Books That Are Helping Me Untangle My Own Complicated Mother-Daughter Relationship

The beautiful and powerful reads by Asian-American writers explore mothers, daughters, and mental health.

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As my own child grows, I find myself thinking more and more about my mom — the choices she had, how and why she became who she is, and how she has shaped me. I don’t and will never have all the information I desire to truly understand her, but I must find peace with who she is. To do this, in addition to therapy and reflection, I turn to books.

Mother’s Day, Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, and Mental Health Awareness Month all occur in May. For me, this convergence of observances inspires me to reflect on how my life is shaped by being a mom, an Asian American, and someone with a mental health condition. I’m grateful there are more books than one might expect that explore this specific intersection of themes, no doubt because contending with love and loss in mother-daughter relationships, struggling with mental health, and finding cultural identity are universal human experiences. Reading thoughtful and reflective books by AANHPI authors expands my perspective beyond the boundaries of my own heritage and the depths of mental health experiences that I’ve been exposed to. Books like the ones below help me process, heal, and feel less alone and closer emotionally to my mother in ways I’ve never before accessed.

This month, the country continues to reel from the pandemic and its mental health ramifications. We’re also still grappling with the reality that there have been nearly 11,000 hate crimes against AAPI persons reported by Stop AAPI Hate since March of 2020. So whether you find yourself aching to be near your mother, putting off calling her, or missing the mother you never had, perhaps curling up with these poignant books about mothers and daughters will be cathartic.

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“My mother and I speak different languages… even though my mother understands and speaks English at a highly functional level, there are places inside me she can’t reach, nuances of thought and emotion I can’t express in words that make sense to her.”

Elizabeth Miki Brina’s stunning work is a courageous and timely reckoning about internalized racism and self-hate which was consistently visible in the author’s relationship with her war bride mother throughout her life. Brina confronts her inability as a daughter to comfort her isolated mother while deftly weaving in fascinating Okinawan history and family stories. This was a book I could not put down.


“As she talked about the things she ate or wished to eat or had been deprived of eating when she was young, she also shared minute details about her past, a trail of crumbs that would lead me to my family history.”

This National Book Award Finalist by Grace M. Cho chronicles the author’s attempts to reach her mother, a bar hostess turned war bride who survives the Korean War but succumbs to schizophrenia, by cooking Korean meals for her. As someone living with a chronic mental health condition, I sincerely appreciated this compassionate memoir of a daughter’s deep yearning to reach the mother she lost to trauma and illness.

“Much of my work has been centered around the idea that women like my mother — Korean women who married American men, and who likely worked in the service industry that catered to the emotional and sexual needs of American men in Korea — were erased from national narratives and hidden or shunned within their communities and families,” Cho shared in an email. “My intention in writing the memoir was for my mother to finally be seen, and to reject the shame that had been projected onto her for so much of her life.”


“No one can hurt you the way a mother can. No one can love you the way a mother can.”

This stunningly honest coming-of-age Chinese Hawaiian Jewish queer memoir wrestles with T Kira Madden’s relationship with her mother as she invites readers to be voyeurs of her innocence lost, forbidden desires, trauma, and compassion.


"I also did not know that when your mother teaches you to run and hide, you will keep doing it until it forms into habit, until it becomes our very best skill."

I can’t wait to read this memoir, which originated from the author’s New York Times Modern Love essay, At Sea, and Seeking a Safe Harbor. Putsata Reang’s family fled on a Cambodian navy vessel during the genocide over forty years ago. Her mother refused the captain’s order to throw her seemingly lifeless baby into the water. “I had survived on my mother’s hope,” writes Reang in her essay, who was that baby. But as an adult, the author must contend with her mother’s inability to accept her bisexuality and marriage to a woman.


“While your parents are alive, eat as much of their love as you can, so it can sustain you for the rest of your life.”

In profoundly mesmerizing prose, poet E.J. Koh shares her story punctuated by letters from her mother. When Koh was 15 years old, her parents returned to Korea for work, leaving Koh and her 19-year-old brother in California to raise themselves. A painful and telling exploration of how parental love can manifest, Koh finds herself in this triumphant book about love, loss, and identity. One unexpected section of the book delightfully detours into how the multi-talented Koh (who recently wrote teleplays for Apple TV’s Pachinko episodes) almost became a K-pop star and moved to Korea to live with her parents.


“All my life, I wanted to be a mother, and once this became impossible for me, I grieved for these future unborn children that I would never know. I hid this sadness.”

This heartbreaking memoir is not so much about the author’s relationship with her mother as it is about her relationship with her motherland, the Philippines. With utmost care and compassion, Talusan examines how the abuse and trauma she suffered as a child affects her mental health and all of her relationships, in particular the one she has with her body.


“Today, when I’m asked, I often say that I no longer consider adoption — individual adoptions, or adoption as a practice — in terms of right or wrong. I urge people to go into it with their eyes open, recognizing how complex it truly is; I encourage adopted people to tell their stories, our stories, and let no one else define these experiences for us.”

Nicole Chung’s poignant memoir captures the complexity of the adoption experience and beyond. By questioning the truths she was raised with, Chung finds her Asian American identity as a transracially-adopted individual and as writer seeking a sense of belonging.


“All three women turn toward her, their faces open and expectant. They are all of them women. They are all of them mothers. They know who she is.”

This riveting novel by Janice Y.K. Lee is being adapted into an Amazon series by Lulu Wang, writer and director of The Farewell. A masterful tale of intertwined perspectives of three women whose lives as Hong Kong expats are entangled in an expected tragedy when a small child is lost. The events in the aftermath are a test of strength and resiliency for each woman as they emerge (and re-emerge) as mothers. Read it before the series premieres!


“For the rest of my life there would be a splinter in my being, stinging from the moment my mother died until it was buried with me.”

The ultra-hip Japanese Breakfast indie rock star/author made us sob along with her in H-Mart in her viral 2018 New Yorker essay about her mother who died of cancer, leaving Zauner feeling severed from her Korean identity. That essay gave life to this New York Times bestseller (and upcoming film adaptation). Crying in H Mart delves into the Grammy-nominated musician’s painful adolescence as a mixed-race Asian American kid in Oregon, a struggling young adult finding love, and then as caretaker for her dying mom. Eventually, Zauner reconnects with her Korean American self by learning to cook Korean food from food blogger Maangchi – and in so doing finds an ongoing connection to her beloved mother.


“As a mother of two young Asian American children, I fear for what they will face at school, at work, and in their neighborhoods one day. I worry that they will feel the same lack of belonging that many of us have felt our entire lives. I grieve over the loss of belonging for my children, who consider themselves American just as much as they are Asian.”

Written by Taiwanese American clinical psychologist, Dr. Jenny T. Wang, the creator of the popular Instagram account @asiansformentalhealth, this book invites readers to release themselves from the unwritten expectations, mindsets, and cultural rules they face as members of the Asian diaspora. “This book also explores the impact of three generations of women in my family my maternal grandmother, my mother and myself,” shared Wang, who writes about how her mother stopped the intergenerational cycle of abuse by accepting the loss of the mother she wished she had, and refusing to replicate trauma onto the next generation.


“Then you must teach my daughter this same lesson. How to lose your innocence but not your hope. How to laugh forever.”

This classic needs no introduction. Amy Tan’s seminal novel about four pairs of Chinese American mothers and daughters opened the door to modern Asian American representation in popular culture. The film adaptation launched the careers of many in the industry. The recent documentary of Tan’s life, Unintended Memoir, adds color and context for those like me inspired to revisit this engrossing work.

For more food for your poetic soul, check out Jenny’s Qi’s poetry book Focal Point about losing her mother, and Time Is a Mother, poetry by Ocean Vuong, the acclaimed author of the novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

“It's a lifelong process to untangle those knots,” says Grace M. Cho about mother-daughter relationship struggles. “We live under a cultural regime that says our family is supposed to love and support us unconditionally, but the reality is that familial relationships are not easy… so if you aren't close to your mother, be kind to yourself and her.”

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