Review: Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar

by Alice Kronenberg

“Friends can talk about things. They can figure things out. Get past things. Dou you want a friend in your life who you can never disagree with? A friend who you can’t grow with?”

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, pos. 2808 (kindle)

Humaira Khan and Ishita Dey are nothing alike: While easy-going and amiable Hani socializes with her friends, introverted and ambitious Ishu spends her days studying to prepare for university. Despite being pushed into the same box by their classmates for being the only two Bengali girls in their year, Hani and Ishu have very little in common and do their best to avoid each other on most days.

That is, until Hani’s friends tell her that she can’t possibly be bisexual if she has only dated boys and she hurriedly invents a fake relationship with Ishu. Hesitant at first, Ishu soon agrees to Hani’s fake dating proposal, hoping that it will make her more popular and secure her classmates’ votes in the election of Head Girl.

In this sunshine x grumpy, fake-dating story Jaigirdar brings to life a breezy, heart-warming romance while simultaneously tackling more serious issues like racism, biphobia, toxic friendships and family conflicts. Keeping the tone appropriate for a young readership, she sends her characters on a journey of growth and challenges, putting them through many uncomfortable moments and painful realizations. In the end, however, the positive feelings outweigh the negative ones, making this a story of queer joy rather than queer trauma.

“Before all of this started, I didn’t even know what being in a relationship was, but now I’m pretty sure I can write a guide to real dating.”

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, pos. 3745 (kindle)

Both of the main characters have their own story in addition to their shared one. Hani starts out as a very accommodating character, constantly assimilating to her toxic white friends who don’t show any respect for her culture, her religion, or her sexuality. She is somewhat caught in between wanting to commit to her Bengali and Muslim community and her fear that her friends will exclude her if she does. Thus, a big part of her character development is learning to stand up for herself, to choose her own happiness over her friends’ opinion, and eventually to leave behind a friendship that she’s held onto since early childhood. Thanks to her relationship with Ishu as well as her loving parents, she realizes that she deserves people who support her culture and sexuality instead of mocking it.

Ishu, on the other hand, is utterly unapologetic. She doesn’t care what others have to say about her culture or her appearance. She does care, however, about her parents’ approval – more than anything else, actually. Especially ever since her older sister announced that she wanted to take a break from med-school to get married, Ishu has felt the responsibility and pressure of being the ‘good daughter’ who achieves exactly what her parents expect from her. Over the course of the book, Ishu realizes that her sister might be right in choosing a different path for her life than she initially promised her family, and finds herself questioning her own plans for the future. The more she sides with her sister Nik, the more criticism she receives from her parents, and on top of that, she has to deal with people at school attempting to ruin her chances in the Head Girl election. In the end, Ishu lets go of her desire to please her parents and learns to put herself first.

Adiba Jaigirdar thus created two contrasting main characters who somehow give each other exactly the type of encouragement the other needs. Through the duo-POV narration style, Jaigirdar shows how differently people connect to their culture and how varied the lived experiences of two brown queer girls can be. Her writing style and choice of words is engaging and easily accessible. Some passages may sound a bit juvenile, but if you consider the targeted age group, the language definitely feels appropriate. What stands out positively are the many Bengali foods, clothes, and traditions that were woven into the main story – as a non-Bengali reader, I really enjoyed learning about this culture through the characters.

One aspect I’d like to discuss critically is the motivation behind the protagonists’ decision to fake-date each other. For one, there is no mention of many other friends or acquaintances Hani has outside of her trio that would speak for her popularity, so it is a bit hard to believe that Ishu actually has a shot at becoming Head Girl just because she’s dating Hani. It would have been nice to see Hani engaging with other people or being part of a larger social circle at school to show that she has an influence on the other students (e.g. by making her part of a sports team or popular school club). Also, as understandable as it is for Hani to want to prove to her straight friends that she is bisexual, and as much as I personally enjoy the fake-dating-trope, I wish there was a moment where she realizes that she should never need to invent a girlfriend to convince people of anything. She doesn’t owe her friends an explanation, much less a whole relationship, to prove her sexuality. Even though Hani did ‘break up’ with her friends at the end of the novel, it felt like it was for other reasons – for framing Ishu, for making her ditch her father, for how they treated her after she came out to them. But she never says anything along the lines of, “And by the way, I literally got a fake girlfriend when I really shouldn’t have to, and you’re still not taking me seriously”, and I think that’s the one thing that could be missing in her otherwise well-rounded character development.

Nonetheless, this is an amazing sapphic love story full of tropes we love. Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating is both light-hearted and deep and provides the perfect balance of cheesy romance, coming of age themes, and more serious social issues. Jaigirdar handled the difficult aspects very carefully, responsibly, and thoughtfully, providing a rich variety of perspectives and experiences for the reader to consider. What I also like is that the novel ends on a positive note, but not a perfect one. There are still conflicts for the protagonists to resolve – Ishu is experiencing an estrangement from her parents, Hani has just lost her two best friends – but for now, both girls are happy with their lives and their growth. So, you close the book with a sense of knowing that Hani and Ishu will continue to work on themselves off-page, and I think that’s beautiful.

“Sometimes being yourself is the hardest thing” – A Review of Adiba Jaigirdar’s The Henna Wars

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.