Allow me to recount my first ever job: I was good at henna designing and when—in eight grade—the beauty parlours around my house were in search of more staff during the busy days before Eid, I decided to see if I could do it. Guess what? I did draw henna on hands for five days and got 50 Dirhams
$14 (which isn’t much, honestly). Well, I had almost forgotten about the happiness I got that week all those years ago and this book helped me reminisce.
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
Nishat doesn’t want to lose her family, but she also doesn’t want to hide who she is, and it 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 decide to showcase their talent as henna artists. In a fight to prove who is the best, their lives become more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush, especially since Flávia seems to like her back.
As the competition heats up, Nishat has a decision to make: stay in the closet for her family, or put aside her differences with Flávia and give their relationship a chance.
The Henna Wars is a slight tug at one’s heartstrings with a sapphic romance budding through the fields of authentic cultural and religious representation along with an excellent portrayal of a young desi lesbian girl challenging the evident cultural appropriation around her.
Representation: Bangladeshi-Irish & Lesbian Muslim MC + Brazilian-Irish & Bisexual MC.
Ownvoices: South-Asian representation.
Trigger Warnings: challenged racism, homophobia, bullying, cultural appropriation, and character being outed.
LET’S SHINE A DESERVING SPOTLIGHT ON THE
INSPIRING PROTAGONIST WHO IS COMING OF AGE.
Nishat is a gem. It’s never easy to create a young character who stays realistic with the societal doubts setting in but also depicts the inspirational traits of standing up for what’s right, but Nishat is the perfect mix. She believes in her perspective and the love for her culture, for her sexual orientation, and for her religion. There is nothing that stops her from enlightening, educating, or explaining these perspectives—and others—to those around her that have
wrong different opinions. And this makes for a protagonist who not only deserves support but also demands it.
THE PERFECT SOUTH-ASIAN FAMILY PORTRAYAL—A SISTER WHO BECOMES THE SOURCE OF STRENGTH, CONSERVATIVE IMMIGRANT PARENTS, AND RELATIVES INVITED TO CELEBRATE ACADEMIC RESULTS.
Priti, Nishat’s younger sister, is a ball of sunshine and the one who genuinely has our main character’s back. She’s the epitome of every sister we all wish we had or some might be lucky enough to already have: she teases her elder sister but also opens up her arms & heart for her Apujan to know the love she’ll always get from this bond.
Nishat’s parents have their walls up—like many Asian immigrants—when the idea of changing systems or accepting what they had unexpected is put forward. Their elder daughter comes out as a lesbian and their response is predictable but as hurtful as any reaction that involves cold shoulders and communication suspensions would be. The consequential anxiety that Nishat experiences is indicative of the mental impact a ‘suffocating’ South-Asian culture can have.
Not only was the immediate family portrayal on point but even the relatives and far-away acquaintances have their presence marked by realistic, common, and annoying dialogues or unsolicited advises they would deliver—whether in a Bengali wedding or in a get-together meant to celebrate academic results.
AN APPLAUSE FOR THE CULTURAL ESSENCE AND IMPORTANT THEMES
FLOWING THROUGH THE MODERN NARRATIVE.
The Henna Wars commendably incorporates the intricate details of a desi culture in Nishat’s narration and creates a story that clearly stands on the foundation inspired by a community the protagonist belongs to. From a recitation of the Bangladeshi delicacies lining a wedding food stall to mentioning jilapis and from the amazing smell of henna to the wholesomeness of daal, this book is a crown jewelled with cultural gems.
This contemporary also pulls important themes to the centre stage in a manner that can be marked as raw, honest, and brave. Whether it’s the cultural appropriation of henna in order to flourish a business a project or bullying that stems from racist assumptions disguised as school jokes; whether it’s the mispronunciation of desi names and the tinge of anger that follows or the disappointing attempt at blinding a queer’s eyes to their sexuality by imposing culture or religion, The Henna Wars does it too well.
SAPPHIC ROMANCE THAT STARTS WITH AN INSTANT CRUSH AND GROWS THROUGH
COMPETING HENNA BUSINESSES DISGUISED AS A WAR.
Flavia is Brazilian-Irish and a new admission to Nishat’s school, which makes our lovely protagonist smile wide but also warns herself to stay far away because this new admission is Chyna’s—the bully—cousin. Though, this doesn’t stop Flavia from letting those butterflies flutter, leaving subtle hints, and showing an interest in Nishat. Nor does our lovely Nishat stop stealing quick glances at the pretty girl, wonder what she’s like, and blush at Instagram comments by her crush. Yes, super cute. Yes, super sweet. Yes, you get all the feels.
However, a business project based on henna designing soon becomes the reason for this potential relationship to reach the dead-end before it could even start. There’s a rift between the two, an understandable one since Nishat is protective of her love for henna—simple flowery designs taught to her by her maternal grandmother: Nanu—and considers the opposite team’s idea a result of cultural embezzlement. Yes, lots of tension. Yes, lots of sadness. Yes, you will be struck with emotions.
THROWS A MUCH NEEDED LIGHT ON RACISM IN A SETTING MEANT FOR DIVERSE YOUNG STUDENTS TO BE EDUCATED.
A large part of The Henna Wars is dedicated to executing important conversations around racism, microaggressions, and blatant ignorance towards a culture. But the most absurd notion it absolutely condemns is that of a privileged white eyeing diversity as a ‘trend’ they can either downright shame as a spur of the moment waiting to die down or use to build their mountains of profit on. As a reader of colour, I personally appreciate this book’s narrative.
Disclaimer: I received a digital copy of this via Netgalley but that, in no way, influences my rating or review. Thank you, Page Street Kids & Adiba Jaigirdar!
I’m in no place to give detailed comments on the representation of sexual identities or the religion of characters in this book so please pay heed to the ownvoices reviews for these representations above mine. I’m only positive about my opinions regarding the culture depicted and racism challenged.