11 Books by Filipino American Authors You Should Be Reading
Pinoy writers weaving legacies of assertion, resistance, and artistic diversity into the fabric of American literature
The first time I read a book about a person who even minorly resembled me, I was 19 and teaching at a creative writing summer camp. My coworker Sophie Lee’s YA novel What Things Mean tells the story of a young Filipina girl named Olive who uses reading to cope with feelings of loneliness and estrangement. As a Filipina-American who grew up within the monotonous landscape of white suburbia, I, too, had used books to escape my reality, oftentimes ditching invitations to ride my bike around the block for the chance to dig into a pile of newly-borrowed library books.
Though some might have me believe that the lack of representation I experienced is because of the absence of Filipino American writers in American literature, that couldn’t be further from the truth. With Filipino settlements in the U.S. dating as far back to 1783, when Filipino fishermen built a village on Saint Malo off the coast of Louisiana, Filipinos and Filipino Americans have been integral to shaping American culture into what we know it to be today. Farmer, activist, and writer Carlos Bulosan wrote what is known as the first Filipino American novel in 1943. America is in the Heart is only one of many works of literature that stand testament to how fully Filipino Americans have shaped the political, economic, and artistic landscapes of the United States.
The following Filipino American authors and their work continue to weave legacies of assertion, of resistance, and of artistic cultural diversity into the fabric of American literature.
Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas
Through his signature clear prose and vulnerable storytelling, Jose Antonio Vargas brings us into the inner life of an undocumented immigrant in his memoir, Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. Having found freedom in writing, Vargas walks us through 25 years of his life, from his hurried departure from the Philippines to his arrest in Texas, all the while redefining what it means to be an American and to love one’s country.
Exploring feelings of unbelonging along the lines of race, citizenship, and sexuality, Vargas breathes a three-dimensionality not often granted to those we deem outcasts in society. “America was like a class subject I’d never taken, and there was too much to learn, too much to study, too much to make sense of,” he confides. With stories marked by novelty, confusion, and of course, terror, Vargas paints a complex portrait of the painstaking efforts it takes to fit in where you are repeatedly told that you don’t belong.
Fairest by Meredith Talusan
It only takes one day in Manila for someone to realize that colorism is one of the Philippines’ most pervasive problems. From commercials, to billboards, to whitening products themselves, it is difficult not to notice how the Filipino people hold the quality of light skin in such high regard. The importance ascribed onto her whiteness is one of the many challenges that Meredith Talusan grapples with in her debut memoir Fairest.
Spanning her childhood in the Philippines as a young boy with albinism, to her undergraduate days at Harvard University as a gay man, to her journey as a nonbinary individual, and finally, her life as a trans woman, Talusan’s journey home to herself proves how our self image is inescapably dictated by the importance placed on our different attributes and identities. Crossing borders of land, acceptance, and belonging, Talusan juggles the shifting senses of safety her white skin affords her—though in Manila, her fairness brought her fame and praise, Talusan soon learns that in America, her whiteness as a queer person of color grants her a false sense of inclusion that broods feelings of dishonesty and anxiety within her. Through generous confession and sharp critique, Talusan analyzes the constructed natures of race, gender, and sexuality, and how one can find grace both within and beyond its bounds.
All Heathens by Marianne Chan
Marianne Chan’s All Heathens explores how it feels to be a castaway: always searching for a soft place to land against the impossibility of homecoming. The poems in this collection illustrate methods of how to conjure up senses of belonging in places that are foreign—the harsh winters of Michigan, the markets of Germany, the parking lot of Seafood City. The poem “When We Lived in Germany” concludes with these lines: “[…] Our children are now the clocks at which / we glance to measure how long, how distant, how cruel,” pointing to the moments in which this practice of home-making still falls short.
In her poetry, Chan speaks to the things that we make sacred amidst exile: holding a mother’s hand, the all-American songs belted at karaoke, the warm homemade dishes of our youth. Challenging the perfect legacies of saints and the ones erased by colonizers, Chan interrogates how we come to revive all that we have lost to death, to time, and to the sea.
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
The stereotype of the Filipina domestic worker is not an uncommon one—the Filipina migrant is often nicknamed as the best and biggest export that the Philippines has to offer. In her debut novel The Farm, Joanne Ramos takes the character of the Filipina care worker and inserts her in a Handmaids Tale-esque dystopia that challenges ideals of motherhood, fertility, and American meritocracy.
Desperate to provide for her own daughter, the novel’s protagonist Jane finds herself as a “host” at Golden Oaks, a “baby farm” in Massachusetts. As the surrogate of a wealthy white fetus, Jane loses autonomy over her body—at The Farm, her every move is surveilled, from her eating habits to her emails. Intimately familiar with the capitalism constraints and familial duties that Filipina migrants face, Ramos writes, “Because in America you only have to know how to make money. Money buys everything else.” Conflicts of class, race, and integrity are all up for the taking in the world Ramos has carefully crafted—one that, while at times hard to wrap one’s mind around, isn’t entirely different from our own.
The Body Papers: A Memoir by Grace Talusan
For the undocumented person, their body might be the only place where they feel at home. For those who have experienced sexual assault, their body might be the one place from which they are constantly running away. It is these feelings of sanctity and alienation that Grace Talusan delicately navigates in her memoir The Body Papers.
Told through a series of interconnected essays that include excerpts of legal documents and photographs, Talusan explores how her body shifts and changes—to both herself and those around her—as she traverses thresholds of continents, kinship, and memory. Spanning explorations of her own singular body and the collective body of the Filipino people, Talusan makes a daring argument for all that a body can hold: its traumas and its triumphs, its secrets and its histories.
In a new afterword published in 2020, Talusan writes, “From readers, I’ve heard that my book is a balm. My publisher was also right. A book is a bomb.” The Body Papers is undeniably both: a salve for the hurt that others have caused us and an explosion of the parameters of how we reckon with our past, how we come to tell our most harrowing truths.
ESL or You Weren’t Here by Aldrin Valdez
Aldrin Valdez’s first poetry collection ESL or You Weren’t Here is situated at the edge of various thresholds—perpetually desiring to traverse, always threatening to withdraw. The work orbits around three overarching meditations: the loss of the poet’s grandmother, their immigration to America in their youth, and their journey through accepting their own queerness. Through hypnotic verse and jarring confessions, Valdez paints a dynamic portrait of the self housed in fluidity, occupying the middle-grounds of time, geographical space, and understanding. Meditating on the body’s physical absence and its impact on memory, Valdez proposes in the poem “Her Hand:”
“but each organ remembers.
Perhaps. Each organ has
By experimenting with the ever-moving boundaries of language, sex, identity, and death, Valdez holds generous space for the shapes each one takes up in the face of insufferable loss.
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Randy Ribay’s untraditional coming of age story Patron Saints of Nothing tells the story of a 17-year-old Filipino American Jay and his quest for justice, truth, and healing in the wake of his cousin Jun’s murder. After hearing about Jun’s death at the hands of Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs, Jay flies to the Philippines, his father’s homeland, to try and unearth all that his family has adamantly shrouded in secrecy. As he pieces together the truth behind Jun’s tumultuous last few years filled with drug addiction and familial conflict, Jay grapples with issues of identity, morality, and whether there is such a thing as pure good or pure evil. As he comes to terms with Jun’s past, Jay learns that embracing one’s heritage isn’t only about its food and tourist destinations, but about owning its complex histories of injustice and corruption. In prose that is as captivating as it is accessible, Ribay has created an opportunity for difficult and often polarizing conversations around politics and secrecy to come to the fore.
Documents by Jan Henry Gray
In his mesmerizing poetry collection Documents, Jan Henry Gray meditates on how certain bodies within the United States are reduced to papers and legality—or lack thereof. Creatively reimagining immigration documents—both its contents and its implications—Gray interrogates the line between surveillance and intimacy, between disclosure and admission. In a poem titled “I-797-C,” Gray critiques United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’s [USCIS] probing nature and how marriages involving non-citizens are approached with suspicion. It ends with these damning lines:
“do you love him
why do you love him
Tuesday March 17, 2015 8:00a, USCIS Chicago, IL
don’t mention citizenship
talk about love, how you got married for love.”
Whether through moments like these, or through the Maid Poem series about the plights of housemaids and domestic workers, or in tender notes of love and longing, Gray argues for Filipinos’ right to be seen as whole people by shining a light on all that cannot be encapsulated on a piece of paper.
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
In her mind-bending novel Insurrecto, Gina Apostol interrogates the notion of history itself: who has the right to claim it and how do we make sense of narratives that grate against one another? More importantly, who is in charge of which stories we remember, and from which perspectives are they told?
Two worlds collide when Filipino American writer and translator Magsalin and American filmmaker Chiara embark on a roadtrip to collaborate on a film about a notorious Philippine-American War massacre that left 300,000 Filipinos dead. Bothered by the fact that Chiara has chosen tell the story from the perspective of an American war photographer, Magsalin tries her hand at rewriting the script and retelling the story from the point of view of the true historical figure Casiana Nasionales, who was considered an “insurrecto.” At once questioning the merit of objectivity and exposing the power of subjectivity, Apostol dares to explore the nuances and legacy and how writing ourselves into our pasts can serve as a way to heal present wounds.
The Galleons by Rick Barot
“At a certain point I stopped and asked
what poems I could write, which were different
from then poems I wanted to write, with the wanting
being proof that I couldn’t write those poems, that they
Early on in his poetry collection The Galleons, Rick Barot cuts his work out for himself, as seen through the opening lines of “The Flea.” Faithful to the wandering mind, the poems in this book leave no stone unturned when it comes to the musings of a writer and everything that comes to make up a life. Speaking on everything from literary inspirations like Virginia Woolf and Frank O’Hara, to young loves lost to the constant movement of time and space, Barot samples a wide expanse of human feeling in language both devastatingly specific and painfully universal.
The collection’s namesake, “The Galleons,” is made up of a series of ten poems which work to expand the meanings of odyssey—the states-long rides of long-distance truck drivers, a soul’s passing into death, and of course, the Spanish galleons that traveled to and from the Philippines. Over the course of The Galleons, Barot takes us on a journey himself—through history, through memory, through different planes of knowing.
America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
America is Not the Heart’s protagonist Geronima “Hero” De Vera is a tried and true risk taker—this much is apparent from the book’s epigraph, a quote from Carlos Bulsonan’s America Is in the Heart which reads, “I knew I could trust a gambler because I had been one of them.”
When she moves in with her uncle Pol and his family at their home in Milpitas, California, Hero not only migrates countries, but universes. Fleeing to the only place that will have her after she spent a decade as a doctor in the New People’s Army and as a war prisoner under the Marcos regime, Hero must relearn the ropes of community, care, and family in this strange new land.
In America is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo explores the terrains of American suburbia, Philippine martial law, and the American dream—their crossroads and intersections, their contradictions and incompatibilities. As she begins to form new bonds with her little cousin Roni and her love interest Rosalyn, Hero fearlessly learns to negotiate the traumas of her past with the unfamiliar norms of her present. Expertly told through a challenging yet enjoyable mix of English, Spanish, Tagalog, Pangasinan, and Ilocano, Castillo uses this family saga to delve into the unexpected people and places we make new havens of, and new lives with, in a land not our own.