Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America, by Julia Lee
A reminder that categories are slippery (plus 5 more memoirs I’m reading by AANHPI authors)
Memoirs with Melissa shares bimonthly reviews intended to expose readers to diverse authors and life experiences. To see more of what I’m reading, browse my virtual memoir shelf on Goodreads.
May is Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and if you’re not reading memoirs by this expansive community, it’s time to start. Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America, by Julia Lee caught my attention when the description compared it to Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper. Both books reminded me of what author Jessi Hempel calls our tendency to categorize people’s experiences before we dive into them.
“The truth is a lot of us don't fit into easy binaries, whether we're Asian American or Latinx or Indigenous or multiracial or queer or gender nonbinary or none of these things or all of these things. Categories are slippery….” -Julia Lee
Eloquent Rage is the book that broke me of that tendency and inspired me to jump head-first into Biting the Hand, where I read about the 1992 LA Riots through the lens of a Korean immigrant family in a predominantly Black neighborhood, all set against the backdrop of white supremacy. With deep dives into her childhood and young adulthood in academia, Lee reckons with her own identity, what she calls the racial imaginary, and how to effect social change.
Because this book is a new release, I listened to the audio version through Libro.fm, where half the profit goes to an independent bookstore of my choice. I chose Femme Fire Books, which happens to be on this list of API-owned bookstores. Here’s what else I’ve been reading by AANHPI authors.
1. Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner
This memoir is about so much more than food, but the vivid writing about Korean cuisine is central to what makes Crying in H Mart such a satisfying read. It’s some of the best food writing I’ve ever read. Food is what helps Zauner digest the grief of losing her mother to cancer and nourishes her hunger for connection to her Korean heritage. The book was inspired by her original essay in the New Yorker, which you can view for free.
2. Fairest, by Meredith Talusan
I picked up Fairest by Meredith Talusan after having the good fortune to attend her panel on subverting toxic masculinity at a writing conference. Talusan was assigned male at birth and was raised in the Philippines as a boy with albinism before transitioning to womanhood as an American immigrant. You can read my full review here.
3. Know My Name, by Chanel Miller
Originally known as Emily Doe when her victim impact statement went viral, Chanel Miller tells her experience of dealing with and healing from sexual assault. Miller is a gifted writer with an excellent handle on emotional pacing. She shares her story in a way that keeps readers interested in what will happen next while challenging preconceptions and providing safe spaces to land between difficult scenes. Know My Name is a deeply personal look at what was once a high profile case that continues to reverberate with universal implications today. At the same time, it’s important to not lose sight of the specificity of Miller’s story. For more on that, read Why It Matters that ‘Emily Doe’ in the Brock Turner Case is Asian-American by Lisa Ko.
4. Tastes Like War, by Grace M. Cho
I found this memoir on my first visit to Femme Fire Books, where the owner recommended it based on how much I loved Crying in H Mart. Both books contain writing about Korean food and how the authors cope with losing their mothers. What’s different about Tastes Like War is Cho’s intimate portrayal of her mother’s experience with mental health issues. She suspects the racial and social inequities her mother experienced in Korea and as a Korean immigrant to the United States contributed to her mother’s eventual diagnosis of Schizophrenia. Cho also details her own experiences as the daughter of a Korean mother and American father. While Tastes Like War is more of an academic read, it’s far from dry and packed with unique perspectives many readers wouldn’t otherwise witness.
5. What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma, by Stephanie Foo
Despite a successful life on paper, journalist Stephanie Foo suffers panic attacks and other mental health challenges that don’t make sense. Well into adulthood, she wonders what’s wrong with her, until her therapist finally shares her diagnosis: complex PTSD. With minimal literature to guide her healing, Foo uses her life to illustrate what happens when trauma occurs not just in one recognizable event, but continuously over the course of years. She also uses her journalistic skills to interview experts and investigate the science behind what little we know about the condition today. On the heels of a traumatic upbringing in her family of origin, I loved watching Foo form her family of choice and forge her own path to healing.
What are you reading by AANHPI authors? Drop your recommendations in the comments.
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