Today’s post is very special because Adiba Jaigirdar, a Bangladeshi-Irish author, is here with a guest post on the importance of conversations around sexual orientation in stories with South Asian culture while she also divulges into the history of sexuality and gender spectrum in pre-colonial South Asia. Her debut novel, The Henna Wars — a sapphic contemporary romance featuring Bangladeshi-Irish and Brazilian-Irish main characters as they compete to showcase their talent as henna artists — released in May 2020 and has soon garnered a dedicated audience that includes me. This blog post may contain affiliate links. To know more about them, please read my disclaimer.
Adiba Jaigirdar on the need for conversations around sexual orientation in South Asian stories and history of sexuality and gender spectrum in pre-colonial South Asian.
When I was younger, I used to think that queerness and Asian-ness could not be co-existing identities. After all, there were few representations of queerness that I could see around me, and every single one of those representations were white Westerners. Tragic as their stories were, white queer people existed. That was something I knew. But queer Asian people? Queer South Asian people? That seemed almost impossible.
Of course, queerness has been a very present part of South Asian history for a long time. In fact, gender and sexual diversity has been documented in South Asian history and literature for a long time prior to the British invasion of the Indian subcontinent. The hijra or kinnar community has always been a large part of South Asian history. It is only during British colonial rule that same-sex relationships were deemed illegal by law, and the hijra community were labelled as “criminal.” In fact, if you study history, Western colonialism leading to the outlaw of gender and sexual diversity is a pretty common theme all across the world.
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.
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I was born in Bangladesh, a country that is actually younger than my father. Bangladesh was created in 1971 after a brutal war of independence from Pakistan. Before our war of independence, there was the Bengali language movement, which marked the violence and oppression we faced as “East Pakistan” and under Pakistanis. Before our language movement, there was the partition of India into India, East Pakistan, and West Pakistan in 1947, which led to what is, to this date, the largest mass migration in the history of this world. Before that, there was the man-made famine in the Bengals, which led the death of millions of Bengalis. Before that, there was the partition in the Bengals which resulted in violence and death in the Bengal region before Indian independence. Before that, there was more rebellion, war…attempts at securing freedom from the British, while forced to fight their wars.
As a Bangladeshi person I have seen the ways in which we’re still trying to deal with the aftermath of colonisation. We have a history of violence being done unto us, and my currently-living family still has stark memories of war, famine, and violence. In 2013, Bangladesh legally recognised hijras as a third, separate gender, and in 2018, India de-criminalised same-sex relationships. Part of the decolonising process is slowly undoing the harms that British colonisation has left us with, and that includes the way the British have instituted oppressive laws into our nations. In Bangladesh, we’re essentially still in the beginning of that process. After all, Bangladesh is only 49 years old.
When I was younger, I didn’t know any of this history. Not the history of the colonisation of my country, nor the history (or even existence) of queerness in my birth-nation. But because of these histories, I did notice the way that the idea of queerness was treated in South Asian communities. So many of us have been trained to think that queerness is a Western concept, something that doesn’t—and shouldn’t—exist in South Asian cultures and communities. When queerness has had a part in our history and culture long before Westerners became involved.
To be honest, I am only now learning about most of this, and trying to process what it means for me, a queer South Asian person, and what it means for the stories that I want to tell. In the same ways that our previously colonised countries are slowly unlearning, undoing, and coming into their full selves, South Asian people also have to do this unlearning. And stories are just one small piece of this that I can contribute to.
The day that The Henna Wars was released, multiple queer South Asians commented on the fact that they had never read a story with a queer South Asian person before. A fellow Bengali person said that they had never dreamed they would see a book about someone like them being published specifically for young readers. Since publication, many queer South Asians have reached out to say how much they connected with this story about a fellow queer brown girl, something they had never quite expected to read before. And on the other side of it, non-queer South Asians are reading this book and connecting with these characters and this story too.
I hope that this means the future of South Asians is being more knowledgeable about queerness and our own history of it. And I hope it means that queer South Asian teens don’t have to feel the way I did when I was younger: that they don’t think about their race and nationality being in conflict with their sexuality. That they don’t feel shut out of the communities that they belong to, and should support them wholly. That they have an easier time understanding who they are and accepting their identity. Because this is all a part of the decolonisation process.
She was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and has been living in Dublin, Ireland from the age of ten. She has a BA in English and History, and an MA in Postcolonial Studies. She is a contributor for Bookriot. All of her writing is aided by tea, and a healthy dose of Janelle Monáe and Hayley Kiyoko. When not writing, she can be found ranting about the ills of colonialism, playing video games, and expanding her overflowing lipstick collection. She can be found at adibajaigirdar.com or @adiba_j on Twitter and @dibs_j on Instagram.
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the guest writer’s comments and thoughts are solely their opinion; the links have been added by the blogger but no changes were made in text.
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