If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I was watching an episode of Shadow and Bone on Netflix, when I looked at my husband, Dan, and said: “Do I really behave like that? Is that how I come across?”
I was talking about Alina Starkov, the protagonist in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone series, an orphan soldier who is reluctant to believe that she’s a Sun Summoner. In the scene, a visibly shaken Alina is questioned by Bhagra, a teacher who is meant to train her to use her powers. “Do you think you belong here?” asks Bhagra, to which she replies hesitantly, “I’m told I do.” Bhagra then asks her a more pointed question: “So you have to be told a thing to believe it?”
“Not always,” Starkov says.
I cringed. My 17-year-old self would have sounded just like her. But this time, watching a young adult heroine who wasn’t strong and had no self-esteem, was an excruciating masterclass in what self-doubt actually looks like in women. Alina was no Hermione Granger or Nancy Drew or Georgina Kirrin or Katniss Everdeen. In fact, Bardugo’s heroine was the opposite: she was a young woman who struggled with confidence, anxiety and nursed so much pain that it felt impossible, even as a reader, to believe she was the chosen one. In every line Alina uttered throughout the series to put herself down, I was reminded of my own childhood, an adolescence that I didn’t want to look back on, where my entire identity was rooted in some sense of shame and insignificance.
In Alina Starkov, Bardugo had stripped off the façade of strength so often forced onto young female protagonists, and instead molded an anti-heroine whose trauma doesn’t make her tough or domineering, but rather reduces her to a vulnerable and scared person who doesn’t trust anyone. Then Bardugo pushes the reader to wonder: can such a woman save a war-torn country?
The idea of emotional strength in literature has always fascinated me. I grew up in India in the late 80s and 90s, when most young adult fiction that was available was typically British or American. Not surprisingly, the female characters that heavily influenced me were white, headstrong, and popular among their peers. My early heroes were the Wakefield Twins from Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, Darrell Rivers from Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series, and the girls from The Baby-Sitters Club. I wanted to be like them: they had liberal parents, never worried about money, and even had boyfriends. None of these aspirations added up, of course, because my own life was nothing like theirs.
I attended an Anglican-protestant boarding school until I was seventeen. The school was ten hours away from our hometown in Southern India because towns like mine didn’t have good schools. My parents were also middle-class Hindus—but like most parents, believed that sending me away to a boarding school (which were relics of British colonization in India) would give me access to an English education, discipline and a sense of self-reliance. This meant that unlike the Wakefield twins or Nancy Drew, who came from stable, upper-middle class families, my teen years involved daily prayers, respect for rank, ritual, and having to write letters home if I needed the basics. Pocket money, snacks, and the odd movie CD to watch in school. Without any real emotional support though, all the English values and customs that should have helped me navigate post-colonial Indian society as a lady only left me terribly confused about who I was meant to be. All I learned was that to be a strong woman, I had to put up with hardship with no complaints, like so many of the female characters in classic British novels.
But that wasn’t all.
In an environment of such rigid discipline there was never any room to recognize or heal from trauma. A regular day in high school for me meant sitting through classes where girls were reprimanded for everything from short uniforms to being ‘noisy’, picking constant fights with my mother (through letters) to be able to make my own choices, or spending days at a stretch kneeling in the hallway as punishment for talking back to a teacher. So, again, unlike my girl heroes, who were capable of speaking up and questioning, I sought strength in skillfully avoiding emotion. There was a certain freedom in allowing myself to believe that I didn’t deserve happiness and success because I didn’t ever have to face the fear of failure. In my mind, if I’d already failed, I’d already won. So, no amount of bullying, harassment or humiliation could evoke a response from me.
This is why Bardugo’s Alina Starkov is such a rare hero for me. Alina is a 17-year old orphan, who was raised in an orphanage in Keramzin, and she has little or no aspiration to dream above her station. Her best friend (and romantic interest), Malyen Oretsev, is also an orphan and the only person she trusts. The experience of growing up without emotional support defines Alina’s character from the very beginning. She has the tendency to hide away in the face of power and joins the Ravkan First Army as an assistant cartographer. She doesn’t trust people. Even when she discovers that she has magical powers— the ability to summon light, which makes her a powerful Grisha—she insists that it was a mistake. All throughout Shadow and Bone, Alina laments that it is absurd that anyone would view her as a savior.
“He believed I was the Sun Summoner. He believed I could help him destroy the Fold. And if I could, no soldier, no merchant, no tracker would ever have to cross the Unsea again. But as the days dragged on, the idea began to seem more and more absurd.”
But Bardugo skillfully deploys Alina Starkov’s tendency toward self-deprecation to reveal the inner workings of a young woman’s mind. She stresses on the kind of emotional paralysis that Alina faces because she is unable to let go of what she’s been taught to think of herself as a child. By the time it sinks in that nearly all of war-torn Ravka—including the villainous Darkling—sees her gift to summon light as a sign of hope, she decides to do something to prove her worth, even if it means failing publicly, and she does so only because she’s got nowhere to run.
“I didn’t belong in this beautiful world, and if I didn’t find a way to use my power, I never would.”
In every chapter, Bardugo takes on the complexity of what doubt and failure feel like for Alina, and gives the reader remarkable insight into the role confidence plays shaping the characters of strong young women. This is refreshing because female individuality in fiction is so often tied to the idea of moving on from trauma and pursuing the strength one derives from hardship, instead of being weighed down by it. Nancy Drew doesn’t dwell on the death of her biological mother. Darryl Rivers wastes no time getting homesick in Mallory Towers. Georgina Kirrin doesn’t care that getaways to her family’s private island when she is lonely are a uniquely upper-class privilege. The tendency of writers to focus on the future of their characters without examining their present is a missed opportunity; because it is well-documented that children do not merely outgrow their trauma. Their personalities are shaped by it, and usually, their futures are ruined by the effect it has on their minds.
In 2014, BBC World News America’s Washington Correspondent, Katty Kay, and ABC News’ Claire Shipman, wrote in the Atlantic about the confidence gap among women. In researching their book Womenomics, they found that even high-achieving women who had great careers had the tendency to see themselves as less competent and less suited for leadership roles than their male colleagues. This confidence gap begins in girlhood, they found, because girls often see their failures as an extension of themselves.
It’s no surprise that even in Siege and Storm, the second book of the Grishaverse, when Alina rises in the ranks to lead a group of Grisha dissenters, she becomes terribly insecure and begins to crave revenge. She wields her power as a distraction and wants to use it to be done with it all. She is also hypervigilant and anxious about the attention she receives, constantly overcome by the feeling that she is out of place in the Little Palace because she doesn’t believe an orphan like her is deserving of wealth and prosperity and good fortune. It is hard to like her in these moments, but the idea that someone can be affected by economic trauma is astonishingly relevant. I grew up in a home where money was always an issue and it affects all my decision making even today, in my 30s. The guilt of eating expensive meals or buying more clothes than I need or treating myself to new technology when my old phones are still working is real. My mother’s words never leave me: There isn’t any money. That costs money. We can’t afford it. So Bardugo makes no attempt to push her heroine towards accepting power and fame easily and by doing this, lets the reader know that socio-economic trauma is often deep-rooted and complex, and that the only way to overcome it is to confront it.
Confrontation with this sense of self-doubt and trauma permeates the Grishaverse novels; there is no one way Alina overcomes it. Instead, Bardugo throws Starkov into situations that force her to make decisions—whether good or bad—and to later have to reflect on her actions. We are introduced to a process of unpacking and dealing with hurt, rather than a singular event of this. In the first book, Alina trains with a Shu mercenary, Botkin Yul-Erdene, a man who is clearly cut for war, and a powerful Squaller, Zoya. Zoya tells Alina: “you stink of Keramzin,” words that Alina does not forget throughout the series. Botkin complains that she is “too slow, too weak, too skinny.” Bardugo touches upon how these insults deepen Alina’s sense of doubt and belonging, and how she begins to distance herself from all her fellow Grisha summoners.
“The more time I spent with the Summoners, the greater that chance that I would be found out.”
Found out. This is self-doubt at its worst, a classic case of imposter syndrome.
But Bardugo’s storytelling pushes the reader to stay, to be patient. And as Alina begins to fight back, slowly and painstakingly, taking on one personal challenge at a time, the reader too begins to understand the importance of small wins when it comes to conquering self-doubt and trauma. And these small wins are big for young women. For instance, when the sessions with Bhagra begin to sour, Alina decides to try letting go of her grief for a moment, and then is suddenly struck by how freeing and powerful it feels. When she realizes that the Darkling might kill Mal, she pulls herself together to summon her power and save him. Time and time again, throughout the Grishaverse trilogy, Alina peels away her trauma layer by layer, until all that’s left is the person she was truly meant to be.
The thing is, anti-heroines are a tricky creation.
I recently went through the archives of JSTOR’s “Talking about Books” column, in which brought together teachers and educators to discuss classroom and reading practices. In 1999, a group of teachers came together to discussed strong female characters in English Literature for an issue of Language Arts, and to determine how to lift up under-represented voices in children’s literature. The focus leaned heavily on creating positive female role models. They examined Karen Cushman’s The Ballad of Lucy Whipple to highlight the importance of creating female characters that are confident, secure, and self-reliant in their ability to solve problems.
If I’d read Whipple back then, in 1999, the year I turned 13, I’d perhaps have agreed. Whipple was exactly the kind of character that I would have thought was strong. The motto of my high school was “self-reliance,” and students, especially girls, even as young as eight, learned to write checks to withdraw money from their school bank accounts, wash and dry their own clothes, wax and shine wooden floors, and even work a boiler to heat water. Whipple was not a big departure from the traditional female characters in books that were popular in children’s classics than in that she was clearly poor, frightened, and never “coddled” by her parents. Take Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl or Lucy Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and you’ll quickly see what I mean.
Coddling women = bad.
This was how female strength was seen. It was also pretty much the motto that shaped my childhood and left me unclear about how to deal with the darker forces of my emotional self: doubt, despair, fear, depression, shame. Those are things to be hidden.
But perhaps, no more. I’m hopeful that Bardugo’s audacity to redefine feminine strength will shape young adult fiction. In refusing to write around trauma, instead writing directly through it, she allows Alina Starkov to become consumed and haunted by it and eventually, develop the strength to fight back and overcome it. It is healing through confrontation. It is a different kind of pain, and a necessary one that we need more of our literary heroines to go through.