Daphne Palasi Andreades, author of Brown Girls, spoke with Majo Restrepo, The Center’s Development Associate, in celebration of being shortlisted for the 2022 First Novel Prize. This tenderly observed, fiercely poetic love letter to a modern generation of brown girls follows a group of friends in Queens, New York as they attempt to reconcile their immigrant backgrounds with the American culture in which they come of age. Their conflicting desires of ambition and loyalty, freedom and commitment, adventure and stability risk dividing them in this striking exploration of female friendship told in a chorus of unforgettable voices.
I see the book on your shelf behind you. It’s such an amazing cover!
Thank you! Yeah, it was a process figuring out the cover. Random House was really generous and we ended up working with this freelance designer who came up with this beautiful cover. It has these elements of both Queens and Manhattan. I love the detail of the B being kind of crooked, a bit misaligned, which makes me so happy because the designer remembered a sentence from the book about crooked sidewalks and crooked teeth. It just felt like it visually aligned with the story.
Something that I really admired about the cover was how the architecture of the suburban-looking house was so specifically Queens. I also grew up there and it felt so familiar to me. What was the first seed of this story?
It originally started off as a short story because I had never had the nerve to attempt writing a novel. I had a wonderful fiction workshop professor at the time, the author Elissa Schappell who also co-founded Tin House. I was feeling a lot of self-consciousness about where I came from and what I felt comfortable writing about in my fiction as a graduate student in what felt like a very fancy program. She encouraged that vulnerability and really putting myself on the page and taking not just creative risks or thematic risks in what you write about, but emotional risks too. It was scary, but challenging in a good way, and it made me feel like it is important to write about something close to my heart. That same professor also liked to share that Toni Morrison quote— “If there is a story that you want to read but it has not been written yet then you must be the one to write it”—which was really foundational to this book. I was thinking, what do I really want to read? What is close to my heart? And I knew it had to be about my hometown, this setting I rarely see, and it has to center immigrant daughters, young women of color. I don’t see that enough.
Absolutely. Something that I particularly enjoyed—even though it was hard to confront because they’re my own private thoughts, but it was so comforting to see it written by someone else too—was that irony hinged on the American dream, the mutual gratitude for our parents that also transcends into occasional resentment. That negotiation between those feelings was so tender and at times brutal. What were you reading while writing this book that inspired it, and what are you currently reading?
For this book, I was really influenced by poetry, actually. I had read Citizen by Claudia Rankine as well as Bluets by Maggie Nelson. While they’re technically classified as poetry, I saw them as hybrid texts for how they combined prose and poetry and also different types of nonfiction, like philosophy and pop culture. Plus there was visual art in there too. Seeing the voraciousness of their work and the freedom they had to include everything changed my mindset for how I could approach this book. I could have hip-hop and R&B lyrics, I could have other languages in there, I could have lists and footnotes. At the moment I’m currently rereading Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami. I guess I just really love stories with different generations of women characters and their different perspectives and thoughts on feminism, whether or not to have a child, body image, the patriarchy. It’s really fascinating to me.
Something that I was very impressed by was this echo of voices that compose the book, and the general “we” that you use that’s still individually divided with different names. Where did that idea come from?
During the early stages of writing this book in fiction workshops and then later on when I started working with my editor at Random House, I learned that something that wasn’t being communicated effectively was that the “we” was expansive and that it included not just a “we” of three women or five women, but that it was meant to be representative of all kinds of women. I thought that would make it so much more complex and interesting, and there could be so many experiences within this “we” to explore. I had to think about how I could show that the “we” was more wide-ranging. One technique was to have lists of names as well, and I wish I could say that I thought of that technique on my own, but it goes back to literary influences again. The author Julie Otsuka has written her past three books in the “we” voice. I read her book The Buddha in the Attic for the first time when I was 19 and I thought, “ What is this ‘we,’ this chorus and this collective?” For her, it was Japanese-American women and for me I wanted to make it immigrant daughters from different diasporas and ethnic communities.
You mentioned that getting your intentions across to the reader about the use of “we” was difficult to figure out—although I think it totally makes sense to identify with this “we” as a tight-knit group of sisters or friends because you get so drawn into their world. What were your biggest challenges with writing the book?
I’m just laughing because there were so many challenges. There were multiple times when I really wanted to give up. I finished writing the book in 2020. I had mentioned being in grad school when I first started writing, and I was really excited to immerse myself in fiction, but I found that experience really tough. This was from 2017 through 2019, and while my peers were lovely, I really felt like a fish out of water. At the time there weren’t a lot of faculty members who were people of color, immigrants, or from any kind of marginalized community, and as much as I love Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro, those were the only kinds of authors we were reading. Then in the larger world, Trump had just been elected so all of this anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric was everywhere. So there were a lot of rough things to deal with both in my personal life and in the world that made it challenging.
It’s incredible how we try to approximate relatability through all of these writers in class who are amazing but they don’t relieve an itch because we’re still coming from different perspectives. But, that was an itch that I felt was very relieved while reading Brown Girls. Did you feel that you could explore this writing while you were in school?
The second year ended up being better in terms of finding readers and community. That was in 2018, 2019. One of my grad school professors and mentors is the author Paul Beatty, who also was a poet before turning to fiction, so I was really fortunate to get to study with him. He was the kind of teacher who always held his students to really high standards, which was tough but a great way to learn. After I graduated, I was teaching preschool and working as a server and a bartender, all so I could write during the day. I was working on this book and some short stories, and then I met with my professor, Paul, and he asked me what happened to that book I was working on for my thesis. I felt so embarrassed and ashamed because I hadn’t finished it, so I left that meeting thinking, okay, come springtime I’m going to finish this book.
Then springtime rolled around in 2020 and the pandemic had the whole world in lockdown. I was furloughed from my two jobs, and my mom and my brother are both healthcare workers in Queens, so it was a really difficult time and I thought what’s the point of writing this book? I don’t even know anymore. But some of my best friends and my husband were like “Who might this book reach down the line? Don’t forget that.” Writing was really a good way of channeling feelings of grief and sadness. I finished a draft of the book in May 2020. I didn’t have an agent or an editor. I sent it to agents in July 2020 and then in September 2020 we sold it, so it was really fast. It’s so surreal to think this book is reaching readers and other immigrant kids and people from Queens. It’s wild, but I’m so happy and so thankful.
What is your writing practice like?
I prefer to write during the day. That’s when I’m freshest. I loved writing in Columbia’s music library. I loved the light wood and I loved the big windows. I found it to be a really calming space. I did write parts of Brown Girls in my local coffee shop here in Brooklyn called Coffee RX. I started writing the earliest vignettes on the subway, which ended up being the beginning of the book. There’s something about being in motion that helps me psychologically in thinking that I only have time to write from point A to point B, and of course, observing the people around me and the strange things they do is great fodder for the writing. But then I got really scared of using the subway after the shooting last year, so I haven’t been on as much.
All of those places weren’t available when the pandemic hit so it was a shift to be working from home. I was living in a studio apartment with my husband so we were so close together, both working, trying to do my best to focus. It’s weird, I like having some people around me and some life around me. I couldn’t do Columbia’s main library because it was too still and dark, I needed some hubbub. It’s a bit quieter now, I’m a bit more local. I have this little office nook in my bedroom so I do most of my work here.
What are some of the larger conversations that your book speaks to?
It’s a fascinating question to think of as a fiction writer because so many of the larger political ideas, social ideas, are expressed through a character, through a scene, through dialogue. For me, I can’t work the other way around. The larger ideas need to be expressed through the characters’ lives, the way characters speak, what they wear, if they have an accent, what music lyrics they quote; it’ll say so much about them and speak to those larger ideas.
But to speak more specifically, I was really interested in centering immigrant communities and centering people of color as protagonists. I had these audiences in mind primarily when I was writing the book, so that really helped a lot when I wondered, “Oh, do I need to explain this? Do I need to translate this?” And I thought, no, I’m speaking to my homegirls out in Queens. I really hope that people who hadn’t really seen themselves reflected in literature might see themselves in this book, but I hope the people who might not relate to that would read this book and feel like they’re stepping through a portal into another world and seeing the beauty and complexity of these lives.
I think it was really fascinating, but also a challenge, and also a joy, writing this book to think of shared experiences of different communities and of different diasporas and see how we are all connected, whether by history or journeys of immigration or assimilation or marginalization. It was so important to me to show that despite different backgrounds there are these commonalities. We’re all under the same umbrella, there’s solidarity in these different communities.
Since this is your first novel, what do you hope this book says about you as a writer and what can we expect from you in the future?
I think back to what originally helped me feel less afraid and more confident in writing, which was my teacher really encouraging us to take risks on all of those different levels, and so I really hope that this book is representative of that, of the risk-taking and the necessity of that when making art. I don’t think art should just do the same old thing. I think you have to be taking risks, you have to be combining all of these disparate disciplines and forms and genres to make something innovative. So I hope to continue that spirit of risk-taking and art as a space for absolute freedom. You also can’t underestimate how important it is for someone to feel seen in art, so hopefully, other young people of color and immigrant kids who are interested in the arts read my work and feel like, “Oh, if she can do it, I can do it too.”
Well, I think you have definitely already done that. Are you interested in continuing with the novel form?
I’m working on my second novel at the moment. It’s in its early stages and I’m a little superstitious, so I’m not sure how much I want to reveal about it, but has similar themes of immigrants and diasporas. I’m definitely curious about working in other genres as well, like a graphic novel would be so cool, or children’s books. But, we’ll see!
By Daphne Palasi Andreades
Published by Random House
Welcome to Queens, New York, where streets echo with languages from all over the globe, subways rumble above dollar stores, trees bloom and topple over sidewalks, and the funky scent of the Atlantic Ocean wafts in from Rockaway Beach. Within one of New York City’s most vibrant and eclectic boroughs, young women of color like Nadira, Gabby, Naz, Trish, Angelique, and countless others, attempt to reconcile their immigrant backgrounds with the American culture in which they come of age. Here, they become friends for life—or so they vow.
Exuberant and wild, together they roam The City That Never Sleeps, sing Mariah Carey at the tops of their lungs, yearn for crushes who pay them no mind—and break the hearts of those who do—all while trying to heed their mothers’ commands to be obedient daughters. But as they age, their paths diverge and rifts form between them, as some choose to remain on familiar streets, while others find themselves ascending in the world, beckoned by existences foreign and seemingly at odds with their humble roots.
A blazingly original debut novel told by a chorus of unforgettable voices, Brown Girls illustrates a collective portrait of childhood, adulthood, and beyond, and is a striking exploration of female friendship, a powerful depiction of women of color attempting to forge their place in the world today. For even as the conflicting desires of ambition and loyalty, freedom and commitment, adventure and stability risk dividing them, it is to one another—and to Queens—that the girls ultimately return.
About Daphne Palasi Andreades
Daphne Palasi Andreades
Daphne Palasi Andreades
Daphne Palasi Andreades was born and raised in Queens, New York. Her debut novel, Brown Girls, was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice book, a finalist for the New American Voices Award, and was chosen as an Indie Next Pick by booksellers across the U.S. Internationally, Brown Girls is now available in the U.K. and Commonwealth (India, Australia, South Africa, and more), and is forthcoming in France and Germany. Daphne is a proud graduate of New York City public schools and went on to earn her MFA in fiction at Columbia University. She lives in New York City and is now at work on her second novel.
Photo Credit: Jingyu Lin