Book Review: The Henna Wars

The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar


Trigger Warning: Racism, Homophobia, Forced Outing, Bullying

Nishat has a problem. Well, she doesn’t have a problem—her parents, friends and rivals do. Her parents won’t accept that she is a lesbian. Her friends won’t accept her desire to operate a henna shop as part of their school project. And her rivals are—well. One is a girl she is instantly attracted to, and the other is the Worst Human Being On Earth.

Why do they get to take away my right to come out, and win a competition with my culture on display?

3.5 stars, rounded up

This was good and enjoyable, but there was a distinct lack of um, adult consequences over some very real things that seemed like they were brushed under the rug once the HFN happened. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

First things first: what I loved

I loved that Nishat was a fucking teenager. She was impulsive, convinced she was right, and determined to do whatever it took to win…even if that meant that she made some kinda not so good decisions. She wanted to push away from her parents and become independent and herself, but also wanted her parents’ love and acceptance.

Also, Nishat’s younger sister Priti is a gem and a treasure. She reminded me a lot of Kitty from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in terms of ruthlessness, sisterly affecting (re: biting of hands) and protectiveness. I hope Priti gets her own book.

I also liked (well, to the point that this can be liked) that the topic of cultural appropriation, particularly the appropriation of Indian culture, was addressed. Many aspects of Indian culture and tradition have been colonized and commercialized (*cough cough* yoga), and this book tackles the appropriation of henna and the concept of artwork.

And I liked that Flaviá and her culture were also addressed, along with the intersections of two cultures with Ireland (and toxic White culture), and how her views on art evolved over the course of the book. Because art isn’t just art and can’t be lifted freely from whatever source for art’s sake. There is nuance and consideration.

Finally, I liked Nishat’s parents’ arcs. They had been pariahs due to having a love-marriage instead of a traditional arranged marriage, and had left Bangladesh because of it—and had few family who would interact with them. Because of this, they wanted their children to embrace their culture and also follow along in traditional paths to avoid the consequences they had faced. Additionally, in Bengladesh queerness is punishable by death. Their reactions were reasonable, and their slow acceptance of Nishat was heartwarming and touching.

The love towards Bengali culture was also wonderfully done. I liked that Nishat began embracing her family’s traditions while acknowledging that some traditions were maybe not so great. The wedding scenes were stunning and beautiful.

Things I wasn’t as fond of:

The interchangeability of Nishat’s two best friends. Can’t remember their names they were so unremarkable—even if they did call Nishat out on her bullshit, particularly her bullshit regarding her love interest.

Flaviá’s initial inability to see her selling of henna artwork and her copying of Nishat’s unique designs as wrong—she had seen something pretty at a wedding and decided to try it out and then sell it. I was a little flabbergasted by the audacity, but then um, White folks do it all the time.

The complete and utter lack of consequences—and Nishat’s blind forgiveness of Flaviá’s very real culpability because ~she’s hot~.

Let’s talk about the lack of consequences for a moment, shall we?

Bullying, particularly those of a racist and homophobic nature, were addressed by the school administration. Granted, there were few brown people at Nishat’s school, but the administration seemed like they were on top of it? Until the end, when literally nothing happened after vandalism and then queer-targeted bullying. I get that this is a Catholic school but sweet baby Artemis wtaf.

Also, I wanted a cosmic lightning bolt to smite Flaviá’s cousin Karen (not her name but she is a Karen) because she was a bitch of the highest order, and just deserved a general smiting for being a mean girl. The lack of retribution or resolution on her storyline was so frustrating. But hey, that’s life. But this is fiction, and if Mean Girls can have random bus-strikes, then this can have random acts of lightning.

Overall, this was a story that tackled the intersection of racism and homophobia and particularly addressed cultural appropriation—and it had a sapphic romance!

I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review.

The Henna Wars released 12 May 2020 from Page Street Kids.

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