Xiran Jay Zhao: Speak Loudly
XIRAN JAY ZHAO is in their twenties, and was born in a small town in China, immigrating to British Columbia in Canada in their early teens.
Zhao attended Simon Fraser University, graduating in 2020 with a degree in biochemical disease research. They finished school at the height of the first COVID wave, and since they were unable to find a job due to the pandemic, they focused on writing and discussing media online, developing a large following on social media and YouTube. Their video “EVERYTHING CULTURALLY WRONG WITH MULAN 2020 (And How They Could’ve Been Fixed)’’, discussing the live-action remake of the animated Disney film, has over 3.4 million views, and can be seen here.
Zhao’s debut novel, YA Iron Widow, appeared in 2021, became a bestseller, won a British Science Fiction Association Award, and was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award, British Fantasy Award, Dragon Award, Locus Award, and Lodestar Award. Sequel Heavenly Tyrant is expected in 2023. Middle grade novel Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor was published in 2022. They were a finalist for the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer in 2022.
“Growing up, people always say that if you become an artist, you’re not going to be able to sustain yourself, so I couldn’t take the risk of investing in a full degree in the arts, or even just English. I decided to do biochem, because I was also interested in science. I actually skipped through a bunch of degrees; I was going to do history at first, but then I discovered I don’t like writing essays. Then I wanted to go into biology, but something drew me to biochem instead. I graduated at the height of the pandemic, and I wasn’t able to get a job, so I just stayed at home in quarantine and furiously wrote instead.
“My mom was the one who really encouraged me to read, but her idea of reading is really superficial and elitist – ‘Oh, you need to read Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare because you need to read classics,’ but then she, herself, never read any of those. She would take pictures of these classic books on her desk and pair them with a cup of tea or something. Then she snaps a picture of it, posts it on social media, and never opens the book. She tried to make me read all of these classics, but I was like, ‘Even you don’t read them, so why should I?’ She instilled in me a very performative view of ‘literature’ that turned me off of it for years.
“What really made me understand the fun of reading was kid lit, and that’s why I’m still a kid lit writer – it’s very imaginative. I like my media to be more fun. The first book series I was obsessed with was A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, and he does a lot of creative things with his writing. There’s one moment where a character falls down an elevator shaft, and then you turn the page and it’s just two full pages of black ink – it was amazing. That’s the kind of stuff that pretentious people frown upon, but I thought it was so mind-blowing. I love that he was able to have fun like that.
“Iron Widow is science fantasy in the vein of superhero movies or comic books, and anime because it’s very anime-inspired. Two of the books I wrote before Iron Widow were harder science fiction, for which I did a lot of research into robotics and genetic engineering. Hard sci-fi is also a really hard sell to publishers, though, so with Iron Widow I went more wild – when I pitched it to publishers I said, ‘It’s science fiction, but the science is based on Chinese metaphysics and traditional Chinese medicine.’ My middle grade debut, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, is also science fantasy. It’s based on Chinese myth and history but uses some sci-fi tropes – the protagonist has an AR gaming headset. Right now I am in a comfortable place writing science fantasy because it’s really fun, but I do lament my hard science projects that didn’t take off. I guess I could always go back.
“Before Iron Widow, I thought that I could never write a Chinese protagonist because it would be ‘too self-indulgent,’ but for Iron Widow I was like, ‘I’m going to put my culture into this, because why not?’ I think a lot of us writers of color grew up thinking that we’re not allowed to put ourselves in our books because all the books we’ve read were about white protagonists. Now we’re finally writing the books that our younger selves would have died to read. With Iron Widow, I just went all out – I stopped caring about whether it would sell.
“Part of my decision was seeing more Chinese authors succeed with Chinese-centric books. It’s weird because in the very first book I wrote, the protagonist was white, but everyone else was super diverse, and I was proud of that. ‘Oh, this guy’s Japanese and she’s Spanish….’ Thinking back, most of them were different flavors of European, though. Oh god…. The representation was not good at all. Nowadays, I question myself: ‘Why did I feel the need to make the protagonist white? This is such an imperialistic, colonial story – what the hell is this?’ I still remember, even as recently as 2016, I was saying, ‘Oh, I will never write a Chinese protagonist.’ I had a distinct fear that I was going to put in too much stuff that people wouldn’t understand, and it was going to alienate readers. I felt way too intimately familiar with my culture to put that on the page. At some point, though, I stopped caring about what the reactions of readers would be, and stopped caring if I was going to alienate people. I want to write for my younger self and the next generation of Chinese diaspora, and I decided to just put in all the stuff that I want them to see and feel a resonance with. I don’t really care if the mainstream white audience is going to find it confusing or not. I decided not to center the white reception in my mind.
“As I became more comfortable with myself, I became more confident about writing a Chinese story and Chinese main characters. Growing up, I was not very confident at all. I really did not like who I was, and, good god, I had such low self-esteem. Looking back, I’m like, ‘What was I thinking? Why didn’t I think I was hot shit?’ There was a lot of self-hatred during my teenage years. I had a rough adolescence, and now as I become more comfortable in my own skin, I’ve become more comfortable writing stories that are inspired by my own background and my own culture.
“Iron Widow is directly inspired by an anime called Darling in the Franxx. That anime went in a different direction than I wished it had, so I was talking to a friend about how I would have done my own spin on this concept of a boy and girl piloting giant mechas. I decided my version was so different I could write it as an original story. That’s the birth of Iron Widow. While I was writing it, I was also very conscious that I wanted to take inspiration from across shonen anime, like Dragon Ball Z and Saint Seiya and all of those, and I specifically wanted to do a feminist take on the shonen action genre. I love those anime, but they do not have very good female characters. They’re teen boy fantasies, right? You don’t expect good female characters from those. That’s why I was like, ‘What if I wrote a story from the perspective of a girl who is expected to be arm candy for a bad-ass male mecha pilot, but she is really pissed off about the situation?’ It may be a teenage boy’s wet dream, but it’s her nightmare. It’s a completely dystopian world for her, so she goes into the military to fight back against the entire system. It’s my feminist take on the very flawed media I consumed growing up.
Cover and interview art and design by Francesca Myman
This report and more like it in the November 2022 issue of Locus.
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