The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
Published: Page Street Kids (May 12th 2020)
Genre: young adult; contemporary
Rep: Bengali Muslim lesbian mc, Afro-Brazilian Irish bi li, Bengali side characters, Korean side character
Tw: homophobia, racism, outing, bullying
Rating: 3/5 🍑
If I was to describe The Henna Wars in one word, I would say “comforting”. It’s comforting in a way that it’s a story about a Bengali Muslim lesbian, very clearly not catered towards white audience. The mc’s culture is a central point of the book, it plays a major role and not once is the girl made to feel as if that shouldn’t be the case. Even when facing racism from her pears, she knows it’s them who should change & adapt. I can’t even imagine what a book like this must mean to South Asian readers.
The plot itself isn’t complicated. Nishat has to start a business for a school project and she decides to use this as an opportunity to connect more with her culture and opens a henna shop. A girl she has a crush on – who’s not Desi – does the same. A conflict is born. It’s interesting to see a conversation about cultural appropriation where the person who’s in the wrong isn’t white. Not in a way that “oh, finally, someone gave us a break!”, but rather “hey, it’s actually more complicated than you might have thought”.
The Henna Wars tackles more than this one issue, though, and they’re all intertwined perfectly. At the very start of the novel Nishat decides to come out to her parents, who turn out to not be supportive at all, telling her that Muslims can’t be gay. She faces racism at school, gets bullied, and at one point gets outed to the whole school.
For balance, we also have a great relationship between Nishat and her younger sister. It was incredibly refreshing to read about siblings who actually seemed real, and loved each other deeply even though they fought a lot. Priti was very supportive of Nishat and it was obvious in every little thing she’s done for her sister.
The Henna Wars checks all the right boxes and I’m sure a lot of readers will absolutely love it. My only issue was a personal preference in regard to the writing style, which I found pretty bland (and how it affected fleshing out characters).
When Dimple Met Rishi meets Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda in this rom com about two teen girls with rival henna businesses.
When Nishat comes out to her parents, they say she can be anyone she wants—as long as she isn’t herself. Because Muslim girls aren’t lesbians. Nishat doesn’t want to hide who she is, but she also doesn’t want to lose her relationship with her family. And her life only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life.
Flávia is beautiful and charismatic and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat choose to do henna, even though Flávia is appropriating Nishat’s culture. Amidst sabotage and school stress, their lives get more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush on Flávia, and realizes there might be more to her than she realized.
What’s a good contemporary book you’ve read recently?