reading lists

16 Books About the British Asian Experience (by ESEA Authors), Recommended by Experts

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The legacy of Southeast and East Asians within the UK is an essential part of British history and the British cultural landscape. There’s a rich melting pot of Asian voices, cultures, and communities within the UK, spanning generations. These cultures are an important part of what it means to be British today, from uncomfortable truths about hostile immigration environments and the exploitation of migrants to the joy, pride, and vibrancy that come with the evolution of British Asian culture, and all of the diversity that exist within it.

Starting during the first wave of the pandemic, East Asian communities in the West experienced a surge in targeted racism, with a number of violent, and sometimes deadly, attacks occurring into 2021. While tragedies like these bring the brutal reality of racism against Asian communities to the forefront, this type of discrimination has always underpinned the lives of those with Asian heritage, particularly in countries with colonial legacies like the UK.

The stories and struggles (as well as the wins, joy, and creative output) of British Southeast and East Asians deserve to be acknowledged and revered. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of books, including biographies, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that tell stories through British Southeast and East Asian lenses, as well as historical accounts of the migrant experience and the harmful legacy of the colonial empire. There’s a wealth of ESEA perspectives, lesser-told histories, and experiences to get lost in, be inspired by, and to learn from.

For real-life stories

An investigative look into ESEA labour across the UK, journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai goes undercover as a worker alongside mainland Chinese migrants and undocumented workers to unearth some uncomfortable realities. Hau-Yu Tam from the nonprofit End the Virus of Racism says this is “an amazing piece of investigative reporting that shines a light on stories that don’t get the attention and solidarity they deserve.” She says it’s a “must read” for an eye-opening look at “our contemporary situation,” whereby “migrants are being imperilled by the hostile environment, state and societal racism, and a government determined to enrich its friends and the powerful over supporting the most vulnerable.”

Recommended by: The End The Virus of Racism team

This memoir by Liberal Democrat councillor Rabina Khan provides insight into her life in 1970s Kent and London, as the only child of colour on her street. Khan takes readers through her journey of coming to terms her British Bangladeshi and Muslim identity, including wearing her hijab with pride. She also examines how the marginalisation of women, particularly Black and brown women, intersects with remnants of colonialism and white supremacy.

Recommended by: Strategist writer Rachel Mantock

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Dora Lam, who co-runs ESEA Archives, says this memoir by a “little-known politician of Belfast,” is worth reading. She notes that Lo was “the first politician born in East Asia elected to any legislative body in the UK.” Travelling through her time working for the BBC, as a social worker, and then (the first and only ethnic minority nomination) vice-chair of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, Lo repaints vivid memories and milestones for readers.

Recommended by: Dora Lam and Tian Zheng from ESEA Archives

Now a retired community worker, author Vu Khanh Thanh was the first councillor of Vietnamese heritage in the UK. Hau-Yu Tam notes that his “contributions to British society are enormous and should be more widely known.” Thanh’s biography looks back at his life, including his time helping refugees settle in the UK from Vietnam in the ’80s. Tam adds that this biography is “a gem from one of the giants on whose shoulders community organisers in the UK today stand.”

Recommended by: End the Virus of Racism team

For navigating unfamiliar places

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015, this novel follows 13 young men who arrive in Sheffield from India, with dreams of building better lives. Secrets, uncomfortable family histories, and heartbreak intersect, with scenes taking place in both India and the UK. Sunjeev Sahota foregrounds the dignity and fighting spirit of his characters.

Recommended by: Farhana Shaikh, editor at The Asian Writer

Sour Sweet, by Timothy Mo
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First published in the 1980s, Timothy Mo’s comedic novel follows a Hong Kong native arriving in the UK with his apprehensive wife, as they try to create a home in ’60s London. It won the Hawthornden Prize in 1982 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Filmmaker and actor Daniel York Loh describes it as a Chinese migrant story set in a “harsh, bleak Southeast London,” against a backdrop of “racism that’s so often airbrushed from the British East and Southeast Asian experience.” He adds that it also has “the most authentically drawn triad of gangsters I’ve ever seen in fiction.”

Recommended by: Daniel York Loh, writer, actor, and filmmaker, member of End the Virus of Racism team

For womanhood

Sangeeta Pillai, founder of Soul Sutras, says she’s “a huge fan of this book because it opens up a big taboo: sexuality in older South Asian women. They’re seen as respectable ‘aunties’ and expected to quietly fade into the background, wear dull clothes, perhaps knitting booties for their grandkids and praying at the temple. They are certainly not seen as independent sexual beings, capable of desire and craving sexual pleasure.”

But Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Balli Kaur Jaswal, puts sexual desire in older women at the forefront, with colourful phallic descriptions of vegetables that Pillai found especially funny. “They remind me of sex talk in Indian languages, because there’s an earthiness to those languages that English never quite manages to capture,” she says. We join protagonist Nikki as she follows her sexual appetites in this stigma-smashing romp with Punjabi flavor.

Recommended by: Sangeeta Pillai, activist and founder of Soul Sutras

Amrit Wilson compiles discussions she’s had with South Asian women, and presents them through a personal lens. Touching on hostile immigration culture and the remnants of colonialism in mental-health services, the author employs a number of voices to undergird her own story of living through and fighting against injustice.

Recommended by: Farhana Shaikh, editor at The Asian Writer

For family

A delicately observed portrait of a British-Muslim family rocked by tragedy, Kia Abdullah, writer and founder of the Asian Book List (and Strategist contributor), says, “The character of Zahra is one of the most authentic portrayals of a British-Muslim woman in contemporary fiction.” She says Sairish Hussain has written Zahra to be “studious and dutiful but also politically engaged, opinionated and highly assertive … a million miles away from the one-note incarnations we often see on TV.”

Recommended by: Kia Abdullah, writer and founder of the Asian Book List

Happy Families, by Julie Ma
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Author Julie Ma calls Wales home, and she mixes Welsh anecdotes and customs with Chinese cultural sentiments in this humorous novel. It follows the protagonist Amy as she moves through a mid-30s life crisis. She has just given up a big-shot career in a big city to move back in with her grandfather and work in the Chinese takeaway where she spent much of her childhood. Ma’s Happy Families won the Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller Competition in 2020, and puts a British Chinese spin on a story about two generations of a family trying to find common ground.

Recommended by: Dora Lam and Tian Zheng from ESEA Archives

For coming-of-age stories

Protagonist Xing Li grapples with making sense of her British identity in relation to her Chinese identity. Despite being born and raised in London, she struggles to belong. P.P. Wong takes readers through Xing Li’s experiences of bullying, going from a “happy” childhood into murkier teenage territory, and coming to terms with her status as an ethnic minority in an often hostile UK. Daniel York Loh found this book “painfully funny, but harrowing in equal measure,” and was moved by the way it navigated “racism, family trauma, and the all too often hidden mental health issues in the British East Asian community.”

Recommended by: Dora Lam and Tian Zheng from ESEA Archives, Daniel York Loh, writer, actor and filmmaker.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Brick Lane follows the story of Nazneen, still a teenager when she’s dropped into an ill-fitting arranged marriage. The book explores the complexities of one woman’s journey from her ancestral home of Bangladesh to a cramped high-rise flat in London, surrounded by concrete. With racial tensions an undercurrent throughout, Monica Ali introduces a love affair that opens up the difference between surviving and truly living.

Recommended by: Farhana Shaikh, editor at The Asian Writer

Winner of Radio 4 and BBC Breakfast’s TV Winner of the YA Diverse Book Award, and the Bristol Teen Book Award, Chinglish is a story about sibling rivalries, family, and coming into your own as an adult. It’s presented as a teenager’s diary, giving readers a look into the mind of Jo, and her take on family and the angst of hitting teenage milestones with a British Chinese background. Yes, doodles are included, too — it wouldn’t really be a teen diary without them.

Recommended by: End the Virus of Racism team, Daniel York Loh, writer, actor, and filmmaker

For poetry

As a body of work, S.M.L. Yau’s debut collection of poems explores pain, joy, and sadness while considering issues of heritage, identity, and culture. The books asks what it means to belong in a place that will always see you as “other.” From making sense of traditional first and last names in a society that doesn’t respect them, to the dynamics of non-British accents, and the shame that comes with desperately trying to assimilate, Yau delves deep into matters of the heart.

Recommended by: End the Virus of Racism team

Flèche, by Mary Jean Chan
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Dora Lam says that this collection of poems sparked the beginnings of the ESEA Archives book club. She says as a group, they “love the potency of these pieces that intersect dual heritage, cultural histories, family, and queerness” all at once. Mary Jean Chan explores the concept of bodily belonging, vulnerability, and unlearning “whiteness,” while touching on 20-century China, childhood memory, multilingualism, and psychoanalysis to create a body of work that feels at once heavy and light, but tantalising throughout.

Recommended by: Dora Lam and Tian Zheng from ESEA Archives

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe
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Exploring dual heritage and her Hong Kong roots, the author takes on themes of love, art, and language, moving against the constraints of time. She touches on migration and inheritance, too, tying all of these elements together with a poetic form that’s light, gripping, and satisfying. Lam is fond of Sarah Howe’s writing in general, noting that it’s typically “imbued with a strong sense of place, objects and family.”

Recommended by: Dora Lam and Tian Zheng from ESEA Archives

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16 Books on British Asian Experience, Recommended by Experts