These 10 Iconic Asian Authors Are Making History in Mainstream Literature
After years on the fringes of the international book scene, Asian authors are finally gaining ground. The rise of diversity in 21st-century world literature is slow, but steady; and while we aren’t opposed to the idea of celebrating small wins, the decades’ worth of pain as caused by the iron hand of prejudice is an ache that cannot be soothed with mere trending hashtags or “anti-racist reading lists.” And we still haven’t forgotten that damning New York Times article—the one which revealed that only five percent of books published from 1950 to 2018 were written by people of color.
Let this be a reminder, then, that the battle for diversity trudges on—that the iron hand still rules, and that its color is still white. But let this also be a toast, to all the Asian, Asian-American, and Asian-and-anything authors, who wandered the fringes for long enough to discover a chink in the armor; a path to the top.
With that, we present you a list of some of the most iconic Asian authors of our time—not to be confused as anybody’s remedy to bigotry or racism, but rather a cause for celebration, and a sign that we’re breaking through. These ten Asian authors are shaping a contemporary world of literature that transcends all borders—literature that can be loved and found in every corner, fracture, and chink of the world.
1| Ocean Vuong
At just 33 years old, Ocean Vuong has already achieved what most writers only dream about—but before he was a legendary poet, essayist, and novelist, Ocean Vuong was a child of war. His family fled the Vietnamese War and found themselves at a refugee camp in the Philippines, where they stayed for a year before immigrating to the United States.
Vuong draws heavily from his personal experiences as an Asian-American immigrant in his award-winning poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and his award-winning novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The latter is a work of autofiction, written in the form of a letter to the narrator’s illiterate mother. Told in Vuong’s evocative writing style, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a poignant story about the narrator’s experiences with abuse, the multigenerational effects of war, and the agony of being caught between disparate identities. With a grand slew of honors under his name—a Whiting Award, the Lambda Literary Prize, and T.S. Eliot Prize, to name a few—Vuong is already on his way to becoming one of the most celebrated authors of our time.
Read this author if you like: immigrant novels, LGBT fiction, meditations on grief, and explorations on abusive familial relationships.
2| Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro moved from Nagasaki to Britain when he was five years old, so that his father, an oceanographer, could work with the National Institute of Oceanography. Upon graduating from university, he began to write in his spare time while he worked at a homeless charity—decades later, Ishiguro would publish eight novels, receive a Nobel Prize, and be granted knighthood for his services to literature.
The 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature was granted to Ishiguro for his work that “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” One of his most popular novels of all time, Never Let Me Go, is a bone-chilling dystopian story, following a group of students from an English boarding school who eventually learn the full truth of what their school was as they move into adulthood; the less you know about it before picking it up, the better. His most recent work and first post-Nobel novel, Klara and the Sun, was written as a “hopeful response” to Never Let Me Go, this time exploring artificial intelligence, and told from the perspective of an unhuman narrator. Both novels exhibit Ishiguro’s genius talent for creating nightmarish atmospheres by only subtly tilting reality, as opposed to pushing ideas that are outlandishly bizarre. In all his work, Ishiguro reflects on the themes of memory, delusion, dignity, and regret, all while providing incisive social commentary.
Read this author if you like: speculative fiction, existential dread, subtle horror, moral ambiguity, and simple yet evocative prose.
3| Jia Tolentino
Born in Canada to Filipino parents, Jia Tolentino is a prolific staff writer at the New Yorker and the brilliant author behind Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion—a collection of essays that became an instant New York Times bestseller upon its release in 2019.
Tolentino has an enviably honest and sharp-witted writing voice that she developed from her background in journalism. Each one her essays in her debut book, Trick Mirror, is packed with both insightful research and humorous personal narratives. She explores a wide variety of topics, from the fragility of identity and the commodification of the self, to the eroticization of female obedience and the pressure to optimize all aspects of our lives. She examines all these topics with rigorous critical thinking, drawing our attention to the fractures that lie at the center of our modern culture. Trick Mirror was named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and GQ, among many others.
Read this author if you like: non-fiction work, social commentary, critiques on the internet age, and contemporary feminism.
4| Sayaka Murata
Best known for her quirky, contemporary fiction novels, Sayaka Murata was named Vogue Japan’s Woman of the Year in 2016 and a Freeman’s “Future of New Writing” author. Also a winner of Japan’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, Murata is one of the most celebrated women among the new generation of writers in Japan.
Exactly like the protagonist in one of her most successful novels, Murata worked in a convenience store for about half of her life, and she continued to do so even long after Convenience Store Woman became a worldwide obsession. The author confessed that she had always struggled with fitting in and meeting society’s expectations, but it is precisely Murata’s offbeat outlook on life that her readers worldwide have fallen in love with; Convenience Store Woman has been translated into more than 30 languages, quickly becoming a global cult sensation. The book that followed, Earthlings, features another literary heroine at odds with society—but this time, the story involves pedophilia, murder, and rape. All Murata’s novels are relatively short, but packed with thought-provoking insights that invite us to question the claims that we allow others to have over our decisions.
Read this author if you like: unhinged female characters, critiques on contemporary culture, reflections on sexual identity, and parodies of misogyny.
5| Min Jin Lee
Revered for her powerful contributions to telling the stories of immigrants throughout the world, Korean-American author Min Jin Lee is best known for her poignant family saga Pachinko, which has also just been released as a TV series on Apple TV+. Set in wartime Japan, the story follows multiple generations of a Korean family as they grapple with displacement, racism, and the multilayered experience of grief. As the second book in Lee’s The Koreans Trilogy, Pachinko was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was named one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017.
Based in Manhattan, Lee is currently finishing the third installment of her The Koreans Trilogy at Harvard; Lee is a recipient of the fellowship in Fiction from the university’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. There, she is doing a grand amount of research for her next novel, as she takes a journalistic approach to writing fiction: she’s “gathering as much information about her topic as she can by traveling, interviewing, and researching, all while writing and rewriting her copy,” says the Harvard Gazette. The new novel will be titled American Hagwon, a story on the Korean and Korean-American education experience.
Read this author if you like: immigration novels, historical fiction, Korean-Japanese culture, and family sagas.
6| Hanya Yanigahara
Hanya Yanigahara has become one of the hottest names in the global book community for her harrowing contemporary novel, A Little Life. Her highly anticipated third novel, To Paradise, was released just earlier this year, and just like A Little Life, it has quickly become the subject of heated controversy.
Yanigahara has been widely criticized for the brutality with which she treats her characters, but the Asian-American author and editor of the New York Times style magazine T chooses to be uncompromising in the way she depicts trauma and abuse; she warns, in one interview, on how dangerous it is “to isolate oneself from information or art or history or news because the subject is painful.”
A Little Life, which is arguably still her most iconic novel to date, is a challenging read in more ways than one. Besides its intimidating length, the experiences of her characters are, indeed, deeply disturbing, so it’s crucial to take note of the many trigger warnings before picking it up. But if you’re looking to go on a long, heart-wrenching emotional excursion, go ahead and give it a shot. It’s a tragic 720-page novel about the unspeakable aftermaths of trauma, exploring tender male friendships, the limitations of the love’s saving graces, and the miracle of finding home in the families that we make for ourselves.
Read this author if you like: found family trope, slow burns, male friendships, and unsparing portrayals of abuse.
7| Mia Manansala
Yet another critically acclaimed contemporary Filipino author, Mia Manansala has been nominated for several awards for her debut mystery Arsenic and Adobo, including the highly coveted Agatha Award for Best First Mystery and the Eleanor Taylor Bland Award for writers of color. The latter involves an annual grant of $2,000, intended to support the education and careers of crime fiction writers-of-color.
Manansala is making breakthroughs in the world of contemporary literature as she delivers Filipino culture to the mainstream, what with all the vivid, mouthwatering descriptions she uses to describe traditional Filipino cuisine in her novels. The third installment of her globally beloved Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries series is set for release later this year. Fast-paced, deliciously told, and packed with humor, Manansala’s work can pull you out of a perpetual reading slump, and is a good light-hearted read if you’re just looking to escape and unwind.
Read this author if you like: culinary adventures, murder mysteries, and empowered female protagonists.
8| Haruki Murakami
The man needs no introduction—Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has attracted a cult following for his fiction, with millions of copies of his books sold worldwide.
Murakami’s novels often feature lonely narrators who find themselves in strange, dark places. Isolation and yearning are common themes in his stories, but these universal themes are explored in wonderfully weird ways when set in the context of Murakami’s imaginative worlds. Truly, anything can happen when it comes to Murakami; “Fish can fall from the sky, old men can talk to cats, paintings can come alive, and elephants are made in factories,” as summed up by one reviewer. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka On the Shore, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland or the End of the World are three of his most fantastical work, but if you’re one to prefer more grounded stories, you can try starting out with Norwegian Wood.
Read this author if you like: animals (especially cats), magical realism, burgeoning sexuality, and explorations on mental health.
9| R.F. Kuang
The 25-year-old R.F. Kuang is the Chinese-American author behind the best-selling Poppy War series, which, upon its release in 2018, was hailed by many critics as the best fantasy debut of the year. Written in Kuang’s wry, descriptive prose, The Poppy War trilogy is an action-packed retelling of the second Sino-Japanese war, populated by raging gods, bloodthirsty war generals, and mystical martial artists.
Kuang’s writing debut blew the world away with her deadly proficiency; for The Poppy War, she was granted the Crawford Award, the Compton Crook Award, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. But the young author claims that the Poppy War books were just “training wheels” for her upcoming novel, BABEL. Set for release this year in August, Kuang says her writing style has gotten even sharper and more efficient, and that she’s “much better at handling large, complex storylines and nuanced interpersonal relationships.”
Read this author if you like: historical fiction, East Asian mythology, academia, war stories, critiques on religion and the religious.
10| Yoko Ogawa
With over 50 published books, Yoko Ogawa has been the winner of every major Japanese literature award, and is considered to be one of Japan’s most treasured and prolific contemporary authors of all time.
As for international accolades, Ogawa was the recipient of the Shirley Jackson Award for her work of psychological horror The Diving Pool, and of the American Book Award for her speculative fiction novel The Memory Police—it was the English translation of the latter which sparked the rise of Ogawa’s Western fanbase. Published over two decades ago, the haunting story told by The Memory Police is just as relevant now as it was when it was first brought to the market; it takes place on an unnamed island, on an unnamed coast, where an unnamed narrator risks losing all her memories at the hands of the untouchable “memory police.” The novel is an example of magical realism at its finest, using dream-like themes to tell the stories of real world issues of government censorship and state surveillance.
Read this author if you like: dystopias, speculative fiction, Japanese horror, and dark fiction.