“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.

Review: “Water” by Ellen van Neerven

by Johanna Edler

The short story “Water” from the collection Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven was published in 2014 and discusses the treatment of Indigenous people in a futuristic Australia. Van Neerven is an Aboriginal Australian herself and an award-winning writer and poet.

Personally, I really enjoyed the short story, especially because it introduces many new plot threads that were very interesting to see unfold and sometimes surprised me a lot. The story really is a new perspective on the way Aboriginal people are treated by others in Australia and how a future might look like for them.     

The story’s main character Kaden is a young Aboriginal woman who identifies as queer which lets us as the readers see the world through her eyes. I find this representation not only refreshing and interesting but also very important as it gives space for a new perspective and voice that has not been heard that much before.

The genre of the short story is not very easily identified which again shows the versatility of the story as there are many different elements that could be considered magic realism, science fiction or even dystopian. In my opinion this makes the story even more interesting as it is not clearly confined to one genre but offers many different layers and lenses to analyze it through. Magic Realism shines through on many occasions, especially because the story feels very grounded in present-day problems and politics for example when considering the rights of Indigenous people and “Australia2”. Science Fiction on the other hand can be seen as well in the future setting or the way the “formula” is a scientific experiment that is performed on the plantpeople. The situation with Indigenous people in Australia, the problems they have to face and where they stand in society also seems to be relatable to dystopian settings which again shows the many different layers the story has. The mixture is what makes the story even more captivating which Ellen van Neerven manages quite well in her writing.     

In conclusion, I think that “Water” is an important contribution to all these genres and brings a new voice of an Aboriginal Australian woman into the discourse surrounding the addressed problems. I highly recommend the story to everyone who is interested and I am definitely going to see what else Ellen van Neerven publishes in the future.