Seeing Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in the Netflix adaptation of Shadow & Bone was hugely important to me. I had never seen a biracial (and Asian!) main character in mainstream fantasy before. In the wake of the show, there was a lot of backlash against the microaggressions Alina experiences and the level of racism portrayed, especially among the bookstagram community. This essay was born from my need to say something, to advocate for this kind of representation.
When the teaser for S&B dropped and I saw Jessie Mei Li for the first time, all I could do was stare. And then laugh. And then cry. And laugh again. Alina looked like me. Not a “more Asian” version of me. Just ME. They’d cast this bi-racial babe to play Alina, and I couldn’t wait to see her shine. One minute into the show, I burst into tears just because she was there. She was real. Then, someone made a derogatory comment about her Shu heritage, and relief washed over me. Alina’s “half-Shu-ness” wasn’t going to end with Jessie’s casting. It was going to be a part of Alina’s character. I cannot begin to tell you how much joy this brought me.
As I watched Alina move through Ravka with grace and uncertainty, I winced protectively every time a Ravkan reduced her to her Shu features. I know what that feels like. My spirit soared when Alina found her small joys and her innate power. I know what that feels like too. I understood why she chose to walk away from certain situations. I recognized the complicated plea of “Don’t change my eyes.” I cringed every time anyone asked, “What are you?” or only referred to her as “the Shu girl.” I imagined my Japanese American grandparents, only teenagers when they were interned on the West Coast during WWII, facing similar hate. Like Alina, they shared an origin with “the enemy” but nothing else.
I cannot adequately tell you how it felt to see this young woman grow into her strength, become one of the most powerful, most venerated people in her country and STILL HAVE Ravkans assume she didn’t belong. But I’ll try. The words, “I feel seen” and “I feel less alone,” aren’t enough. Jessie Mei Li’s Alina makes me feel like I could summon not just the sun, but entire galaxies.
Jessie Mei Li's Alina makes me feel like I could not only summon the sun, but entire galaxies.
Being biracial has been a long, complicated, confusing, invisible, and very lonely struggle. Alina on-screen is the first time I’ve truly been able to point and say, “That’s me!” (31 years, friends. I’ve waited 31 years for this.) I don’t see myself in Alina only because Jessie is half-Asian. Alina looks like me on the inside too. And I’m not just talking about using words like “stubborn” or “intelligent” as character descriptors.
The biggest reason Alina looks like me on the inside is this: no matter how Alina sees herself (cartographer, Sun Summoner), the world reduces her to her heritage. She constantly has to challenge their false conclusions and succeed in spite of them. She wants to be seen for who she is and what she can do rather than who her parents were. The reason Alina looks like me, inside and out, is because of how she’s grown in the face of Ravka’s racism.
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I’ll be honest, friends. In the 24 hours after the show released, it was disheartening to come on bookstagram (a community that calls for diversity and inclusivity regularly) and see reshares of tweets lamenting the racism in Shadow and Bone, or small remarks pointing at the racism as “inappropriate,” something to get rid of in order to make Season 2 better. These moments and interactions that people were calling inappropriate are the first time I’ve *ever* seen a mixed race character experience things that I have. If it’s okay to cast Jessie Mei Li as Alina, then it has to be okay to include Alina’s experiences as a bi-racial person.
Diverse representation should not end at skin tone or an actor’s racial identity.
Jessie talks about their own experiences of growing up bi-racial and how she brought that to Alina in many interviews, as well as what it meant to them to see that casting a mixed race actor wasn’t just about a look.
I’m not claiming that the racism in Shadow and Bone is perfect. I have read many articles and opinions and take some of the points. The thing I most strongly disagree with is that the show was “wrong” to not unify the experiences of racism for all characters of color. ie: every character of color should experience levels of prejudice that match Alina.
What I saw was that Ravka’s prejudices do not hold up a perfect mirror to our world. Ravka is a queer normative culture. It is as a world that holds great prejudice towards Grisha. If we can imagine a world with Squallers and Inferni, can we imagine one where an Asian-coded person experiences a more pointed kind of racism than other groups of people? I am excited to see more nuance in the racial relationship in Ravka in future seasons, especially as we get more of Inej and Zoya’s stories, and if a certain pair of twins show up.
I understand the longing for an escape, for wanting the show to be free of political and racial tensions. But Ravka is a country at war. The war is central to the story. It always has been. Bardugo has acknowledged that, while she set the Grishaverse outside the traditional western Europe-y worlds of epic fantasy, much of the original trilogy still follows western fantasy traditions, like nominal diversity while cultures remain homogenous. She told the director to “do things better than I did” in regards to diversity in Shadow & Bone. And that diversity, very rightly, went deeper than casting.
I think it’s easy to agree that Six of Crows and King of Scars do better by their characters of color. Inej’s Suli identity has always been integral to her story, and now, Alina’s half-Shu identity is integral to hers.
Jessie Mei Li’s Alina Starkov is the hero I needed as a teenager. Now, she’s the character I can step into without asking anyone’s permission, without wondering if I’m too white or not Asian enough. She’s the character that reminds me that, even if people don’t accept my factual answers to their inappropriate “What are you?”s and “Where are you really from?”s, I can blind them all with my light. Alina’s half-ness is part of her whole self, just as Jessie Mei Li’s half-ness is a part of theirs, just as mine is a part of me. Every call to eliminate the racism in Shadow and Bone is a call to erase us.
Please see us, all the bi-racial Sun Summoners
just bursting with light. See me.
Kaitee Yaeko Tredway is a writer and puppeteer and her story "Slide" appears in Improbable Press' anthology Dark Cheer: Cryptids Emerging (Volume Blue). Kaitee has always lived in New England: in its mountains, cities, and suburbs. She loves big, explosive magics and magics small enough to live inside of walnut shells. She is happiest when tangling herself up in new threads spun from old tales. This post can be found on Kaitee's bookblog of 4 August 2021.