In the final months of last year, Heady Mix interviewed Sara Novic – author of Girl at War. Featured in November 2019 as part of our Feminist Fairy Tales collection, Girl at War was one of two novels chosen because of their strong female protagonist, showcasing women with agency and in the driving seat of their own destiny.
We asked Sara about the context of her novel, a retelling of the horrific Balkans War through the eyes of a young woman, and specifically asked why it was important to her to the write the story from a female perspective. As is now customary with each of our featured authors, we also asked Sara to do a reading for us, a passage taken from the book that most encapsulates its theme and message.
Since Sara is Deaf – she used American Sign Language to communicate her answers and reading to us, you can find the recording at the bottom of the article.
Why was it important for you to narrate Ana as in charge of her own story rather than someone needing rescue?
One of the devastating effects of war, and particularly of genocide, is a loss of agency. And Ana really loses everything, like many people do, to this war. Sometimes I get flak for the ending of this novel, because it doesn’t necessarily tie everything up with a nice bow at the end. But that was intentionally, obviously, and to me it was really important—genocide means to steal away all possibility for closure.
Still for Ana, I wanted to give her if not a happy ending then a hopeful one, and the best I could do to give her that was to give her agency back—so she could make her own decisions, move around in the world as she pleased, and actually talk about what happened to her.
That’s also why the third section of the novel, “Safe Houses,” was important to me—it was a way for Ana to reclaim some of what had been taken from her by giving her the chance to fight back.
Ana’s coming of age story is set against a backdrop of horrific war and genocide, how does this even further magnify her strength as a woman?
Girl at War started out as a short story that I wrote in college. At the time, the narrative was more directly connected to the experience of a friend of mine, a man, so the character in the story was a little boy. Then, in a meeting with my professor, he suggested I turn this story into a novel. I was like, “yeah no way. I have no idea how to do that!” I thought he was crazy.
But as I kept writing and the story grew I began to think about what I was actually trying to say, big picture. One of my goals with the novel was to teach people unfamiliar with the war about what had happened there (particularly Americans, my college classmates who had no idea what I was talking about).
When Americans think of war, they often think of it as 1. Over “there” far away and 2. A very male activity. But of course, the majority of people who actually experience war do so at home, and the people most profoundly affected are civilians, women and children. Same goes for people’s thoughts about child soldiers, they never think of girl soldiers, but they exist all over the world.
So I realised that to truly tell the story I wanted to tell, I needed a female character to embody it. Ana is reliant on her own strength and wit through the worst of circumstances for most of the novel. And at the same time, she also has misogynist expectations working against her. She is not expected to be strong, and has previously been made fun of or looked down on for having these “boy-like” skills or personality.
I think overcoming this discrimination inside this macrocosm of the worst of human experiences certainly magnifies that strength.
Please could you now read your chosen passage, and tell us a little about why you selected this part of the novel for your reading?
I’m going to read a bit from the third part of the novel, Safe Houses, which I chose because it, for me, is tethered to some of the central ideas of agency in the novel.
A huge thank you to Sara for taking the time to tell us more about Girl at War. This powerful, feminist novel can be purchased directly via our diverse bookstore.