Hyphen Staff Favorites of 2019

Some of our favorite things from the Asian American community that we discovered this year!
December 26, 2019

As this year draws to a close, we thought we'd highlight some of the writing, movies, books, shows, products and more created by the Asian American community that we loved from this year. Read on and support these creators, and comment below to add some of your own that we missed!


Shivani Parikh, News & Politics Editor

Blinded by the Light is a film by Gurinder Chadha that came out over the summer. The film is inspired by the life of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor and his love of the works of Bruce Springsteen via Manzoor's memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion, Rock 'N’ Roll. Set in the town of Luton in 1987 Thatcherite Britain, the film tells the coming-of-age story of Javed, a British Pakistani Muslim teenager whose life is changed after he discovers the music of Springsteen.

I'm thrilled to see the Instagram profile Brown History gaining momentum. By sharing archives of high-profile individuals, moments and submissions from members of the South Asian diaspora, the page has amassed over 250,000 followers. It succeeds in uplifting forgotten moments of triumph, injustice, love and pain as experienced by folks who have been affected by war, migration, cultural exchange, cultural values and more.

The Unlisted is an Australian drama TV series aimed at children and young teenagers. The series follows the story of 14-year-old identical twins, Drupad and Kalpen Sharma, who work with a group of underground vigilante children to stop powerful governments from imposing global control over the world's youth. The series uniquely embraces the twins’ multigenerational home that is grounded in Indian cultural values, as maintained by the twins’ doting immigrant grandmother and their diverse Australian peers' enthusiastic approval of her cooking.

Chris Karnadi, Arts & Culture Editor

“The Community Is Hurting”: Why We Need to Talk About Colorism and Bias in Asian American Communities" by Monique Laban. Monique Laban offers a personal narrative on colorism in the AAPI community and disagreeing with her friend who believes "there is only one way to support the community, and it means remaining silent about its flaws."

"Going Home with Ocean Vuong" by Kat Chow. Who knew that these two AAPI icons went to the same high school? Kat Chow writes a tender profile of Ocean Vuong.

"Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston" by Jia Tolentino. Definitely doesn't need a signal boost, but Jia Tolentino's essay, which was republished in Trick Mirror, is lovely. Religion, ecstasy, Sappho — it's all here.

"Le Colonial is an Orientalist Specter" by Soleil Ho. Soleil Ho on Le Colonial is food criticism at its best. It's a scathing review, personal narrative and education on postcolonial theory all at the same time.

Leah Silvieus, Books Editor

The first edition of Sundress Publications' craft chapbook series was poet Chen Chen's You MUST Use the Word Smoothie: A Craft Essay in 50 Writing Prompts (2019). The prompts, some of which originally appeared on Chen's Twitter feed, are at turns imaginative, funny and tender. I consider them to be poems in and of themselves in addition to being inspirations for new work. I also love that the series aims to make texts about writing craft widely accessible to teachers, students and people who write outside of traditional academic institutions. As the press website states, "Craft Chaps aim to democratize creative writing education through making this material accessible for use both inside and outside the academy. We also recognize that 'craft' is not a neutral term and seek to contextualize it within a range of aesthetic and cultural contexts. Through offering chaps from different perspectives and literary communities, we encourage students to resist 'universal,' often cis, white, male notions of 'good' literature." Chen's printed chapbook sold out at AWP last year, but luckily, it is available as a (free!) downloadable PDF on the Sundress Publications website along with craft chaps by Ángel García and Bayo Ojikutu. 

Sarah Huang, Senior Food & Agriculture Editor

Chia-Chia Lin's debut novel The Unpassing (2019) was haunting to say the least. The story of a Taiwanese American family moving to Alaska in search of a spiritual and geographical home. Narrated by the eldest child in the family, Gavin, the tumultuous unpassing of memories, places and people continues to plague the unfinding of home. A story that many will find relevant. "It was a kind of violence, what my father had done. He had brought us to a place we didn’t belong and taken us from a place we did. Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none."

Asian American T-shirts, anyone? This might not be a 2019-only item, but this was the year I stocked up on my "proud to be Asian American" shirts, from the "It's an Honor Just to be Asian" -Sandra Oh shirts sold by East West Players, the oldest Asian American theater company, to an "I <3 비 자" shirt from Ann Kim's Pizzeria Lola restaurant in Minneapolis, MN. And lastly, a "Keep Taiwan Free" shirt supporting the group's campaign to safeguard Taiwan's democracy.

Kelley Still, Arts & Culture Editor

Hyphen got the opportunity to do a short interview with Ali Wong and Randall Park, the stars of the Netflix original film Always Be My Maybe.

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center has highlighted queer Asian Pacific Americans in a recent digital exhibition.

Amy Zhang, Creative Nonfiction Editor

What a year it's been for Asian Americans in entertainment and politics! So many great things happened: Lulu Wang's The Farewell depicted the fluidity of the Chinese American experience wonderfully, Bowen Yang now makes me giddy with excitement whenever SNL comes on. But it was a small grassroots theater piece that resonated with me most this year: a Chinese feminist version of The Vagina Monologues, called Our Vaginas, Ourselves. Chinese women in their 20s and 30s, who had no prior experience in acting or directing, put together a stunningly tender and humorous show from voices in the sex industry to sex education. I loved it so much, and it reminded me of the rejuvenating powers of community theater.

My favorite book was Chia-Chia Lin's The Unpassing, a perfect book to soothe your mind on a long winter's day. I've pressed it into the hands of everyone I meet, and my interview with Chia-Chia is forthcoming! I also discovered the podcast Song Exploder this year, which is produced and hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway. In each episode, an artist breaks down the process behind one single song, and it's a fascinating insight into their process. It's great to listen to if you need a creative pick-me-up!

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Poetry Editor

The Year of Blue Water by Yanyi. I can’t explain the way the poems in this book have clung to me this year. Each poem, blossoming from the poet’s mind, now blooms in my own, simultaneously voyeuristic and invitational, and in this way our minds (the poet’s and mine) feel connected. One of my favorite poems starts with “I’m working on being alone today.” And ends with “I’m writing; I invite you to my life.”

Wicked Fox by Kat Cho. In this debut YA novel, Gu Miyoung is a gumiho (a nine-tailed fox) who must devour the energy of men in order to survive. One day, she rescues a human boy being attacked by a goblin and loses her fox-bead (gumiho soul) in the process. Shamans, k-drama romance, and an ancient feud made this one of my favorite escapist reads of the year.

Annie Chen, Health Editor

Diaspora Co. is a social justice-oriented company that has been offering obsessively sourced single-origin turmeric since 2017. Earlier this year, they began offering truly pesticide-free cardamom from a small Indian farm, something that is apparently very hard to get. 

This year Lenora Lee Dance Company debuted their site-specific multimedia performance, Dreams of Flight, for a short run in May at the Angel Island Immigration Station, a sequel to Within These Walls (2017). Both commemorate the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

Stephanie Shih is a ceramic artist whose Instagram was filled this year with ceramic reproductions of favorite food staples like dumplings and Sriracha sauce bottles. You can purchase her work on her website and own a piece of Asian American pantry nostalgia.

Evelyn Ch'ien, Senior Books Editor

Mulan: Before the Sword by Grace Lin. I’ve been reading Grace Lin’s books to my daughter since they came out a decade ago. Lin is a Newbery Medal winner, Caldecott Honoree and National Book Award finalist. Her recent book has retained the mythic quality of the Hua Mulan story embedded in the likeable, relatable and heroic character of the young protagonist. With vivid descriptions of the geography of the heroine’s journey’s through China, the book weaves history and myth with compelling color and dynamism. Its timing is exquisite since the film version arrives in 2020!

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon Chang. Gordon H. Chang has amassed formidable historical information on the history of the Chinese railroad and now makes that story come alive in his new book. A seasoned academic who writes in a very accessible, lively prose style, he is the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities and Professor of History at Stanford University, where he also serves as Director of the Center for East Asian Studies and co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. His historical studies often extend beyond the subject to global issues which make them relevant and fascinating, especially considering the powerful role in history Chinese immigrants have played in the United States.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie is ever-evolving and ever-playful. In Quichotte, he plays with the name Quixote and the concept of the voyager searching for utopia and maps it onto a naïve but optimistic protagonist who searches for his ladylove. The huge paragraphs, expansive adjective clauses and eccentric behavior of the characters is vintage Rushdie. Fun holiday read!

Jung Yun, Fiction Editor

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha. 2019 saw some exceptionally strong debuts by Angie Kim, Pitchaya Sudbanthad and Ocean Vuong, among others. While Your House Will Pay is Cha's fourth book, it represents a significant departure from her Juniper Song detective novels with its fictionalized treatment of the 1991 Latasha Harlins murder in post-Rodney King Los Angeles. It's a must-read for anyone looking for a compelling, character-driven page turner.

Minding the Gap, directed by Bing Liu. This documentary came out last year, but I watched it in early 2019 and it remains one of my favorite films of the 2000s. What starts out as a documentary filmed by restless skater kids turns into an unflinching look at manhood, domestic violence, the decline of the Rust Belt and the power of friendship. It's an extraordinary film (and for those of you swayed by reviews, it has a rare 100% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes). 

Witness, directed by Han Lee. I'm guessing that Parasite and The Farewell are at the top of everyone's list (they're at the top of mine too), so I wanted to share a film that hasn't been distributed widely in the United States yet, but is well worth hunting down. Witness is a legal thriller that really delivers when you're in the mood for a tightly written popcorn flick. It also features some talented new faces (particularly Hyang-gi Kim) who seem poised to become major stars.

H2 Dermadeca Serum Spray by Neogen Dermatology. It feels strange ending my list with a product, but I'm crazy about this $19 serum, which is delivered with a light spray. If you're tired of spending a fortune on serums that make your skin break out, you'll love this vitamin C-infused magic mist from South Korea-based Neogen Dermatology.

Karissa Chen, Editor-in-Chief

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. I loved this book, about a brilliant mathematician who is trying to solve both a theorem and the mystery of her parentage. From its very first pages, where it opens with the story of the 10th muse, to the story within stories, to the math problem whose solution you don't learn until the end — I loved every moment of it. It's a feminist story, with plenty of moments that made me see red in how accurate they were in the ways women (particularly women of color) are treated, but the book is written with such tenderness and care that I felt breathless while reading it. One of my favorite reads of the year.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. This isn't exactly a little-known book, given that it won the National Book Award this year, but I am obsessed with this book. It starts out seeming like a banal (and for some folks, annoyingly overwrought) story about teenagers dealing with heartbreak at a performing arts school (for the record, I enjoyed the beginning section) but at the beginning of section two, the whole book is turned on its head. I can't say more without giving it away, but I will say that unlike some books, this twist serves the novel and doesn't feel gimmicky. While the book made me uneasy, months after I finished reading it, I still can't stop thinking about it!

"Wrong Asian" pin by Linh-Yen Hoang. Every Asian American has had the experience of someone white coming up to you and starting a conversation in which they clearly think you are someone else. This is particularly true if you attend conferences or other functions where there are a lot of white people and at least one other Asian. (I've even been somehow mistaken for a male friend of mine.) When I saw this pin, I couldn't STOP laughing. And then immediately had to order it in time for a conference I was about to attend.

#PutongWords by Frankie Huang. As a Taiwanese Chinese American who is constantly trying to improve her Chinese, and one who is also obsessed with the etymology of words (particularly Chinese characters), I love Frankie's Putong Words project. Huang tweets out Chinese words and phrases, explaining their literal meaning as well as their actual meaning. I know many of the words she mentions but there are those I didn't know! It appeals to a really nerdy part of me. There's also her #PutongAnimals where she draws whimsical literal translations of Chinese animals.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob. This graphic memoir takes such an honest look at everything from Jacob's childhood to her interracial relationship to conversations with her young son, growing up in the age of Trump. It's both poignant and hilarious, taking issues that are often fraught and complicated and presenting them in ways that don't diminish their complexity, yet are laid bare when presented in this medium.


Karissa Chen


Karissa Chen is Editor-in-Chief of Hyphen magazine. She also serves as the Senior Literature Editor.