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From scandalous forced outing to artful henna

Competition heats up in this heartfelt young adult novel

Henna artist designing on a hand
Book cover for The Henna Wars depicting the two protagonists on the cover

Title

The Henna Wars

Author(s)

Adiba Jaigirdar

Genre

LGBTQIA+ | Young Adult

Out of the closet and into the silence

Coming out for me was a heart-stopping, choke-on-my-words, petrifying experience. And that was just the thought of coming out to friends. For most of my teenage years, coming out to my parents was a hard no. I was 19 when I finally came out to my mother. In fact, I didn’t come out to anyone until I was in college, parent or otherwise. There’s no way I could’ve told anyone in my high school the secret. The thought of it was nightmarish. 

Fast forward 25 years and the world is unrecognizable. Today, LGBTQIA+ youth are coming out in middle school, and sometimes even earlier. Millennials, Gen Z, and future generations demand the right to individuality. In The Henna Wars, Nishat, a Bengali teenager living in Ireland, daydreams about Deepika Padukone and plans to come out to her parents. Unlike Deepika Padukone, Nishat’s life isn’t a Bollywood movie. She’s a queer Muslim girl three weeks away from her senior year at a Catholic school. For her immigrant parents, keeping up appearances while away from Bangladesh is fundamental to their success in their adopted city. There’s no room for anything but stereotypical straight marriages for their two daughters. 

Knowing this doesn’t dissuade Nishat from “trying to construct the perfect coming out moment,” which she decides is after the engagement party of a distant relative. Abbu and Ammu’s wide-eyed gaze at the bride- and groom-to-be presents the perfect opportunity to mitigate her parents’ hopes. However, when she does come out to them later that evening, her parents react not with joy and acceptance, but with grim silence and a swift brushoff. 

A new love-hate

At their first Bengali wedding outside of Bangladesh, Nishat runs into a former primary schoolmate she hadn’t seen in years. 

She turns her head all of a sudden, like she can sense someone watching. She catches my eye, and for a moment it’s just the two of us taking each other in from across the wedding hall. If I didn’t know better, I would call this my own Bollywood moment.

Jaigirdar creates a lovely vignette around Flavía’s first appearance that sets a series of cringe-worthy dramatic moments in motion. Beautiful, perfect, biracial Flavía recognizes Nishat, comments on the henna she intricately designed for the wedding, and mispronounces her name. Nishat is unphased as Flavía whisks her by the hand, bypassing the infinite queue, to pose for photos with the newlyweds. Displaying only minor displeasure at being ditched, Nishat’s sister Priti takes a photo of Flavía and Nishat with her phone. Later, Nishat nonchalantly asks Priti to send her the photo her way.

The plot moves quickly in Jaigirdar’s elegantly written prose. The first day of senior year, Nishat is aghast to discover that Flavía is the cousin of her nemesis, villainous, racist Chyna. Nishat can’t imagine anyone good being related to Chyna, who spread a rumor that Abbu’s restaurant gives people diarrhea. 

The drama

The three are lumped together in the same economics class along with Nishat’s friends, Jess and Chaewon. Tensions boil when the students must complete an entrepreneurial project that pits each group against each other in a business competition. Then, at the end of the term, the best business is set to win one thousand euros.

The money would come in handy for Nishat and Chaewon, a Korean-born immigrant. With it, they can buy plane tickets to visit their respective families back home. As a first-generation American, I can relate to their plight. Visiting our homeland can be elusive, especially if the consequences of leaving put us at odds with returning.

Pursuing the perfect business plan, Nishat alienates her friends and decides to go it alone with a henna business. The competition goes awry when Nishat learns that Flavía and Chyna have partnered to create a similar henna business.

Blinded by her indignation that Chyna and Flavía are culturally appropriating her Bengali heritage, Nishat schemes to foil their business. Her goal is to win the competition through whatever means, however misguided. 

That’s my advantage. I know henna. Even in the areas I don’t, I know the people who do. There’s no way Flávia is going to take advantage of my culture because of Chyna’s popularity, because she has white friends who’ll make her henna look chic and adaptable to Western culture.

I might not be able to get Ammu to look me in the eye anymore, but I am going to beat Flávia’s henna business.

Come hell or high water.

Meanwhile at home, she’s oblivious to the simmering tension she’s caused with her recent gay revelation. Priti does her best to ease her parents’ concerns.

Requited and outed

Meanwhile, Flavía tries to make peace with Nishat, who harbors mixed feelings for her. When she invites Nishat to a party she’s having for Chyna at her house, Flavía initiates an ‘almost kiss’ with Nishat away from prying eyes. But just as they’re about to touch lips, Nishat receives a text message from Priti that dampens the mood. Flavía rushes to return to the party and Nishat decides it’s time to leave.

Jaigirdar teases us with more of these tantalizing kisses. However, Chyna catches them lying on Flavía’s bed in one of them, just as Flavía closes in on Nishat. She’s almost certain that Chyna will use this information against her.

During the business competition, the students prepare for their first showcase, selling their products and services to the rest of the students. But Nishat’s hopes of garnering customers are thwarted when an anonymous text message is delivered to the school. Spewing hate speech, the text outs Nishat to everyone, including teachers and administrative staff. 

Teenage angst

While the administrators investigate the matter, Nishat is sure of the culprit. And now, she’s more determined than ever to beat Chyna and Flavía. So much so that she’s oblivious to other events occurring around her. Unbeknownst to Nishat, Priti desperately seeks solace from the unbearable situation at home. She subsequently finds it in her best friend, Ali, who betrays her beyond belief. The conundrum is that the sisters want reinforcement from each other, but when they don’t receive it, they accuse the other of selfishness. 

‘You don’t even care about what’s been happening here. With us. With me. Ali and I have been on the rocks for weeks. Weeks. And of course I couldn’t tell you about it because oh no, poor Nishat is dealing with so much. We must all walk on eggshells around her, in case she gets too upset.’ 

Jaigirdar plays into our sensibilities that our siblings are at our beck and call. However, Nishat’s younger sister is more than just a confidant. She utilizes Priti as a sounding board with little regard for her own struggles. Priti is the smart one, the pretty one, the one with the moral compass, yet she has her own worries. In short, Nishat takes her sister for granted. As Jaigirdar successfully insinuates Nishat’s shortcomings throughout the novel, putting her through the wringer, we can’t help rooting for her.

By the book

This novel is so much more than a coming-out story. The plot also navigates betrayal, first love, cultural diversity, racism, homophobia, bullying, and parental disapproval. It’s rich in teenage hyperbole and angst, with a fresh and modern cultural landscape. Jaigirdar’s characters shine on the page, and she gives her protagonist enough flaws to make her believable. I loved Nishat’s wit, insecurities, resourcefulness, and pride. Above everything else, she yearns to be free to be herself. 

‘Doctor, teacher, engineer, our Nishat could be anything she wants to be,’ Abbu says, clapping me on the back proudly. It’s the most he’s said to me in weeks, but there’s a plasticity to his smile, a solemness to his voice. 

Nishat can be anything she wants to be, except herself.

I bought this book in the oldest queer bookstore in London. It’s been ages since I’ve read a printed novel, preferring to read from my Kindle. And while there are many drawbacks, I loved connecting with the pages and the new book smell of the paper. Plus, I supported a small queer business. 

I loved this book, and it deserves top billing in your library or wherever you keep your new book wishlist. See if you can get it at your local bookstore or public library. 

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About the author(s).

Adiba Jaigirdar is the award-winning, critically-acclaimed and bestselling author of The Henna Wars, Hani & Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, and A Million to One. A Bangladeshi/Irish writer and former teacher, she has an MA in Postcolonial Studies from the University of Kent, England and a BA in English and History from UCD, Ireland. She is the winner of the YA book prize 2022, the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Awards 2021, and was a finalist for the 2022 Lambda Literary awards. All of her writing is aided by tea, and a healthy dose of Janelle Monáe and Hayley Kiyoko. When not writing, she is probably ranting about the ills of colonialism, playing video games, or expanding her overflowing lipstick collection.

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