7 Books About Life in Queens by Writers of Color

Bushra Rehman, author of "Roses in the Mouth of a Lion," recommends stories set in the most diverse neighborhood in the world

Photo by Clay LeConey on Unsplash

The thing about being from Queens is that when you leave Queens you realize there’s no other place in the world like it. It lives in your imagination like a wild-flower-weed, its roots deep in the hard rock soil of Queens. 

My novel, Roses in the Mouth of a Lion, takes place in my home neighborhood of Corona, Queens. The main character Razia is a young Pakistani woman growing up in a tight-knit Muslim community. She prays five times a day, reads Quran and goes to extra religious service on the weekends, all the while wearing skin-tight acid wash jeans, feathering her hair and wanting to date boys break-dancing in the schoolyard. 

Razia’s father owns a butcher shop, Corona Halal Meats. It’s on the same block as a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, an Episcopalian church and a masjid Razia’s father and uncles are building. Razia’s closest friends are from the neighborhood and they tend to find trouble everywhere they go. When Razia is accepted to a high school in Manhattan and leaves Queens and her childhood friends behind, she makes a new friend, a young woman she is deeply attracted to, and she realizes why she’s always felt different from her community, even her best friends. 

Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion  is a book for anyone who’s ever had to leave the world they grew up in to be who they needed to be. It’s a book for those who remember what it was like to be queer and not have the words to express it, those who struggled to reconcile their religious faith with their desires. It’s a book for anyone who wants to feel the pure sensory experience of living in Queens in the ‘80s. 

Here are 7 books about living and loving in Queens by writers of color:

Angel & Hannah by Ishle Yi Park

There can be no list about Queens that doesn’t include Ishle Yi Park, the first woman and first Asian American poet laureate of Queens. In Angel & Hannah, her gorgeous novel-in-verse, we follow the story of Hannah, a Korean American girl from Queens and Angel, a Nuyorican boy from Brooklyn who fall in love. They fend for themselves, dealing with addiction, disownment, and poverty. Their love’s song is beautiful to witness. Did I mention the entire book is written in incredible hip-hop sonnets? 

Antiman: A Hybrid Memoir by Rajiv Mohabir 

This beautiful memoir, a mix of poetry, song and passion, tells the story of Rajiv, an Indo-Caribbean poet growing up in the United States. Young Rajiv longs to know more about his family’s history in India and the legacy of his ancestors who were indentured laborers working on sugar plantations in Guyana. When he comes to New York City to stay with relatives in Queens, he discovers a community of queer brown activists who share his longing for the past but are also looking towards the future. But even here, Rajiv feels like an outsider. When his cousin outs him as an “antiman”—a Caribbean slur for gay  men—Rajiv is disowned by his family. Healing this pain through music and poetry, he embraces his identity and claims his status as an antiman—forging a new way of being entirely his own. 

Mama Phife Represents by Chery Boyce-Taylor

In Mama Phife Represents Cheryl Boyce-Taylor pays tribute to her departed son Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor of the legendary hip-hop trio A Tribe Called Quest. This book is a gorgeous tapestry of narrative poems, dreams, anecdotes, and treasured fragments including journal entries, letters, drawings, hip-hop lyrics, and notes Malik wrote to his parents. Boyce-Taylor’s incredible gift for poetry and the depth of this mother-son relationship is a treasure for fans of both artists. In this moving collection, we follow the journey of a mother’s grieving heart.

The Girls in Queens by Christine Kandic Torres  

The Girls in Queens is a skillful novel about female friendship, the secrets we keep, the loyalties we hold, and the reality that we may all know a sexual predator, whether or not we want to admit it. The girls in Queens in this book are Brisma and Kelly, best friends who protect each other. They are each other’s mirrors, at times kind, at times cruel. When they discover a friend and former boyfriend from their community is a sexual predator, their loyalties are divided and they make drastically different choices on how to move forward. An essential book in this time of reckoning. 

House of Sticks by Ly Tran 

Ly Tran is a child when she immigrates from a small town in Vietnam to Queens. As Ly navigates the landscape of her new home in New York City, she works long hours as a manicurist alongside her mother and tries to do well in school. When her eyesight weakens and her father forbids her from getting glasses, calling her diagnosis of poor vision a government conspiracy, Ly struggles to know how to move forward. Her father spent nearly a decade as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his trauma is held by the family with compassion, even when it wounds them. Ly is a brilliant writer and the deep honesty of this memoir reminded me so much of the vulnerability and pain that is often part of being a girl from Queens. 

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades

This creative and energetic novel brings readers into the lives of a group of friends—young women of color growing up in Queens. It’s a collective portrait, written in the second person, a record of the forces that bind friends, families, and communities. As the friends in Brown Girls navigate schools, marriages, motherhood and professional accomplishments, they return again and again to the circle of their friendship and to their hometown of Queens. The passion of their friendship beats at the heart of this book. 

Imposter Syndrome by Patricia Park 

This book is laugh-out-loud funny, compelling and heart-wrenching. Alejandra Kim’s family is from the Korean diaspora in Argentina and it’s not easy for her to fit into any box, whether it’s in her fancy Manhattan private school where she is a scholarship student or her Jackson Heights neighborhood. Alejandra has just lost her father, and she feels she must hide this deep pain, even from her closest friends and especially from her mother who is numb from overwork and grief. When a microaggression at school thrusts Alejandra into the spotlight, she must make a difficult decision and decide who she can trust and who she must be for herself and her family. 

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