May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, an annual celebration of the historical and cultural contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the United States. To commemorate, The 19th spoke with librarians, scholars, bookstore owners, and book lovers—including American Library Association (ALA) President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada—about themes that resonate with them in works by AAPI authors and books that best represent those ideas. The books reflect their desires for a deeper and more complex understanding of themselves and their communities.
“Seeing ourselves represented gives us confidence and power and encourages us to be able to be our whole selves,” said Pelayo-Lozada, who describes herself as a mixed-race Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander.
The books that Pelayo-Lozada selected are themed around Pasifika Power—works by those who can trace their heritage to more than 20 ethnic groups on the Pacific Islands. Her picks include a coming-of-age novel, collections of essays, poems, and stories, and a young adult (YA) novel.
Her favorite, From A Native Daughter (1993) by Haunani-Kay Trask, is a collection of essays that argue for Hawaiian sovereignty. Pelayo-Lozada said the book “unflinchingly calls out the racism, misogyny, and tourism that has acted against Native Hawaiian people’s autonomy” and was foundational in her understanding of her own identity. “I don’t know who I would be without that book,” she said.
The YA book she suggested, Dawn Raid (2018) by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith, follows a 12-year-old as she finds out that her brother is part of the Polynesian Panthers, a group in New Zealand that fought for the rights of indigenous Maori and Pacific Islanders.
Pelayo-Lozada’s other picks include Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel (1996), Habitat Threshold by Craig Santos-Perez (2020), and Vā: Stories by Women of the Moana, edited by Sesilia Eteuati and Lani Young (2021).
The other individuals profiled include Surabhi Balachander, a Ph.D student who chose Asian-American literature set outside AAPI population hubs; Jhoanna Belfer, a writer and bookstore owner who selected books themed around motherhood; Kat De Los Reyes, an attorney and host of #APIBookstagramTour on Instagram, who chose books that examine the past and the ties that bind you to your culture; and Ceci Lorraine, a high school teacher and bookstagrammer who highlighted books about visibility.
“A common experience of being Asian American is being erased, whether that’s like people falling into the model minority myth or people just not even knowing the history of Asian Americans,” Lorraine said. “That sort of theme of being erased or unacknowledged is what I would say has dominated my experience as an Asian American.”
Pelayo-Lozada echoed Lorraine’s words. “Growing up, I never really saw that many mixed-race, Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander stories,” she said.
AAPI Heritage Month—and these recommended books—are helping to alleviate that and provide long-overdue visibility and understanding.