Interview with Adiba Jaigirdar, #Roaring20sdebut Author of THE HENNA WARS
What is The Henna Wars about?
The Henna Warsis about Nishat, who is a Bangladeshi Muslim lesbian. When she decides to come out to her parents, they react by shutting her out and rejecting her sexuality. She turns to henna, which is important to her because she learned it from her grandmother. When a school business competition starts up, Nishat decides to start a henna business, but so does her crush Flávia, whose culture doesn’t include henna. So, Nishat is stuck between her feelings of rejection from her parents, her resentment towards Flávia because she’s culturally appropriating henna, along with her growing crush on her.
The Henna Warsis an #ownvoices novel. Did you find it challenging to write the #ownvoices aspects of it?
Definitely! Writing an #ownvoices story can be challenging in many ways. It means having to delve into your own experiences, or the experiences of people that you know, which can be really difficult to do. Some of the things that Nishat had to deal with in the course of the novel definitely had roots in my own experiences.
With #ownvoices novels, there’s also a lot of pressure. There aren’t a lot of novels out there about Bangladeshi teens (I think at the time of me writing this there are exactly 2 traditionally published YA novels about Bangladeshi teens, not including The Henna Wars), and even fewer about queer Bangladeshi Muslim teens. Sometimes, it can feel like you have to tell thestory, or you have to be thevoice, simply because there are so few stories and so few voices telling those stories. Of course, it’s impossible to write a story representative of everyone in your community, but I definitely felt a lot of pressure as I was writing. I thought a lot about the kind of representation I was putting down, whether it would be considered good or bad, whether it would be criticised for not being enough or for being one way and not the other. But at the end of the day, you can only write the kind of story and characters that feel the most authentic toyou!
Which of the characters was the most challenging to write?
The most challenging character was definitely Chyna. She is the antagonist of the novel, and she is very entangled in the lives of both Nishat and Flávia. She has personal connections and history with them both. It was challenging to be able to write her as more than just a straightforward antagonist, and to present her as someone who some of the characters have warm feelings toward, and some of the characters really detest.
There is a sister relationship at the center of The Henna Wars. What was the inspiration behind that?
I grew up surrounded by a lot of family in Bangladesh, and I have a lotof cousins. This has included siblings who seemed joined at the hip, siblings who are at each others’ throat, and every variety in-between. Bangladeshi couples rarely have only one child—so I have seen a lot of different sibling dynamics in my life. When I started writing The Henna Wars, I knew that Nishat needed to have a sibling. I thought about some of the sisters that I knew in real-life, including to some extent my own sister, and modelled a relationship that was built on those. Nothing that’s reflective of only one relationship (my sister and I are absolutely nothing like Nishat and Priti—she was kind of annoyed about this after reading the book, haha), but that’s inspired by all of the complex and dynamic relationships I have observed.
What advice would you give to someone looking to write a romcom for the first time?
First of all, writing a romantic comedy is difficult because both romance and comedy can be so personally and culturally specific. For example, the kind of romance that I grew up seeing in my culture is very different from the kind of romance that we often see in Western culture. In the same way, the comedy in America is really different from the comedy style in Ireland.
I think once you realise that you can’t cater to everybody’s preference for romance or comedy, writing a romcom becomes a lot easier. The most important thing is to find the kind of romance that feels specific to your characters, and the kind of comedy that makes sense for them.
I would also advise someone wanting to write a romcom, to watch and read a lot of romcoms. Study the kind of tropes that often show up, and figure out how you can take some of these tropes and make them resonate with your characters and your story. I love romcom tropes, but it’s important to bring something original to the tropes as well!
What are some of your favourite romcoms?I love basically anything by Sandhya Menon, but my favourite book by her is From Twinkle, With Love, which is about an Indian-American teen who loves films. I also love To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, which really doesn’t need an introduction, does it? I recently read You Should See Me In A Crown by Leah Johnson which was a really fun queer romcom centering around prom. I was also lucky enough to read an early copy of More Than Just A Pretty Faceby Syed M. Masood, which was a really funny and charming romcom about a Pakistani-American Muslim teen.