Author Katie Zhao on her career, Asian representation in books, and The Dragon Warrior

With her new book set to release soon, Zhao reflects on the journey to becoming an author and as an Asian American from the Midwest.

By the time she was in middle school, Katie Zhao knew she wanted to become a writer. Her parents dismissed the idea, saying she would starve if she pursued this career path.

Though the idea was terrifying, it didn’t stop her. 

Fast forward to the present: Zhao is an author with Bloomsbury, a worldwide publishing house. Her debut middle grade novel The Dragon Warrior comes out on October 15. 

Cold Tea Collective spoke with Zhao about her journey to becoming an author, growing up in the American Midwest, and creating The Dragon Warrior

Photo Credit: Yi Shang Qing

WRITING CHINESE AMERICAN CHARACTERS: AN AWAKENING

Zhao grew up in the American Midwest, an area where there weren’t many Asian people. For the longest time, she wrote characters that did not look like her.

In high school, she decided to take her writing more seriously. As a fun project, she started to write a novel with a Chinese American character. At first, she didn’t think that it was possible because Asian roles were rare to find, however, she found herself writing more quickly and enjoying the process. It was her awakening as an author, but it also came with a sense of duty. 

Writing about Chinese Americans as one herself made Zhao part of the Own Voices movement, where authors of a marginalized background write characters from the same background. 

“I deeply feel what a lot of Own Voices authors do, which is a sense of responsibility to get it right,” she said. “I’m one of the few voices out there. It still presses on me that I can’t really mess up.” 

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According to the 2017 Cooperative Children’s Book Center report, only 39 per cent of books about the Asian American and Pacific Islander community were written by people from the community.

With the opportunity to share her stories, Zhao helps tilt the statistics towards more stories about and by Asian Americans — but it’s more than just writing. 

“It’s not just one Asian American story,” she said. “My responsibility right now is to put the best stories that I have out there, and boost other Asian authors and other Own Voices authors.” 

FROM THE MIDWEST TO NEW YORK: FINDING HOME

Although she has managed to find success, this didn’t come easy. Less than a year ago, Zhao was living in Michigan, juggling her writing career while simultaneously working for one of the Big Four accounting firms.  “I felt so deeply unhappy with what I was doing,” she said. “I didn’t know any creatives around me because everyone was an accountant or had left me.” 

In February 2018, Zhao signed with her agent Penny Moore — and with an agent and a book deal from Bloomsbury, she seriously reconsidered what was important to her. She was already living her dream, so why stay in the Midwest?

“I realized that I can’t continue to be the person my parents [wanted] me to be and the person I didn’t want to be,” she said. “So I chose the person I want to be.”

In January 2019, Zhao packed a suitcase and bought herself a one-way ticket to New York City. There, Zhao connected with the local Asian Creative Network chapter and found the community that she craved for while in the Midwest: a group that was both Asian and creative.

Though she is still juggling an accounting job with her writing, being surrounded by Asian creatives in a city ripe with opportunity has made all the difference. 

“I write on my commute to and from work and I can actually get a lot of work done,” she said, with a laugh. “There’s no access to Wi-Fi so I can’t scroll through Twitter.” 

Photo Credit: Vivienne To

HOME AND THE DRAGON WARRIOR

After living in New York City for almost a year, she admitted it feels like home.

It’s where she can be her best self, producing her best work. But home is also her family in the Midwest. And home is the ability to walk into a restaurant and order whatever her parents made at home, be it shiu mai or fried rice. To her, home is complex — it’s something that is developed with age while also being inherent. 

By the time readers finish her debut novel, The Dragon Warrior, Zhao hopes they are able to answer the question of, “What is home?” 

“When I wrote that book, I wanted it to be a sense of home for Chinese Americans because it centers on Chinatowns, which my family always saw as little pockets of home.”

In The Dragon Warrior, Zhao explored home by having her protagonist, Faryn Liu, travel to different Chinatowns and by incorporating Chinese mythology into the story. Kirkus describes the book as an ideal choice for fans of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, as well as Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and The End of Time.

For more information, check out the launch event taking place on Sunday, October 13 at Books of Wonder in New York City.

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