The Henna Wars, Reviewed

Sixteen-year-old Nishat is a lesbian and she’s tired of hiding it. Her parents don’t approve and her friends still don’t know. When she returns to school in Dublin after the summer holidays she finds Flávia, a girl who caught her eye at a Bengali summer wedding in Ireland, has joined the class.

Taking the practical nature of Transition Year in her stride, Nishat starts a henna business as part of a school competition. However introducing some of her Bengali culture to her friends does not go totally to plan, and Nishat decides to enter the competition solo. The only problem is, Flávia has the same business idea, and Nishat has to decide if she should stay closeted and take the competition seriously, or put her heart on the line for the girl she cannot help noticing.

With auspicious timing, Adiba Jaigirdar, an Irish-Bangladeshi teacher from Dublin has brought us The Henna Wars, a young adult novel which explores differing attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in Ireland.

The Henna Wars is one of a trifecta of young adult (YA) books by Irish authors published this year with a lesbian as a main character. It will appear on shelves alongside Helen Corcoran’s Queen of Coin and Whispers and Ciara Smyth’s The Falling in Love Montage.

The book realistically depicts being 16 in an all-girls school in Dublin. It captures the rush of returning to school after the summer and seeing your friends again, the uncertainty and excitement of the Junior Cert results night, the freedom to learn new skills and all the new challenges of Transition Year.

There is little in this world comparable to the passion of a teenage girl that has thrown herself fully into a project, and Nishat’s business feels as high-stakes to the reader as it does to her. “Because I entered into a competition with someone who decided they could appropriate my culture and win. I can’t let them win,” she says.

Jaigirdar offers insight into Bengali culture — from food, dress and celebratory customs — starting immediately with the opening chapters depicting a Bengali engagement party and a wedding ceremony.

She takes a firm approach in tackling the issues of racism, cultural appropriation and ignorance head-on. Nishat is unafraid to call out her classmates and the prose makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, how Nishat feels. “Well, regardless, she’s said some stuff and now she’s going around with henna on her hands. That’s cultural appropriation.”

Had I read The Henna Wars as a teenager, it would’ve given me the opportunity to learn, unobtrusively, the salient differences between impact and intent when it comes to borrowing from other cultures. Jaigirdar’s depiction of a gay Muslim teenager whose family are not strictly practising is guaranteed to open a door for non-Muslim readers to look beyond stereotypes and beliefs. “Because of course Muslims can be gay. How can anyone even think otherwise? The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I am living, breathing proof.”

Chyna — a white girl named after her parents’ favourite country —is Nishat’s main bully and is the driving force behind Nishat’s frustration with cultural appropriation. Blatant racism from her classmates that manifests as exclusion and bullying, and microaggressions from her friends who don’t have perspective on Nishet experiences are central to the story. When interwoven with homophobia, the weight of the emotional burden Nishat carries around is tangible.

Dealing with the delicate, devastating incident of Nishat being outed by a classmate with an expert hand, Jaigirdar has, to the best of my knowledge, become one of the first Irish-Bangladeshi YA writers to commit in print the hyperrealism of how schools and peers in Ireland handle LGBTQ+ issues.

Although The Henna Wars confronts tough subject matter, it is also about first crushes, first kisses, and first love. Nishat’s attraction to and relationship with Flávia is romantic and relatable, with a sweetness that transcends the core storyline of cultural appropriation and coming-of-age as a queer teenager. Nishat wants to see Flávia as a rival only, but there is a softness to their budding romance captured in glances, and chance encounters at house parties. “My heart flutters at the sight of her even though I’m trying to tell it to shut up because we are rivals and she’s a culture thief!”

Coupled with a strong focus on familial friendships, everything about this book is truly stunning, from cover to cover. The Henna Wars is essential reading.

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Courtney Smyth: Courtney Smyth is a writer of YA books, short stories, and lists, though not necessarily in that order. She is a Words Ireland National Mentoring Programme mentee for 2020 and lives in Dublin.

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