I was inspired by my wonderful cousin Arifa to curate a list of books by South Asian writers. Reading books like The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in middle school and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri in high school had such a profound impact on who I am as a person and writer. To my excitement, I’m seeing more South Asian writers debut with novels in an array of genres. At the same time, a majority of people can name very few South Asian writers off the top of their heads. I put together a list of 9 contemporary, fiction novels by South Asian writers who use cultural values, history, mythology, and more to create vivid and precise experiences for their nuanced characters.
1.THE BODY MYTH by Rheea Mukherjee
GENRES/THEMES – realistic fiction + meditative + relationships
MY THOUGHTS MY THOUGHTS – This was a fast read that made me stop and sit after to let it all sink in. Rheea Mukherjee creates such a perceptive dialogue on the intersections of love, life, and death. It was fascinating that the couple, Sara and Rahil, and the focus character Mira seem to function in such a complex and intrinsic way and to be able to watch how that ebbs and flows throughout the novel, culminating in an interesting twist at the end.
2.BEFORE SHE SLEEPS by Bina Shah
GENRES/THEMES – dystopian + feminism + science fiction
MY THOUGHTS – I feel like I haven’t read a contemporary dystopian novel by a Pakistani writer, so this was an awesome experience. I love how Bina Shah creates such a lasting atmosphere with her world-building and specific character details. It’s told in multiple perspectives, creating a rich understanding of the futuristic country of South West Asia. The women in the novel risk their lives to engage in (non-sexual) intimacy with men for work.
3.THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN by Roshani Chokshi
GENRES/THEMES – young adult fantasy + mythology + romance
MY THOUGHTS – Roshani Chokshi’s imagery and world-building are beautiful, with elements of Hindu mythology and astrology. The protagonist Maya fights her cursed horoscope as she’s whisked to a far-away, wondrous realm that she’s always dreamt of visiting. I remember immediately copying down a couple of crisp sentences early on in the book; it’s now a quote-separator in my blog (scroll down a little to find it!). I loved hearing Chokshi speak about her half-Filipino/half-Indian background on 88 Cups of Tea.
4.IF THEY COME FOR US by Fatimah Asghar
GENRES/THEMES – poetry + 1947 Partition + meditative
MY THOUGHTS – Another quick, yet meditative read. Fatimah Asghar’s lyrical poetry creates a generational perspective on what it means to be a South Asian person whose family members experienced the horrors and uncertainties of Partition. The power in Asghar’s words speaks to the way that we must continue to learn more about our family histories and keep fading stories alive. Please check out more of Asghar’s brilliant work!
5.A PLACE FOR US by Fatima Farheen Mirza
GENRES/THEMES – realistic fiction + family + Muslim-American experience
MY THOUGHTS – This past Eid, my cousins and sister and I couldn’t stop raving about this book. Fatima Farheen Mirza is so attune to the South Asian-Muslim-American experience and how fragile yet important the value of family can be in South Asian culture. I was particularly appreciative to see Shia Muslim representation and how resonant the descriptions of South Asian-American households are in the novel.
6. MARRIAGE OF A THOUSAND LIES by SJ Sindu
GENRES/THEMES – realistic fiction + LGBTQ + romance
MY THOUGHTS – This is probably one of my favorite books I read in 2018. The book-jacket description of a lesbian woman and gay man getting married to appease their traditional families is already so thought-provoking. I love how messy this book is; the reader gets to explore the protagonist Lucky’s intentions as her best friend is about to get married—who Lucky may or may not be in love with.
7.EROTIC STORIES FOR PUNJABI WIDOWS by Balli Kaur Jaswal
GENRES/THEMES – realistic fiction + romance + immigrant experience
MY THOUGHTS – This novel would turn into a fantastic movie (with intentional choices of producers and actors, of course), in part due to Balli Kaur Jaswal’s cinematic prose. I love the scandalous twist that befalls the simple decision of the protagonist Nikki applying to teach creative writing at her local Sikh community center. The overarching story and the stories within it are vivid and work to dismantle stereotypes of what it means to be a Sikh person and/or a widow in the South Asian community.
8.LUCKY BOY by Shanthi Sekaran
GENRES/THEMES – realistic fiction + immigration + family
MY THOUGHTS – A South Asian couple who are unable to have biological kids adopt a Latinx toddler of an undocumented woman—that in itself shows the layers of cultural, political, and internal exploration in this book, yet Shanthi Sekaran does it in such an intentional way. Hearing Professor Sekaran speak candidly at Mills about her process and challenges while writing Lucky Boy was so refreshing. I liked seeing how one of the focus characters, Kavya, grapples with the value of motherhood in South Asian culture. I feel like this is such an essential book for people of all backgrounds to read.
9.THE NIGHT DIARY by Veera Hiranandani
GENRES/THEMES – middle grade + historical fiction + 1947 Partition
MY THOUGHTS – Not only is the cover mesmerizing, Veera Hiranandani brings the history of Partition to a middle grade audience in such a masterful way. This is such a bittersweet and heart-wrenching read; the protagonist Nisha, a half-Muslim/half-Hindu girl, experiences the displacement of Partition without the support of her mother who passed away when she was young. The diary form felt really natural to the middle grade age range (9 – 13 years), and it expanded my idea of how to approach subjects such as Partition.
My to-read list of South Asian novels continues to grow, particularly about cultures within South Asia that aren’t represented in the list above. Please send me your thoughts & recommendations! –S.A.
It’s hard as a young person of a different ethnicity or background to look at the TV and not see anyone who looks like you. Representation is very important.– ZENDAYA