When I found out about The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi, I was THRILLED! A book following a strong, independent woman AND henna artist is a dream come true! I remember when my sister called me up to tell me that the book was selected for Reece Witherspoon's book club and I immediately ordered a hard copy. (You can download The Henna Artist on Amazon or get the audio book on audible.) https://www.amazon.com/Henna-Artist-Novel-Alka-Joshi/dp/0778309452 Shortly after, an unofficial henna artist book club formed and I invited henna artists & enthusiasts together to discuss the novel with Alka Joshi on ZOOM. Sadly a few people outside of my time zone missed out or could not connect, so here is the 411!
I was pretty nervous hosting my first ZOOM session, (What if my internet connection spontaneously combusts? What if Alka doesn't show up?? I think I nervously brushed my teeth at least 3 times beforehand for no reason!) But alas, Alka connected right on time, with a bight smile and a giant copy of her gorgeous book in the background. After exchanging pleasantries and waiting for a few henna sisters to connect, (my henna bros didn't show lol) we were ready to rock and roll!
"What made you go into creative writing?" Alka replied that she has always had an active imagination. She can sit at a restaurant and observe people and imagine their unique story lines and personalities. Alka described her process of writing as very organic, it took her 10 years to finish her debut novel, The Henna Artist. She took lots of breaks and went through MANY edits. Alka recommends studying with current authors, and taking workshops with authors you admire if you are looking to get into writing. She obtained her MFA in Creative Writing from the California College of Arts in San Francisco. Carissa McQueen of Henna Caravan (https://hennacaravan.com/) inquired further about Alka's writing process and Alka compared the process of applying henna to story telling. Part of applying henna is planned, and part of it, you make up as you go!
"What inspired you to choose henna as Lakshmi's career?" Alka responded that the character of Lakshmi was modeled after her mother. She decided to reimagine her mother's life if she could make the choices she wanted instead of following the path laid out for her. Her mother was always a creative and strong woman, and the henna profession allowed the storyline to take shape, with henna creating access to a variety of colorful characters & locations, from palaces to pleasure houses.
I inquired about the caste system in India, with social unrest growing in the United States, I wondered if remnants of the caste system still exist in India. The caste system, is a system of power, privileges and restrictions that people are born into. Alka explained that effects of the caste system are still felt in India. Some families, for example, might not prefer their daughter applying henna, as it is something typically for lower castes, because we touch people's feet, which are considered unclean. The caste system in some ways, reminds me of systemic racism in the United States: how some people are born into privilege while others are born with limits and conditions. I believe with organization & effort, younger generations, independent thinkers and artists can raise awareness and create the change we wish to see for a more equal and just society.
Speaking of feet and activist art: I am reminded of the work of Shirin Neshat,( above) who's evocative art shares a likeness to henna. It examines the complexities of women’s identities in the midst of a changing cultural landscape in Iran—both through the lens of Western representations of Muslim women, and through the intimate subject of personal and religious beliefs. Similarly, Alka Joshi does a great job of depicting the contrast between Western culture and Indian culture in The Henna Artist. The fact that Lakshmi's sister was exposed to western books and movies, (possibly prematurely), might have contributed to her unplanned pregnancy. The story in many ways, illustrates how transplanting customs and social norms can bring about confusion and consequences. Our cultures are not incompatible, but they are certainly not interchangeable.
Alka grew up in Rajasthan, India and came to the United States at 9 years old. She mentioned feeling a bit embarrassed of her culture at first, but in time, grew to be very proud of her beautiful & colorful heritage. Given that I am deeply conscious of cross-cultural communication, I had to ask about Alka's perspective on "Cultural appropriation" regarding henna art. In essence, Alka explained that she is ecstatic that artists from diverse backgrounds care to partake in henna, an ancient art form typically associated with Indian culture. She also mentioned the fact that henna is significant in many different cultures, and loves the different styles that typify various regions.
Pictured below: Two of my favorite artists, engaging in cross-cultural sharing as Nimisha applies an ancient Indian, Warli design.
Of course, I never shy away from controversial topics... Women's desired fertility is a big theme in this novel. Interestingly enough, henna root has historically been used as an abortifacient. Lakshmi's character provided herbs for healing and to women wishing to terminate their pregnancies in the book. As a self-proclaimed henna witch, I have a deep respect for plant medicine and loved that aspect of Lakshmi's character. With women's choice still considered a controversial topic in the United States, I felt compelled to ask if Alka considered Lakshmi's character to be a feminist. Alka responded with excitement, ABSOLUTELY! She related her personal experience as a woman in today's society with Lakshmi's character. Alka never desired to have her own children, in turn, she was able to give her all to writing. If she had kids, she would have given her kids her all. As a consequence, she was always questioned about her decision not to have children. I applaud Alka for her courage to follow her interests and choose the life she wanted. We still live in a generally patriarchal society that expects women to aspire to be mothers and housewives and its some outdated bullshite if you ask me!! There is of course, nothing wrong with the beautiful path of motherhood, it is simply not the only path for women.
One aspect of henna we were happy to introduce Alka to during our discussion from a commercial standpoint is providing "erotic henna" service or "boudoir henna". (There is a broad range of terms to suit this "non-traditional" placement of henna, and it is not strictly sexual by nature, but can be!) Alka was very excited about the possibilities of henna aside from the more traditional uses**, and loved that many of us artists use henna as a self-love medium, to bring love & acceptance to body parts that we might feel uncomfortable with, or lack confidence in. Henna is a lovely medium with many therapeutic and healing uses aside from the classic aesthetic of the mehndi strip down the pointer finger! (Henna has long been used on covered or intimate areas for seduction as a way to break the ice on wedding nights, however, it is not as documented/advertised because it is a private affair. "Erotic henna" is by no means new, it is simply just more out in the open with the use of social media.)
Final takeaways: I loved speaking with Alka, she has a joyful, fun-loving personality. Alka left us with a hopeful and empowering message. She followed her passion and it lead to success after many years of research and perseverance. Alka told us that she is not stopping here, and The Henna Artist will be a series of three books!!!! She expects the trilogy to become a movie. I absolutely agree, based on the quick interest with superstar and producer mogul, Reece Witherspoon! I can't wait to read the next novel and of course, host another discussion where we can all share in love and henna! Please comment to let me know what you thought of the book and our discussion. Be sure to follow Alka on social media @thealkajoshi and review her book on the platform you purchased it!
Please note, this blog post is paraphrased and not directly quoted because my technical abilities did not allow me to record our ZOOM session. It is written from my perspective and truthful to the best of my abilities and recollection. xoxo Moonchild