Vancouver’s Xiran Jay Zhao is the author of Iron Widow, a YA fantasy novel and a lead title from Penguin Teen Canada this fall that blends Chinese history and futuristic mech warfare. They made their name as an online influencer with a viral YouTube video critiquing Disney’s 2020 live-action remake of Mulan from the perspective of a first-generation Chinese immigrant with interests in Chinese history, cosplay, and anime; now, they have more than 325,000 subscribers on YouTube. They spoke with us about the inspiration behind their novel and why they chose the unorthodox blending of history and science fiction.
Why you were attracted to writing a story about Zetian?
The moment I decided to bring an influence from Chinese imperial harems into the story world, I knew I had to base the protagonist on Empress Regnant Wu. There’s no other woman in Chinese history who had a rise through the harem as iconic as hers, not only reaching the top rank of empress consort, but breaking through the barriers of the inner palace and becoming sole legitimate ruler of the empire herself. It’s been incredibly fun to reimagine her as instead a teenage peasant girl in an intensely misogynistic world who suddenly gains access to giant fighter mechas—how would she change her world? That’s what Iron Widow is all about.
Why did you choose the genre of science fiction to explore her story?
I think POC-penned stories are direly lacking in sci-fi. There have been lots of amazing POC-written fantasies that have come out in recent years, but I’d love to see more of us branch into sci-fi and other genres. Sci-fi has also been so Western-centric that I wanted to do a setting inspired by precolonial China and see how that would play out. When it comes to China, there’s a lot of obsession with its long, ancient history—so I’m placing it in the future for a change!
How do you plan to reconcile the reality and the image that Western media presents of Asian history and characters through your work?
I think that simply telling a story from my heart as a Chinese person is enough to go against the grain of authors who have written Asian-inspired stories from an outside point of view. You can just feel the difference in nuance in every #OwnVoices book. Every Chinese person’s experience and interpretation of our culture is unique, and I’m grateful to be able to share a story from my own perspective to such a large audience. Ultimately, though, Iron Widow is second-world fiction, so I hope people don’t open the book expecting to be educated on Chinese culture. I strongly believe that POC should have the freedom to write whatever they want without bearing the huge burden of having to represent, educate, and demystify.