‘My book is pure escapism’: Kyla Zhao on her Singapore tale ‘The Fraud Squad’

Singaporean writer Kyla Zhao. Photo: Kyla Zhao
Singaporean writer Kyla Zhao. Photo: Kyla Zhao

Every writer struggles to get published, especially with their debut novel. Kyla Zhao, a 23-year-old Singaporean, said she wrote her first book to escape the pandemic loneliness that came with being separated from her family while studying in California.

She found that Western women’s fiction lacked authors and characters of color and was not something she saw her own culture in. That prompted her to write a novel about Asian characters in an Asian setting. Working on it amid the tensions of rising anti-Asian racism in the United States, Zhao found herself reflecting on what it meant to enter an industry dominated by White writers there.

The result is The Fraud Squad, a work of women’s fiction set to be published in January 2023. Berkeley Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Random House, acquired The Fraud Squad and an unwritten second book from Zhao after a bidding war involving multiple interested publishers.

While earning a bachelor’s in psychology and master’s in communication at Stanford University, she spent two months completing the book’s first draft in the summer of 2020. What started as a personal project became, with some encouragement from friends, something she decided to shop around, despite knowing little of the industry.

The Fraud Squad is set in Singapore and features Southeast Asian characters. The protagonist, Samantha Song, comes from a working-class background. She really wants to write for a society magazine because it represents a different world from the one she came from. So she enlists the help of her friends to infiltrate high Singapore society. Eventually, Song is swept up in the glamor, loses sight of where she came from and what was important to her. She goes through twists and turns before she realizes that the elite world is not as golden as she assumed.

I talked to her about her novel as a form of Asian representation in literature, being an Asian woman writer in the 21st century, and her experience selling her debut novel to the world’s biggest publisher.

What inspired you to write The Fraud Squad?

During the pandemic, I was living alone in California, far apart from my family in Singapore. So, I felt really homesick and I was searching for any inkling of home and the culture I was familiar with. 

Usually, for me, books are a huge source of comfort, and I found myself rereading Crazy Rich Asians over and over during those troubled times. That was the only book I could find in my favorite genre which featured people of color in a setting I was familiar with. Because I couldn’t find more books like that, I decided to write my own. The real world was filled with a lot of negativity then, so writing allowed me to escape into this world that I created. 

Why should people care about The Fraud Squad?

My book is pure escapism – filled with interesting characters from all walks of life, indulgent parties, luxurious fashion, and whatnot – and I would describe the experience of reading it as taking a beach vacation. Hopefully, it will give readers a respite after the past 1.5-and-counting years of despondency stuck at home during the pandemic, wearing sweatpants all day and not being able to meet up with friends or gather for parties. 

At the same time, one of the core themes in my book is doing whatever you can to secure a better life for yourself and your loved ones. All three of my main characters embody this theme – albeit in very different ways. I think this is a universal theme that many readers can relate to. And since my book is powered by an entirely Southeast Asian cast, I hope to give readers of color, including myself, a chance to see more people in the media whose backgrounds they can identify with. 

What were some of your struggles in writing this book?

My problem with writing this book was that I didn’t plan it out beforehand. I was figuring out the plot as I wrote it, and sometimes, I would change my mind about the direction I wanted to take, which meant having to go back and fix a lot of things. Writing a book is like playing dominoes—for instance, changing something in my main character Samantha would also require me to change how other characters respond and what happens in subsequent chapters as well. That’s why editing my book took a lot longer than writing my first draft. 

Another issue I had was time management. I was doing a full-time internship in the summer of 2020, so I was juggling work and writing the first draft. I started editing this book after my final year of university began in September and I had to study for my master’s and bachelor’s degrees while also doing another internship. Working on so many different things sapped my creative energy at times. 

How exactly did the rise in anti-Asian sentiments affect you? Did something happen? 

Nothing ever happened to me, although I did feel rather afraid when the anti-Asian racism in the United States was at its most violent and my parents also told me to stay indoors. But the time when I was most homesick working and studying alone in California also overlapped with when a lot of people were blaming Asians, specifically the Chinese, for the coronavirus. I was trying to draw on books for comfort because stories have always been an escape from reality for me, but I felt frustrated and even more isolated when most books I came across were centered on white characters who were fun to read about, but whose cultural contexts I couldn’t relate to completely. 

Is it hard for a debut writer, being a woman of color, to get published in the US?

According to what my writing friends told me and public data, if you are a woman of color, it’s harder to get published and you get paid less. The majority of published authors are White, and those who identify as male tend to be better paid. I’m grateful that books like Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and Jesse Sutanto’s Dial A for Aunties showed the world that there is space for people of color’s stories to be heard.  

Do you think Asian representation is important?

For sure! Growing up, the books that I had access to were mostly by white authors and featured white characters.  I never even imagined western publishers would be interested in books written by people of color about people of color. Unless it’s a story focused on immigrant struggles, such as Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. Crazy Rich Asians was the first book I read that broke the mold of what Westerners assumed Asians were like.

I never intended my book to be an issue story, with race and ethnicity as the core component. Instead, I wanted to show that characters should not be pigeonholed into a certain caricature by their ethnicity. My main character, Samantha, likes magazines and fashion and is a loyal friend and filial daughter—none of which have anything to do with her race. My whole point of writing a book set in Asia with Asian characters is to show that people of color can lead very different lives and have very different interests from one another. People shouldn’t try to clump all Asians under one label and judge them as a monolith. 

Last question, how do you see yourself as an Asian woman?

I am very privileged to be a Chinese Singaporean because Chinese is still the majority race in Singapore. And at Stanford, there is a high concentration of Asians, so I was never really cognizant of my ethnicity. 

But during the pandemic, with anti-Asian racism going on, especially towards females, it was the first time in my life I felt real fear tied to my race. My parents told me to stay indoors and not to go out in case I get attacked. Although Asians in California are quite respected, White people still tend to pigeon-hole them with the model minority label. I want to demonstrate through my book that not everyone fits into that mold and that prescribing this myth to Asians is actually really problematic for all minorities. 

Correction: Kyla Zhao spent two months writing the first draft, not three. 

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