10 Must-Listen Audiobooks for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

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10 Must-Listen Audiobooks for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which makes it the perfect time to add these entertaining audiobook performances to your daily routine.

A note before we begin: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not a monolith, and neither is this list. Included below are books for children and books for adults, memoirs and works of fiction, works from immigrants and works from writers whose families have been American for generations. This is not a list that has something for everyone; this is a list that is for everyone, in its entirety. Every one of these stories and performances are valuable for every American (and beyond). So get listening!

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1. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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Narrator: Lynn Chen

Run time: 13 hours and 53 minutes

Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive

With the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians hitting theaters this August, now is the perfect time to listen to Lynn Chen’s hilarious audiobook narrative of the first book in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy (the second two installments, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems are read with verve by Lydia Look). Crazy Rich Asians is just so fun, and Chen takes on every character, accent and linguistically extreme opportunity in Kwan’s sprawling Singapore and runs with it. Sure, it’s 14 hours long…and you’ll enjoy every second.

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2. Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang

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Narrator: Eddie Huang

Run time: 7 hours and 55 minutes

Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive

Audiobooks offer writers the opportunity to adapt aspects of their work with listening audiences in mind. This can be as minor as replacing the word “reader” with “listener” in prefaces or as major as replacing in-text images with engaging image descriptions (see: the Boov comics in The True Meaning of Smekday and the physics diagrams in Reality Is Not What It Seems). Eddie Huang’s extremely blue memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, takes this possibility to an extreme, with him regularly breaking the narrative to joke with the audience, often laughing at the audacity of the details he included. I mean, the very first minute of audio is him calling out the listener directly (“It’s ya boy, Eddie!”) and chatting at length about when (after Hurricane Sandy) and how (by walking great distances to the studios) he was recording the narration. Before he starts reading his favorite chapter, he tells you it’s his favorite chapter; when he reaches the single recipe he included in the book, he steps back to discuss the reasons behind how and why he included it. In my many years of listening to audiobooks, I’ve never heard anyone treat the medium with such originality before—which, once you’ve listened to Huang’s take on his first-generation Chinese-American upbringing and his frustration with the bullshit of American culture and how that led to his success with his first restaurant, will make perfect sense. If anyone was going to flip the audiobook script on its head, it would be Eddie Huang.

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3. Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

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Narrator: Ramon de Ocampo and Amielynn Abellera

Run time: 5 hours and 17 minutes

Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive

Erin Entrada Kelly’s Newbery Award-winning charmer, which spends one epic day with four middle schoolers and their resident bully, is a study in what inclusive storytelling can bring to the table. Ramon de Ocampo voices Virgil Salinas (and his lola, or grandmother) as well as the Tanaka sisters, whose perspectives are told in third person, while Amielynn Abellera takes on the first person narration of Valencia Somerset, who is deaf. Abellera reads Valencia’s innate bravery and cleverness into every phrase, making it easy to see how Virgil could have a crush on her, and de Ocampo treats all of his characters with care—except for Virgil’s lola, whose gleeful recounting of child-eating Filipino folktales he relishes. In the end, both will make you want to hug your audioplayer.

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4. Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai

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Narrator: Lulu Lam

Run time: 7 hours and 32 minutes

Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive

While Thanhhà Lai’s first middle grade book about the bridge between Vietnam and America, Inside Out and Back Again, was a novel in verse (performed to poetic effect by Doan Ly), her second is a novel in prose. Listen, Slowly features a modern protagonist named Mai whose journey to honor her family runs the opposite direction of Hà’s 1975 one in Inside Out. Narrator Lulu Lam imbues Mai’s voice with the perfect blend of Laguna Beach-meets-stilted-Vietnamese, effectively slipping between Americanized Vietnamese accents and native Vietnamese ones. With equal parts pre-teen melodrama and familial warmth, this is a performance you’ll want to share with your loved ones.

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5. Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

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Narrators: Soneela Nankani and Roxana Ortega

Run time: 16 hours and 40 minutes

Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive

Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy trains its focus on two extremes of American Otherness, tied together by a thread of brittle wanting. On one end, teenaged Solimar wants so desperately to escape her tiny Oaxacan town that she crosses the border illegally, ending up pregnant and undocumented in San Francisco. On the other end, thirtysomething Kavya from a privileged, established Indian American family wants for nothing except a baby. In a story in which both protagonists are standing in each other’s way, but neither one is wrong, you need strong narrators—doubly so when those protagonists come from families whose first language is not English—and Soneela Nankani and Roxana Ortega more than deliver. Nankani’s reading of American-born Kavya is full of warmth and feeling, easily slipping into the pronunciation of both non-English words and the extended family’s accents. Ortega’s reading of Solimar, steeped in more extensive accents and Spanish, is grasping and hopeful all at once. Together, they construct an auditory landscape that reflects all that is possible and impossible about the American Dream.

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6. Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

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Narrator: Charmaine Craig

Run time: 13 hours and 21 minutes

Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive

Charmaine Craig’s novel about the violent tumult of modern-day Burma is based on her mother’s and grandparents’ lives, so it’s fitting that she reads it herself. It’s also lucky, as she is a terrific voice performer who balances crisp pronunciation with dynamic feeling, transforming Miss Burma into a compelling audio experience. The Rohingya and their deadly plight are regularly in the news these days, but there aren’t many books in the American marketplace about Burma, America’s role in the ongoing conflict or the lives of the Karen, Karenni, Mon and Chin refugee groups who have fled from the country and settled en masse in the U.S. (many Karen, like George Thawmoo, in the Twin Cities). Let Craig, through Miss Burma, open the doors for you about this part of history.

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7. Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

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Narrators: Jenny Zhang, Greta Jung and various others

Run time: 9 hours and 59 minutes

Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive

Jenny Zhang’s short story collection about the daughters of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants in the 1990s isn’t nice, but nice isn’t the point. Read with an honest sourness by Zhang, Greta Jung and various others (in a frustrating detail endemic to audiobook packaging, the complete list is unavailable), Sour Heart is boldly clarifying. Shifting from bitten New York droning in the narrators’ heads to falsely cheerful patter to the fragments of Chinese floating through the characters’ lives, the performances embody the fraught tensions at the heart of not just immigrant experiences, but of the strangeness of being a girl in America.

(Audio clip NSFW.)

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8. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Narrator: François Chau

Run time: 13 hours and 53 minutes

Audible

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, The Sympathizer, tells the story of a Vietnamese expat community in 1975 Los Angeles through the eyes of a grizzled “Captain” sending spy reports back to the enemy Vietcong. It’s the kind of book that brings the best, worst and sharpest aspects of the American experiment and the tug-of-war anguish of the Asian American experience out to play. As an audiobook, it’s entrancing—the gravel-bass vocals of narrator François Chau (SyFy’s The Expanse) give both the Captain and his Vietnamese and Los Angeles worlds a lived-in quality that lends vitality to already vibrant prose. And his crisp pronunciation of the Vietnamese and French sprinkled throughout the text adds an extra punch.

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9. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

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Narrator: Ruth Ozeki

Run time: 14 hours and 48 minutes

Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive

A Tale for the Time Being, featuring an ethnically Japanese teenager (who has become a depressed “nonbeing” in Japan after growing up in California) and a Canadian novelist named Ruth Ozeki (who reads the teenager’s diary), has so much heart that it will linger in your soul. Adding to the meta-ness of a story written by Ruth Ozeki and starring a different Ruth Ozeki is the fact that the audiobook narrator is also Ruth Ozeki. As her own avatar, Ozeki is a little spacey and very thoughtful; as teenaged Nao and Nao’s zen Buddhist grandmother, Ozeki is ingenuous and chipper, despite the suicidal thoughts that keep breaking through. The video below shows Ozeki recording the book’s first pages, but for an in-depth look at her approach to writing this book and portraying Japanese society with all its bold social horrors, turn to this Weekend Edition interview on NPR.

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10. When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

Narrators: Sneha Mathan and Vikas Adam

Run time: 10 hours and 45 minutes

Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive

One of 2017’s Young Adult hits, When Dimple Met Rishi is a feel-good summer romance that’s perfect for road trips with friends. Told in alternating poinst-of-view, the story traces the half-arranged romance between ambitious web developer Dimple and her parents’ dream Ideal Indian Husband Rishi. And the novel is, refreshingly, free of any white gaze. Sneha Mathan balances Dimple’s pre-college voice with all the sincere enthusiasm and eye-rolling irritation anyone who has been a teenager will recognize, slipping in and out of Mamma’s slight accent with ease. Vikas Adam sinks effortlessly into every male character he’s given, skillfully moving from role to role, age to age, brother to brother. As a bonus, both narrators have deep discographies—including The God of Small Things from Mathan and The Life of Pi from Adam—so once you’ve fallen in love with them here, you can have another two (or four, or a dozen) listens lined up.

BONUS: This audiobook is free through the end of today (May 31st) here.


Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibiliophile whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go 10 rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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