Hetero-normative, but with a twist

The Henna Wars
The Henna Wars

This isn’t a review: it’s my spoiler-heavy thoughts about The Henna Wars.

The Henna Wars opens with the line, “I decided to come out to my parents at Sunny Apu’s engagement party.” The speaker is a 16-year-old, Bangladeshi Muslim girl named Nishat. What spurs this decision is the joy she sees in Sunny Apu and her fiancé’s eyes. That’s the kind of happiness she wants for herself. Hetero-normative, but with a twist.

Nishat is already out to her younger sister, Priti, with whom she has a close bond. The morning after the engagement party, Nishat sits her parents down at the kitchen table and tells them she’s a lesbian (she even looks up the Bengali word for lesbian, but promptly forgets). Her parents don’t get angry at her revelation. In fact, they say nothing at all. Later, Nishat eavesdrops on their private conversation and learns that they quietly hope that she’s simply going through a phase. They drop the subject of Nishat’s sexuality and carry on living as if nothing has changed; only they limit their interactions with their daughter. It feels a little like shunning, but it’s hard to read. One could also interpret their behavior as awkwardness.

While The Henna Wars is a contemporary YA novel about coming out, it’s also a young adult romance novel featuring a rivals-to-lover plotline. At Sunny Apu’s wedding, Nishat runs into her childhood crush, a Brazilian-Irish biracial girl named Flavia. Nishat had known her in grammar school, but then Flavia moved away with her mother after her parents divorced. She’s recently returned to the neighborhood, and as luck would have it, attends the same Catholic girl’s school as Nishat. They are both thrust into a rivalry, however, when they both choose to set up a henna tattoo business for their business class project, a competition with a thousand Euro prize.

What I really enjoyed about The Henna Wars was the main character’s voice, which was at once self-assured, self-deprecating, and wise to the world. A real feat for any teenager. We see her fieriness as she confronts Flavia on subjects like cultural appropriation and other matters of race. But there’s also a narrative cost to giving a protagonist such confidence. We never hear about her vulnerability, though the author often shows it in scenes of the character having over the top meltdowns or crying in the bathroom (but never wanting to discuss her issues). There’s one scene, when Nishat is heading home on the bus, and she’s thinking if she even has a home to return to. That scene should have been more gutting than it is.

The only major downside of the novel is that we see little of the actual henna war. We are told that Nishat makes beautiful designs, as does Flavia, who has aspirations to be an artist, but these designs are never described in the book. It’s a missed opportunity in a novel pushing the melding of tradition with modernity.

Since the novel is a romance, everything ties up neatly in the end. Flavia has a cousin named Chyna, who bullies Nishat when someone outs her at the school via an anonymous text message. This forces Flavia, who doesn’t want to have an open relationship with Nishat, to come out to her cousin. It is familial love that allows Chyna to overlook Flavia’s sexuality. In a similar way, Nishat’s parents come to accept her. This reminded me of how conservative politicians become pro-gay rights once their own child comes out of the closet. In the end, Nishat and Flavia’s queerness becomes a part of the traditional (hetero-normative and patriarchal) pattern.

This isn’t too surprising. The old rallying cry, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it,” is too radical for young adult fiction, which requires respectability above all else.

If you’ve read The Henna Wars, let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.

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