Book Review: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
Nishat doesn’t want to lose her family, but she also doesn’t want to hide who she is, and it only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life. Flávia is beautiful and charismatic, and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat decide to showcase their talent as henna artists. In a fight to prove who is the best, their lives become more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush, especially since Flávia seems to like her back.
As the competition heats up, Nishat has a decision to make: stay in the closet for her family, or put aside her differences with Flávia and give their relationship a chance.
(The content warning from the book, FYI: The Henna Wars contains instances of racism, homophobia, bullying, and a character being outed. All of these are challenged and dealt with on the page.)
Bangladeshi Irish Nishat, 16, has decided to come out to her parents. After all, they have a “love marriage” (versus an arranged marriage), so maybe they can accept this other form of love. Her parents acknowledge her telling them she’s a lesbian, then dismiss her. She later overhears them saying she’s confused, she will work it out, she will change her mind. Their intent is to carry on as though nothing is different.
But for Nishat, everything is different. She doesn’t want to be closeted anymore, or be anyone other than who she is. And her crush on her new classmate Flávia, who is Brazilian and white Irish, makes it even harder for her to ignore or dismiss who she is and how she feels. But that crush quickly grows more complicated when both Nishat and Flávia decide to create henna businesses for a class project. Nishat is outraged that Flávia thinks it’s okay to do henna; doesn’t she understand that’s cultural appropriation? Flávia says it’s just art, and no one can make boundaries about art. It doesn’t help that Flávia’s cousin in Chyna, the nastiest girl in their class, who is racist and started rumors about Nishat’s family years ago.
This story is equal parts about having a crush on someone who should probably be your enemy and coming out/being outed. The only people Nishat tells are in her family. Her younger sister has known for a while and is totally loving and supportive. Her parents tell a family friend and have her try to reason with Nishat—she’s young, she’s confused, she has a problem, “Muslims aren’t gay” (pg 123), she has a “sickness.” Meanwhile, her parents continue to act as though she never told them anything and this whole “problem” will just eventually resolve itself. After all, according to her parents’ logic, can’t she understand that she’s making a “choice” that is bringing shame to the family? This coming from parents who have made it clear to her that she can be anything she wants… except herself, apparently.
Both pieces of the story, the henna competition and the crush, have many believable and dramatic ups and downs. There are lots of conversations about racism, bullying, homophobia, cultural issues and appropriations, family, and more. The most challenging aspect of the book may be the part about Nishat being outed, which is traumatic and, of course, unacceptable. I do want to say that this has a happy ending, that characters in her life do learn and grow and ultimately support her and show love. The relationship between Nishat and her sister, Priti, is one of the shining points of the book. They are absolutely best friends and the support Priti provides Nishat while so many others turn their back on her is priceless. Though at times painful to read, this is exploration of identity, family, and self is well-written, honest, and, ultimately, empowering.
Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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