It was a proud moment for 23-year-old Chinese-Canadian sci-fi author Xiran Jay Zhao (who prefers the they/them/their pronouns) when they overheard their parents boasting about them at a gathering of friends and family. In response to the other mothers and fathers praising their children, Zhao’s parents bragged that their offspring “has more than 300,000 subscribers on YouTube.”
The hilarious looks on the other guests’ faces immediately vindicated Zhao’s years of self-doubt and their struggles to get industry gatekeepers to believe in them and their books.
With Zhao’s fourth book and first published work — Iron Widow — released just days ago, we assume they feel more vindicated than ever.
The cover of Iron Widow. Illustration by Ashley Mackenzie, design by Terri Nimmo
Rewind eight years and Zhao, then 15 and a self-proclaimed teenage weeb (a term for someone obsessed with Japanese culture), was at an anime convention in Vancouver, British Columbia. There, they were gaining inspiration from shonen manga like Dragon Ball Z, Saint Seiya, and Attack on Titan.
One gripe Zhao, who is based in Vancouver, had always had with the genre of Japanese comics was its consistent lack of compelling female characters. They wanted to create a “shonen manga with a female protagonist who’s aware that she lives in a hyper misogynistic world, and she is ready to crush the patriarchal fantasy with her giant mecha.”
Zhao met a 23-year-old guy at the anime convention. While the conversation was initially flirtatious, the man backed off when he discovered their age. He told Zhao he was an author, and they responded that they were also an author — despite the fact they had never written a story in their life.
“He asked me to send him something I wrote, so when I got home, I had to actually put a story down in writing for the first time. I wrote the first chapter and sent it to him,” Zhao recalls. “His encouragement made me keep writing, and that snowballed into my admittedly very terrible first novel — which I actually tried to send to literary agents.”
Zhao notes that their first novel didn’t result in any bites from agents, but it got them hooked on writing and the dream of getting published.
Zhao holds up a copy of Iron Widow. Image via @XiranJayZhao on Twitter
Three years ago, Zhao was in a very dark place in their life. During this time, they found inspiration in the stories of defiance and resilience in Chinese history.
Zhao, who arrived in Canada from small-town China in their early teens, recalls, “I was never really proud of my heritage, but it was then that I realized just how rich it was. Where there’s typical Chinese culture that seems to paint everything as being about Confucianism, obedience, and sticking within your designated social roles, there has also always been a counterculture that rebelled against that. That spirit is just as Chinese.”
“I do think there’s much misunderstanding about Chinese culture from Western points of view, so I’ve made it my life’s mission to demystify it by spreading the stories I love,” they add.
This desire made Zhao aspire to write a powerful science fiction fantasy story about rebellion and vengeance that reimagines China’s only female emperor. This mission resulted in Iron Widow.
“I kept trying with more books [after my initial rejection from literary agents], and years and years later, Iron Widow, my fourth book, finally took me all the way,” they say.
I didn't think this day would come, but I am now a published authorMy path to publication has been full of rejection and is honestly pretty painful to think back on, but now Iron Widow, my sci-fi reimagining of China's only female emperor, is in bookstores everywhere!! 😭 pic.twitter.com/8J9JgQHehn— Xiran Jay Zhao (@XiranJayZhao) September 21, 2021
I didn't think this day would come, but I am now a published author
My path to publication has been full of rejection and is honestly pretty painful to think back on, but now Iron Widow, my sci-fi reimagining of China's only female emperor, is in bookstores everywhere!! 😭 pic.twitter.com/8J9JgQHehn
— Xiran Jay Zhao (@XiranJayZhao) September 21, 2021
When asked what they would say to youth who are sitting on the fence about pursuing a creative passion, Zhao advises, “You have to be prepared to work for it, to be smart and adaptable … To make a living as a creative, you have to think seriously about the stuff you don’t want to think about, like business and marketing and how to get past the industry gatekeepers.”
“There’s no easy answer to success. Sometimes it’s all about luck, and you have to be prepared for lots of disappointment along the way. Only walk this road if you’re truly, truly okay with that,” they add.
Aside from the relentless streams of rejection letters from publishers, Zhao had to deal with family expectations. Their parents refused to believe they could succeed in the creative field, to the point that they were pushing Zhao to apply for a 9-5 job even though they had graduated in the middle of a pandemic.
HELLO PARTY PEOPLE IN VANCOUVER, @rrschaeffer AND I WILL BE SIGNING OUR BOOKS AT THE METROTOWN CHAPTERS STARTING NOW TILL LIKE 7PM?? pic.twitter.com/KO1rFbZ3MD— Xiran Jay Zhao (@XiranJayZhao) September 21, 2021
HELLO PARTY PEOPLE IN VANCOUVER, @rrschaeffer AND I WILL BE SIGNING OUR BOOKS AT THE METROTOWN CHAPTERS STARTING NOW TILL LIKE 7PM?? pic.twitter.com/KO1rFbZ3MD
Zhao didn’t prove themselves to their parents until they got a second book deal and the views on their YouTube channel, which covers Chinese history and culture, exploded into the hundreds of thousands.
After completing their studies in biochemistry at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University and working a few co-op terms, Zhao says they realized a typical office career wasn’t for them. “My parents both losing their jobs and having to move companies solidified my determination even further. If even they, in their typical jobs, weren’t safe, then why not take the risk to do something I truly want to do?” says Zhao.
After coming to this realization, Zhao ditched a career in biochemistry, exchanging iron homeostasis with Iron Widow, and hasn’t looked back. Iron Widow features China’s only female emperor smashing giant alien mechas in a Pacific Rim meets Handmaid’s Tale story of vengeance, MFM polyamory, love triangles, misogyny, and rebellion.
Iron Widow was released on September 21, 2021, by Penguin Teen.
Cover image via @_ashmackenzie on Twitter
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