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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.
Culture Life

How learning about global literature brought me closer to home

I was one of the only South Asian international Arts students at my University, and it made me realize just how imperceptive I was of the cultural narratives that were a part of my own story. Growing up, we read the literature of the Western Canon, watched everything from Disney Channel original movies to The Sound of Music, and listened to the Billboard Hot 100. So while I knew that my culture was a huge part of who I was, my family, my upbringing, and my heritage, I didn’t fully realize the extent to which my ethnicity and my experience of it affected my thinking. 

Art & Popular Culture defines the Western Canon as – the body of high culture literature, music, philosophy, and works of art that are highly valued in the West: works that have achieved the status of classics. However, not all these works originate in the Western world, and such works are also valued throughout the world. It is ‘a certain Western intellectual tradition that goes from, say, Socrates to Wittgenstein philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature.

The word canon itself is derived from ancient Greek to mean a measuring rod or standard.

It wasn’t until my courses on postcolonial and global literature that a sense of other schools of thought and diverse cultural narratives really started to emerge. There were many references made during these classes to the Western canon. Including discussions of how much of what we learn is measured by the same benchmarks and held up against the same achievements as that of the Western world. This is no surprise and is the case with most things, even outside of literature and the Arts – a lingering reminder of wide-scale colonization. 

In some of these classes, we studied the work of one Sri Lankan diasporic writer, Michael Ondaatje. Being the only Sri Lankan in class, I was called on as a resource of sorts, to correct the pronunciation of names more than for my knowledge of the context and stories. It was refreshing to learn about familiar places and narratives that I could relate to on some level. However, despite the fact that the professor was qualified and knowledgeable, it still felt strange to be a bystander listening to an analysis of stories that were set in the not too distant past of my own country.

This prompted a conversation with a South Asian classmate who questioned why there were courses on American literature, English literature, even Chinese literature but there really wasn’t any from our part of the world, despite our massive collective populations and thousands of years worth of stories. I responded that someone who was interested would need to pursue a high level of education, formulate a course, and get hired as a professor for that course to exist. That’s when we realized how rare that occurrence would be.

The Arts aren’t a popular career path in my part of the world, to put it lightly. The fact that I was the only person in the room who had any personal rooting to the story, a story that didn’t fit in the Western Canon, made me feel more protective of these cultural narratives.  If I don’t take ownership of these stories in the path that I’ve chosen, then who will?

Learning about new perspectives and cultural narratives from across the globe, opened my eyes to the narratives that originate in my corner of the world. It made me appreciate just how much a part of my own story it is. For me, this turned into a sense of responsibility. It’s not about patriotism or a sense of righteousness. It’s simply the case that no one will advocate for the stories of any group of people more than those who are connected to these stories themselves. When taken to extremes, this itself can lead to problems of wiping out other narratives for the convenience of your own, an issue we have seen happen countless times in history. 

To me, this emphasizes our need to accept our stories and our histories for all that they are, not just the parts that are convenient to us or fit into our pre-existing notions. Understanding these narratives is how we learn from them, and make sure that our mistakes aren’t repeated.

Reading the stories of Michael Ondaatje while being so far away from home was a strange experience. He wrote from his own Sri Lankan multiethnic, diasporic point of view of his relationship to a motherland we both shared. He wrote about pre-Independence Ceylon in Running in the Family, Sri Lanka from a distance in The Cat’s Table, and a more recent Sri Lanka in the throes of a civil war in Anil’s Ghost. It opened my eyes to how complicated relationships to a nation can be – the idea that calling a place home wasn’t as superficial as language, passports, citizenship, or the amount of time you spend there. It made me view these complications in a way that wasn’t anti-nation or unpatriotic but came from a much deeper connection and emotion to a place that you may not always understand, but will always be home. A place you’ll always want to help along the journey to becoming better over time and learning from the past. 

Gender & Identity Humor Life

6 truths every American-born Pakistani living in the motherland will understand

I live in my parents’ Pakistani motherland. My one remaining parent and sibling live in America, and it confuses everyone here. There are plenty of articles out there about second-generation immigrant children making brief visits to their parents’ home countries.

However, for those of us who have made the decision to leave the U.S. and to live in our parents’ countries for an indefinite or short period of time, the narrative varies.

1. You keep hoping your accent is less noticeable and your English to Urdu translations make sense when you say them aloud

jillian bell i cant do your stupid fucking accent GIF by Rough Night Movie
[Image Description: A gif of Jillian Bell saying, “I can’t do your stupid fucking accent.”] Via Giphy
I do not hear my American accent, and sometimes I wish someone could play it back to me in a recording. But a small part of me burns when someone giggles at the way my Urdu sounds and then immediately acts like I do not know the language. I studied it and actually know how to read and write too, darn it! In addition, at times when I am not sure how to express myself or my American sarcasm, I try to translate it. Most of the time, I see a blank look on the native Urdu listener’s face. Other times it is met with laughter, and I tell myself that I just might be starting a new slang trend in the Urdu language! Maybe I need to try watching more Pakistani dramas so I can keep listening to Urdu.

Never mind, I think I’ll pass on that.

2. Everyone asks you if you feel “adjusted” to Pakistan

awkward the lonely island GIF
[Image Description: A gif of awkward “Shy Ronnie” from Saturday Night Live. It is the actor Andy Samberg making a face and looking around.] Via Giphy
I risk sounding like a douche when I say that there are too many things I can never get used to here.

I will never get used to line jumping nor the gross amounts of open dumping and disregard for the environment. The churning in my stomach when my husband is not around me in certain settings that are dominated by men makes me feel like a weakling. Everything that reminds me to remember my place in Pakistan simply because I have a vagina makes me sick. In many other places in the world where I have traveled as a solo woman, I am ready to sing Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” but I feel the difficulty magnified here too much to do so.

I try to ignore all of it for my own self-care and sanity, but that does not mean I accept it. And hey, I am driving now in this country by myself, so at least I can let Destiny’s Child blare through my speakers!

3. When people ask you how you deal with staring men in public, you realize there is no real answer

fan cricket GIF
[Image Description: A gif of a creepy, staring cricket fan from Bangladesh who is looking at the camera.] Via Giphy
In the beginning, the staring irked me. I never understood what there was to stare at. When people told me that I had to cover this and that part of my body or spread out my dupatta (scarf) further across my chest, I would listen to them. I would keep on scanning my body to wonder if something was prominent. Was I too colorful? Was there some weird symbol tattooed on my forehead? Despite trying to fix it all, forehead included, I continued to feel uncomfortable. I decided to give in to my armchair sociologist analysis and conclude that the patriarchy and intense gender segregation gave way to “eye fu*****.”

If I ever wanted to feel mobile and independent in this country I had to ignore it and let go of any shame of simply being a woman.

4. Some South Asian Americans who have not visited the motherland in over ten years, try to tell you what “desi culture” is all about

Aside from Pakistani dramas, Indian Bollywood movies, and some politics, few diaspora South Asians have any desire to live in the motherland. When I speak to people who have not visited in over ten years I am surprised by how frozen they are in the past with no context of what Pakistan (or even India) is like today. I can understand why most do not visit or give living here a try. But I do not understand how South Asian families back in my American home still expect their children to maintain this static culture. Living here has made me realize that I do not want to impose any of this cultural baggage on any kids I have.

The gaajar ka halwa (a sweet dish made of carrots) and beautiful Urdu poetry can stay though!

5. You stop feeling flattered when people tell you that your American accent will help you in basically everything.  

reasons gays GIF
[Image Description: A gif of Britney Spears on a talk show.] Via Giphy
I understand my privilege, but I do not like capitalizing on it. A weird sense of postcolonial discomfort began forming as I realized that the global dominance of English has an unfair advantage. Here is a prime example: I once sat through a group interview for a job with an internationally-funded donor. One of the candidates had to speak English when I knew he could better express himself in Urdu. This was a job in Pakistan and he was sitting with only Pakistani professionals that all understood Urdu. While my Urdu may be funny, I had no issues sitting through the interview in Urdu and understanding his points.

6. Even on days when negativity feels too easy in Pakistan, you are grateful for the character building.  

lisa simpson episode 10 GIF
[Image Description: Lisa from “The Simpsons” trying to ski.] Via Giphy
While  I ask myself what I am still doing in Pakistan, I remember all of the great friends I have made. While I thought it would be difficult to find my tribe of strong women, I developed it over time. I see positive shifts in this society regardless of how slow they may seem to others. I am proud of the thick skin I have developed to deal with situations that once seemed impossible, especially when I only visited.

Living in my parents’ home country has not been “going back to my roots” as one might imagine. It is living in a new place, but looking like the people around me, more than anything.

Free July 4 GIF
[Image Description: Gif of an American eagle cartoon doing a pelvic thrust.] Via giphy
I see my American-ness much more prominently in Pakistan than when I am back home.