Adiba Jaigirdar’s debut novel The Henna Wars is a highly enjoyable and entertaining read albeit not without its flaws. Set in Dublin, Ireland, the novel follows Nishat, a Bengali Muslim girl, who recently has come out to her parents whose reaction is not the outcome for which she had hoped. Heartbroken by her parent’s unsupportive behavior her feeling of isolation is further amplified by the prejudice and racism she experiences in the Catholic high school that she attends. Only her younger sister Priti seems to be her only ally and confidante. When her teacher initiates a business competition Nishat seizes this opportunity to prove herself as more as her perception by her environment. Among all this, love also seemingly knocks on her door.
Jaigirdar paints a vivid image of the struggles of intersectional identities. On the one side, we experience Nishat’s endeavor to embrace her transcultural identity as a Bengali Muslim girl in an inherently white and Catholic hegemony. Despite the racism and prejudice, further worsened by a rumor a schoolmate spreads, Nishat’s determination to be proud of her cultural heritage never wavers, instead, it is celebrated throughout the novel in various ways. One cultural aspect is presented in the shape of food. Food is an integral part of many cultures and a shared experience between people. The novel often mentions and describes food in the novel in a highly positive manner and when a schoolmate spreads rumors about the negative effects of Bengali food it does not estrange Nishat from her heritage.
It is a refreshing take on the reconcilement of transcultural and non-normative identities. Many Young Adult novels deal with issues that many young readers may or may not experience in their formative years, as such many of these issues are often depicted as a problem. A novel that has a BIPOC as a protagonist often confronts them with their skin color and the perception thereof by the people around them. Luckily, Jaigirdar, as many recent Young Adult authors do, refrains from this old trope. Nishat does experience racism and discrimination, she is often perceived and judged on the basis of her heritage because it is the experience and part of the life of almost any immigrant or BIPOC, but it is not the focal point of the novel.
This is also beautifully displayed by Nishat’s coming out as a lesbian. She is faces problems and a less than desirable reaction from her parents but as with her heritage, her confidence in her identity never wavers. She does not see her queer identity as a problem but instead the reaction and treatment by her parents and her peers. As such the business competition presents an opportunity to assert herself as an individual that is not solely informed by her transcultural and queer identity. However, by establishing a henna business she still incorporates and embraces her cultural heritage.
The henna business touches on another important aspect of the novel: cultural appropriation. Jaigirdar demonstrates that there is a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. She reminds the reader that one might not always agree on what a person considers as appropriation but that it is important to listen to those that are affected by it. The novel shows that those lines sometimes blur and what one person perceives as appreciation the person from the target culture may feel their cultural identity violated and exploited. However, it is at this point where the novel sometimes falls flat. Nishat rarely communicates her concerns regarding the appropriation of her culture and the resolve of these concerns is unsatisfactory and opens more questions than it delivers answers.
This is an issue encountered several times throughout the novel. The different problems Nishat faces receive a rather lackluster and sometimes rushed resolution. Additionally, I felt as if the love story between Nishat and her classmate Flávia was also at times lacking consistence.
Nonetheless, in the whole with The Henna Wars Adiba Jairgirdar provided a solid debut as an author. Her style of narrative is simple and straightforward, she draws characters that are relatable but also flawed and touches on issues that have only become a focal point of Young Adult literature in recent years. The novel has its minor flaws that might leave the reader with an unsatisfactory resolution but in the grand scheme of things the story is a fun read, the characters are for the most part fleshed out and relatable, and it picks up on important topics such as racism and discrimination.