I am new to the Grishaverse. For months, the insanely gorgeous cover of Shadow and Bone has been taunting me on Instagram. I have bookmarked this cover and saved it, thinking “if and when I finally find the perfect person to design the cover of my book, I want it to look this amazing.” But it was this weekend that I finally got to dive into the new Netflix series. Now, a full three episodes in, I am struck by the question that the main character, Alina Starkov, keeps getting which is “What Are You?”.
Alina is a half breed. She’s half Shu. Which makes her look different enough to not be the same, whilst not so different as to be a complete foreigner. And in some ways, the series at least, sets her up to be an outsider, by virtue of the way she looks and by the virtue of what those looks and the racial make-up that it represents mean.
This question that Alina is dogged by is one I’ve also had to answer to: “what are you?” There are so many flavors of this question that have followed me throughout my life, if perhaps less dramatically, but not any less impactfully.
Will I be looked down upon for not having a Texan accent?
That was my concern in Kindergarten in Houston, Texas, worried that others would notice my lack of a twang and think that I did not belong. This is my first memory of knowing that I was different, which isn’t so long after the path of my memories begins.
What tribe are you from?
In high school, a well-meaning woman in the bathroom of a dance studio in Glen Ellyn Illinois, actually asked me what tribe I was from, thinking I was native American after I told her I was Indian.
Where are you from? No, I mean, where are your parents from?
A classic question that was pitched to me in my early 20’s at Buckingham Fountain in Chicago. If memory serves it was Taste of Chicago weekend, and it was probably meant as a pick up line, but fell slightly flat, when the answer I gave was: Chicago.
I mean, you’re not really American, so you get it
The Europeans I met in grad school said this one a lot. And it was delivered as a compliment, as in, hey, we can all band together because we are all of the world where have experienced some version of lack of resources or lack of domination that allows us to be friends.
Go back to your country!
Thanks to our former President, millions felt completely valid in taking back their country for themselves, and one of his acolytes, complete with a MAGA hat at a Walmart in rural Pennsylvania, delivered this line while whizzing by on a motorized scooter.
Americans do things this way
That’s what a lot of the adults around me growing up said. They, although they had their citizenship, did things one way, and of course Americans, implying Americans who had been there longer than them, did things another, less desirable way.
What started with George Floyd last summer, and what brings me back to the cultural zeitgeist of the Shadow & Bone series, is this: we are now experiencing the othering of American culture, in which every single person now believes that they in fact, are an other.
You’re an other if you’re a white Republican, coasting against the grain of the liberal elite. You’re an other if you’re LGBTQ+ (Happy Pride!). You’re an other if you’re a millennial and you’re an other if you’re not. But just as frequently, you’re an other with a cross over. You’re an other white Texan with a collection of guns and half Chinese grand babies. You’re a Filipino-American who absolutely loves to go camping and wear Carhartt.
And perhaps it is the case that the othering of society IS the goal, in which every single person is empowered to be exactly who they are, with all the overlapping identities and affiliations, posited at different points of time, that this implies.
It is a truism of New York City that what makes you cool here is being unique. You’ve got some unique way of being? Cool. We’ve got a place for you. You open up our hearts just a little bit, when we see you dressed the way you are, acting the way you do, out in public, just living your truth.
Friends, I do not know where Alina Starkov’s journey will take her, but I assume she will come into her own, grow into herself and find her presence in the world. And perhaps that is what we need now, is to embrace every aspect of our otherness that we can grasp, and scream at the world that our otherness is in fact a power to be harnessed and not a thing to be washed out, and turn it into our own.