The Best Asian books of 2016 – chosen by the experts

The Best Asian books of 2016 – chosen by the experts

20 December 2016

By Jemimah Steinfeld

Another year draws to an end and what a year it has been for Asian literature. There have been some fantastic additions to both the fiction and non-fiction categories this year, with many going on to get shortlisted for and in some instances win the big literary prizes (such as The Good Immigrant).

With so many good books to choose from, we decided to ask a selection of people from across the industry what is their favourite Asia-related book. Here’s their selection of the best books about Asia in 2016, just in time for that Christmas stocking filler.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is an intense and deeply moving look at recent Chinese history. The lens focuses mostly on the intertwined narratives of three musicians – Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai – who struggle to channel their love of music during the Cultural Revolution.

Thien then looks at the events surrounding Tiananmen over a decade later, as well as a more contemporary context, to show how they all relate and contribute to China today.

Thien’s attention to detail is second to none and the prose is lyrical. Moreover the issues she confronts and the questions she leaves unanswered remain as relevant now as they did 50 years ago when the Cultural Revolution began. It’s a book that will stay with you long after you put it down.

No wonder that it made it onto the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize 2016.

Jemimah Steinfeld, Literature Programme Manager, Asia House

How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee is an extraordinary novel set among refugees, brokers and missionaries in the borderland of North Korea and China.

She takes on the challenge of writing with authenticity about North Koreans fleeing from the regime, while adeptly controlling a narrative that brings together three disparate characters.

The big issues are played out through the experiences and conflicts of the protagonists, rather than in the usual demonising of the regime itself. In fact, it’s a Christian church group running an undercover safe house that extends the escapees’ suffering by holding them captive until they have undergone another brainwashing – into Christianity. The church’s motivation to harvest souls is far more evangelical than humanitarian. The novel’s key theme is humankind’s common capacity for inhumane cruelty towards one another, irrespective of ideological underpinnings.

Editorial staff of the Asia Literary Review

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew is the first graphic novel to win the Singapore Literary Prize 2016 in the English fiction category. Using a dazzling array of graphic art styles and a deft storytelling touch, the novel chronicles in parallel the life of a fictional comic book artist and the development of Singapore into a nation over the latter decades of the twentieth century. The book is in part deeply nostalgic and personal and objectively critical of a society (and art form) that has experienced dramatic change.

Editorial staff of the Asia Literary Review    

In Shelter by Jung Yun (Picador 2016) Kyung Cho and his wife Gillian can no longer make the mortgage payments on their house. When a real estate broker comes to appraise the property for its sale, Kyung sees his estranged mother wandering around the backyard naked and dazed after a horrific attack. Despite the memories of his painful childhood, Kyung honours his familial obligations by taking his mother and father into his home. Yun’s powerful and tautly written novel is a brave and engrossing meditation of an adult child’s need to reckon with his past in order to be free.

Min Jin Lee, author of Free Food for Millionaires and the forthcoming Pachinko.

Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi by Ahmet Midhat Efendi

The 2016 publication of Ahmet Midhat’s 1875 novel Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi in English (translated from the Turkish by Melih Levi and Monica M. Ringer) came as cheerful news in a tumultuous year for Turkey.

In his masterpiece, Ahmet Midhat tells the adventures of the shallow Râkım and the erudite Râkım in a formally innovative and hilariously humorous way. This tale of westernisation and its discontents is required reading for all those interested in the tumultuous changes brought about by modernisation in Asian countries.

Ahmet Midhat’s novel should be read alongside Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present, another favourite book of mine this year, which offers a world-historical view of the effects of top down modernisation in various countries, including Turkey.

Kaya Genç, author of Under the Shadow (2016) and An Istanbul Anthology

Guapa by Saleem Haddad. Set over the course of a day, Guapa is a brilliant distillation of what life feels like in many Middle Eastern cities nowadays. In their slums, their prisons, their lavish weddings, their bars soaked in frenetic celebration, there is both despair and rebellion. The protagonist, Rasa, lives in this unnamed Arab city as he tries to carve out a life for himself in the midst of political, personal and social upheaval. Rasa happens to be gay, and his life starts to spiral after he is caught in bed with his lover Taymour by his grandmother. Haddad, the author is of Iraqi-German and Palestinian-Lebanese descent. Besides being an acclaimed debut author, he is also a full time aid worker. He embodies many of the kinds of hyphenates that make his characters so interesting. The novel tells a story that is simultaneously fascinating in its specificity and entirely approachable in its universality: the story of being gay in an Arab country and the story of the delicate intricacies of complex human relationships. In an age where we are losing the ability to create nuance in the midst of larger narratives, this is definitely one of 2016’s most important books.

Nasri Atallah, British-Lebanese writer, media entrepreneur and Head of Media Partnerships for Bookwitty

In Our Korean Kitchen, critically acclaimed food writer Jordan and his Korean wife Rejina, provide a cultural history of the food of Korea giving context to the recipes. Korean food is fast becoming the biggest trend in the culinary world and this book captures this movement and introduces us to Korean food through a collection of classic and well-loved dishes. Beautifully illustrated throughout, the book explores the secrets of authentic Korean food. Covering an extensive range of dishes including stir-fried spicy squid, sesame & soy marinated beef and pecan and cinnamon stuffed pancakes, recipes cater for beginners as well as those with a little more experience of cooking K-Food.

Mark McGinlay, Senior Publicity Manager, Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Orion Non Fiction

Up from the Sea by Leza Lowitz. Written by the award-winning translator (Japanese-English), and multi-genre writer, Leza Lowitz, this gripping, inspiring YA (young adult) novel takes my breath away each time I read it. Set in a Japanese coastal town during and after the 11 March tsunami, and set also partly in New York, the narrator of this atmospheric story is the Japanese-American teenager, Kai, who loses his maternal family in the disaster, but is ultimately reunited with his father. We see Kai struggling with his new reality, but watch him mature. In the end, he decides to return to his village and help them rebuild their lives. This is such a moving, lovely story, showing how despair can be overcome by hope, and by the ties that bind us to each other around the world.

Kelly Falconer, Founder, Asia Literary Agency