If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a HUGE fan of Katie Zhao. Not only is Katie funny and clever, she has such passionate characters. Having loved The Dragon Warrior, I am beyond excited for Katie’s YA debut – How We Fell Apart. I reached out to Katie and she was kind enough to write this amazing guest post about mental health, Asian communities, and academia!
In a YA thriller that is Crazy Rich Asians meets One of Us is Lying, students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead.
Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.
They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too.
Unpacking the Toxic Nature of Academia and the Stigma of Mental Health in Asian Communities
YA thrillers have been all the rage the past few years. ONE OF US IS LYING by Karen McManus, A GOOD GIRL’S GUIDE TO MURDER by Holly Jackson, and the TRULY DEVIOUS series by Maureen Johnson are just a few examples of YA thrillers that have hit it out of the park. As a voracious YA reader who loves thrillers, especially the kind where dark deeds are committed at school, I found it strange that these dark academia thrillers are by and about white kids committing murder at school. At my high school – which had a tiny Asian population, by the way – it was always the few Asian students who were at the top of the class, competing against each other to get into top universities. We were fueled by our families’ insistence that getting into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, or MIT was a ticket to an easy post-grad life. I thought to myself, if anyone really has motivation to off their competition and snag a spot in an Ivy League, it’s the Asiankids. Murdering each other to stay at the top of the class? That’s such an Asian American story. So I knew I had to write a dark academia thriller centering this toxic high school environment, with an all-Asian cast. Thus, HOW WE FALL APART was born.
HOW WE FALL APART is my debut young adult thriller novel, pitched as CRAZY RICH ASIANS meets ONE OF US IS LYING, coming from Bloomsbury YA on August 3rd, 2021. The story is told through the perspective of a second generation Chinese American girl named Nancy Luo, and it follows five Asian Americans who rank at the top of their elite prep school in Manhattan. When one of them, the top student, is found dead, an anonymous figure on the school’s gossip app pins the other four friends as the main suspects, and their darkest secrets begin to unravel.
When I set out to write this Asian American YA thriller, I knew what I wanted to achieve – to directly address the toxic competitive nature of academia. And, more specifically, to critique the devastating impact that such unrelenting pressure to achieve can have on students’ mental health. There’s a lingering, unsettling sense of ambition, of desperate need, that consumes the protagonist Nancy’s entire meaning for existence, which is drawn from my own memories of being an overachieving Asian American high school student. Early readers have told me how this book has really gotten under their skin and stuck with them long after they’ve read it, so I hope that means I was able to capture, even just a little bit, how dark and tormenting those high school days were for me.
Ultimately, what I wanted to do with HOW WE FALL APART was write a grueling, unflinching narrative that could open up a conversation for discussing mental health in Asian communities. Even writing this blog post feels like I’m breaking a taboo, because there is a huge stigma against discussing these issues in Asian cultures. But that’s why I feel it’s especially important for Asians to start openly talking about mental health, and to have stories that unpack this “taboo” topic – especially since the coronavirus pandemic has made anti-Asian racism rampant, creating even more mental stress for Asians everywhere.
On the surface, HOW WE FALL APART is a dark academia thriller in the vein of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS and GOSSIP GIRL. Beneath the flashy pitch is a story infused with themes that are often tied to Asian American upbringings, like family sacrifice, American dreams, diaspora musings – and the discussion, or lack thereof, of mental health. Traditional Asian households tend to dismiss mental illnesses as “made-up” or “laziness”. In my experience growing up in such a household, perfection was the standard, and anything less than that was seen as “not good enough”. ADHD, mental illnesses, any condition that might make someone unable to learn and/or grow at the pace society has deemed standard – all of that was chalked up to laziness. There is no such thing as learning disabilities. It also doesn’t help that American media is obsessed with portraying Asians as studious and nerdy, as model minorities and overachievers who all attend top schools. Such pressure leaves no room for error for Asians teens – and certainly no room for taking care of one’s mental health, or diagnosing mental illnesses. This level of perfection has spawned incredible work ethic among a lot of kids and teens, but it also creates an impossible standard by which young people, especially young children of immigrants, are measured and valued.
In HOW WE FALL APART, I wanted to explore what happens to these Asian teens who are thrust into the privileged, pressure-cooker, competitive, toxic environment of Sinclair Prep. Everything is riding on them bringing home the highest test scores, the best grades, the most extracurriculars. All the pressure is on them to make it into top universities, to fulfill their families’ American dreams. And in such an environment, these teens will do anything – betrayal, maybe even murder – to rise to the top.
While HOW WE FALL APART takes the cutthroat prep school environment to an extreme, there are lots of moments in this book that took me back to my own grueling high school experience – in which I put too much pressure on myself to perform up to my parents’ and society’s impossible standards. In which my mental health plummeted to an all-time low, because according to the messages I received from everyone everywhere, my worth was determined based on my grades and if I got accepted into an Ivy League or not. When I “failed” by those standards, I reached my lowest mental point. Even writing HOW WE FALL APART was a very painful experience, because it forced me to relive the darkest time of my life. A time when I felt utterly worthless. A time when I viewed friends as competition, when I resented that their success meant they’d taken what I “deserved”. That was a time when I would have greatly benefited from mental health treatment – if my parents even acknowledged that that was a real thing. Writing became my therapy instead, but having actual mental health treatment would have doubtlessly helped me get back on my feet a lot sooner.
My greatest hope for my YA thriller is that it will reach the Asian high school students who need it most, and that reading it can be a source of solace for them. I hope they can recognize, far earlier than I was able, that they are so much more than their grades or test scores. Success is not only measured by the number of college acceptance letters they receive – far from it. We are all so much more than our achievements, so much more than the stereotypes in American media. Having Asian representation like what I wrote in HOW WE FALL APART is the first step toward healing, toward opening important conversations, and toward creating the well-rounded and nuanced representation that Asians deserve.
About Katie Zhao
Katie Zhao is a 2017 graduate of the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and Political Science, and a 2018 Masters of Accounting at the same university. She is the author of THE DRAGON WARRIOR series (Bloomsbury Kids), HOW WE FALL APART (Bloomsbury Kids), forthcoming LAST GAMER STANDING (Scholastic), and forthcoming WINNIE ZENG series (Random House Children’s Books). She is represented by Penny Moore of Aevitas Creative Management. She’s a passionate advocate for representation in literature and media.