Any relationship is maddeningly, beautifully complicated, and possibly none more so than that between mother and child. How can one even begin to explain a bond that transcends time and space, and that inspires both selfishness and selflessness alike?
These books try; they probe the layers of emotion and nuances of love. They capture the joy and the smiles, but don’t shy away from showing the hurt and tears. This Mother’s Day, explore all the complexities of motherhood with these nine books centered on Asian characters, by Asian authors. From timeless classics, to contemporary works, to novels set in Singapore—these novels are certainly worth a read.
1 / 9
Timeless Classic: The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
Four Chinese immigrant mothers in San Francisco form a mahjong club—the titular Joy Luck Club. For over two decades, they gather not just to play mahjong but to also reminisce about the lives they left behind in China. But even as they confide in one another, they are fearful that their American-born daughters will know nothing about their Chinese heritage. It is only after one of the mothers passes away that their daughters begin to discover the multitude of ways their own lives have been shaped by their mothers’ pasts. Told over 16 interwoven vignettes from both generations’ perspectives, this book will get you thinking about the interplay of cultural clashes and intergenerational gaps.
$18.73, available on Amazon
2 / 9
Timeless Classic: Wild Swans, by Jung Chang
Translated into 37 languages but banned in the author’s home country of China, this memoir weaves together a poignant recount of three generations of women linked by love and set against the relentless march of time. Chang’s grandmother was a warlord’s concubine, her mother was a loyal member of Mao’s Chinese Communist Party, while the author herself started off following her mother’s footsteps in joining the infamous Red Guard, but later won a scholarship to study in England where she still resides. Not only is Jung’s work an exploration of two different mother-child relationships, it also reflects the evolving position of females in a modernizing China.
$23, available at BooksActually
3 / 9
Timeless Classic: The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston
Divided into five self-contained chapters, this memoir explores the many challenges that females confront. Kingston blends her mother’s narratives and her own memories of the women in their lives with traditional Chinese folklore that her mother used to tell her in her childhood. One chapter focuses on an aunt who commits suicide after being humiliated for her adultery; another details how her mother had to give up her successful medical practice after moving to America to join Kingston’s father; while the penultimate chapter describes another aunt who went insane after being abandoned by her husband.
$14.69, available on Amazon
4 / 9
Contemporary Works: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
In this novel, an impoverished Asian immigrant mother, Bebe, is forced to abandon her infant daughter, who is later adopted by a white couple. However, Bebe comes to regret her decision and fights to reclaim custody of her child, kickstarting a legal battle that divides their whole town. This conflict is interwoven with two other complicated mother-child relationships, with both daughters developing a more profound connection with the other mother than with their own. A gripping domestic thriller, this book gets the reader pondering if the grass is truly greener on the other side when it comes to relationships, and how often things go unsaid and misunderstood between parent and child.
$16.20, available on Amazon
5 / 9
Contemporary Works: The Last Story of Mina Lee, by Nancy Jooyoun Kim
The book opens with American-born Margot travelling back to her childhood home in Koreatown, LA to look for her mother, Mina, after the latter fails to return her calls, only to discover her mother’s corpse in the house. An attempt to piece together the circumstances of her Korean immigrant mother’s death forces Margot to go wading through Mina’s past as a Korea War orphan and undocumented immigrant, discovering along the way just how much she did not understand about the woman who birthed and raised her.
$13.99, available on Amazon
6 / 9
Contemporary Works: All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung
As a baby, the author was given up for adoption by her Korean immigrant parents and subsequently raised by a white family in Oregon, where she struggles with growing up Asian-American in a mostly white community. When Chung falls pregnant with her first child, she begins to wonder if her transracial background will hinder her ability to raise her own family, prompting her search for her birth family. Spoiler alert: she eventually finds them, but faces a new challenge in the form of trying to reconcile her feelings towards her biological family and her adopted one.
$22, available at The Moon
7 / 9
SingLit Represents: Ponti, by Sharlene Teo
Winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award, this debut novel is centered on a troubled mother-daughter pair. Awkward and fatherless, Szu is seemingly the opposite in every way from her beautiful, movie actress mother, Amisa, whose shadow she struggles to cast off. They are simultaneously unable to relate to each other but also unable to completely cut each other off, for there is no one else for either of them to turn to. Teo does a wonderful job of illustrating the complicated dynamics of this love-hate relationship set in contemporary Singapore.
$12.22, available on Amazon
8 / 9
SingLit Represents: Sugarbread, by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Set in late 80s, early 90s Singapore, this book tells of the coming-of-age of a young Sikh girl, Pin. Her mother, Jini’s, favorite refrain to Pin is “Don’t become like me”, but never goes further than those cryptic words. Despite Pin’s attempts to connect with her mother, such as deducing the older woman’s moods through her cooking, Jini remains a mystery. However, the arrival of Pin’s grandmother reveals old family secrets that could finally explain why Jini is the way she is, and to her surprise, Pin realises she and her mother are not so different after all.
$24, available at BooksActually
9 / 9
SingLit Represents: 17A Keong Saik Road, by Charmaine Leung
In the 1970s, Keong Saik Road was a prominent red-light district in Singapore. In this memoir, Leung recounts her life growing up in this infamous postcode and the brothel women she lived with. Among this coterie, one woman stands out: Leung’s mother, who was sold into the brothel as a young girl but eventually rose to become its operator. This book is an intriguing exploration of a slice of our country’s history and the overlooked stories of a marginalised community of women.
$20, available at The Moon