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Q&A with Zoë Marriott, author of The Hand, The Eye & The Heart

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For our April Q&A, we were very excited to interview Zoë Marriott, the author of  The Hand, The Eye & The Heart, a fantastical adventure about courage, love and gender identity. 

Zhilan (pronounced Jur-Lan) was assigned female at birth. Despite a gift for illusionary magic, Zhilan knows they are destined to live out their life within the confines of a woman’s domestic role in society. But when civil war sets the empire aflame, Zhilan is determined save their disabled father from the battlefield – by taking his place. Surviving rigorous army training under the guise of a male soldier is only the start of their arduous journey. In the glittering court of the Empress, love and betrayal are two sides of the same smile, and soon the fate of the nation rests on Zhi’s shoulders. But to win, they must decide where their heart truly belongs. How are you supposed to survive in a war, when you’re fighting your own battles deep within…

For ages 12+, please note that this book may contain adult themes

Can you tell us a bit about where the inspiration for your beautifully rich new book, The Hand, The Eye & The Heart, came from?

Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Thank you! The initial spark that gave the story life arrived around five years ago, when I was watching Disney’s Mulan with my young nieces. I hadn’t seen the film since I was a child myself and when the song ‘Reflection’ started I felt a chill of realisation sneak down my spine. I suddenly saw it as a song about the experience of a trans or non-binary person, and felt that Mulan was crying out for someone to see who they were inside – a person who did not identify with the narrow role given to them by society, or the gender label imposed on them at birth – and begging for the ability to let that identity breathe. But that never actually happens in the film, which left me unsatisfied and cross, and immediately made me want to write my own version. At the same time, taking on such a legendary story seemed like a huge challenge, and I was a bit intimidated.

I went onto social media and began asking if anyone else felt this was a story that needed to be written. Secretly I was hoping that someone might say ‘No!’ Instead, on Tumblr and Twitter, I was met with an avalanche of readers and writers, young and old, who told me ‘Yes!’ The response was overwhelming. So then I had no choice but to roll up my sleeves and get started.

Zhilan, the main character who has a gift for illusionary magic, is an incredibly courageous person. What are the three qualities that you most admire about them?
Firstly, their moral courage. I don’t mean physical courage, but spiritual bravery. Zhi – which is the name the main character chooses – has an instinctive grasp of what is truly right, of the essence of good and evil, no matter how much the mores of their particular society may contradict them and tell them certain things are wrong or shameful or incorrect. Of course they’re human, so they sometimes falter or doubt, but ultimately they always take the right path, and that kind of courage is immensely rare and precious. Secondly, their kindness. Zhi lives in a harsh world where it is easier and safer to be distant, or callous, even cruel. But Zhi is deeply kind, and helps others wherever they can, even when it causes them difficulty, pain or inconvenience. Finally, I admire Zhi’s resourcefulness! Faced with difficult situations, I think most of us tend to panic and list all the things we think are impossible, focusing on what we can’t do. Zhi looks at what they have, what they need, and what they can do, and then makes things happen. They’re like the McGyver of the story!

Your story is set in an imaginary place called The Land of Dragons/ Red Empire that is reminiscent of historical China. How did you research this setting to ensure that your depiction was respectful and accomplished?
Reading. Lots and lots of reading. I’m an immersive researcher – I act as if I know nothing of value going in, and my assumptions about what I need to learn will therefore be worthless. So I try to read everything I can get my hands on, cover to cover, to give myself a strong background, before I actually begin to pick and chose details to focus on. I spend nearly a year doing very little actual writing, just reading books about Chinese history, natural history, philosophy, culture, food, wildlife, music… I tried to get my hands on works in translation where I could, so that I was reading Chinese people’s perspective on their own culture. I watched lots of historical films from China and several TV serials recommended by a Chinese friend. I listened to a lot of music and read poetry. I looked into multiple different versions of the Mulan story, from the original ballad to the Chinese opera to the recent feature film. The story is deeply informed by everything I learned, and I’m very grateful that I had time to do this. Huge thanks to Arts Council England for their Grant for the Arts, which gave me the space and resources to do the kind of research the story needed.

I also put out a call to readers who were Chinese or of Chinese heritage on my blog and social media to ask them what they would like to see in a book like this, what would bring them joy and what they would prefer not to see ever again. I was lucky enough that several people were willing to offer me that kind of insight, and that had a strong impact on the book, too.

Your book explores gender identity and has characters with a variety of sexual orientations. Why is it important for books to have diverse characters and for young people to have LGBTQA+ fiction to read?
Because diversity is reality. I’m stunned by the amount of grown-ups I come into contact with who seem constantly baffled by or resentful of the fact that the world isn’t full of people just like them. That loads of different kinds of people exist, and take up space, and to go about their own day to day lives in a way that isn’t the ‘normal’ represented by mass media – that is to say, a ‘normal’ where 99% of people are straight, white, cis, able-bodied etc. And this – the simple reality of the real world – makes these grown-ups so frightened and angry that they act as if people who are different to them merely existing is some kind of attack on them and their lives. They strike out, and they cause hurt and suffering to others who’ve never harmed them at all, and then call it a victory for ‘common sense’ or ‘family values’ or ‘decency’ when really it’s only a victory for fear and spite.

All children, whether they’re LGBTQA+ or not, need to see diverse portrayals in the media they consume. They need to learn that empathy is not only for people just like them, but for all humanity – that all perspectives have value, that all stories are valid and important.

On a very personal note, growing up I read zero portrayals of people like me – asexual aromantics – in the books I loved. I had no idea that anyone else like me even existed. The closest thing I ever saw to that were characters who heartlessly or spinelessly ‘rejected’ love and were either miserable or villainous. As a result, I struggled so hard to feel the things that other people seemed to feel, and make central to my life the things that the whole of society taught me were vital and important. It didn’t work. It wasn’t me. It caused me a great deal of unhappiness, and it was not until my late twenties that I had a label for myself and was able to begin the ongoing process of accepting who I am. I pray passionately that others don’t have to go through this, but I know they probably are, even as I type these words. As a writer, the only thing I can do to help is to try to write the most diverse books I can, and hope they find their way into the hands of the young people who desperately need to read them.

When civil war breaks out, Zhilan takes their disabled father’s place to save them from the battlefield. Without giving any spoilers, in what ways is this a positive character-building experience for them?
I think being thrown into a new world – even one that is so frightening and at times cruel and unfair – gives Zhi the chance to understand their own strength. Their own potential, and their gifts, and how truly special they are when they stop holding back and simply do what feels right to them. They’ve been loved and valued by their family, certainly – but only if they conformed to what their family believed they should be, and walked within the confines of a very narrow role. Going out into the world allows Zhi to see that while the life they led before had beauty and safety – and yes, value – they also have so many other things to offer, which they would never even have discovered within themselves, let alone been allowed to use, if they hadn’t been forced to by change and danger.

A point that stood out for me is how fairy-tales can also be used to pigeon-hole people and take away their independence, such as Zhilan being compared to Dou Xianniang. Is the place of idealised stories in society something that you specifically wanted to explore?
Very much so. Perhaps not so much with fairytales these days, since a lot of very talented writers have done a wonderful job of reclaiming those and putting diverse, feminist spins on them. But for women, and for marginalised people in society, there’s often such a dearth of depictions that we become hemmed in by One Story (as author Chimamanda Ngozi puts it). We’re told there’s one way to be A Good Woman, that we must behave a certain way and conform to certain traits or else we’re bad and wrong. For instance, for a long time girls were told: “To be good is to be nice. Smile. Care for animals and small children. Take pride in looking a certain way so that others find pleasure in looking at you – but do not show off, or be bossy or attention-seeking. Give others a chance to talk before you. Make way. Make room.”

And then we were given the Strong Female Character, who was loud and often angry, and apparently didn’t care how she looked, and instead of making room for people, shot them with arrows or stabbed them with swords. Suddenly the people who’d been struggling to fulfil that first stereotype of Goodness were told – you’re wrong! You’re passive! You’re boring and shallow! You’re not A Strong Female! This is what it means to be A Good Woman now! But then there was a backlash against the Strong Female too. She was unrealistic, she was aggressive, she was a Mary-Sue. She was being sexist against men!

The problem isn’t in the idea of kindness and gentleness, of course, or of standing up for yourself and being angry and loud. It was that society was, and is, still telling people what to be. Trying to write the stories for them and force them to follow along. We need to empower people to inhabit their own stories, and give them the confidence to be unique, fully realised individuals, and not penalise them for failing to conform.

At the heart of your book is a warm message about being true to yourself and fighting for what you believe in. What do you hope readers take away from the book? 
I think Zhi says it right at the beginning of the story: no one is what they seem, not even ourselves. I want readers to learn to know themselves. To face who they are, honestly and with respect – to love themselves despite what they may see as weaknesses, and to embrace the best parts of who they are. Don’t take yourself, or others, for granted. None of us really know what we’re capable of. We all have the capacity to be much stronger, braver, more beautiful and more compassionate than we can imagine. But we also have the capacity to be selfish, cruel, oblivious and ungenerous. Life is a process of learning about the world, about ourselves and other people that we meet. We should all be prepared to undergo that journey of learning with joy, and an open heart.

And finally, as part of our Share A Story campaign, we celebrate the magic of sharing stories. For readers who would like to read another story like The Hand, The Eye & The Heart, do you have any favourites to share?
I heartily recommend Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan – an extraordinary, beautifully written diverse fantasy set in an Asian-inspired world – although this is an adult novel and therefore has some warnings for sensitive content. In books specifically for young adults, I love Megan Whalen Turner’s on-going The Thief series. This is set in a world inspired by ancient Greece and is tragic and hilarious and very much deals with the topic of multiple identities and ways of perceiving people. I’m also a big fan of short stories, and Leigh Bardugo’s dark fairytale anthology The Language of Thorns and Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times are favourites of mine.

The Hand, The Eye & The Heart, published by Walker Books, is out now.

#WorldBookDay