Danika reviews Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan

Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan cover

Zara Hossain is Here surprised me. This is a short book, and it’s written in a way that feels pared down to the essentials. When the story begins, Zara is experiencing Islamophobic harassment from the star football player at school, but she has a strong network and friends and family that supports her. This harassment escalates, though, and it takes the story in a darker and more complicated direction than I was expecting.

Zara’s family has been living in Corpus Christi for 14 years after emigrating from Pakistan. They’re still waiting for their green card application to go through, though, which has put them all in stasis for many years. Zara is graduating this year, but she can’t apply to universities until she has permanent resident status, at least not without racking up insurmountable international student tuition fees. She’s also the only Muslim going to a mostly-Catholic school, which means facing bullying, especially when her friends can’t be by her side. She tries to keep her head down and avoid drawing attention to herself.

In Social Justice club, though, she can use her voice and be her authentic self: progressive, Muslim, and proudly bisexual. (And yes, she uses the word “bisexual”! She’s also out to her supportive parents.) The club is run by a queer teacher who Zara idolizes (and has a crush on), and it’s also there that she meets Chloe, a white lesbian from a strict Catholic family looking for a place she can fit in. They quickly hit it off, and between protests, they flirt and start dating. I appreciated that they discuss a little bit about navigating white privilege in interracial relationships: Chloe is supportive, but she that doesn’t mean she immediately understands what it’s like to live as a person of color in the U.S., and she does have to learn and adapt.

Do be prepared to get hungry reading this: there is much more food on the page than I was expecting–mostly Pakistani meals. Get ready to either spend some takeout cash or try some new recipes, because there are so many dishes lovingly described that made me want to put down the book and pick up a fork.

It’s difficult to discuss this story without some mild spoilers, because an event about halfway through the book is what the entire plot hinges on. It’s also something I think you should be prepared for before reading. So I’m going to give a mild spoiler warning for the rest of the review.

Zara continues to be harassed at school by Tyler, which escalates to slurs painted on her locker, his suspension, and finally, Tyler and his friends spray-painting a racist message on their home. Zara’s mild-mannered father catches him and goes to Tyler’s father’s house to confront him, while Zara and her mother beg him to wait until morning. There, Tyler’s father shoots him, claiming self-defence and charging him with trespassing.

I wanted to mention the specifics because although the book begins with racist harassment, it’s not immediately obvious that it will involve a racist hate crime or gun violence. From that point on, Zara and her family are wholly concentrated on her father’s recovery–he is in a medically-induced coma. To make matters even worse, if he is charged with trespassing, it could jeopardize their green card status.

The rest of the story focuses on immigration and the sometimes unfathomable hurdles immigrants have to face. Zara is horrified to realize that there’s a chance that her family won’t be able to stay in the U.S. because her father was charged with trespassing–despite the fact that he was the victim of a possibly fatal hate crime. She also learns that although green card applications regularly take more than 8 years to complete, there are no protections for children who age out before their applications are finished.

Meanwhile, her mother (understandably) does not feel that her family is safe in this country anymore. Even if Zara’s father has a complete recovery, what’s preventing another racist with a gun from doing this again? She requires constant check-ins from Zara and panics when she doesn’t receive a text when Zara gets to the library. She moved her for a better life, but she no longer believes that it is.

Meanwhile, Zara is completely unmoored. The idea of either being forced or choosing to move back to Pakistan, a place she hasn’t lived since she was 3, is hard to even consider. There’s also the fact that she would be forced back into the closet, and that she might not be able to marry who she loves. That’s not even taking into account leaving her home, her friends, her family, her girlfriend… She wants somewhere that she can be her whole self in safety: a queer Muslim Pakistani woman.

I appreciated the complexity that this story brought to the subject of immigration. It discusses the wait time and challenges to completing the application process, but also the luck involved. This chance encounter could erase all her family’s years of being ideal citizens, including her father’s work as a beloved pediatrician. An author’s note explains the author’s own family’s immigration process was derailed by a clerical error, making all of their work null and void. Added to that is the layer of Zara’s family wondering: is this worth it? Do I want to be in a country where so many people don’t want me here? Even if most of the people they encounter are supportive, it just takes one armed racist or one well-connected bigot to dismantle their lives.

This is a book that doesn’t provide any easy answers. It acknowledges that these are thorny, deeply flawed choices to have to make. Zara wants to stay and fight to make things better, but her mother is tired of fighting–and both of those are fair. This is a great addition to books that start conversations about immigration in the U.S., with the added layer of being an out queer immigrant from a country that is not accepting of queer people. I highly recommend it.

Sabina Khan’s Zara Hossain is Here is out April 6, 2021.

Danika reviews The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

The Henna Wars by Adiba JaigirdarThe Henna Wars was my most-anticipated 2020 release. First of all, look at that beautiful cover! Plus, rival henna shop owners fall in love?? Who can resist that premise? As with many books I have high expectations for, I was hesitant to actually start it. Luckily, it lives up to the promise of that cover and premise.

Actually, I was impressed from the first pages. The dedication page reads: To queer brown girls. This is for you. After that, it has content warnings! (For racism, homophobia, bullying, and outing.)

We start the novel with Nishat contemplating coming out:

So that is how I spend Sunny Apu’s engagement, trying to construct the perfect coming out moment, and wondering if that even exists. I try to think back to every movie, TV show, and book that I’ve ever seen or read with gay protagonists. Even gay side characters. Each coming out was tragically painful. And they were all white!

She is a second generation Bangladeshi immigrant living in Ireland, and it’s not the best environment to come out in. She knows that her (private, all-girls) school will not take it well, and her family likely won’t, either. She has, however, already told her sister, who she is close with. The relationship between Nishat and her sister Priti was one of my favourite parts of the novel: they begin this story with an unshakeable bond, telling each other everything.

At the wedding, she bumps into Flávia, who she hasn’t seen since they were elementary classmates. Now, there’s an instant spark, and she’s pleasantly surprised to see her at school the next day. Complications arise in Business class, however. They all have to start their own business, and Nishat plans to do henna–she’s been practicing for years, learning from her grandmother, and feels like she’s beginning to be able to do justice to this art form. Unfortunately, Flávia noticed the henna at the wedding and comes up with the same idea–teaming up with her (white) cousin, who has spread racist rumours about Nishat.

Nishat tries to talk to Flávia about appropriating henna, but Flávia (who is Black and Brazillian) says that it’s just art, and that it’s actually really easy! Cue a painful rivalry for Nishat, who is determined to win this competition.

Okay, that’s more plot summary than I usually give, but it’s really just the first chapter or two. The Henna Wars is a fascinating book on several levels. One is that it grapples with cultural appropriation from another woman of colour, which I don’t think I’ve seen in fiction before. Flávia is clueless to why Nishat is upset, and says that maybe Nishat doesn’t understand because she’s not an artist. It’s a mess.

But what really caught my attention is that this story manages to seem hopeful and joyous while dealing with dark subject matter. Nishat is trying to survive in a profoundly homophobic environment. She is not safe within her family, within her school, and doesn’t even feel sure she can tell her friends. She is harassed for her race, and the counselor can’t even get her name right. Even the pockets of joy she finds in a new crush and doing henna are complicated by this appropriation and competition, and Flávia’s teaming up with her racist cousin.

Despite all of this, though, Nishat never seems to lose herself. Even if her family doubts her and she faces pushback at school, she knows who she is, and she refuses to be ashamed. In the end, it doesn’t matter if she wins the Business competition or gets the girl: “Because I’m still here and I have my friends, my sister, and my family. And things will be okay.” [Spoiler, highlight to read:] Her parents earnestly watching Ellen is perfect. [End spoiler]

I can only imagine how difficult it is growing up as a Bangladeshi lesbian in Ireland. The Henna Wars suggests it’s a gauntlet. But Nishat is a model of steadiness and strength within the storm. She’s not perfect–she has flaws, makes mistakes, and sometimes is so embedded in her problems that she forgets to look around at what other people are dealing with–but she is inspiring.

I’ll leave off with a quote I couldn’t help but include:

“I don’t have a type,” I say, and it’s true; I’ve never really thought about having a type. I guess my type is… beautiful girl. Which is a lot of them. Most of them? Pretty much all girls.

PJ review Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu

I’d looked forward to reading Marriage of a Thousand Lies since I glanced it on Lesbrary, and my initial reaction after finishing it was that of elation, but there was a pit left in my stomach. At first, I couldn’t understand why, but the more I pored over S.J. Sindu’s book, it began to make sense. Let’s break down the good and bad of this book:

There are so few books with South Asian representation, even few yet with LGBTQ+ characters, and even less still with that character as the main character. Having a lesbian character in a realistic setting, fighting against her parents who believe in and strictly adhere to a culture that has failed them, was so relatable it hurt. But therein lies the problem. Sindu writes in a way that comes off as surreal, dreamy, but the content is harrowing, painful. I actually think that’s a perfect mix to keep the reader going without bogging them down with too much heartache.

See, there is nothing inherently wrong with the book: it’s a fairly realistic and sobering portrayal of toxic parents in a toxic culture which bleeds into the main character’s own actions. There are a fair amount of points where she responds with the same toxic and controlling behavior she’s been raised in. Realistic. So, in one way, it’s cathartic to read about something so relatable. But, in another, it left me with a sense of hopelessness.

I realized the main issue I had: This book wasn’t about a lesbian South Asian woman who rose above all odds, it was a book about said character who was barely able to scrape by and finally managed to begin to process of cutting herself free from her toxic family.

This is not to say I wouldn’t recommend the book. I would certainly recommend it with a warning. Anyone who wants to read this book should mentally steel themselves, or at least be mentally prepared about the harrowing ride this book can take you on. The more you can relate to it, the more it’ll hurt.

But, in the end, it is great to see a story revolving around the hardships of a first generation Southasian background, and I hope to see more kinds of niche representation, South Asian or otherwise, until it’s no longer so niche!