Our Friend is Here! Asian Heritage Month Edition – Katie Zhao, Author of The Dragon Warrior, On Embracing Our Inner Dragons

Our Friend is Here: Asian Heritage Month. A discussion with Katie Zhao! author of the dragon warrior, on embracing our inner dragons. illustration of xiaolong the axolotl, holding her arms out wide as if showing off something, with katie as a red chinese dragon holding a staff.

Our Friend is Hereis 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’.)

I think one of the most powerful things about children’s literature is being told that, no matter how small you may be, you hold immense power to do good and amazing things. Growing up, the books I read were very formative to me. Whenever I wasn’t sure on what to do or how I wanted to navigate social situations – intermediate (middle) school is no joke! – I turned to literary characters and wondered what they would have done.

The thing is, though, was that when I was younger, I didn’t have any Asian literary role models to look up to. I have very vivid memories as a child, latching onto any Asian that I saw represented in media. Even if the character was horribly stereotypical or even just a villain, I’d love them anyway. But in hindsight, I didn’t have a lot of positive role models that inspired me or empowered me.

Reflecting on this, what makes me really happy and proud is seeing unapologetically Asian stories written by Asian authors about Asian characters who can be role models. One such example is Faryn from The Dragon Warrior. I had the privilege of reading The Dragon Warrior last year and I loved it for its the cheeky humour, diaspora feels, and empowering adventure. Above all, I loved Faryn – I loved how the story sets out to reclaim the trope of the ‘Chosen One’, which is typically occupied for white boys. And to see Faryn, who is Asian and a girl, be the ‘Chosen One’? Phenomenal.

An illustration of Katie Zhao as a red chinesee dragon, holding a golden staff.It is my pleasure to have Katie, author of The Dragon Warrior, visiting us at the blog today! I’m so honoured to have Katie for Asian Heritage Month, particularly because she’s going to be sharing with us a piece she wrote called ‘Embracing Our Inner Dragons’, which is a marvelous and thoughtful pieces about reclaiming historically white spaces with Asian leads. Katie is also visiting the Pond as a fierce red Chinese dragon – just like the dragon on the cover of The Dragon Warrior!

Before I share with you Katie’s piece, for those of you who are not familiar with her middle grade series, allow me to formally introduce you to The Dragon Warrior!

The Dragon Warrior (#1) and The Fallen Hero (#2) by Katie Zhao

the dragon warrior the fallen hero katie zhao book

Blurb for The Dragon Warrior:

As a member of the Jade Society, twelve-year-old Faryn Liu dreams of honoring her family and the gods by becoming a warrior. But the Society has shunned Faryn and her brother Alex ever since their father disappeared years ago, forcing them to train in secret.

Then, during an errand into San Francisco, Faryn stumbles into a battle with a demon–and helps defeat it. She just might be the fabled Heaven Breaker, a powerful warrior meant to work for the all-mighty deity, the Jade Emperor, by commanding an army of dragons to defeat the demons. That is, if she can prove her worth and find the island of the immortals before the Lunar New Year.

With Alex and other unlikely allies at her side, Faryn sets off on a daring quest across Chinatowns. But becoming the Heaven Breaker will require more sacrifices than she first realized . . . What will Faryn be willing to give up to claim her destiny?

If you think The Dragon Warrior sounds cool, you are absolutely right! I really loved this book; loved the humour, loved the exploration of friendship and family bonds, loved the portrayal of Chinese culture and quintessential diaspora feels, and just how fun this book was!

Katie Zhao: ‘Embracing Our Inner Dragons’

“For immigrants, children of immigrants, and diaspora readers everywhere: never forget that you are the heroes and dragon warriors of your own stories.” 

When I wrote the above dedication for THE DRAGON WARRIOR, I thought about what, and who, I had in mind when writing the book. This Chinese #ownvoices middle grade fantasy is a love letter to the stories that fueled my childhood imagination: PERCY JACKSON, one of my favorite American series, and JOURNEY TO THE WEST, a classic Chinese epic with gods and monsters. Middle grade fantasy is a genre dominated by white male protagonists, so the diaspora heart of THE DRAGON WARRIOR, with a Chinese multiracial female protagonist, ultimately sends a message of strength and visibility to my younger self, as well as to any readers who have struggled with their identities due to lack of representation.

Growing up, books were my best friends. I would beg my parents to take me to the public library and spend hours selecting a bagful of stories to take home. Once at home, I would spend even longer devouring those books. A good story could transport me to a whole new world with wizards and witches, or talking animals, or thrilling mysteries, or hilarious school antics. 

Back then, I rarely saw characters who looked like me. If Asian characters were present, they were always the sidekicks, never the heroes. At the time I didn’t realize it, but these subliminal messages dealt a crippling blow to my self-esteem that would take me years and years to unpack and heal.

“But it wasn’t even the award or the book’s large following that fueled my passion for writing #ownvoices. It was the ease and joy and fire with which I wrote this Chinese American story that made me realize I had discovered my true voice and calling.”

I still remember being ten years old and distinctly thinking, How nice would it be if I were white? How nice would it be if I could be like the heroes I see in my favorite stories? Back then, I hated being Chinese. I hated my Chinese face, hated bringing weird Chinese food to school, hated having to attend Chinese school every week. I just wanted to be like the heroes I saw in books and on TV. I just wanted to be white.

I began writing short stories when I was 7 years old, and that sparked my undying love for writing. In early high school, I graduated to writing novels on Figment and Wattpad. It never occurred to me that I wanted to or even could write novels with Asian characters. Because I rarely saw those stories on bookshelves or on the “What’s Hot” section of Wattpad, I didn’t think people would be interested in stories about Asian identity and culture. 

The first novel I wrote with a Chinese American hero started out as an inside joke between my little sister and me. I expected nothing to come out of it. The novel far surpassed my expectations, and actually grew into an award-winning Wattpad novel with over 1 million reads – to date, it is still by far my most popular work on the website, including the stories I wrote with white characters. Imagine my shock! But it wasn’t even the award or the book’s large following that fueled my passion for writing #ownvoices. It was the ease and joy and fire with which I wrote this Chinese American story that made me realize I had discovered my true voice and calling. 

For so long, I had tried to be someone I wasn’t. When I was younger, I often struggled to find the motivation to finish penning my short stories and novels. Only now did I realize that this was not because I wasn’t a good enough writer. It was because those stories were about white people, and, like the characters’ appearances, those stories were as vanilla as could be. I am not a white person, I never will be, and I don’t want to be. My writing stems from such a personal place that it would be impossible for me to write stories about white people. I simply don’t have the living experience, nor do I care enough, to write those stories.

“I want the next generation of Asian diaspora to grow up with so many books featuring heroes who look like them, that they won’t default to viewing the world through a white gaze. That they won’t ever reject their cultures or themselves.”

During my college years, I joined multiple Asian organizations and really began to embrace my identity. Everything about my culture that I’d rejected when I was younger, I now desperately wanted to reclaim. This was a period of decolonizing my mindset and worldview. This was a period of immersing myself in Asian cultures. This period forever changed my life, and the way I viewed my writing.

Reimagining traditionally white spaces with people of color is my way of taking back the self-esteem and pride that was stolen from me in childhood. I want to see Asian heroes in every genre and age category of books, every space that white characters have dominated for so long. Asian superheroes. Asian student prodigies. Asian kids saving the world. More and more, we’re seeing those stories finally being allowed to enter mainstream publishing. I want to boost the amazing #ownvoices Asian authors who carved this path before me, who are carving this path alongside me now, many of whom I’m proud to call my friends. And if there are stories that must be told that aren’t out there yet, I want to tell them. I want the next generation of Asian diaspora to grow up with so many books featuring heroes who look like them, that they won’t default to viewing the world through a white gaze. That they won’t ever reject their cultures or themselves.

Above all, I’m passionate about reimagining traditionally white spaces with Asian characters because Asian diaspora deserve to see ourselves positively represented in media. We deserve to be superheros, magicians, warriors, heroes of our own stories. This is a right that gatekeepers stole from us for far too long. Bit by bit, story by story, we’re now reclaiming those narratives and identities. I could not be more thrilled and honored to contribute to this movement.

About the Author

katiezhaoKatie Zhao grew up in Michigan, where there was little for her to do besides bury her nose in a good book or a writing journal. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in political science; she also completed her master’s in accounting there. She wrote her middle grade debut THE DRAGON WARRIOR during her last year of school, in between classes. In her spare time, Katie enjoys reading, singing, dancing (badly), and checking out new restaurants. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York. The sequel to THE DRAGON WARRIOR, THE FALLEN HERO, comes out on October 13, 2020 from Bloomsbury. Her young adult debut, HOW WE FALL APART, will publish on January 5, 2021.

Find Katie on: Website | Twitter | Twitter | Goodreads

ourfriend XLKatie’s piece really resonated with me and I hope that it resonated with you too – or, I hope that you found it as thought-provoking as I did! I think this is one of the privileges of being a reader today. We may still have a long long (long!) way to go, but it’s also wonderful to take a step back and see the strides taken by marginalised authors to tell stories that are meaningful to them and will have a positive impact on young readers.

A huge thank you to Katie for visiting today – and don’t forget to check out her wonderful The Dragon Warrior series!

4 thoughts on “Our Friend is Here! Asian Heritage Month Edition – Katie Zhao, Author of The Dragon Warrior, On Embracing Our Inner Dragons

  1. This sounds great! I also had the experience Katie mentioned of not finding Asian heroes to look up to in fiction, so I’ve always identified white even though I’m half Chinese. It makes me so happy that current young readers will have more variety in their reading choices.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Every interview on this series that I read is so thought provoking and well done ❤ I'm so touched after reading Katie's story, and I can't wait to read The Dragon Warrior now 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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