11 books based on AAPI Folklore

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Never in my lifetime – I’m 31 for context – have I experienced more media and literature based on AAPI culture. Also for the context, I am a Korean-American adoptee who grew up in Iowa with little or no representation or background at my birthplace for most of my childhood. In the last few years, in particular, I have noticed a significant increase in stories influenced by AAPI folklore – and for all age groups as well.

I think it is also not surprising that this influx of stories is not completely representative of all AAPI cultures. Today, it is much easier to find books on Korean / Japanese / Chinese folklore than to say Afghan or Laotian or Samoan. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I would be sure to create an inclusive list that shows how comprehensive the AAPI brand is and emphasizes how important it is that all these countries, islands and territories are represented in today’s – and tomorrow’s literature and media.

All of these books are definitely worth reading and rereading if you have already had the pleasure of devouring them once. And not just in May, when we “officially” recognize the achievements and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but all year round.

Cover for Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport

Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport

This book follows a Polynesian Hawaiian family through several generations, starting with the encounter between a white sailor and the daughter of a Tahitian chief. As our story begins, Pono, the family matriarch and pure-blooded Hawaiian, is visited by his four grandchildren, all of whom are of mixed descent. Pono begins to tell them secrets from her childhood that she would wish she had told them earlier, mixed with her own story of being born with mysterious powers and the alienation she has endured.

Potiki book cover

Potiki by Patricia Grace

Concentrating on the lives of several Maori living in a community on the coast of New Zealand, Potiki constantly changing tells while meeting a cast of characters threatened by a land developer who wants to buy the community. This is told primarily through the eyes of Roimata, who questions their ability to rebel against the developers and how she best takes care of her son, Toko, who seems to be able to predict future events.

Cover of the Palace of Illusions

Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Diavkaruni

A retelling of the Indian epic, Mahābhārata, this book is told from Panchaali, the wife of the Pandavas brothers. We follow Panchaali’s life, beginning with her childhood and her strange birth and her experience as a woman with five husbands who are taken on the trip, all the while nurturing feelings for another.

The Bone People cover

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Kerewin has always felt in the middle, whether it’s her heritage (she’s partly European, partly Maori), her identity (she’s asexual and aromatic) or even her job (she’s an artist who can not create). One night, she is visited by a stranger, whom she later finds out is named Simon, and his Maori foster father, Joe. The three of them become an unlikely trio of outcasts, representatives of the fusion of Maori and European civilization and the healing – and pain – that comes with it.

cover image of The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Based on Chinese folklore, this book has it all: romance, adventure, and mythical intrigue. Li Lan is from a wealthy family, but their current bankruptcy has thrown her to the bottom of the list in terms of marriage matches. So when she gets a courtship to become a ghostbreaker for a powerful Lim family, she is torn between the struggle for her soul and security for life. Ghost marriages are typically used to soothe the souls of the restless and recently deceased, and for Li Lan it may be worth it.

Cover of Red Winter by Annette Marie

Red Winter by Annette Marie

The first book in a trilogy, Emi is destined to become a living host of a goddess and has long been in hiding to avoid the creatures who long to hunt her. But one day she saves the life of one of her hunters, a fox spirit named Shiro, who is now in debt. The difficult thing is that Emi can not reveal who she really is, otherwise Shiro would kill her. But she can definitely use Shiro’s abilities to get her where she’s going … can she keep her secret?

Folklore book cover

Folklore by Angela Mi Young Hur

Elsa has dedicated her life to her work as a particle physicist. Now stationed in Antarctica, she’s almost certain she’s been able to escape her family’s ghosts, but then her imaginary childhood friend visits her. A combination of circumstances requires Elsa to return home and face the generations of trauma, mental illness and ancestral curses that have haunted her. What could it have to do with the Korean myths and legends her mother always warned her about?

The Hungry Ghost book cover

The Hungry Ghost by HS Norup

When Freja arrives in Singapore to spend the summer with her father and stepmother, she finds out that it’s the month of the Hungry Ghost festival. During this month, spirits are said to roam the streets freely, and families must try to appease their dead ancestors. Freya is especially homesick and misses her mother, but then she begins to see a ghost of a girl with a white dress. The ghost’s name is Ling, and she finds out that their past could potentially be linked.

Ocean's Kiss book cover

Ocean’s Kiss by Lani Wendt Young

Inspired by Tongan and Samoan culture and mythology, this book takes a look at the real threat posed by climate change to the people living in the Pacific Ocean. There are so many moving parts at play – whether it’s family drama, supernatural beings or the way we could all protect the ocean. Our story is centered around Daniel, a marine biologist who in a way has left his Tongan heritage. But as an ancient weapon is unleashed on the island of Niua, Daniel must decide to embrace Tongan culture or turn his back on it forever.

Thousand Beginnings and Endings Hardcover

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

This may be a kind of cheat, but this anthology of East and South Asian folklore is a perfect read for May. Fifteen best-selling authors have written unique short stories representing their own culture and background, including the talents of authors such as Rahul Kanaki, Cindy Pon and Roshani Chokshi.

Want more books based on AAPI culture or with AAPI main characters? Check out these other lists from Book Riot:

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