Review by Shyamala Parthasarathy
Page Street Kids, May 2020
400 pages, Hardcover, $17.99 CAD, 978-162414-968-9
Ages 14+, Grades 9-12
Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBTQ+, POC Lead
TW: Discussions of homophobia, etc.
“Is something wrong?” she asks.
I don’t mean to say it, really, but when she asks that question it’s like she opens the floodgates.
“Yes. You’re starting your own henna business for class.”
Surprisingly, she smiles.
“What, you’re afraid of a little friendly competition?”
“No.” It comes out more defensive than I mean it to. “But… it was my idea. It’s my culture. It’s my thing.”
An enemies-to-lovers sapphic teen love story set in Ireland, The Henna Wars features a cast of all POC characters, all of whom must grapple with the ways queerness and race interact with each other in their lives. When sixteen-year-old Nishat comes out to her Bengali and Bangladeshi immigrant parents as a lesbian, she is met with stony silence. Things get worse when her childhood friend-turned-business rival, Flávia, sets up a henna stall for their school project. Nishat must untangle her complicated feelings about Flávia while grappling with what it means to be Muslim and gay—two identity markers that everyone tells her do not go together.
Nishat’s “coming out” isn’t a singular, one-and-done moment, despite the fact that the book opens with it. Not only does she have more people she has to “come out” to, her experience of the silence that surrounds “coming out” in South-Asian cultures rings extremely true to my own experience as a queer South-Asian. Nishat can be anything she wants, as long as she’s not a lesbian. But after she comes out to her parents, it isn’t spoken about, isn’t made a big deal of. Her Ammu and Abbu don’t hate her for it. And when push comes to shove, her parents show up for her when the school abandons her. Adiba Jaigirdar humanizes them, allowing them their own struggles and complexity. It’s not black-and-white, particularly set against the backdrop of a western country. Nishat’s coming out is not welcome, but neither is her being bullied by the school, and it is clear that Nishat’s parents want the best for her. Jaigirdar thus problematizes stereotypical notions of what queerness in non-white cultures can look like: endlessly complex negotiations with both family and larger social structures.
White characters are at the periphery of the story, brought into the fray only in as much as they confront their white privilege. Even Flávia—who is of Brazilian and Irish descent—isn’t spared. She is forced to confront her own proximity to whiteness, and admit that there’s a difference between a South-Asian person doing henna (something that’s part of their cultural practices) and a person of a different race—even a fellow POC—doing it as “art”. To that end, the book examines how solidarity can form along racialized lines without compromising the messy and complicated journey that it takes to get there.
If Nishat’s relationship with her parents is a primary source of conflict in the book, her relationship with her sister, Preeti, is one of the most delightful aspects of it. Preeti is the first to set up the henna business and plays the role of her confidant at moments when the rest of Nishat’s family turns away from her. And yet, Preeti isn’t treated like a prop; she has her own conflict, centered around her identity as a person of color and coming to terms with the fact that her white best friend does not understand microaggressions. Preeti is also the one calling out Nishat’s self-centeredness, presenting a positive affirmation of sisterhood that seeks to not just support, but grow together.
And of course, the development of the love story between Flávia and Nishat is delightfully done. There is the Bollywood-like meeting when their eyes meet across the room of a wedding, and then the constant flirting and fighting as they set up rival business pursuits, and then finally, the acceptance of their feelings for one another. The book ends with the image of Nishat doing mehndi on Flávia’s hands. They are learning and accepting not just each other, but themselves.
Offering a Bengali-Bangladeshi diaspora narrative that is not set in the United States, The Henna Wars is a fast-paced, adorable teenage love story for all young sapphic teens of color hungering to see themselves in media that often does not offer them any kind of representation whatsoever.
Shyamala Parthasarathy is a writer, editor and academic, hailing from Chennai. She holds two Master’s degrees in English/Creative Writing, and is usually working on some fanfiction challenge or the other when she is not worldbuilding for her own original work. She can be found twitter-lurking at @fangirlflailing.