Title: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
Publisher: Page Street Kids
Publication date: 12 May 2020
Genre: Young Adult | Contemporary | Romance
Page extent: 400 pages
Goodreads blurb: When Dimple Met Rishi meets Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda in this rom com about two teen girls with rival henna businesses.
When Nishat comes out to her parents, they say she can be anyone she wants—as long as she isn’t herself. Because Muslim girls aren’t lesbians. Nishat doesn’t want to hide who she is, but she also doesn’t want to lose her relationship with her family. And her life 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 choose to do henna, even though Flávia is appropriating Nishat’s culture. Amidst sabotage and school stress, their lives get more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush on Flávia, and realizes there might be more to her than she realized.
To understand the vibe of The Henna Wars, just look at the cover. The feeling I feel looking at that cover is exactly the same as I felt reading this book. The Henna Wars is soft and beautiful, confusing and uncertain, it fills you with such a warm feeling. This is a book that very much was not written for me (a white queer), but one that I found so much sweetness and love in. And I really hope this book can reach those it was written for and provide them with hope.
The Henna Wars is told from Nishat’s perspective, a young Muslim lesbian who has just come out to her parents (who don’t take it well). At school, she starts a henna business for a competition, but her crush, Flávia, also starts a henna business for the competition. But there’s one big problem: Flávia is appropriating Nishat’s culture, and Nishat will therefore do anything to beat her.
One of the things I loved most about this book was the complicated portrayal of high school friendships and hierarchy. Nishat doesn’t have many friends, and those she does have are at times unsupportive and do not understand her. Along with the relationship between Nishat’s sister, Priti, has with her best friend, Ali, these friendship circles really showcase the speed at which school hierarchies and friends can change, which felt very realistic. Nishat’s relationship with her sister is definitely my favourite of the book. It was so nice to see such a strong sister bond, their love for each other so apparent amongst both the snark and the support.
The relationship between Flávia and Nishat is definitely very cute and sweet, particularly at the start prior to the souring of the relationship thanks to Flávia’s appropriation. I’ll admit, I did want to see Flávia and her henna business partner, Chyna, the school bully and gossipmonger, get taken down a peg or two more. I don’t really feel like either of them really got the issue with what they were doing. With Chyna, I can see that’s probably because she’s just a bit of a racist ass. But Flavia’s sudden ‘oh I do understand why this sucks’ didn’t feel like a particularly strong statement of understanding. I wanted her to actually feel ashamed and guilty for what she did, but she never really seems to get it. But I guess in life, the bad folks never really get what they deserve either.
The relationship Nishat has with her parents is definitely a difficult one to read. But it’s also very hopeful, and the fact that they were watching Ellen DeGeneres by the end of the book was just hilarious.
The other thing I just absolutely adored with this book is how resolutely NOT WHITE it is. The Henna Wars is so embedded in Bengali culture, from Nishat’s relationship with her parents and sister, to the way Nishat feels about her henna, to the food, to the wedding, to the party to celebrate Nishat’s Junior Cert results, it’s a fantastic world and creation and I loved finding out about Nishat’s culture.
All in all, I thought this was a really great debut. It’s a book which very much places importance on characters and their relationships. It’s so full of pride and joy at Bengali culture, and is a soft and sweet sapphic contemporary.