LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Imagine you're a first-time author. Your wildest dreams come true, and there's a bidding war over your first book. It gets snapped up for big bucks, but then there are some objections to how race is represented in your novel. A Twitter storm ensues.
Amelie Wen Zhao is the author of "Blood Heir." After the online criticism of advance copies of her book, Zhao decided to hold off publishing her young adult fantasy epic. That decision got a huge reaction. It was written about in The New York Times, Slate, New York Magazine and The New Yorker. Now the book is finally coming out. It's the story of an exiled princess named Ana with dangerous powers and an underworld rogue who join forces to save the kingdom from an evil system of corruption.
Amelie Wen Zhao joins us now. Welcome.
AMELIE WEN ZHAO: Thank you. Hi, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. In this fantasy world you've created, Ana is an Affinite. Is that - am I saying that correctly?
ZHAO: Yeah, she's an Affinite. So it's people with an affinity to certain elements, whether physical or metaphysical. So she has an affinity to blood, which means that she has a connection to people's blood, and she's able to wield it. So that makes her so immensely powerful, but also such a terrifying protagonist.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: People with affinities in the book are treated very, very badly. You've said that one of the ways that you were looking at this was through the lens of human trafficking, specifically because, obviously, you're Asian, and that is a huge issue there.
ZHAO: Yeah. So these are forms of modern slavery that continue to impact 20 to 40 million victims around the world in countries such as North Korea, India, Thailand, Russia, Eastern Europe. What's so threatening about these is that they continue to thrive because they've found a way to go in between the laws and to avert them and take advantage of vulnerable populations in the world, such as immigrants and refugees.
And the main character, Ana - she is one of these vulnerable populations, and she's in danger of being trafficked and exploited. And that's what she fights against in the book. I really wrote her to be powerful and to be an angry girl, to really be a champion of justice and what she thinks is right.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were born in Paris. You grew up in Beijing. You now live in New York. This is a story about being an outsider. How did you draw from your own experience in writing "Blood Heir?"
ZHAO: I mean, it is all based on my own experience and my own feelings. Throughout my background, I've lived in many different countries, and I grew up in an international community in Beijing. So there were peers from many different backgrounds, and I was actually the only Chinese citizen to be in this environment. And it's just this feeling of always being kind of on the outside and kind of wanting to brush away that part of you that's so foreign to what society seems to present to you.
So for Ana - she's always feared and been taught to fear her blood affinity. But she learns throughout the book that this otherness, this thing that makes her so unique, is a strength of hers, and that's how she chooses to use it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This book, as we mentioned, was originally supposed to be published in June. And I want to take you back to what happened. You started receiving criticism online that the book was anti-black and using tropes about slavery. Tell us how you felt when that was happening.
ZHAO: At the time, it was really overwhelming because a few early readers had said that it was - believed my book was a portrayal of chattel slavery in America. And it snowballed into a lot of people who hadn't read the book, and there was just so much critique coming from people who hadn't read it. So that was really devastating to me because these are some real issues that draw from my background and from global issues that are ongoing and continue to affect so many people.
So it was particularly devastating because it felt to me like my perspective wasn't welcome in this country. And honestly, for a while, it just felt like I wasn't allowed to have a voice in exploring deeply poignant subjects that were personal to me. Like, my fiance is the descendant of a Chinese indentured laborer. And I believe these are difficult truths and ugly histories that need to be confronted through literature.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The young adult community, or YA on social media, is pretty well-known for raising authors up but also tearing them down pretty fast. You have been very active on YA Twitter. How have you experienced this group of passionate readers and writers after what happened?
ZHAO: I really appreciate the conversations on diversity and protecting the teens online. I just think that I don't know if a small committee of people should be able to say what should or shouldn't be written and what should or shouldn't be read because what's unique to the United States - it's that it fosters such a diverse ecosystem of a marketplace of ideas where every single individual has the right to consume a work of art, to evaluate it and to form their own opinion of it. And I just think that is what makes your country so unique, and I believe that art should be confronting these difficult truths and ugly histories.
And that's why I'm really glad that "Blood Heir" is coming out for the public to consume, to evaluate. And I'm hoping to share a new perspective as a Chinese woman living in the United States.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you ultimately decide to move forward with publishing? And did you change anything?
ZHAO: I took a step back, and I reread my book. And I went back through all the research that I had done at the time to write these issues and weave them into my world. I also wanted to be respectful to the feedback that I was hearing, so I dove in to make sure that I really fleshed out these issues of indentured labor, human trafficking throughout my world. I made them even more nuanced to make sure that this is an even stronger story and even more faithful to what I set out to write.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you - what have you learned throughout this sort of roller coaster? I mean, you know, you were 25 when this happened. You're 26 now, I think. It's your first book. I mean, it's a lot.
ZHAO: Yeah. It was a lot, but I am really glad that I stood by my book and that it is an even stronger depiction of issues from my heritage, from countries all over the world that really need to be explored. And I hope that every individual has a right to read "Blood Heir," and I hope that they will learn something new about the world that we live in from my perspective.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amelie Wen Zhao, thank you so much. Her book is "Blood Heir."
ZHAO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.