As a self-proclaimed bibliophile and all-around nerd from an early age – I’ve always loved books. I have fond memories of walking to our local library with my Nana and Nani and spending hours checking out books, reading them, and returning them all just to do it all over again, effectively pissing off the head librarian.
I was completely in a world of my own of fictional creatures, teenage melodrama, historical wars and more. I mean, I would read just about anything.
While I had this wonderfully literary childhood, I was always painfully aware of the fact that the books I was reading didn’t relate to me or my very South Asian upbringing. Despite the nudging feeling, there were no books by South Asian authors or about South Asians in my library, so I continued reading the likes of Jacqueline Wilson and Daisy Meadows, and went on my merry way.
As an adult, however, the lack of South Asian representation in literature has gone from a feeling of disappointment to downright infuriating to me. Representation matters so much, and being able to see yourself in books or any media really can be so meaningful, whether you’re a child or an adult.
Seeing people that look like you, that grew up like you, and that are facing the same struggles that you’re facing can be incredibly validating and invoke a sense of belonging in society. Not only that, but seeing South Asian authors could be empowering for those reluctant to write because they don’t see a place for them in the profession.
So, while I enjoy reading the Sally Rooney and Stephen King novels just as much as the next person, I’ve been craving books that talk about being raised by strict South Asian parents, reconciling home and work identities, questioning your faith, gossiping aunties, and more, that make me feel like I belong.
For all of you who may also be in this similar quest for South Asian representation in literature, I’ve put together a list of the following 5 books, all of which I recommend to the fullest degree and all of which touch on a diverse subset of topics.
1. “The Boy with the Topknot” by Sathnam Sanghera
In his memoir, “The Boy with the Topknot,” journalist and author Sathnam Sanghera weaves together a beautiful narrative of his journey through the past, unveiling the secrets of his childhood in 1980’s Wolverhampton, UK. Throughout this novel, he discusses a myriad of topics from mental health in the Punjabi community, dealing with parents haggling him about marriage, interracial dating, managing the juxtaposition between his “modern” identity with his identity at home, and more. While this is a non-fiction book, the comedic approach Sathnam has amidst the deeply tragic moments of his life, keep you engaged and itching to know more. If you’ve grown up in a South Asian family where perhaps it has felt as if there has been a barrier between yourself and your parents—that they have never really understood you and vice versa—then this book is a must read for you!
2. “The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters” by Balli Kaur Jaswal
In “The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters,” author, Balli Kaur Jaswal tells a tale of three sisters travelling to India to fulfill their mother’s dying wish. What was supposed to be a peaceful bonding moment between the Shergill sisters ends up in mayhem, as each one of them is battling their own demons and their estranged relationships with each other. Rajni, the dutiful eldest daughter, is dealing with guilt of not being a better daughter; Jezmeen, the middle wild child, is trying to figure herself out amid an embarrassing viral moment; and Shirina, the youngest, is running away from her controlling in-laws. Together, however, these sisters end up figuring it out. If you’re in the mood for sister drama, a chaotic trip to India, personal growth journeys, and the struggles of being a south Asian woman, then it’s guaranteed that you won’t be able to put this book down.
3. “The Henna Artist” by Alka Joshi
In her debut novel, “The Henna Artist,” author Alka Joshi paints an elusive picture of Lakshmi, a henna artist, in 1950’s Jaipur India. Having escaped the confines of an abusive marriage and her traditional role as a woman, Lakshmi works as a henna artist for several wealthy women. She skillfully coalesces her role as a henna artist and as an advisor of sorts to secure the future she has always dreamed for herself. However, things go awry when her ex, as well as a sister that she never knew of, come into this new life she has fabricated for herself. As a result, she must work to balance her “old” life with the new all while developing a relationship with her newfound sister. This book opens up on a lot of sensitive topics—abortion, child marriage, the caste system, the mistreatment of women, the fallacies of gossip in high-brow society, and how women are penalized for engaging in sexual activity. Yet, Joshi explores these topics in a way that is both comforting and exhilarating, leaving you yearning for more.
4. “A Place for Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza
In “A Place for Us,” author, Fatima Farheen Mirza unravels the story of a Muslim American family of five: Rafiq, Layla, Hadia, Huda, and Amar. Primarily told from the lens of Hadia, the eldest daughter, and Amar, the younger son of the family, this novel flip-flops throughout time to highlight the childhood to adulthood experiences of the two. Hadia, the dutiful elder daughter must traipse through life with her strict parents, the pressures of being the eldest and a female, accepting her Muslim faith, and experiencing love. Amar, on the other hand, must deal with the pressures of living up to his older sisters, his poor grades, the feeling that nobody really gets him, falling deeply in love, drug abuse, and grappling his relationship with his faith. Side by side, while these two are experiencing different struggles, it is clear that both are searching for their identities. This is a coming-of-age story that is perfect for if you want to read about a not so perfect family with fissures that run deep but where everyone is just trying their best.
5. “We Have Always Been Here” by Samra Habib
In their memoir, “We Have Always Been Here,” author and photographer, Samra Habib, tells the story of their life in a series of moments throughout time - as an Ahmadi Muslim fearing for their life in Pakistan, as a refugee to Canada contending with racism and child marriage, and as an adult navigating their sexuality and feelings of Muslim guilt. Samra’s look into their youth riddled with restriction and confusion juxtaposed by their exploratory adulthood, is a journey of unlearning and learning. They touch on a range of topics from contentious relationships with South Asian parents, sexual assault, arranged marriage, navigating faith as a queer Muslim, finding yourself through creativity, and forging through adversity. Through this memoir, Samra creates a space for all of those who have felt like they don’t belong. They end the book by saying, “Growing up, I wish I’d had access to queer Muslim writers who saw, felt, and feared like I did. Who hurt like I did. Perhaps if I had, I would have sought comfort, company, and answers in their work when I was at my loneliest.”
Stay tuned for more recommendations of books by South Asian authors and let us know what your favourite book by a South Asian author is!
About the author: Jasmin Senghera (she/her) is a graduate student pursuing her Master of Community and Regional planning at UBC. She also holds a BSc in Environmental Sciences from UBC. As a future urban planner and aspiring writer she is interested in covering her thoughts on all things cities and her South Asian experience. When she isn’t at work or at school, you can find her with her nose in a book or making yet another Spotify playlist.
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