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Navigating queerness & tradition in YA fiction with Adiba Jaigirdar, author of “The Henna Wars”

Adiba Jaigirdar is an Irish-Bangladeshi writer, poet, and teacher with an MA in Postcolonial Studies. Her latest book, The Henna Wars, is a poignant story about two Muslim girls falling in love.

Be sure to check out our live Instagram event featuring Adiba and our own editor, Shaima. We’re also doing a giveaway of her book, enter now!


Adiba Jaigirdar’s debut novel The Henna Wars stems from a genuine desire to inspire joy. She was drawn to “write a story that made [her] happy and that was funny to read and fun to write.” She settled on the idea of a romantic comedy with two teen girls with rival henna businesses while “attempting (and failing) to teach [herself] henna”.

Looking to up the stakes of the girls’ rivalry, Adiba imagined what it would be like “if the two girls were also romantically attracted to each other, and grappling with what that might mean.” From there, everything else came together to make this wonderful tale of love, longing, and growing up. 

The Henna Wars revolves around themes of queerness, first love, culture, and family. Adiba interjects stories with themes that are relevant to herself and her life, and exploring them in the medium of storytelling.

Her influences range from The Princess Diaries, Hayley Kiyoko and Janelle Monáe to Bollywood film like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai which she cites as part of her introduction to romance.

She recalls the first time she encountered a person of color writing about people of color in Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (which we love!). Reading her stories made Adiba realize that it was possible to write about people like herself.

As a queer woman of color, she acknowledges that she has a responsibility to represent her culture, gender, and sexuality in her work. “There’s a lot of pressure, especially because there aren’t a lot of novels out there about Bangladeshi teens, and even fewer about queer Bangladeshi Muslim teens,” Adiba said. “Even though realistically I know that it’s impossible to represent everything as you write a single story, I still felt the pressure of that.” 

To her, storytelling cannot be separated from politics. “Especially as a queer Muslim South Asian, there’s no way that what I write is not going to be political. My very existence is political.” 

As she writes in the contemporary era, I was curious to see what she finds unique to the time that we are currently living in. To her, this time is a time of “rising up against oppression and attempting to enact change.” Yet, she believes this has been the case for a while, as “marginalized people have been fighting for our rights for a long time. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.” 

If this story were set in the future, she would love to say that the “characters like Nishat and Flávia wouldn’t have to worry about their sexuality, race, and culture making it more difficult for them to fit in.” However, she has her doubts. “I’m not particularly hopeful of that happening anytime in the near future.” 

For the writers out there or those interested in what happens behind the scenes, Adiba admits that her writing process is “honestly a little chaotic.” When she first begins writing, she “usually have a very basic idea of the story I want to tell. I figure out the important bits that I need to be able to write the story—the beginning, the end, and bits and pieces in the middle. Then, I begin to write and it’s a process of stringing everything together. It’s a little like putting together a puzzle. Once it’s out there on the page, it’s time for me to begin revisions and shape it into something that really works.”

[Image Description: Book cover of The Henna Wars, two girls with henna reaching their hands out to each other.] Via Twitter
[Image Description: Book cover of The Henna Wars, two girls with henna reaching their hands out to each other.] Via Twitter
The scenes that she enjoyed writing the most were the Bengali wedding scenes at the beginning of the book. “Bangladeshi people are obsessed with weddings, and our weddings are a whole event. So it was nice to explore that aspect of my life through the lens of a character like Nishat, who is surrounded by the familiarity of a Bangladeshi wedding, while also stumbling across her childhood crush.” 

As for how it feels to see her work being shared around the world, Adiba admits that “it still feels a little surreal.” Her dreams of being a writer when she was younger seemed to rely on her writing about straight white characters with whom she shared few experiences. Those were some of the only stories that she saw published or have mainstream success. “It was hard for me to imagine a world where someone like me could be writing stories about people like me.” 

In the future, she hopes that The Henna Wars can allow queer brown girls to see a reflection of themselves in its pages, and that it can open doors for more queer brown people to write and publish more of their own stories. 

For those that have enjoyed the latest book-to-movie adaptations like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before or Crazy Rich Asians, Adiba shares that she would love to see The Henna Wars adapted for the big screen in the future. Especially if the potential adaptation stays true to the ethnicities of the characters.

As of now, Adiba is revising her second novel, which will be out from Page Street in spring 2021. It’s another YA romantic comedy which follows two girls—one Bangladeshi Bengali and one Indian Bengali—who have to start a fake relationship in order to achieve what they want. 

Have you entered our Instagram giveaway yet? And if you absolutely cannot wait, get The Henna Wars on Amazon or on The Tempest’s own virtual bookshop supporting local bookstores.
Love Life Stories

I lost my childhood home while I was away for college

Leaving for college is usually tough, especially if you decide to attend school in another state or country.

Although I was born in Colorado, most of my life was spent in central and southern Mexico where my dad worked. I thought of Mexico as home and had spent most of my formative years there. My friends were in Mexico, I graduated from high school in Mexico, I met my now husband in Mexico.

But, because I wanted to study writing and knew there were more opportunities in the English language, I headed across two countries to study in Burlington, Vermont. To say that moving from Mexico to Vermont was an adjustment is an understatement.

I was met with huge culture shock and winter nearly destroyed me.

The real shock, though, came when my mom called me during my sophomore year to tell me they were moving back to Colorado. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve lived in Colorado off and on and I love the state, but Mexico holds a special place in my heart.

When my parents explained that they would be living in Colorado indefinitely, I felt like I was losing a part of myself.

Even though I had lived in Mexico for 12 years, I didn’t have Mexican citizenship or even residency. In fact, my senior year of high school I had been in Mexico on a tourist visa because of paperwork problems. When I did go to college, I lost any real ties to being ‘from Mexico’. And yet, I still told my friends that what where I was from.

With my parents’ move, I felt like I didn’t have any ties to the country I’d lived in almost my entire life. I felt like I didn’t have any right to call myself Mexican or to talk about how much I missed Mexican food, and culture, and celebrations. But the real problem came that winter when I was trying to buy tickets for the break. My boyfriend was in Mexico, several of my friends were there, but my family was not.

Plane tickets are incredibly expensive, so traveling from Vermont to Colorado and Mexico didn’t seem possible. That first Christmas I stayed in the United States, but the problem came up every single break. Which country did I want to visit more? Which choice would hurt less?

I felt like my heart was constantly torn in two.

Several times I took the bullet and bought plane tickets for a few weeks of almost constant travel. To save money I would fly into Mexico City, then take an eight-hour bus ride south to get to Oaxaca. My flights from Mexico to Colorado often involved an overnight layover. I was able to see everyone, but for very little time.

When I look back at it now, I think I survived college with a mix of friendships in Vermont and long phone calls to friends elsewhere. At one point during my busiest college months, I found myself scheduling out phone calls. I needed to talk to my mom, my sister, these two friends, my boyfriend.

My college roommate became one of my closest friends, and I had a special appreciation for her because she understood my torn allegiances and made sure I had time and space for phone calls. By the end of our four years together, she could usually guess who I was talking to based on context or language, and sometimes she would ask for gossip I had learned over the phone call.

She, along with the rest of my friends kept me distracted when the loneliness and homesickness felt unbearable. They let me talk about Mexico when I needed to and were always more than happy to be my guests when I needed to cook a Mexican meal.

Ultimately, I’m grateful for the now three places I call home. Having my parents back in Colorado has rekindled my love for the mountains and the bright blue sky, and since I married my high school sweetheart, I have new ties to Mexico and a valid reason to visit as often as my wallet will allow. I’ll probably keep saying that I’m from Mexico, but now I might also specify that I went to college in Vermont and was born in Colorado.

After all, what’s wrong with calling three places home?