Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Asian Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where Asian authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Asian, Asian books, and the experiences of being an Asian reader. (Note: Here is an explanation of why we are calling this guest series ‘Asian Heritage Month’.)
When I saw the pitch for Xiran Jay Zhao’s upcoming book Iron Widow, I was immediately taken aback by how unabashedly anime-inspired it felt, from its fundamental premise (hello, giant mechas) to its hints at deeper underlying themes—themes like teenage angst, sexuality, and the messy reality of coming of age. I think some of the most moving stories today are best told through—have been told through—the medium of animation, and I’m beyond excited to be able to talk to a writer today on the blog who also harbors the same fondness I do for stories that use grand worldbuilding to tell stories that hit close to the heart.
It’s with this that I’m delighted to welcome the lovely author to the Pond today! Xiran is bringing us her magic as a smirking yellow cat in an elegant, frilly black and red dress, with an excellent cow hood to complete the look. And of course, a little summary of Xiran’s book is in order as well, if you missed it in our previous book news post!
Have a little peek:
Do you feel that little shiver of excitement up your spine at this completely bonkers premise? Yes? Do you also wanna know just how it all came together? We pull back the curtain today in our conversation with Xiran, and whether you’re here for the healthy polyamorous relationships, the feminist East Asian sci-fi/fantasy, or the good ole giant robots: I hope you find something that resonates with you too!
Author Interview: Xiran Jay Zhou
Sprout (that’s me!): Hello Xiran! Thank you so much for joining us today here at the Pond during Asian Heritage Month – we are so excited to have you! Before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Xiran: Hi, Sprout! Oh, boy. Honestly, I’m one of those weebs the cringe compilations warned you about. I do cosplays (shameless Insta plug) and have shitposted around various fandoms since I was old enough to use a computer. (Under different aliases. I will never let y’all find my old identities). Unlike other debut authors, who are so amazing they make me feel like a clown, I don’t have any fancy accomplishments or credentials IRL beyond graduating soon with a degree in Health Sciences & Life Sciences. So I’m teeeechnically supposed to become a scientist, but that’s not happening any time soon, because I’m sick of school for now, HAHAHA. Always happy to demolish Asian stereotypes by being chaotic and incompetent.
Sprout: Your upcoming YA fantasy, Iron Widow, releases in fall 2021! Can you give us an elevator pitch of what it’s going to be about?
Xiran: It’s a Pacific Rim x The Handmaid’s Tale retelling of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history, featuring mechas inspired by East Asian myth creatures and piloted by a sexist, boy-girl piloting system. (I don’t know what I was on when I came up with this either. Sometimes I just look at the pitch and go “girl, wtf.”). For all you YA readers out there, think of it as Girls of Paper and Fire, but with polyamory and giant mechas.
Sprout: What inspired and/or motivated you to write this epic feminist mecha retelling of a famous Chinese emperor? Is there any part of the worldbuilding that feels special to you personally?
Xiran: It’s basically a monstrous amalgamation of my love for anime and my love for Chinese harem dramas, because I simultaneously have the tastes of a 7-year-old Japanese boy and a 62-year-old Chinese auntie. It was most pointedly born out of my disappointment at that movie The Great Wall—which for some reason starred Matt Damon, even though it was a Chinese horror fantasy—and the anime Darling in the Franxx. (To anyone reading: don’t Google Image this anime in polite company).
Darling in the Franxx was an extreme, interesting spin on the mecha genre that featured boys and girls being paired up to pilot mechas, and used this system as an allegory for relationships (and also the dystopian oppression by adults against adolescent sexuality). It could’ve been an instant classic…except it took a weird turn after episode 15 and did not stick its landing. I was so frustrated that I kept thinking about what I wished it had done differently or had explored more. There was one specific line in its soundtrack, “I can do this mission solo and I’m always down to ride, but it’s better with a lady by your side,” that opened my eyes to how this setup is basically the ultimate male fantasy. You get to pilot this giant powerful mecha, AND you get a pretty girl for a partner? That’s something dug straight out of a teenage boy’s mind. But, of course, from a female perspective, it’s terrifying instead. What if you had no choice but to be one of these female companions? What if the piloting system was a very on-the-nose allegory for gender roles, gender inequality, and the gender binary? What if this was like a dark Chinese harem drama, and one of these concubine-pilots was determined to overthrow the whole system to gain ultimate power for herself? This line of thinking quickly spiraled into Iron Widow. The proper pitch for this book should actually be Local Girl Ruins Male Fantasy for 400 Pages. (Btw, you can listen to the song here. I guess it’s responsible for my book deal, LOL.)
The historical retelling part of the book got pulled in when I started associating the concept with harem dramas, because there is no greater story of a harem girl’s rise to power than Wu Zetian’s. She went from a concubine in charge of changing bed sheets to singlehandedly ruling the richest and most racially and religiously tolerant empire in the world. I took the Chineseness of this and ran with it, so the mechas became inspired by myth creatures like the Nine-Tailed Fox and powered by concepts like qi flow and acupuncture, and the characters are like Chinese History: All Stars. I left her and many other famous names like Zhuge Liang intact, because, well, I want Westerners to know these names.
As for the worldbuilding, it’s essentially modern China but with many ancient traditions intact, such as not being allowed to cut your hair, wearing fancy flowing robes, and footbinding. There’s stuff that may seem very anachronistic to a western audience, such as village peasants playing on their tablets all day, but this is actually a common thing in developing countries. A lot of them skipped landline technology and jumped straight to wireless systems. The urban-rural disparity in China is so large that it’s very normal for someone working in a big city like Shanghai to be like “yeah, gotta take 10 hours of mud roads to go back to my mountain village for Chinese New Year!!” I personally come from a small town in China that’s considered hick and rural. My grandparents were farmers, my mom was literally born at home, and my dad has stories of carrying manure to the fields. I consulted a lot with them when I built the world, because my protagonist Zetian is from a rural frontier village. This book is essentially 400 pages of me simultaneously celebrating Chinese culture and history while discoursing the hell out of it.
Sprout: From the announcement, it feels to me that this book had plenty of influences both from Asian and Western media! As a diaspora author, how do you feel your past interests and upbringing uniquely reflect who you are as a writer today?
Xiran: It for sure took me a long time to realize that it’s okay to put a lot of myself and my own perspective into my writing. Even back in 2016, I was making statements like “Oh, I would never write a book explicitly inspired by Chinese culture, because that feels too self-indulgent and I’d get so heavy into details that nobody would get it.”
I think the biggest challenge to being a diaspora author is this worry that what you write is inherently not going to be mainstream enough to be successful. This is still a worry of mine; I have no idea how the general audience is going to receive Iron Widow. It’s the first book I’ve written that is totally and utterly ME. It’s everything I like, everything I want to talk about, and 100% self-indulgent. Will the average reader like it? Who knows! But what got me through the writing is the knowledge that at least SOMEONE out there is just like me, who will get every reference in this bizarre blend of anime and history and YA, and they’ll think it’s the best shit ever.
Sprout: Your book is releasing in 2021, which feels so near yet so far away. If you could go back to the version of yourself still deep in the WIP stage of this book, what advice would you give her?
Xiran: Sort out that Part 3 before writing it, b*tch. And stop stressing out every day about not meeting your word count goals. Every delay in finishing this book and getting it to publishers will end up being for the best, because it gives you time to think and revise.
Sprout: Your book is also going to have one of the very first healthy polyamorous relationships in YA SFF, at least as far as I can recall! Could you talk to us a little about why you’re excited for this rep to exist for future readers of your books?
Xiran: Oh my god, let me preface this by thanking the book community for being so amazing and supportive. Honestly, when I first planned it, I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. I wrote it because the whole book is about shattering rigid rules and preconceptions around gender, sexuality, and relationships, so why not go poly? People have been talking about wanting YA love triangles to end in poly for years and years, and that’s exactly what I did. She has two boyfriends who also become boyfriends. You’d think there wouldn’t be an issue around that…except when I mentioned this to the industry professionals I knew, multiple warned me that I could run into problems with it. Things like being rejected from libraries, snubbed by reviewers, or outright being banned from certain states. My agent told me that because she had literally never seen polyamory done in YA before, she honestly didn’t know if it could sell to YA imprints, and gave me the option to age it up to adult. I was really torn about this for a while, but because I wrote this book as YA and deconstructed many other YA tropes too, I chose to sub it to YA imprints first, because, well, barriers don’t come down unless you break them.
Now, I am a very liberal person who lives in a very liberal area, so I thought the warnings may have been exaggerated. Then I had an “ah, shit, they might’ve been right” moment when the SECOND comment I got on Goodreads was like “I was excited about this until someone said it promotes polygamy. I don’t know why the author thinks this is appropriate for teens; don’t they know it causes disease?” I was Shook, because it confirmed my worst fears. Afterward, I did receive overwhelming support for my depiction of polyamory, and I am so, SO grateful for it, but I can’t shake the feeling that online communities are a bubble. I honestly don’t know how this book is going to fare among the broader YA audience. I just hope it does well enough that publishers stop being hesitant to buy future poly books.
I want to state something right here, though: I WAS thinking of the kids when I wrote the polyamory in my book. I want them to know that jealous conflict should NOT be the norm in relationships. That romance should be based on healthy communication, not societally-mandated rules. That this whole idea of there being a single soulmate for everyone out there is FALSE and even harmful and could trap people in toxic relationships for years. As long as everyone is happy and everything is consensual, you should be free to love whoever you want!
Sprout: Overall, what are you hoping readers will take away from your book?
Xiran: I firmly believe that society criticizes every little thing about women to deliberately batter our self-esteem and keep us serving and catering to others in hopes of rebuilding our self-images. In my book world, mothers crush and bind the feet of their daughters because it’s what “proper women” do, wives stay in terrible relationships to “keep the family together,” and girls enlist as concubine-pilots because they’re guilted into believing it’s a necessary sacrifice to keep their homeland safe. What they’re all chasing is one thing: approval from others.
I hope the teen readers out there will realize the same thing Zetian does, that there is no point bending herself backward for this approval when the only kind of women a patriarchal society applauds are self-sacrificing servants to those around them. Guilt and shame are tools of propaganda used to make women doubt themselves and become slaves to other people’s opinions. To demand respect and go for what you want is inherently upsetting to the patriarchy and WILL draw hate and resentment, because it means you’re daring to live your life for yourself, not others. But Zetian doesn’t care. Her strength comes from within, from her ability to stop giving a crap about being approved of. Her eyes are always on her personal goals, and she does whatever it takes to reach them. This is the kind of energy I want to leave with everyone who reads the book.
Sprout: Okay, let’s talk anime. If you had the power to make everyone in the world watch at least three anime in their lifetimes, which ones would they be?
- Yugioh. I already do this. Every time I’m at a sleepover and someone hands me the Netflix controls, YUGIOH IS HAPPENING.
- The first 15 episodes of Darling in the Franxx AND THEN NONE OF THE ONES AFTER
- Suisei no Gargantia – Extremely underrated anime that is only 12 episodes but will blow your mind! I so rarely see, like…hopeful and beautiful post-apocalyptic fiction? But that’s exactly what this was.
(Note from Sprout: I have also watched Darling in the Franxx, and I wholeheartedly agree with the recommendation of watching just up to episode 15. The show heads in some… truly baffling directions after the first half.)
About the Author
Xiran Jay Zhao is a meme-loving shitposter who is somehow becoming a published author. She is a first generation immigrant from small town China (which, for China, means a town of 4 million people). An upcoming graduate from Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, she wrote sci-fi and fantasy books while she probably should’ve been studying more biochemical pathways. She is in a cow suit because she made a promise to her friends 7 years ago that she would take her author photo in it if she actually got published, and she is not going back on that promise. You can find her on Twitter for daily shitposts and Instagram for cosplays and very Extra outfits.
Add Iron Widow on: Goodreads!
I hope our interview with Xiran today has convinced you to consider purchasing the book once it’s released, or at least add it to your TBR! I know I will be eagerly looking out for it come 2021. I’m so excited to see more high-concept book pitches in the YA scene, especially ones with such important things to say—and all the heart and humor to back them up.