Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades: Growing up brown in Queens

Cover image for Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades I’m a big fan of debuts, always hoping to read something by an author whose career I can settle into and enjoy. It doesn’t always pay off but sometimes I come across one that I have to keep reminding myself is a first novel such is the assurance and accomplishment of the writing. Daphne Palasi Andreades’ Brown Girls is one such example. Opening in New York’s working-class Queens where Andreades grew up, it follows the many and varied experiences of brown girls, born to parents who’ve arrived in the USA, hoping for a better future for their American kids.

We don’t look like anybody in these books. And nobody looks like us

Brown girls are American but they’re also something else. They’re Haitian, Pakistani, Flipina, Chinese, to name but a few, but they’re all the same to their teachers who can never get their names straight. They’re clever, or not so clever, work hard to please their parents, or disappoint them. As they grow up, they discover boys, or girls. They win scholarships to smart Manhattan schools or stay in Queens. They head off to Ivy League colleges or find a job in the neighbourhood. They fall in love with white boys, always wondering about the brown boys their mothers warned them off. They have children or not. They suffer pandemic losses as their mothers care for the sick. Some die, some are killed. The girls who started life in Queens are all very different but they’re all bound together by one thing: the colour of their skin and the reaction of white society to it.

The dregs of Queens, this place we so desperately dreamt of leaving.

But who would’ve thought we’d long to return?

Andreades’ novel is written in the first person plural, a risky choice for a first novel but she carries it off beautifully underlining both the universality and individuality of brown girls’ experience, offering a multitude of alternatives at each juncture for these women who white society see as other whatever their achievements. For those that become exactly what their parents had hoped for, a gulf opens up between them and the neighbourhood once so familiar. Andreades conveys all this in poetic, rhythmic language, dividing her novel into short chapters following the girls into womanhood, through all the rites of passage, the many roads taken or not taken. Not an easy style to describe but its extraordinarily effective, striking and almost cinematic in its vividness, summoning up images in a few well chosen words. I’ve not been so impressed by a debut in some time. Its left me already anticipating Andreades’ next novel, firmly crossing my fingers she doesn’t fall foul of second novel syndrome.

4th Estate: London 9780008478056 224 pages Hardback

21 thoughts on “Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades: Growing up brown in Queens”

  1. I’ve heard about the use of the first person plural in this book from Lucy Caldwell, who was also trying to use it in a piece of writing about Northern Irish girlhood in a tight-knit friendship group – so sort of a similar context.

    1. I’ve come across it done well before, coincidentally in another debut – TaraShea Nesbitt’s The Wives of Los Alamos. Interesting that all three writers explored it for female narrators.

  2. I have already seen this reviewed and think it sounds great. The use of first person plural is unusual, but seems to be done well. It certainly makes it stand out,as that is one of the things I particularly remember from the other review.

  3. I love the first person plural, so this is a must for me. I’m currently reading another with this POV, The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka — the second time she’s written in the first person plural. Do you know her books? I think her style would suit you.

    1. It takes quite a degree of skill to carry it off, I think. The Swimmers is on my list! Have you come across TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos? Another excellent first person plural debut.

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