5 Books with Karin Aguilar-San Juan

Our latest installment of 5 Books with a Board Member features Karin Aguilar-San Juan, our Mid-West Representative. Karin is Professor and Chair of American Studies at Macalester College, where her courses have included: The Problem of Race in U.S. Social Thought and Policy; Bruce Lee: His Life and Legacy; U.S. Imperialism from the Philippines to Viet Nam; Critical Prison Studies (formerly The School-to-Prison Pipeline); and Hunger Games: Map and Mirror for the 21st Century.

Karin is the 2021 recipient of Macalester’s Jack and Marty Rossman Award for Excellence in Teaching. She focuses on teaching and learning as forms of embodied and engaged inquiry into self and the world.

Karín Aguilar-San Juan, Professor of American Studies at Macalester College

Greetings from the Great White North. After weeks of unseasonably warm weather, Minnesotans are now submerged in a winter chill. What better time to bundle up with a plaid fleece, a mug of hot apple cider, and a pile of good books? If you are like me—buried in undergraduate essays waiting for “feedback” –it might be a few weeks before you can read for fun. And when it does, it’s hygge time! Please sit back, relax, and enjoy these books.

BE WATER, MY FRIEND: The Teachings of Bruce Lee: In this amazing book, Shannon Lee gives herself fully and completely to her worldly destiny: to present and interpret her father’s life and legacy for the twenty-first century. With disarming honesty and vulnerability, she writes about Bruce Lee and the relationship she has to his memory, his thought process, and his martial arts practice. She contextualizes the phrases and insights that made Bruce Lee famous in the 1970s, and it’s through her life and experience that Bruce Lee’s most significant offerings come to fruition. Bruce Lee died in 1973, so as we are approaching the 50th anniversary of his untimely death, everyone will want this book as a gift. Get two copies!

TYE LEUNG SCHULZE, Translator for Justice: a comics biography: What’s not to love about a comic book that is based in Asian American community research? More than two decades ago, the historian Judy Yung included a first-person account of Tye Leung Schulze in Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese American Women in San Francisco. Among her many accomplishments, Schulze was the first Chinese American woman to vote in a major U.S. election. Now, with permission from Schulze’s living descendants, the gifted artist and storyteller, Dawn K. Wing has rendered the tale of this San Francisco heroine story in a colorful format that can be accessed by many more readers. The project is even more fascinating because Wing completed it during a peak of anti-Asian violence, when she was looking for models of resistance, resilience, and strength. (Full confession: Dawn is a friend, a neighbor, and the AAAS archivist too!)

THE OVERSTORY: This 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Richard Power is all about trees. I read this book months or maybe years ago and I can’t stop thinking about it—it’s like a person whose life-story has become part of my internal landscape. The novel is structured like a tree, with roots that develop into leaves, branches, and seeds. Every chapter—twelve in all—revolves around a particular tree, or a family of trees, or a friendship with trees, or a simple respect for trees. The sheer volume of tree words and what the author does with this tremendous vocabulary to evoke drama and emotion is astonishing. The fact that only one Asian American character exists in the entire novel and then commits suicide (sorry, spoiler alert) irritates me, but this does not damage my overall admiration, love, and attachment to this book.

BE THE REFUGE: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists: With all the turbulence, chaos, and feelings of overwhelm that shape our lives these days, many people are turning to Buddhism. Too few people understand the Asian American dimensions of Buddhism because mainstream, white-led Buddhist centers present meditation as a core, and culturally neutral (read: white) practice. It’s not! Chenxing Han pushes back against the erasure of Asian American faces from Buddhism in the United States by interviewing young practitioners and cataloging their experiences. Her writing is multi-layered and self-reflective, bravely opening up spaces for candid discussion about race, racism and representation in spiritual practice.

MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE: This political/science fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson is scary, hopeful, and on some pages, a little bit funny. It’s not an Asian American book per se but because we are all living on the same planet, I consider this book a must read for anyone who wonders if there is a solution to environmental crisis. The opening scene—and other scenes in the book—have already happened: millions of helpless people drowning or boiling to death in the Indian subcontinent from climate apocalypse. Also, in response to weather, wildlife migration patterns are shifting in every continent. But instead of caving in to panic, Robinson (who holds a PhD in English and studied writing with Ursula LeGuin) emphasizes small windows of opportunity where significant and impactful decisions could be made by a few people behind closed doors. They don’t do so willingly of course, and why I want you to read this book is because it describes the social and political circumstances under which a few privileged yet flawed humans finally get a spine and do what is necessary to shift the course of history in the tiniest of degrees.