This article originally ran online on the UW News website on January 27, 2021.
In his 36 years of teaching, some of the best writing UW English Professor Shawn Wong has seen came out of English 302, his class on narrative storytelling. Still, he was taken aback by Zoe Mikuta’s essay in winter 2019.
“I write about queer, half-white girls and I kill off their families for the drama of it all,” the essay read. “I make them fight robots, because it’s thrilling, and I make them fall in love to give them something to fight for.”
Mikuta, a sophomore at the time, had been unassuming in class. But, at just 19, she had already secured a two-book deal with MacMillan Publishers, one of the “Big Five” publishers of English-language books.
Mikuta’s first book, Gearbreakers, is set to come out June 29. Categorized in the young adult genre, it tells the story of Eris and Sona, who live under a tyrannical regime enforced by 100-foot-tall mecha robots called Windups. Mikuta, now 21, has sold the film rights to Gearbreakers, and she’s currently working on its sequel, due out in 2022.
Mikuta was born in the Washington, D.C., area to a Korean mother and white father. The family moved to Boulder, Colorado, when she was 12. In D.C., she enjoyed gatherings with her mom’s family. In mostly white Boulder, she was cut off from her Korean heritage.
Mikuta began writing in third grade, and it became a release, a way to de-stress. Her parents divorced in 2017, during her senior year of high school, and she had a separate lunch period from her friends. She went to the library during lunch and wrote “Gearbreakers” in just three months — a pace she doesn’t think she’ll match again.
That summer, she sent out query letters to find a literary agent, and a week before leaving home for the UW, she signed with an agent — all unbeknownst to her parents. She then inked a publishing deal the following April, a week after turning 19.
The point of view in Gearbreakers switches back and forth between Eris, who is a half-Korean, half-Japanese member of a rebel group called the Gearbreakers, and Sona, who is a half-Korean, half-white cybernetically enhanced Windup pilot. Eris is a cold-hearted warrior, while Sona is on fire to avenge her parents’ murder at the hands of the regime. Both grow as they find their opposites in each other, and both are reflections of what Mikuta was going through at the time.
“When I was all angry and hateful, I definitely was not grappling with humanity on that kind of scale,” Mikuta said, referring to the struggles her characters face. “But what I’m trying to explore in Gearbreakers is — what makes our humanity? I think it’s the people we love.”
Writing the book at such a young age allowed her to create an emotional “prototype” for her life.
“Gearbreakers hinges on the relationships between characters,” Mikuta said. “That’s what makes any book series special to me. It’s about the characters’ relationship with others and relationship with themselves. By writing, I’m just discovering what feels good in that regard.”
Now, Mikuta is working on the Gearbreakers sequel and exploring a new set of themes, including the experience of being biracial. The book is set in a future where the presence of Korean culture has been whittled down, hidden but still a strong part of the characters’ identities. Readers will find Korean words and references to Korean culture, echoing Mikuta’s own efforts to reconnect with her heritage by learning the language.
Writing from her own perspective, Mikuta is filling a gap in the genre. She was thrilled to see the cover of her book, which features two women of color — something Mikuta hasn’t seen very much in young adult literature. She says that young adult books featuring people of color often have white authors, crowding out authors of color who want to tell stories from their own experience.
Lack of representation is something Wong has grappled with throughout his career.
“In the early 1970s, I had to educate an audience to Asian American literature, before I could become a published writer,” said Wong, who along with being a professor, is also a pioneer of Asian American literature as an author, publisher and scholar. “You feel responsible … and I think for Zoe, it’s the same thing. There’s this vacuum out there, and there are readers out there who want to see themselves.”
Mikuta attended fall quarter at the UW from her mom’s house in Boulder, and she’s now living in her first apartment in Seattle. She’s keeping up with her UW community as the president of Gal Palz, a group for UW’s queer women, nonbinary and trans students, even though she’s had to defer her studies this winter due to financial difficulty.
“It’s important for me to continue my education at the UW, because I want to know as much as possible,” she said. “Sometimes I get very excited that I get to be old someday, because I can’t imagine how much I’ll know by then. Learning feels to me like participating in the most fundamental, moral human practice.”
Mikuta puts that love of learning into her writing. It’s how she’s come to know more about herself — from trying out relationships and processing emotions to thinking about identity — as she explored in her 2019 essay for Wong’s class:
“What kind of person can feed into the person that you are at this point in time? Do your edges line up nicely where they need to, do they blur where it is necessary? Is it comfortable, have you both grown into the way you’ve grown up? Do you like the way I look?
“Is it okay that I’m still working on being happy?”