Did you know that May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada? Heritage months can be a controversial subject — after all, shouldn’t we be celebrating the achievements, history, and culture of these groups all year? We should, but unfortunately, we often don’t. For some, the heritage months help to draw attention to the accomplishments of minority groups, while others fear that heritage months send the wrong message — that this history can be forgotten about after the month is over. Certainly, it’s not a perfect solution to making our knowledge of Canadian history less white male–focused, but it can help shine a light on people whose achievements haven’t received the recognition they deserve. To that end, the City of Vaughan holds the annual InSpirit Festival in May, offering arts and cultural programming. This year the festival has gone virtual, and will include Cantonese music on May 28 with Natalie Wong and Eric Laurent and a Bolly Concert on May 31 with musical duo Hasheel and Tej Hunjan. More details can be found on the City’s website.
According to the Government of Canada’s website, Asian Heritage Month has been celebrated since the 1990s, and May was officially declared Asian Heritage Month in 2002. You can read the official declaration here. The website also has a list of “Noteworthy Canadians of Asian Origin”. Some names are instantly recognizable, such as the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, who was not only Canada’s 26th Governor General but is also an award-winning journalist. Her book Belonging is available through Hoopla Digital. You might also recognize Patrick Chan, an Olympic and Word medalist in figure skating, or Lilly Singh, YouTuber, vlogger, and the only openly LGBTQ+ and first person of Indian descent hosting an American late-night talk show, A Little Late with Lilly Singh. Her book How to Be a Bawse is available on OverDrive.
But many of these names will likely be unfamiliar, such as Inspector Baltej Singh Dhillon, whose fight for the right to wear his turban and maintain his beard while serving in the RCMP, despite the requirements that officers wear the full uniform and be clean shaven, led to the government eliminating the ban on turbans in 1990. Or how about the Honourable Norman L. Kwong, first Canadian of Chinese origin to play in the CFL, six-time Grey Cup winner, and first Asian Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta? Or Senator Vivienne Poy, the first Canadian of Asian origin appointed to the Senate of Canada, who proposed the motion to designate May as Asian Heritage Month? Poy is also a successful fashion designer and author. I don’t know about you, but I definitely didn’t learn about any of these people in school.
The list also contains several authors, such as renowned environmental activist David Suzuki and Kim Thúy, whose debut novel Ru won the Governor General’s Literary Award for French fiction in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2012. Of course, this list is only a small sample. I’d like to highlight a few other Canadian authors for your reading pleasure:
Hiromi Goto: Hiromi Goto immigrated to Canada with her family in 1969. Much of her work is influenced by her father’s stories of life in Japan and Japanese stories she heard from her grandmother. Her book Chorus of Mushrooms won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Canada and Caribbean Region in 1995 and was the co-winner of the Canada-Japan Book Award. The novel touches on themes of identity and culture through the lives of three generations of women in a Japanese family who live in a small town on the prairies.
Rupi Kaur: Rupi Kaur immigrated to Canada from India at the age of four. She is a New York Times bestselling author and illustrator whose poems have been translated into over 30 languages. Her book Milk and Honey is about finding the sweetness in life’s bitter moments. Kaur’s second collection of poetry, The Sun and Her Flowers, is about growth, healing, and honoring your roots.
Ins Choi: You’ve probably heard of the hit TV show Kim’s Convenience, but did you know it was originally a play? I didn’t. Actor and playwright Ins Choi is a co-creator, producer, and main screenwriter for the show. You can read the play on Hoopla Digital.
Janie Chang: Historical fiction author Janie Chang’s first two novels, Three Souls and Dragon Springs Road, were nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award. Her third book, The Library of Legends, which just came out in April, is the story of university student Hu Lian, who travels across China with a group of classmates to escape the Japanese bombings of their city. With them, they carry the Library of Legends, a 500-year-old collection of myths and folklore. As the ancient books move across China, they awaken guardian spirits that embark on an exodus of their own, which will change the country’s fate forever.
Vivek Shraya: Vivek Shraya is a musician, writer, visual artist and a director on the board of the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which fights for health, economic justice and representation for LGBTQ girls and women. Several of Shraya’s works are available on Hoopla Digital, including her latest novel, The Subtweet, about the relationship between two female musicians of colour. The book touches on call-out culture, sexism, and the music industry.
Shyam Selvadurai: Shyam Selvadurai is a Sri Lankan Canadian novelist whose first novel, Funny Boy, won the he Lambda Literary Award for gay male fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Selvadurai edited and contributed a story to Story-Wallah! A Celebration of South Asian Fiction, which includes notable Canadian authors Michael Ondaatje, M.G. Vassanji, and Rohinton Mistry.
Paul Yee: Paul Yee has written many books for children and young adults. His novel Ghost Train won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature in 1996 and in 2012 he received the Vicky Metcalf Award for Children’s Literature from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. Several of his books can be found on Hoopla Digital.
Mariko Tamaki: Mariko Tamaki is a writer and artist known for her graphic novels Skim, This One Summer and the Lumberjanes series. She also writes for both Marvel and DC Comics. How cool is that?! A number of her books can be found on Hoopla Digital, including Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, written with Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. The book is about Freddy Riley’s attempts to end her toxic on-and-off relationship with Laura once and for all.
Allan Cho: Before I started writing this blog, I wasn’t familiar with Allan Cho, but when I found out he is an academic librarian as well as an author of course I needed to include him in this list! Personal bias aside, you can check out his book, AlliterAsian, from Hoopla Digital. The book is an anthology of Asian Canadian writing by notable authors such as Joy Kogawa, author of the novel Obasan, and Sky Lee, author of Disappearing Moon Café.
Shilpi Somaya Gowda: Born and raised in Toronto, Shilpi Somaya Gowda is the author of the bestselling novels Secret Daughter and The Golden Son. Her latest book, The Shape of Family, about a family trying to move forward following a tragedy, is available on Overdrive.