A Novel About Brown Girls Coming of Age in Queens
Daphne Palasi Andreades on all the small glories and pains of immigrant girlhood
Written from the perspective of a choral “we,” Brown Girls captures a sense of solidarity among these women, who Daphne Palasi Andreades follows from childhood, into their adulthood as some leave their borough, and eventually the city they first called home. But Queens is always with them, and in the novel’s vignettes, Andreades explores the specific experiences of these girls: childhood summers spent sunbathing on concrete and singing Mariah Carey, teenage nights spent sneaking out to house parties, and the quiet, painful realization that your youth is not forever.
My first encounter with Brown Girls was three years ago, in Manhattan Chinatown, at a reading where Andreades read from the manuscript that would become her novel. I still remember the rhythmic beauty of her prose, which captured all the small glories and pains of immigrant girlhood in Queens. It’s a world I’m familiar with, but not one that I have encountered in literature, and I knew, then, that this was a writer whose work I wanted to follow.
Andreades has said that she started the novel after Toni Morrison’s often-quoted instruction: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” The novel reads, in that spirit, like a literary re-mapping—from its first lines, Andreades reorients the reader: “We live in the dregs of Queens, New York. Where airplanes fly so low that we are certain they will crush us.” This is our destination, this is the new center. Look here at these girls, she says, and listen to the stories they have to tell.
Yasmin Adele Majeed: There are so many novels set in New York, but very few that show the New York of Brown Girls—“the dregs of Queens,” as you put it. Your Queens is one I’m familiar with—from Northern Boulevard, to Rockaway Beach, to Flushing Avenue—and is so lovingly and vibrantly brought to life in the novel. What did it mean to you to center the borough in your fiction?
Daphne Palasi Andreades: It meant everything. Setting my debut in Queens, my hometown, has helped me understand what a unique privilege it was to grow up in the most ethnically and linguistically diverse place in the entire world. This meant that I could walk down the street and hear different languages being spoken, attend public school where my friends, like me, were second-generation immigrant kids who were also trying to navigate the different cultures and values we were raised in. Queens, as a result of all these mixings, is such a beautiful and complex, yet underrepresented, place. In Brown Girls, I wanted to give readers—if I may be so bold to phrase it this way—the privilege of entering into this place and community.
I was drawn to Queens because it’s a place that—unlike Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or Chelsea in Manhattan—isn’t particularly glamorous, affluent, or white. Instead, it’s a place that is figuratively and geographically on the margins, similar to the immigrant communities who live here. It was really cool to place Queens—I’m thinking of Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Woodside, to Jamaica and the Rockaways—front and center.
YAM: I was amazed by the scope of the novel, which depicts these characters from childhood through late into their adult lives. I loved how the novel shows how girlhood and Queens always stay with these women, even as they grow old and move far away from where they grew up. Why did you decide to follow these women long past girlhood, and travel with them beyond the borders of Queens?
DPA: Much of the novel, to my surprise and delight, evolved organically. It wasn’t a conscious decision to follow these characters from childhood to adulthood and beyond. But I was drawn to finding out where they would be at different points in time: as young women, as partners, as friends who drift apart, as women who travel to ancestral lands, as parents. So much of writing, for me, is this thrill of discovery. I was interested in how these characters’ upbringing in Queens, as immigrant children from lower-middle class backgrounds, would shape them, especially as they ascend in the world. I was interested in how their pasts would impress upon their present—no matter how hard they sought to re-make themselves, which feels distinctly part of the American mythology of the construction of self—as if a person wasn’t also shaped by their family, and historical, political, and economic forces. I wanted to illustrate how, in reality, their girlhood and Queens was always a part of them.
YAM: Julie Otsuka described the first-person plural as a “capacious and infinitely expandable voice” that allowed her to tell a much larger story than she would have been able to otherwise. It’s a bold POV choice for a novel, and one that you use alongside the vignette form to explore sisterhood and solidarity, and also express the immense diversity of Queens. How did you settle on these formal choices, and how did they shape the story you wanted to tell?
DPA: When I started writing Brown Girls, I found myself drawn to these unconventional choices—the “we,” or what I prefer to call the choral voice, as well as structuring the story through vignettes. My fiction workshop teacher at the time, the author and co-founder of Tin House, Elissa Schappell, really encouraged our class to take risks in our work—formally and thematically, yes, but also in terms of emotional vulnerability. Hearing this helped me feel free to experiment, take risks, and be completely honest on the page. This was the spirit in which my book was born.
By using the “we” point-of-view, I definitely wanted to capture the sisterhood, solidarity, and diversity of Queens, as you described. I wanted a chorus of women’s voices, specifically immigrant women of color, from this particular place to narrate the story. I also wanted the “we” to encompass women across different diasporas. My best friends growing up were Chinese, Dominican, Bangladeshi, Panamanian, Haitian, to name a few—I noticed, despite our differences, that we had these shared experiences of how, for example, colonialism and imperialism impacted our families; we had to navigate with our families’ gender and cultural expectations that conflicted with the western culture we were also raised in; we felt a deep obligation to our communities, but longed to make own way, too. As young women of color in America, we also encountered various forms of sexism, prejudice, and marginalization. My unconventional formal choices—the use of the “we” point-of-view, blurring poetry and prose, and how it’s structured using vignettes—are merely extensions of the book’s themes in that, there’s a hybridity to the text that reflects the hybrid identities of these characters.
YAM: There are so many funny moments in the novel, especially when you skewer microaggressions in [academia,] the workplace, and corporate diversity, [romantic relationships], and also an insistence on capturing joy and hope in the lives of these women, despite the losses, grief, and pain that affects their lives. Can you talk about how you balanced and brought together these threads as you were writing the novel, and the importance of your attention to humor and happiness?
DPA: This is such a great question. I would say that, for the characters in the book, I wanted humor to function in different ways. For instance, in the face of the degradation that stems from racism, humor and laughter are a refusal, on the characters’ parts, of allowing their spirits to be crushed. Other times, the characters laugh because people are simply ridiculous, the world is absurd, or the characters themselves make absurd decisions. Humor is sometimes a shield against the deeper emotions that they feel: sadness, alienation, anguish, and above all, rage.
I like to think that humor can charm readers—This is a fun story, come follow me! If you lull the audience in with humor and gain their trust, then you can then wield it like a knife later on, too: humor can be cutting and truthful, it can expose what’s beneath the surface: injustice, for instance. I love stand-up comedy. My favorite comedians are sharp observers and social commentators of our times: they lull audiences in, make them laugh, and also discuss deeper issues about our society with honesty and a deft, seemingly “light” touch.
My favorite authors who wield humor like a knife, include Paul Beatty—I love Slumberland, and of course, White Boy Shuffle and The Sellout, all of which examine racism in contemporary America in such a brash, bold, IDGAF way. Anna Burns’s Milkman is also brilliant, in terms of humor. Like Brown Girls, it’s also about girlhood, set in a very specific locale, Belfast. I love how she critiques received ways of thinking and exposes various hypocrisies within this insular community. I love the voice and language of both Burns’ and Beatty’s work.
YAM: As a Filipino American writer, there is such a rich literary history that Brown Girls is joining, and I would love to hear about any Fil-Am or other Asian American writers who informed this work, and your depiction of immigrant daughterhood.
DPA: You quoted the author Julie Otsuka above—Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, was incredibly formative to my debut novel. The Buddha in the Attic was the first novel I read narrated from the “we” point-of-view. It centers a group of Japanese “picture brides,” from the early twentieth century, who travel from Japan to San Francisco, and follows them through early marriage, motherhood, the start of WWII, and the prejudice they must deal with throughout. The way Otsuka uses the “we” is so incredibly deft—I was inspired by the elasticity of her “we,” how she allows her characters to come and go as they please: sometimes they appear for one paragraph, re-appear in other scenes, or an entire life is expressed in one sentence, and we never hear from them again. I was also inspired by the poetry of her language. I first read The Buddha in the Attic when I was eighteen, and it has always stayed with me. Brown Girls is an homage to Otsuka’s novel, too.
I also really admire Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Exertions. It’s a book that is unafraid to blur genres, and combine disparate elements—photography, sports writing, self-help, philosophy—to create something that feels fresh, innovative, and exciting. Mia Alvar, Lysley Tenorio, and Elaine Castillo are all Filipino American authors who helped me see myself reflected in literature. I also admire Alexandra Chang’s Days of Distraction. Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings has, I’m certain, sparked a whole generation of writers, as well as Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, both of which I loved. Bhanu Kapil’s poetry collections, Humanimal and The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, gave me freedom to be strange, even difficult, on the page. Lastly, I am a Katie Kitamura stan; her latest novel, Intimacies also touches on immigrant daughterhood, in some ways.
YAM: How did you sustain yourself creatively over the course of writing a longer project like this, and do you have advice for other writers at a similar stage?
DPA: I started writing my debut novel during a presidency that felt soul-crushing, through grad school, various day jobs, and finished it during the second wave of the pandemic, a time where I felt incredibly fearful for the world and my loved ones who are healthcare workers.
There were so many times it was hard to keep going and to believe in my work. The pandemic, and all the uncertainty and grief it brought about in the world and my own life, made me question what the purpose of pursuing art was. It seemed like a morally and ethically useless pursuit, one that was unhelpful to society, and financially precarious, this was what I thought on my darkest days. But I realize now that, creating art, for me, is an act of insisting upon my own voice, of claiming space for myself, of not participating in my own erasure, and saying, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.
YAM: One of the questions these characters wrestle with is how to be a good girl, or a good daughter. It’s a question that many immigrant daughters face, and has been explored in a lot of Asian immigrant fiction. You depict this struggle with both humor and a lot of grace for your characters, and I would love to hear about what interested you about daughterhood when writing the book, and if there were tropes you wanted to write against or break open.
DPA: To be honest, I really didn’t have these tropes in mind—although I recognize that childhood, and one’s duty to one’s family and community are often explored in narratives written by and about immigrants.
This fall, I read Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung, Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang, The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin, and Dava Shastri’s Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti—all of which examine, to some extent, how first and second-gen immigrant children navigate the various cultures, languages, beliefs, and values that they lay claim to—and that lay claim over them.
I think daughterhood is often explored in immigrant fiction because larger forces—such as colonialism, imperialism, immigration, assimilation, policy, and capitalism—impress upon the lives, and personhood, of people of color and recent immigrants, in ways that are visceral and enduring, as they are ever-present. These forces manifest and shape a person and community in myriad ways and are a challenge to capture in fiction. From my observation, although each of the books mentioned above, including my novel, explore daughterhood and family, and we part of a literary lineage, as well as a historical one, of people of color and immigrants in America—what’s important is that each story is specific: specific to the storyteller, specific to the character; as a result, each story is unique.