Emerson graduate student receives first Harlequin Diverse Voices scholarship

By Ryan Yau, Living Arts Co-Editor

Some people yearn for scholarships. For others, scholarships fall in their laps.

Graduate student Ying Gao is the first recipient of the Harlequin Diverse Voices scholarship for Emerson College’s Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing MFA. The scholarship is a new collaboration between Emerson and Harlequin Enterprises, one of the largest romance publishing companies in the world.

The scholarship benefits students applying to the Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing MFA program. Program faculty from Emerson independently choose a recipient from an underrepresented community to award $2,000.

“Gao, in addition to being a fluid and compelling storyteller of great depth, best represents the goals and ideals of this scholarship,” said an anonymous faculty reviewer in a statement to The Beacon.

The scholarship came as a big surprise for Gao, who was not aware of its existence until she received it.

“One day they sent me an email saying ‘congratulations, you get this scholarship,’” she said. “I hadn’t even heard of this scholarship.”

Gao currently resides in Minnesota, whence she attends online classes. She previously lived in China, but moved to the U.S. in 2014 to pursue greater opportunities in her writing career.

Gao had for a long time been interested in writing. She traces it to when her village gained access to TV.

In 1993, the most popular show in her village was “New Legend of Madame Snake,” a serialized adaptation of the Chinese folk legend “Legend of the White Snake.”

“My uncle in the city gave his secondhand black-and-white TV to my uncle in the village,” Gao said. “The whole village of people would run to my uncle’s house to watch that TV show.”

As Gao recalls, the TV show revolves around a snake who was saved by a cowboy. 70 years later, the snake transforms into a woman and marries the cowboy in an act of gratitude. Later, however, a monk captures the woman and holds her in a tower. The show’s creative narrative inspired Gao’s love of storytelling.

“I imagined myself to be a hero in the story to save that poor woman, and I imagined myself having magic to fight that monk,” she said. “I hoped to write down all these scenes.”

She began writing in Chinese at 17, and the hobby quickly became a side gig. She took an independent path towards a writing career, uploading her writing on Zhulang, a popular online publishing platform in China. Back then, however, her stories received little traction.

“I think I posted four or five novels on a Chinese website, but none were successful,” Gao said.

Furthermore, China has a notoriously strict censorship regime, so she felt she was unable to freely tackle social issues.

“When I decide to write in Chinese, I just write entertainment, I just imagine things,” she said. “In English, I would tell the stories about what happened in my hometown.

It was a fairly long journey for Gao to learn English as a non-native speaker. She was taught English in middle school, though the education was not comprehensive.

“What I learned was from my teachers, and my teachers were not professionals, so their pronunciation was strange,” she said. “What we paid attention to was grammar and writing, so our listening and speaking were not good.”

After middle school, she was admitted into teacher’s training school, but they offered no English teaching courses. In 2003, she went to college in China to learn English, and taught English at a Chinese elementary school.

Gao currently teaches Chinese at a Minnesota elementary school. When she moved to the U.S. in 2014, she went to community college, then transferred to the University of Minnesota. In September of 2022, she began her program at Emerson.

So far, she finds the program beneficial. Her classes involve a workshop course and a romance approaches course. Much of the classes involve workshopping with other students, where she receives feedback on her manuscripts.

Along with her teaching job, Gao concurrently is drafting five novels. She’s interested in writing various genres, but romance is her primary interest.

With the advent of her MFA degree in Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing, she plans to solidify a career in the writing or publishing industries.