Erita Chen, Contributing Photographer

At the age of 15, author, pianist and Yale student Coco Ma ’25 MUS ’21 had something special to share: a 10th-grade short story project that grew longer and longer, ultimately resulting in the publication of her first Young Adult fantasy series, the “Shadow Frost” trilogy. 

Ma — whose next project is the upcoming “Nightbreaker” series — participated in a fireside chat with the Asian American Cultural Center on March 3. As part of the AACC’s event series for Pan Asian American Heritage Month, the multihyphenate conversed with a group of undergraduates, graduates and alumni on her writing and representation in the publishing industry. 

“I think it’s really important to continue to write these books and diversify the genre — I mean it’s authors like me, a lot of you guys in the future, who will contribute to this kind of movement of just having stories where every kind of voice and every identity is illustrated and conveyed,” Ma said at the talk. “And I think that maybe one thing that’s important for me is also to keep thinking about that and keep using my voice.”

Ma’s first and second books — “Shadow Frost” and “God Storm” —  were published in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Ariel Chao, SPH ’25, said she was drawn to the event because it was a chance to pull back the curtain on the writing techniques and experiences of a published author.

“I’m majoring in biostatistics, so it’s interesting for me to hear about people in the creative writing world, since I can’t do it myself,” she said. “Just listening about their process of creating characters and getting their work out there.” 

AACC graduate fellow and moderator Melodie “Mel” Liu began by inquiring what brought Ma to literature in the first place. Fanfiction played an impactful role in the beginning, Ma said: a classmate’s popular fanfiction about their peers brought out Ma’s competitive side. 

Ma decided to become her classmate’s rival and write a competing fanfiction about the other students. One fanfiction became many, and Ma “got really great feedback from that community,” kick-starting her interest in writing short stories and books, including “Shadow Frost.”

At first, age was a challenge when Ma searched for agents and publishers.

“Some people were saying that, ‘you’re too young right now to publish, wait a few years, work on your manuscript,’” she recalled.

But she persevered, rifling through the acknowledgements of some of her favorite books to reach out to literary agents. Regardless of what others told her, Liu observed, Ma continued to know her own worth and pursue her goal. Defining the AACC as a space for “community building” and “wisdom exchange,” Liu noted that hearing Ma’s career challenges and celebrating her accomplishments could serve as inspiration for others in the audience. 

When visiting student Cindy Zeng asked what Ma’s “something special to share” in her books was, the conversation moved to issues about representation and identity in the writing world.

While cradling her four month-old Bichon Frisé puppy, Po, Ma spoke about how the publishing landscape had changed in the past few years, and what it meant to make her latest protagonist for “Nightbreaker,” Rei Reynolds, a Chinese American teen. 

Nearly all the characters of Ma’s first trilogy, “Shadow Frost,” was white. Ma recalled that, back in 2010, when she first started reading, the young adult landscape was dominated by very “Eurocentric” characters in “Europe”-type settings. As such, Ma was “so heavily influenced” that she “didn’t even think to put an Asian character in the series,” despite being Chinese-Canadian herself. Though Ma reiterated her pride in her early work, she highlighted her journey navigating ethnicity in her storytelling while remaining authentic to her life experiences. 

For her next series, she wanted to reflect her own identity and make the cast diverse. She especially made sure to consider how her main character’s voice was reflecting her own. 

As an example, Ma mentioned that prevalent tropes in East Asian-inspired YA books, such as folklore retellings and settings based on real Chinese cities, were personally a challenge to relate to, having been born and raised in Canada. 

Ma set out to tell a story where “the character’s ethnicity wasn’t their entire identity — she’s the hero because of her character, and not because she’s a certain ethnicity.” 

Ma’s latest book, “Nightbreaker,” will be published on Sept. 19, 2023 by Viking Books for Young Readers.