The Best Books by East and South-East Asian Writers

South-East Asian Writers

Words by Maria Garbutt-Lucero and Joanna Lee 

The founders of the ESEA Publishing Network recommend their favourite works, by authors from Jia Tolentino to Frances Cha

In celebration of ESEA (East and South-East Asian) Heritage Month, which runs throughout September, the founders of the ESEA Lit Fest, Maria Garbutt-Lucero and Joanna Lee, have put together an exclusive edit of their favourite books, focusing wholly on writers from the region.”Hearing Elaine Castillo read America is Not the Heart in 2018 was a watershed moment for me – her voice is so alive on the page and it was a revelation to encounter a contemporary writing so vividly about the place I was born,” says Garbutt-Lucero, who recommends Castillo’s How To Read Now in this list. “It seems wild to me now, that I didn’t realise what I had been missing up until that point, that there was this gaping hole in my literary education.”

Lee, meanwhile, has chosen a “heart-stoppingly good novel about the 1980 Gwangju Uprising” as well as “a totemic achievement of investigative journalism on the war on drugs in the Philippines” as part of her edit. “Reading books from different cultures and perspectives that don’t always conform to a dominant white logic is always a total balm, and shakes me out of my own head,” she says.

Garbutt-Lucero is a publicity director at Hodder & Stoughton, and Lee works as a commissioning editor at independent publisher, Atlantic Books; together, they founded the ESEA Publishing Network in 2022, to amplify the voices of ESEA talent working across the UK publishing industry.

The literary festival will be the network’s first, and is taking place on the 23 September at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, London. “We wanted to create a joyful, thought-provoking celebration of ESEA culture that’s open to all, with acclaimed, prize-winning authors exploring topics that fascinate us,” says Garbutt-Lucero. Join the waiting list for tickets now.

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If you’re looking for further reading inspiration, why not delve into author Nicola Dinan’s round-up of her favourite queer love stories? Alternatively, reach for the classics, from Toni Morrison to Margaret Atwood: our edit of the books everyone should read in their lifetime is an excellent place to start.

‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

South-East Asian Writers

Waterstones

The novel starts with bodies piled in a gymnasium: the visceral human cost of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising that toppled the successive military dictatorships and periods of authoritarian rule that had choked South Korea since 1961. It keeps an ordinary, deeply human perspective at its fore, and is an unflinchingly dignified, beautifully unsentimental, arresting achievement – harrowing and hopeful in surprising turns. It floors me every time. Joanna Lee

‘How to Read Now’ by Elaine Castillo

Waterstones

This impassioned yet irreverent polemic is not simply a directive on how to read now – it raises vital, thought-provoking questions about how we read books, films, TV, our history, ourselves. And Castillo reads widely, unboundedly: everything from Greek myths, Toni Morrison and Joan Didion, to graphic novel adaptations like The Watchmen and the films of Wong Kar Wai and Wes Anderson. Ultimately, Castillo writes against the self-congratulatory habit of reading for empathy, and critiques a culture industry built for the ‘expected reader’, in which “we largely end up going to writers of colour to learn the specific– and go to white writers to feel the universal”. Maria Garbutt-Lucero

‘Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion’ by Jia Tolentino

South-East Asian Writers

Waterstones

I’d follow Jia Tolentino’s mind anywhere – these incisive, smart, funny essays from the New Yorker staff writer cover everything from pop feminism to religion and her brief stint on reality TV. She’s particularly excellent on how an online existence refracts our ‘IRL’ behaviours, and what we sacrifice in order to project personas on the internet – nothing comes for free, and the control we might feel in our curated online spaces might just all be an illusion. JL

‘If I Had Your Face’ by Frances Cha

South-East Asian Writers

Waterstones

Plastic surgery, obsessive K-pop fandom and drinking soju to excess – what’s not to like? These are just some of the ways Cha’s protagonists comfort themselves in this heightened vision of Seoul, depicted here with all the bright lights and shadowy underbelly of a hyper-capitalist society, darkly glamorous for all its toxicity. Four women strive to make better lives for themselves, reaching for love and acceptance in an ultra-competitive and status-obsessed society with impossible beauty standards. In spite of their aspirations, the way is often marred by betrayal, violence and the stresses of debt, but the bonds amongst friends sustain them along the way. MGL

‘Intimacies’ by Katie Kitamura

South-East Asian Writers

Waterstones

A young woman goes to work as an interpreter, seeking refuge from her own rootless life by inhabiting the words of others. This being The Hague, though, she spends a lot of time in the heads of war criminals, acutely aware of the effects that her performance of their words might have. Kitamura is a stunningly precise writer, attuned to the intricacies of violence, the many faces of power, and the complexity of moral judgement with scalpel sharpness. Every page shimmers with tension, contradiction, dread – amazing. JL

‘Wandering Souls’ by Cecile Pin

Waterstones

This deeply moving novel gives an insight into the experiences of the Vietnamese Boat People by telling the story of three siblings who made it to Thatcher’s Britain. Teenager Anh and her younger brothers wait for their family to join them at a refugee camp in Hong Kong, only to learn they drowned off the coast. Enduring grief and a shocking loss of innocence, Anh must become a parent to her orphaned kin. With metafictional elements, it’s profoundly affecting about the responsibilities of caregiving, transgenerational trauma, the duties of honouring the dead, and what it means to start living beyond mere survival. MGL

‘Land of Milk and Honey’ by C Pam Zhang

South-East Asian Writers

Waterstones

Reading this felt like the literary equivalent of a really good black forest gateau – rich, seductive, uncompromising. It’s set in a frighteningly recognisable near future where a smog has spoiled food crops, leaving only joyless powders for sustenance. A chef takes a job in a compound set into a lush private mountaintop where every ingredient, and every pleasure, seems open to her – but of course, it turns out that there are strings attached. It’s hypnotically smart on the contours of power, appetite, greed, craving, and purity in all its forms. JL

‘Woman, Eating’ by Claire Kohda

Waterstones

This is a blackly funny portrait of the artist as a young, mixed race vampire interning in the London art world. It centres on Lydia, a British-Malaysian-Japanese vampire who requires blood to survive, yet finds what she craves most is the food she cannot eat, and a sense of connection to humanity that feels perpetually out of reach in the city she makes her home. It explores universal themes – growing pains, shame, uneasily finding a sense of belonging – that are all intriguingly complicated by the fact of her vampiricism. MGL

‘Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in the Philippines’ by Patricia Evangelista

South-East Asian Writers

Waterstones

Patricia Evangelista is a Manila-based trauma journalist, and here, the way that she weaves narrative from the countless atrocities she’s witnessed as part of Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines is totally breathtaking. She throws herself into the lives of victims and killers alike, dissecting the grammar of violence with a precise, searching intellect: at what point does murder morph into vigilante justice? Who is the real antagonist in a ‘war on drugs’? What does it mean to say that ‘some people need killing’? JL

This article originally appeared in harpersbazaar.com

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