Salaam, everyone! I am so excited to welcome Adiba Jaigirdar on the blog today for the next author spotlight of #RamadanReadathon.
In previous years, I’ve made an effort to spotlight debut Muslim authors during the month so I obviously couldn’t pass on the opportunity to interview Adiba about her debut novel The Henna Wars, which is out today from Page Street Kids!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adiba Jaigirdar was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and has been living in Dublin, Ireland from the age of ten. She has a BA in English and History, and an MA in Postcolonial Studies. She is a contributor for Bookriot. All of her writing is aided by tea, and a healthy dose of Janelle Monáe and Hayley Kiyoko.
When not writing, she can be found ranting about the ills of colonialism, playing video games, and expanding her overflowing lipstick collection. She can be found at adibajaigirdar.com or @adiba_j on Twitter and @dibs_j on Instagram.
ABOUT THE HENNA WARS
Nishat doesn’t want to lose her family, but she also doesn’t want to hide who she is, and it only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life. Flávia is beautiful and charismatic, and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat decide to showcase their talent as henna artists. In a fight to prove who is the best, their lives become more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush, especially since Flávia seems to like her back.
As the competition heats up, Nishat has a decision to make: stay in the closet for her family, or put aside her differences with Flávia and give their relationship a chance.
Salaam, Adiba! Thank you so much for joining us! To begin with, could you quickly introduce yourself and your debut novel, The Henna Wars?
AJ: Walaikum Salam, and thank you for having me! My name is Adiba. I’m Bangladeshi and Irish, and live in Dublin, Ireland. My debut novel The Henna Wars is out now! It’s about two teen girls who are running rival henna businesses while also navigating romantic feelings for each other.
Can you tell us a little bit about the journey you’ve been on to get here (publication day!) – is there anything about the process that has surprised you? Did you ever experience any feelings of self-doubt and if so, how did you overcome them?
AJ: I’ve been writing for pretty much my whole life, but hadn’t really pursued publication until quite recently. I think my journey from writing the first draft of The Henna Wars to publication day has been surprising in that I have been very lucky.
I started writing the book in January 2018, and now it’s May 2020 and the book is published—that’s quite fast for publishing! In those two years not only did I write the first draft and do a bunch of revisions, but I also signed with an agent, before going onto submission with the book and securing a book deal. Honestly, the publication journey for this book has been quite smooth (other than I guess the book releasing during a pandemic!) and that’s probably been the biggest surprise for me.
I’ve definitely experienced self-doubt during this journey. I think the most self-doubt I felt was probably when I first decided to seek an agent with my book. I had queried once before and it hadn’t lead anywhere, but I had received some coded and micro-aggressive responses.
I knew that the publishing industry is far from perfect, and as a marginalised writer querying can be kind of a minefield sometimes. You don’t know who is going to reject you with helpful feedback to improve your work and who is going to send a rejection full of microaggressions that make you question your space as a marginalised person in publishing. I think my friends really helped with my self-doubt. Many of them had read my book and encouraged me to query and reminded me that there were people out there who would see themselves and their experiences reflected in my story.
I was lucky that I managed to find an agent who really understood my work quite fast. And after that an editor who also seemed like the perfect fit. I think the more people you have in your corner reminding you that your work is good and important, the easier it is to ease your self-doubt.
Great advice! I love seeing more Bangladeshi protagonists in MG/YA, especially as there weren’t many, if any, around when I was a teen. You previously mentioned how the first traditionally published book you read with a Bangladeshi protagonist (The Gauntlet) was only three years ago – how did it feel to see the culture represented in a book for the first time?
AJ: It felt amazing! I remember I first learned about The Gauntlet because I saw someone mentioning it on Twitter. At first, I actually didn’t believe it would really have a Bangladeshi protagonist, but once I was sure it did, I was super excited. I got my hands on a copy as soon as it was published, and I loved seeing familiar aspects of my culture on the page, and written with so much love and care. I think I was even more ecstatic to learn of the author Karuna Riazi, because she is Bangladeshi too, and it is rare to find Bangladeshi authors in Kidlit as well.
Speaking of familiar cultural aspects, what are your favourite Bengali traditions or foods? Did any of them make it into the book?
AJ: I don’t know if I would call this a specifically Bengali tradition, but I love it when a close relative is getting married, how everyone will spend the days leading up to the wedding in the wedding house. I love the sense of community in it, even though it can be very hectic and stressful too. I love all of the little things that happen in a wedding house, like staying up all night playing games with your cousins, doing each others’ henna, having these massive meals with dozens of people. This didn’t really make it into my book, but I would love to explore all the traditions surrounding Bengali weddings in another book someday!
My favourite Bengali food… that’s such a difficult question! I really love murighonto. For anyone that doesn’t know, murighonto is a daal made with the head of a fish. It’s delicious. Really, I just love anything that has daal in it—which is maybe a bit basic, haha. Murighonto itself is not in the book, but daal is!
As an #ownvoices novel, with intersectional diversity, did you ever worry that it wouldn’t be queer or Bangladeshi or Muslim enough?
AJ: Yes, definitely! I worried about it all the time and I still worry about it. I think the vast majority of the Bengali diaspora live in the US or the UK. I live in Ireland, and before that I used to live between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. I know that my life as a Bengali person is not representative of the vast majority of Bangladeshi people.
On top of that, the media is exposed to only certain narratives of Muslims, and the media’s perspective of Muslimness almost never intersects with queerness. So, I knew that in writing this book, I would come up against people’s baggage. Whether this was, “this is not representative of my Bangladeshi/Muslim/queer experience,” coming from #ownvoices readers themselves, or from non-ownvoices readers who had false expectations of what a story like this should look like.
At the end of the day though, I can only write as I see fit, as I have experienced life or the experiences that I have been exposed to. I know that it won’t live up to everyone’s expectations and that’s okay. I just hope we can get to a point that there are so many stories about marginalised people, it doesn’t matter that one doesn’t line-up with our experience because there are others that absolutely do.
Agreed! What made you want to write a rom-com? Were there any books or movies that influenced or inspired you?
AJ: This will sound sad but I was depressed and I wanted to write something that made me happy. At the time I had the idea for writing this book, my great-uncle had just passed away. I was in Bangladesh and I was really lucky to have seen him for the first time in probably more than a decade. Then, he got unexpectedly ill and passed. I was just really sad and looking to make myself less sad. So, I decided I would write a rom-com.
I was really influenced by To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han and When Dimple Met Rishi and From Twinkle, With Love by Sandhya Menon. During writing, if I hit a slump, I would pick up and flip through their books and it would motivate me. I was also definitely inspired by the Bollywood movies I grew up watching.
I love that! There’s a playlist on your website of songs you listened to while writing this novel. What songs would Nishat and Flávia be listening to right now?
AJ: Nishat probably listens to Girls Like Girls by Hayley Kiyoko on repeat constantly. Flávia is probably listening to some Taylor Swift.
And finally, what are your favourite books by Muslim authors? And which books are you looking forward to reading soon?
AJ: I love S. K. Ali’s Love From A To Z and Saints and Misfits. I think reading her books feels a little bit like looking into a mirror for me. They’re amazing! I also love All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie-Courtney. I especially adore the way the book explores faith.
Another book I love is The Light At The Bottom Of The World by London Shah. It’s such an exciting book to read, and I love the casual inclusion of Muslim representation in it. Recently, I also read and loved More Than Just A Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood. It was such a funny and charming book!
I have already read an early draft of Ace Of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé but I am dying to read the final version. It’s a brilliant novel about the only two black kids in a posh high school who find their secrets are being revealed to the school via anonymous text messages.
I am also very excited for A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi, and of course dying to read Once Upon An Eid edited by S. K. Ali and Aisha Saeed. I am also very very hyped for Tashie Bhuiyan’s Counting Down With You which is coming in 2021! More Bangladeshi rep, hooray!
Yes, I’m looking forward to that one too for that exact reason! Thank you so much for joining us, Adiba, and for taking the time to answer these questions. I can’t wait to dive into The Henna Wars!
AJ: Thank you so much for having me, and Ramadan Mubarak!
The Henna Wars is out now with Page Street Kids. Order the book from an indie bookstore near you, and don’t forget to add it on Goodreads!