3 books by asian writers you probably haven't read but should

September 20, 2018

words by: Bere Wangge

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Judging from the success of Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, it seems that Asian-centric book adaptations are the source of current obsessions.

And there’s more where that came from! With stories as diverse as the continent itself, these books by three award-winning writers let you delve deeper into the Asian narratives, featuring tales scarier than a tiger mom and more satisfying than a sip of Yakult.

1. Vi – Kim Thúy 

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When the Nobel Prize in Literature committee canceled this year’s event following a sexual assault scandal, a replacement award was set up by a temporary panel of juries who calls themselves the New Academy. As this will be a one-time event (the Nobel Prize in Literature will return next year with two recipients), whoever wins in the end will go down in history as the only New Academy Prize in Literature awardee. Vying for the top prize is Canadian-Vietnamese writer Kim Thúy

When Kim and her family fled the Vietnam War to Canada, she was only 10 years old. Even so, her refugee experience continues to influence her life and her writings, starting from her first novel, Ru (2009), to her latest one, Vi. Originally published in 2016 in French, Vi has been translated into English and re-released earlier this year.  

In Vi, the titular character, much like Kim herself, escapes Vietnam War with her mother and brothers, while her father stays behind. The book follows Vi as life navigates her from Saigon to Montreal, and then from Suzhou to Boston and the Berlin Wall. With Vi, Kim further establishes herself as the literary voice of refugees and helps open people’s eyes to the pressing issue. 


2. Man Tiger – Eka Kurniawan 

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While Man Tiger is by no means a new release (it was first published in Indonesia as Lelaki Harimau in 2004, while the English-translated version came out in 2015), Eka Kurniawan’s second novel is a fascinating read all the same; a worthy follow-up to Eka’s debut novel and masterpiece, Beauty is a Wound (originally titled Cantik Itu Luka).  

Man Tiger entered the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, making Eka the first Indonesian author to ever do so. Although another Asian writer ended up winning the prize for that year (more on this later), Eka has helped put modern Indonesian literature in the spotlight. Earlier this September, he was named one of the winners of 2018 Prince Claus Awards, which honors extraordinary people “for their excellent, ground-breaking work in fields of culture and development.” 

In the center of Man Tiger is Margio. An ordinary young man in every way, Margio hides within himself a supernatural being in the form of a female white tiger. Both mystical and historical, Man Tiger is testament to Eka’s amazing ability to combine “local folklore traditions, oral histories, magical realism, Indonesian martial arts and horror comics” in his writings. 

3. The White Book – Han Kang 

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Thanks to the English-translated version of her novel The White Book, South Korean writer Han Kang was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker International Prize. Although she ultimately lost the competition, it somehow didn’t feel like a loss at all. After all, Kang and her translator, Deborah Smith, have won the much-coveted award back in 2016 for her novel The Vegetarian, beating Eka Kurniawan and a number of other writers in the process. 

Kang teamed up again with Deborah for The White Book, which, as the title suggests, is about the color white. But just like The Vegetarian isn’t really about a meat-free diet, the white in Kang’s novel also stands for something else.  

In The White Book, an unnamed female narrator finds herself being haunted by the story of her sister, who died just two hours after being born. The thoughts of her sister’s short life turn her focus on the whiteness and its symbols; for example, white is the color of mourning in some cultures. But not only about mourning, The White Book is also about “rebirth and the tenacity of the human spirit. It investigates the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.”