In Huaxia, the universe presented in the book iron widow, women serve only as vital energy for the operation of gigantic war machines, which are piloted by men in an attempt to protect humanity from alien attacks. It is in this scenario dominated by patriarchy that the protagonist Wu Zetianinspired by the only woman who held the throne of imperial China, infiltrates to avenge the death of her sister – sacrificed in one of the clashes of robots and monsters.
Despite being a dystopian story, a theme very present in the books that are successful with the young audience, the debut work of Xiran Jay Zhao reflects much of the problems that women, unfortunately, also face in the real world. “Much of the universe of iron widow was based on my real fears, experiences and stories I heard”, says Xiran to Capricho. “I wanted to create a world made up of my worst nightmares and write the story of a girl who rises through it all.”
After making waves on social media, including TikTok and Twitter, iron widow ended up on the best-seller list of The New York Times and arrived in Brazil in early 2022 by publishing house Intrinseca. The noise among Brazilian readers also brought Xiran to participate in the 26th São Paulo International Book Biennial, where elu had an exclusive chat with CH; check out:
CH: Your passion for writing was consolidated during the pandemic. Did writing “Iron Widow” help you to deal with this difficult period?
Xiran: Definitely kept me busy! We had to quarantine for over two years, yet I barely felt the passage of time because of all the things I had to do to get iron widow come out.
CH: You were born in China and your book mixes many elements of the mythology and culture there. What was it like doing this research?
X: I thoroughly read Empress Wu’s story to find out how to adapt her life, and I consulted texts such as Classic of Mountains and Seas when inventing the designs for the chrysalis (war machines that appear in the book). It was so fun to mix these very old stories and ideas into a sci-fi world.
CH: Even though it’s science fiction, the book has dark parallels to things that also happen in our society, especially when we talk about women’s rights. What do you think about this?
X: The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Chinese history is that society doesn’t always progress in the direction we want. The worst centuries of misogyny in Chinese history came just after the reign of Wu Zetian, the only female empress. We like to assume that the world will always become more open as time goes on, but that’s not true. There will always be those who are after the rights of others, and we must actively fight their efforts to get ahead. It is extremely important that we do not become condescending and forget how to fight.
CH: You grew up in Canada, a country far from China and with other cultural references. How did you handle it?
X: I think it gave me a much deeper perspective on power and freedom. For example, when I hear someone say that mandatory mask use during the pandemic is oppression, I think “you have no idea what true oppression feels like”.
CH: You have an academic background in biochemistry. Does that reflect in your stories in any way?
X: In the stories I’m writing at the moment, no. But in the future I would like to write something that is more grounded in hard science. In fact, my parents were very angry when I decided to do something that had nothing to do with my academic background despite having spent so many years on it. (They, however, stopped complaining after my book became a bestseller!)
CH: You are also a youtuber and you are always present on social media. How do you deal with haters?
X: I ignore most. I think most people who spend a lot of time talking bullshit about other people on social media either want attention, or are angry about something that isn’t working out in their own lives. It is rarely personal.
CH: Your YouTube channel has over 400,000 subscribers! How do you see this work of talking about Chinese history and culture to thousands of people on the internet?
X: It amazes me every day that so many people are willing to hear me talk about the topics I talk about on the channel! My favorite reactions were from the Chinese diaspora, who say my videos helped them feel more connected to their heritage. I do all this for the diaspora, honestly.
CH: This is your first time in Brazil. What caught your attention the most?
X: I love Brazil so much! The biggest surprise for me is how much it reminds me of China. There are many similar buildings and stores. Being on the streets even made me feel nostalgic.
CH: And what was it like to meet Brazilian fans in person at the Bienal do Livro?
X: It was absolutely amazing! I’ve always noticed that Brazilian readers are super passionate on social media, and meeting them in person was another level. I am very happy to have the opportunity to get to know Brazil for real and to have this experience. I wish to tell you: Don’t stop fighting!
CH: Finally, we know you’re writing a sequel to iron widow. Can you tell me anything about the plot?
X: I’m definitely behind on this, but what I can tell you is that drastic actions have drastic consequences! Zetian is going to have a hard time in the second volume, but she won’t stop fighting the forces that are trying to bring her down.
Follow Xiran on twitter and not Instagram.