The Beat Asia Reads: Contemporary Books on Mothers and Motherhood
May 31, 2023
This May, we marked Mother's Day, the singular occasion that pays tribute to the moms and mom figures in our lives. Motherhood can mean different things to many people; it goes beyond the biological and extends to the sociological. It isn’t a black and white thing, neither an experience that speaks for all nor a phenomenon with a single definition and prescription. For all the forms, shapes, and shades it takes, though, we celebrate motherhood and the maternal bonds we have, for these are sheer evidence of the possibilities of communal care and love – arguably the very things on which our survival as a society rests upon.
As is usually the case, our relationships with our mothers and the mother figures in our lives can be complex, at once volatile, endearing, uneasy, wonderful, and fraught. There are warring emotions and temperaments involved, clashing opinions due to different contexts and generations – each of these manifestations of all-too-human flaws and imperfections. These things notwithstanding, we honour the women who reared and nourished us, nurtured and educated us, for their incredible courage and sacrifices, as well as the histories and heritage they have gifted us. In their love, we are moored, and by it we are unmoored and set free just the same.
For this month and all the months, we recommend these seven books that explore and investigate motherhood in more ways than one: for what it can mean to mothers, to daughters and sons, to the childless and childfree, and to those who mother the inner child within them.
'Powerful Asian Moms' (2022)
"Powerful Asian Moms," the latest book by Spill Stories, is an achievement all on its own. The Black and Asian women-led publisher has gathered in one full-colour anthology the personal and brave tales of more than 40 contributors, who wrote stories about themselves and their mothers, with diverse heritages like Chinese Malaysian, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Indian, Thai, and Hawaiian. The creation of "Powerful Asian Moms," which was transformed from the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021 that targeted the Asian community, centers on Asian mothers and the individual powers they harness. The stories in this anthology are written in English, half of which includes translations in the mother tongues of the writers' moms, namely Tagalog, Thai, Korean, and Traditional and Simplified Chinese.
'Crying in H Mart' (2023)
"Crying in H Mart" is the New York Times-bestselling memoir of Michelle Zauner, popularly known as the lead vocalist of indie rock-pop sensation Japanese Breakfast. In this gut-wrenching work, the Korean American musician writes about her complex and difficult relationship with her mother, who had high expectations of her, and her life growing up in Oregon. When Zauner was 25 years old, her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which forced Zauner to reevaluate her Korean identity and recover the heritage and history that her mother solely gave her.
'Tastes Like War: A Memoir' (2021)
Associate professor and author Grace M. Cho pivots from the academic to the personal in her book, "Tastes Like War: A Memoir," which centers on her exploration of food and family history. As she is a sociology professor at the City University of New York, Cho wrote "Tastes Like War" in hybrid form, at once "part food memoir, part sociological investigation" as she traces the roots of her mother's heritage and schizophrenia. Cho's acclaimed memoir won the 2022 Asian/Pacific American Award in Literature and was named a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction and a TIME and NPR Best Book of the Year in 2021.
Canadian writer Sheila Heti has written ten books, one of which is "Motherhood," which tackles the choice of motherhood. In the novel, Heti's childless narrator, who closely resembles Heti, tries to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of having a child by talking to friends, family, psychics, and even cross-examining herself to make the moral and ethical choice: to have or not to have a baby. The book ultimately continues the longstanding discourse on womanhood, parenthood, autonomy, identity, and life, and offers inquiries on "how – and for whom – to live."
'The Joy Luck Club' (1989)
Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club," now considered a classic, revolves around four Chinese immigrant mothers. The stories in this debut novel all mesh due to the four women's friendship, interlocking with the histories of their four American-born daughters, and their families. The four Chinese women, who call their group the Joy Luck Club, are immigrants in San Francisco and gather every week to play mahjong, eat dim sum, and discuss. Tan is able to inspect with clarity the complex, painful, and tender connections that mothers will always have with their daughters, no matter how different they may seem from each other.
'Letter to My Daughter' (2008)
This book of essays by the late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou was addressed to the daughter she never got to have. Angelou had no daughters of her own but was considered by many the world over as a mother figure for her wisdom and civil rights legacy, such as lobbying and organizing with a group of activists that also involved the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., among many others, from the 1950s to the '60s. In "Letter to My Daughter," Angelou gives a glimpse of her extraordinary life, from growing up in Arkansas at the time of segregation and her awkward teenage years to her friendships with Coretta Scott King and Ossie Davis, and the moments that taught her compassion and bravery.
This harrowing novel by Irish Canadian author Emma Donoghue shows the lengths a mother would take to protect her child under the most unimaginable circumstances. “Room’s” story revolves around "Ma," who was abducted and had been held in captivity in a single room for seven years, and her five-year-old son Jack, who was born and raised within confines. Unable to see the world outside, Ma tries to give Jack a normal childhood and lets him believe that the whole world, except the room, exists only on TV. Donoghue’s "Room" won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year, among many other accolades, for its story of hope, resilience, and heart.
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