fiction to mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, and fantasy.
Banerjee: Kaya Press started in order to find books that were not being considered because of the disjunction between what commercial literary presses expected of AAPI authors and stories and the much more interesting work that was in fact being produced or had been overlooked. We now publish poetry, fiction, nonfiction, recovered works, film books, art books, and more. We are focused on innovative, hybrid, experimental, and what we consider overlooked and/or forgotten, which in today’s market can mean a collection of short stories like Mimi Lok’s Last of Her Name, which includes a novella and is about the diasporic Asian experience, and went on to garner major reviews and win the PEN Robert W. Bingham Award for a debut short story collection—proving that a press with a focus like ours still seems needed even in times when AAPI voices are being “championed” by mainstream presses.
Ferber: I only acquire nonfiction books, specifically history titles. I seek to sign authors who further the scholarly conversation and make important interventions in the field. I work on books that are for academic readers, as well as books for crossover and trade audiences. My strategy is always to find historians who do original archival research, craft innovative arguments, and can make their ideas accessible to scholars, students, and, depending on the work, a wider audience of educated readers. I often work with first-time authors, many of whom can read sources in multiple languages and have done international archival research.
Irvin: I acquire scholarly books—primarily but not exclusively by academics. Most of these books are based on original research, though we’re also open to projects that think expansively and creatively about what an academic book can be. I’d love to see more pitches for graphic novels and books that blend personal memoir with scholarship.
Does your program focus on a specific AAPI community, or do you publish for the broad community of AAPI peoples in the North American Asian diaspora?
Banerjee: We publish the broadest possible community of AAPI writers and Asian diasporic writers as well. These include South Asian Kenyan British writer Shailja Patel, Hawaii-based Filipino American R. Zamora Linmark, Samoan novelist and poet Sia Figiel, not to mention Filipino South Asian Canadian poet Hari Alluri. In our diasporic work, we have an imprint focused on Korean works in translation, like our most recent publication, Kim Bo-Young’s On the Origin of Species and Other Stories, a mix of science fiction and fantasy stories from one of South Korea’s leading sci-fi writers. Part of our goal has always been to expand the idea of what the AAPI community of writers are given license to publish, the kinds of stories they tell, and the range of experimentalism they can engage with.
Irvin: Our goal has always been to publish books that reflect the diversity of the Asian American experience, and our backlist includes titles on a broad range of AAPI communities—for instance, Carolyn Wong’s work on the Hmong American community in Voting Together: Intergenerational Politics and Civic Engagement Among Hmong Americans and Anthony Ocampo’s work on Filipino Americans in The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race.
Crichton: Holt aims to publish for a large general audience, introducing authors and stories that previously have not gotten attention by mainstream publishing. This includes an awareness about how we position titles, and whether they’re for a specific community only. A book written by an author of AAPI descent and/or about the history of AAPI communities should be marketed for any reader––akin to how white-authored books are. Promoting a book about or from a marginalized community under the presumption that it’s only interesting to those from the same background only further negates these stories, and it’s a problem that publishing has long struggled with. At Holt, I hope we will break that mold, publishing books that will appeal to a broad community of individuals who identify as AAPI, as well as anyone seeking a book that will change how they view the world.
Hwang: Individual AAPI experiences are as vast and varied as humanity in general, so Berkley’s novels are reflective of that. We strive to publish novels from a broad range of AAPI voices, as part of both the North American and international diaspora. Some of our recent novels feature Chinese Indonesians, both first- and second-generation immigrants; Indian Australians; Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese first-generation immigrants; Japanese; Korean and Korean Americans; Filipino Americans; Chinese Americans; Taiwanese Americans; South Asian immigrants and second-generation South Asian Americans; Indians; and Sri Lankans.
Ferber: The titles on the OUP list are more broadly about AAPI communities, not specific ones. I have worked on books about the Chinese and Japanese American communities, as well as Vietnamese, Korean, and Filipino Americans and, hopefully soon, Hmong Americans.
Are there new topics emerging in books about AAPI communities? What are some of your most successful titles?
Hwang: The immigrant experience is a major topic for many AAPI writers, particularly the differences between first- and second-generation immigrants; explorations of the resulting family dynamics are very popular. Helen Hoang has been especially successful in navigating the complexities of immigrant Vietnamese families and the differences between generations in The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test, and her new novel, The Heart Principle. Saumya Dave explores the pressure Indian women feel to be perfect and the desire to belong—often universal experiences—in Well-Behaved Indian Women and her new novel, What a Happy Family. Importantly, our authors’ novels show AAPI characters as whole people.
Amini: Chinatown Pretty has been a standout title this last year, and it focuses on a demographic not often covered. This book features beautiful portraits and heartwarming stories of trend-setting elders across six Chinatowns in North America. Andria Lo and Valerie Luu have been interviewing and photographing Chinatown’s most fashionable elders on the Chinatown Pretty blog and Instagram since 2014. Another recent publication, Everything She Touched, recounts the incredible life of the Japanese American sculptor Ruth Asawa, a woman who wielded imagination and hope in the face of intolerance and who transformed everything she touched into art. Two of our successful recent titles by AAPI authors and artists are Bad Girls Throughout History by Ann Shen, which celebrates an international roster of 100 women who made history and made their mark on the world, and Celestial One Line a Day by Yao Cheng, a gorgeous addition to our bestselling One Line a Day Journal series.
Crichton: There has been a noticeable, and overdue, demand for books by AAPI authors that push the boundaries of what has canonically been viewed as the Asian American narrative, allowing us to connect with Asian American stories that deviate from outdated immigrant tropes, as well as the monolith myth.
Banerjee: What our most successful titles—like R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the Rs, which is about Filipino Hawaiian kids coming-of-age in the 1970s, or So Many Olympic Exertions, Anelise Chen’s autofictional exploration of success and failure—all have in common is that they explode the idea that there are topics and themes, or identities, or genres that AAPI books are relegated to. Kaya Press started and has survived on the idea that we can continue to provide a space for the AAPI community and beyond that is not connected to publishing trends or specified themes that mark this complex community.
Ferber: Among the approaches I have found most innovative are works that look at the relationships between multiple communities, often communities of different Asian immigrant groups and non–Caucasian Americans, as well as transnational relations between diasporic groups throughout the Americas and Asian nations. Some of the most successful titles have been Henry Yu’s Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America; and Judy Yung and Erika Lee’s Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. This year we’ve published Brian Masaru Hayashi’s Asian American Spies: How Asian Americans Helped Win the Allied Victory and Annelise Heinz’s Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture—and Mahjong is already getting a lot of attention.
Irvin: I’m always fascinated by the way that academic trends both influence and respond to what’s going on in the broader cultural conversation. In the wake of the Trump travel ban, I found myself having more conversations about the legacy of Chinese exclusion and citizenship rights. And certainly, the appalling recent attacks on the AAPI community, including the murder of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, have drawn attention to the long history of anti-Asian violence in the U.S. These topics aren’t new. PBS’s recent Asian Americans series was great for this. One of our most successful recent titles, The Chinese and the Iron Road, focused on the Chinese workers who built the Central Pacific Railroad and definitely got a boost from being tied in with the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad. We’ve also had success with titles that put AAPI studies in conversation with queer studies and Black studies.
Chen: This June, we launched Nghi Vo’s debut novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful, which decolonizes and reimagines The Great Gatsby. Jordan Baker takes center stage: a queer young woman “rescued” from Tonkin, which is now Vietnam, by her white adopted family, she must navigate—with wits, magic, and infernal deals—the exclusive circles of American society where the most important doors always remain closed to her.
Hall: Launching in September is Ryka Aoki’s novel, Light from Uncommon Stars. It is set in California’s San Gabriel Valley and centers Asian and queer characters, casting them into every role imaginable—heroes, villains, mothers, daughters, artists, aliens, doughnut shop owners!—and brings to life the themes of joy, hope, and found family in a way that is both deeply specific and universally true and resonant.
What have you heard from your publishing partners—agents, distributors, retailers—about demand for titles on AAPI peoples?
Amini: We are seeing more proposals from AAPI authors, more demand from our retailers, and more feedback from our consumers that they want to expand the range of publishing. People want the stories of more people told—whether through art books, cookbooks, or nonfiction.
Crichton: There has been a recent focus on stories and perspectives that in the past were considered too small or niche for mainstream publishing, which does in turn mean that we’re seeing more stories about AAPI communities and/or by AAPI authors from agents. But I personally have not heard from any publishing partners about an increase in demand for books that center on the AAPI experience.
Hwang: Everyone in publishing knows of the need and the demand for books that better reflect the world we live in and the people around us, and that includes greater AAPI representation. Within AAPI communities, there’s a broad range of cultures, ethnicities, and experiences with an infinite variety of stories just waiting to be told. I’m excited about the possibilities!
Banerjee: It seems like readers are hungry for authentic voices. For our most recent title, On the Origin of Species, which received a starred review in PW, there were a lot of preorders, and we were very excited because we weren’t sure how translated science fiction would do. We also published our first YA title in 2020: David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets into an Ivy League College by Ed Lin, which is set at an Asian American–majority high school in New Jersey, where the protagonist is still dealing with being bullied, having girl troubles, and figuring out what he wants and who he really is.
What are your plans for acquiring titles in this category in the future?
Ferber: I absolutely plan to continue to acquire and edit the work on AAPI history. I’m really excited to see new research focusing on more recent immigrant groups from Southeast Asia to the United States. I continue to be fascinated by political and social histories, but am also excited to acquire cultural histories, place-based histories, transnational histories, and multiracial histories. As an example of that, publishing this fall is Thomas Guglielmo’s Divisions: A New History of Racism and Resistance in America’s World War II Military, which looks at AAPI soldiers’ experiences alongside those of African American, Latinos, and Native Americans
Irvin: We intend to continue signing in this area, with a focus on cutting-edge research. As a nonprofit university press, a big part of our work is to support scholars in giving their work visibility outside of academia.
Hwang: I’m actively looking to acquire and publish more AAPI fiction, as are my fellow editors at Berkley. There are so many wonderful AAPI writers, both new and established, and we aim to make many more of them Berkley authors.
Amini: We love bringing new voices, new talent, and new ideas to our list and to the world, and are working to include even more AAPI voices in our publishing.
Crichton: In the past year, we have signed up an exciting list of titles I hope will exemplify Holt’s list in the future. These include Leise Hook’s Names and Faces, a graphic memoir-in-essays exploring the in-betweenness of being mixed race Asian American, and for fiction, Kimberly Garza’s The Last Karankawas, a heart-stopping debut novel about a community of Filipino American and Mexican American families in Galveston, Tex. We continue to look for books that inspire and resonate with readers, allowing them to engage with our current world through new lenses. With new hires in marketing, publicity, and editorial, we are fortifying our publishing program and our ability to not only acquire, but also successfully publish, books that previously were not synonymous with Henry Holt.