Welcome to the ‘dregs of queens’, a place where the ‘brown girls’ of the title are born to immigrant families from all over the world, who landed in New York in pursuit of the elusive American Dream. From young girlhood to teenagehood to adulthood and motherhood and beyond, this short, lyrical and impactful novel charts the phases of their lives as they navigate the world as daughters of immigrants.
As girls, they share beds with their younger siblings while their parents are out working 12- and 14-hour shifts. They grow up in a cacophonous, joyful blur of ‘screeching Mariah at the top of their lungs, cackling in the school courtyard, playing handball, talking smack’, even as teachers call them the wrong names and their brothers are penalised by the school system. These particular girls are academically gifted – they win places at the best schools, go on to university, build accomplished careers, get out of Queens for good.
As they reach adulthood, they contend with their histories, return to the places their parents left, grapple with their identities. They are stereotyped as the ‘good immigrant daughters, the oh-so-hard-working ones, the paragons of the American Dream, aren’t we? (But for what? For whom?)’ Set against the backdrop of the fractious political landscape under the leadership of Donald Trump, their identities are politicised; they are asked to speak as the authority on behalf of their race, and yet are mistaken for the wait staff at work soirees.
‘Our families’ legacies, the histories we’ve inherited: grandparents who never learned to read, U.S.-backed dictatorships, bombs, wars, refugee camps, naval bases, canals, gold, diamonds, oil, missionaries, brain drain, the American Dream.’
Queens is a place the girls ‘so desperately dreamt of leaving’, and yet find themselves longing to return to the streets they grew up, haring across the ‘boulevard of death’, inhaling the smells from the street food vendors, hearing the hallways echo with 100 different languages.
It eschews a traditional narrative structure or format; told in the collective first person ‘we’, the voice speaks for the group of brown girls whose families hail from the Philippines, from Haiti, from Jamaica, and many other corners of the world. It’s ambitious to create a choral voice that interweaves these experiences as if interchangeable. I’m not a WOC and can’t speak to whether or not this approach is oversimplifying or inclusive, but from a literary perspective, the novel succeeds in painting in broad brush strokes universal societal pressures and entrenched racist structures that many of these women face.
There’s an accomplished confidence to the stylistically bold writing, and I loved the rich descriptions and kaleidoscopic vignettes that paint the story. I began to wonder how the author would bring it all to a close, where the natural end would fall. It turns out that she took these characters all the way to beyond the grave – the only part of the novel I felt was faltering and off-kilter.
‘Why did we ever believe home could only be one place? When existing in these bodies means holding many worlds within us.’
It’s an accomplished debut, with a lot to say and not quite enough space to say it in. I’ll look forward to seeing what Daphne Palasi Andreades does next.