Book Content Warnings: racism, homophobia, bullying, a character being outed
Article Content Warnings: racism, homophobia, bullying
The thing about South Asian weddings, or weddings in general, is that they get everyone emotional and reflective about their lives and futures.
In Adiba Jaigirdar’s The Henna Wars, Bengali teenager Nishat decides to come out as a lesbian to her traditional parents against the backdrop of her family friend’s wedding.
If her parents can persevere despite the societal disapproval they faced for their untraditional “love marriage,” Nishat thinks, then maybe they can accept the fact that their older daughter loves girls, not boys.
Nishat doesn’t make this decision with blind optimism, but she still doesn’t expect her parents’ reaction: initial silence that later leads to a secret discussion about how, given time, she will “change her mind.”
With her parents stony and her younger sister Priti her only support, Nishat attends the wedding ceremony, where she bumps into old childhood acquaintance Flávia. Despite their brief interaction together there, Nishat thinks about Flávia for days afterwards, crushing hard while Priti is nosy and speculative.
Of course, Nishat’s expectation that she’ll likely never see Flávia again is proved wrong when Flávia returns to Nishat’s secondary school for the first day of their Transition Year.
Here, the plot kicks into high gear as the girls’ business teacher announces a class-wide business competition with a thousand euro prize. Both girls decide to open competing henna stalls, Nishat out of cultural appreciation and Flávia out of what Nishat considers cultural appropriation.
What transpires next is part high school drama, part personal coming-of-age story, and part youthful romance, but all of The Henna Wars is unapologetically Brown and unapologetically South Asian. The novel is steeped both in Nishat’s and Jaigirdar’s Bengali heritage: the extravagant wedding, the traditional food that Nishat and Priti eat, and even the inspiration for Nishat’s henna stall.
Speaking of henna, the title of The Henna Wars actually felt like a misnomer. The competition between Nishat and Flávia is mostly one-sided, with much of the backstabbing and sabotage coming from Nishat with Priti’s support whereas any action that comes from Flávia’s side is mostly perpetrated by Flávia’s cousin—and business partner—Chyna. In this “war,” Flávia felt more like a pawn than an actual proponent.
For many cultures—South and West Asian included—henna is an artistic tradition, sometimes with religious connotations. In many of these societies, individuals, usually young women, are decorated with patterns of henna for traditional celebrations such as festivals and holidays, especially weddings as seen with Nishat and Priti. Wearing henna is considered a point of pride and expression for many cultures but has historically been looked down upon by Western society. In recent years, however, henna has been seen anywhere from runway shows to music festivals, often worn by white girls or women without acknowledgement of its cultural or religious significance.
The latter is what drives a wedge between Nishat and Flávia. Nishat cannot understand how the Brazilian-Irish Flávia, a fellow person of color, is oblivious to the inappropriateness of using Nishat’s culture for profit while Nishat has been bullied simply for being proudly Bengali.
Part of Flávia’s reasoning for creating and opening a henna stall is because she believes that art is universal and thus cannot be appropriated; this is an idea I do not personally agree with but still would have liked to see elaborated. Jaigirdar does spend much time exploring, through Nishat’s eyes, appropriation and exploitation of Bengali and South Asian culture, as well as casual racism—Nishat recalls racist bullying she experienced as a young teen, and Chyna (a white girl) pulls concepts from South Asian tradition to advertise the opposing henna stall without regard for their cultural significance.
However, it felt as if Jaigirdar failed to follow through on an interesting debate regarding cultural appreciation versus appropriation that we often see mirrored in real life. We hear explanations from Flávia about how she considered henna simply an art form and picked it up to have more to converse with Nishat about, but the roots of their “war” are quickly laid and then moved past. More time is spent on Nishat’s outrage and backlash against Flávia and her cousin than examining Flávia’s reasoning. Considering how prevalent the debate surrounding cultural appropriation is nowadays, I thought Jaigirdar referring to the universality of art as a counter-argument was a risk that wasn’t given enough attention or page count.
Still, Jaigirdar deserves credit for presenting Nishat’s dilemma as a debate rather than an one-sided argument, as well as for building believable reasons for Flávia’s reasoning.
The Henna Wars is full of flawed, dimensional characters. Even minor characters like Chyna are fleshed out and given more than one dimension, which I appreciate as it speaks realistically to the complexity of human personality. Chyna is a racist bully but is not incapable of caring for her cousin, which makes her hypocritical. Nishat is head-strong and passionate but selfish and unintentionally unobservant of how the people in her life around her are doing. Nishat’s friends Chaewon and Jess are individualistic and opinionated but still support Nishat and each other in times of need.
While reading The Henna Wars felt personal, relatable, and like an emotional rollercoaster, I still must only give this release ⅘ stars. I deducted a star for all the plot and character opportunities I felt that Jaigirdar had missed, but I still very much recommend The Henna Wars.
If you’re looking for a moving South Asian-led queer coming-of-age, you should pick up The Henna Wars. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.
Adiba Jaigirdar is the author of The Henna Wars, and Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating.
The Henna Wars can be purchased here.