By Joya Pariyal
In the last few years, South Asian romance novels have been on the rise in Western reading circles with novels such as The Trouble with Hating You, The Dating Plan, and Accidentally Engaged. For once, desi characters were at the forefront of a novel and not nerdy best friends accompanying the traditionally white leads. These novels opened the door to possibilities of representation within the romance genre. Adiba Jaigirdar’s The Henna Wars, however, carves out a new space in the realm of South Asian romances. Set in a conservative area of Dublin, Ireland with a Bangladeshi female lead, The Henna Wars explores the struggles of queer in a desi cultural context with a Western backdrop.
The story is written in the perspective of Nishat, a Bangladeshi-Irish teen who recently came out to her Muslim parents as lesbian. This concept alone is a monumental move in representation for South Asians. Many South Asian romances written in English tend to be focused on Indian and Hindu culture and heterosexual relationships due to these being predominant cultural norms. South Asia typically gets watered down to just India and then even further to Hindu culture and languages. Heterosexuality serves as a norm not only in South Asia, but in a western sphere as well. Writing a queer book or queer characters is still partly received as a “different” story. When these cultural and sexual norms are deeply rooted, it is not a surprise South Asian descent romance authors stick to what is comfortable and familiar. The Henna Wars is one of few novels that specifically focuses on Bangladeshi culture and queer identity. When I first read the familiar Bangla words, tears immediately sprung to my eyes because I had grown so accustomed to reading variations of popular languages in India such as Hindi or Gujarati. My experience as a South Asian-American reader was redefined through this simple, but impactful inclusion. Just through setting this novel specifically in Bangladeshi culture, Jaigirdar has reached out to a completely new audience. An audience, who like me, believed South Asian stories could be told only through an Indian lens. Jaigirdar is showing Bangladeshis can be main characters and more specifically, Bangladeshi queers.
Nishat’s lesbian identity is a critical component of her character and the story. The novel starts with Nishat’s family distancing themselves after her confession about her sexual identity. Her parents do not initially comprehend or accept Nishat straying from the heterosexual norm. Majority of mainstream Bangladeshi culture overall is relatively conservative with its strong enforcement of gender roles and heterosexuality. The patriarchy has deep set roots within the culture owing in part to a conservative distortion of religious values and postcolonial values trickling over into Bangladeshi culture after the partition. Most importantly, unlike many Western countries, there is not a lot of access to queer representation in Bangladeshi media and literature. Romance is a concept commonly showcased in movies and television shows, but highly restricted in actual relationships. Many Bangladeshis do not have the luxury to fall in love with their partner for years before marriage as arranged marriages are the norm. How can you understand a core part of yourself, such as your sexuality, if you do not even know there are options beyond heterosexuality?
Although much of the novel is grounded in real concepts many South Asians and queer South Asians can relate to, there are elements of escapism that are significant to note. By the end of the novel, we see Nishat’s mother showing an open mind and a willingness to learn about the range of sexuality. “’Why do you know what a bisexual is?’ / ‘I’ve been reading.’ / ‘About lesbians?’ / ‘And bisexuals. And paansexuals.’” (Jaigirdar). Nishat experiences a sense of comfort and acceptance finally from her parents, figures in her life she holds dearly and wants a continued relationship with. This behavior from Nishat’s mother, while heartwarming to read, is not a reality for many queer South Asians. Queerness is still largely seen as a severe religious sin in many communities and many queer South Asians are either disowned, assaulted, or have deeply fractured relationships with their families. Therefore, this scene with Nishat and her mother provides this community a form of love and acceptance the reader may lack in their own lives. While their own mothers and fathers may not see their sexuality or gender identities with the same acceptance as Nishat’s mother, at least this book provides a safe space for them to exist and be themselves. Unfortunately, this safe space is reserved for English-speaking and reading communities currently as translation rights for the novel are limited to the United States and the United Kingdom. As the book continues to grow in popularity, however, hopefully its important themes and representation can extend to the rest of the diaspora as well.
The Henna Wars is one of the few queer South Asian books that is popularly marketed, but I really hope it is not the last. A year after The Henna Wars’ publication, Jaigirdar published Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Dating which is a story that deals with bisexuality and a relationship where both girls are South Asian. Jaigridar continues on her journey to provide representation and part of that is drawn from her own identity. As a queer Bangladeshi-Irish Muslim woman, Jaigridar has had to navigate so many exclusionary spaces herself without any representation to provide a guide on how. With her writing, she is preventing current and future generations from growing up the same as her with all-encompassing characters and environments. Being one of those impacted readers, Jaigridar’s novel completely redefined my reading experience. Her novel proved to me I no longer had to settle for a generalized South Asian story. My language and culture can be the framework for a story. The younger version of myself who settled for all white casts and faced mockery for her language and culture needed Jaigridar’s works to show young Bangladeshi girls that we belong in stories, that I belong. That being said, this burden cannot fall on her alone. The Henna Wars work towards filling a literary gap I was not even aware of and moving forward, as a reader and writer, I will actively work to further fill that gap by uplifting other Bangladeshi writers and stories. Additionally, I hope her publications inspire other authors and creatives to write stories that celebrate queerness and the endless array of cultures in the South Asian diaspora.
About the author:
Joya Pariyal is a Comparative Literature major who lives in New York City who has an obsession with reading. She tries to read at least sixty books a year, primarily in the fantasy and romance genre. In her free time, she posts book reviews on Instagram and channels Inej Ghafa. She is also a Bangladeshi Hindu who has strong personal and academic interests in South Asian culture. She is currently working on a thesis exploring the gaps of South Asian representation within Young Adult literature. This project allows her to blend her personal reading interests and social issues, a theme she hopes to carry with her to future projects.
Growing up in a culturally marginalized community, Joya has always been interested in conversations around representation and whose stories get told. She never saw characters who looked or acted like her in the stories she read. Due to this, she hopes to enter the publishing industry to address these issues and create change from within. Joya hopes to teach both readers and industry officials South Asian culture can never be homogenized to appease the majority. Joya hopes one day, every type of South Asian can find themselves as a main character in a story.