By Iris Knapman | Review Editor
I picked up a copy of Adiba Jaigirdar’s Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating while browsing the Queer Emporium on Cardiff’s High Street the other week. My decision was partially influenced by the pretty art on the front cover, but also because I had promised myself that I would read more romance fiction featuring sapphic relationships. The book is a good 341 pages of conflict as the protagonists navigate not only their growing feelings for one another, but the difficulties of being both South Asian and queer in a place where most people are white, straight, and unaccepting.
I can empathise with one of these struggles; as a woman recently coming to understand (for lack of better words) her bisexuality, one of my fears is being seen as a fake: that my identity is simply a ploy for attention. For Humaira Khan (one of the book’s two protagonists) this fear is realised when her closest friends don’t believe her when she comes out as bi following an awkward blind date they set up without her consent. In a panic, Humaira lies that she has a secret girlfriend, who is none other than Ishita Dey – the most unpopular girl in their year. In order to keep her cover, she is forced to strike a deal: if Ishita pretends to be her girlfriend, Humaira will help Ishita win the hearts of her classmates and become Head Girl. Hijinks ensue.
If you hadn’t already guessed, one of the issues this book deals with is homophobia. Ironically, Humaira’s parents are more accepting of her sexuality than her teenage friends, shattering the stereotype of an intolerant Islam perpetuated by white western media. Instead, the interaction between the themes of homosexuality and religion serves as a refreshing step back from the aforementioned narrative that has worked to silence the voices of queer Muslims and Muslim allies to the LGBTQ+ movement.
“The interaction between the themes of homosexuality and religion serves as a refreshing step back from the aforementioned narrative that has worked to silence the voices of queer Muslims and Muslim allies to the LGBTQ+ movement.”
The plot also touches on racism, teaching some important lessons about racial microaggressions. As the child of immigrants herself, it’s quite clear Jaigirdar writes with authenticity and experience of these situations. One particular scene I’d like to reference is one in which Humaira reminds her friends that she can’t drink alcohol – even though this is something they should remember. Aisling – the main antagonist – has trouble wrapping her head around why, arguing that Humaira isn’t “that type of Muslim” because she doesn’t wear a hijab. Humaira proceeds to be humiliated by her supposed friends when they exclude her from the party activities. There are multiple incidences of racism throughout the plot, which I find highlight Jaigirdar’s ability to put the reader into her characters’ shoes – so much so that I took each slight personally and became enraged on their behalf, turning to my group chat to complain about the antagonists.
While in discussion with a friend who happens to be Indian and queer, she mentioned that even the western-raised South Asian authors she’s familiar with tend to leave out some cultural details in their writing, such as the differences in their mother tongue dialects due to the difficulty of explaining it to an uninformed audience. However, as Jaigirdar herself declares, her work is “unapologetically Bengali, Muslim, queer, and many other things” – and I love her for it.
I love that this book gave me the opportunity to learn about the author and by extension her characters’ cultures, such as the existence of Bangladeshi bhalo nam and dak nam, or biryani, a mixed rice dish of Muslim origin. It was unexpectedly educational; and where there were things I didn’t understand, they prompted me to go away and Google them and come away with new information.
“It was unexpectedly educational; and where there were things I didn’t understand, they prompted me to go away and Google them and come away with new information.”
A key message I believe the book is trying to convey is to be unapologetically you: make friends with people who respect you in your entirety. You shouldn’t need to compromise your values or hide who you are in order to be liked, and if people are unwilling to accept you for your ancestry, culture, beliefs, or sexuality then you are within your power to leave. Other people’s ignorance is not your responsibility.
But, if you happen to look past the book’s themes and meanings, and simply see the romance for what it is, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating is a sweet and heart-warming tale of two teenage girls finding love where it was least expected while making use of the ever-popular fake dating trope.
So for those of you who looking to expand their reading to include more authors of colour and queer literature then Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating comes highly recommended.