A Chorus of Voices: Talking with Daphne Palasi Andreades
I grew up spending hours of my childhood in the loud, loving homes of my relatives in Queens, New York. In Brown Girls, Daphne Palasi Andreades’s debut novel, the borough comes alive, rendered vibrantly through the eyes of the brown girls who call it home. They grow up on the page, vignettes revealing the moments in their lives where they fall in love, forge lifelong friendships, and navigate the expectations of their communities and immigrant families. In its spirited prose, this novel invites its readers, as if out for a drink or at a schoolyard game, to share the joys and challenges of these girls’ lives.
Daphne Palasi Andreades was born and raised in Queens, New York. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she was awarded a Henfield Prize and a Creative Writing Teaching Fellowship. She is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship, among other honors. Brown Girls is her first novel.
Before the holidays, I had the joy of speaking with Daphne over the phone about the writing process of Brown Girls, media depictions of New York City, and the best storytellers in her life.
The Rumpus: I first read Brown Girls as a piece published by The Kenyon Review as the winner of their 2019 Short Fiction Contest, which also won an O’Henry Prize. I noticed edited sections of that piece appear in the novel. How did the scope of the project change and evolve as you wrote, from that initial excerpt to the full project that it is now?
Daphne Palasi Andreades: Brown Girls actually began as a short story when I was a graduate student at Columbia studying fiction. In retrospect, I called it a short story, but at the time I had only written short stories. I started working on this piece in my second year and found that even after my workshop, I just kept writing more pages. I kept thinking about this “we” voice, and I kept thinking about the world of Queens. Very organically the piece started growing longer and longer. I accumulated more pages and brought it into the workshop after, which was my last workshop at Columbia. In between there was winter break, so I was writing during winter break. I knew it would be longer than a short story, but I don’t think that at the time I knew what it was or felt comfortable calling it a novel, because I had never done that or attempted to before.
That winter I started interviewing a handful of close friends who I had grown up with just to try to flesh out the “we” voice. I don’t know how to phrase it exactly, but I interviewed friends just to get a feel for what the book could be without necessarily drawing from my friends’ exact experiences. I didn’t want to do that. Anyway, throughout that year, the piece just kept getting longer and I thought, Ok, I think I have to call it a novella. Then, Ok this 140-page thing is not a novella anymore; I’ll just commit to calling it a novel. So it was really a journey in that sense.
Rumpus: That’s really interesting to hear. I feel like longform projects have such disparate journeys to becoming finished pieces. I also think that following that collective voice really felt like a coming-of-age story. Did you think of it as a coming-of-age story as you were writing? Or are there coming-of-age stories that you remember reading that really struck you and stuck with you?
Palasi Andreades: Yeah, I did not think of it as a coming-of-age story when I first began writing it. I remember the distinct moment of beginning to write the piece, though. I had a difficult first year in my MFA program. I felt extremely out of place and, long story short, thankfully the second year was a lot better. I found, or just connected with, a stronger community of writer friends and teachers/mentors. I had a workshop professor, Elissa Schappell, this was my first workshop where I started writing Brown Girls, and she said a ton of really incredible things in that class that I think I will always remember. She quoted Toni Morrison, and she was like, “If there’s a book that you want to read and it has not been written yet, then you must be the one to write it.” Also, something like, “Write to your younger self.” I remember leaving class, and I had religiously scribbled those quotes down. I was thinking about them on the ride home, and I just started writing, inspired by what I had heard in class that day. I think I just felt really free and free to write about what I had not read. Free to write about, frankly, an immigrant community that I think I had been self-conscious or maybe even a little ashamed of writing about in an academic setting.
The “we” voice just came from the very first sentence when I started writing, and it was very strange. I was like, What is this “we,” who is this “we,” and I guess I just kept writing into it. It became clear as time went on that the “we” would be a chorus of young women’s voices from Queens, New York. It’s a coming-of-age story of course, in that the book follows them and begins when they are young, and they are in school, living with their families in Queens, but it also follows them as they take these different paths far from Queens, or not so far from Queens. Some of the characters stay there.
I was really interested in this chorus of women’s voices and thinking about the shared experiences that came from possibly growing up in this place, but also being immigrant daughters, or primarily second-generation immigrants, and thinking about what those shared experiences might look like beyond growing up in the same place. I really wanted to think about that shared history of not only immigration and assimilation and how that shaped the girls’ lives and their families, but also different historical forces like colonialism or imperialism and the various ways that those appeared in the families’ histories, how they manifested as well as gender, cultural expectations. What might it look like to grow up within these marginalized communities in contemporary America and explore the duty the girls’ felt to their families and their communities as well as wanting to forge their own paths? That was all something I was thinking about in the “we.”
Rumpus: Yeah, and it’s a really beautiful voice to read. Maybe it’s just because I related to it a lot, but I think it’s definitely more than that. There’s this sense of multiplicity within this one voice, that you are able to get all these different stories and all these different experiences all at once.
The idea of trying to write the story that you want to see in the world is such an interesting and powerful one. Thinking about that, I feel like there’s so much media that is about New York, but I feel like it’s so rarely set in Queens, or set mostly in Queens, or with that borough as the focal point. Is there something about the way that Queens fits into that catalogue of New York media or maybe the way that it isn’t included enough that you wanted to touch on as you wrote?
Palasi Andreades: When I was writing this book, I was really interested in thinking of setting or place as a character in and of itself. I really hope I was able to do that with Brown Girls and Queens, specifically. I think it’s a place that is so vibrant and eclectic. It is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse places in the entire world, just the sheer amount of immigrants and people who are making new lives in America. I guess I have read, and seen in movies, so many different narratives that centered either Manhattan as a very glamorous place or Brooklyn as another glamorous up-and-coming place. I think that with Queens, it’s interesting because it’s not glamorous, it’s not upper-class, really. Socioeconomically, it’s not affluent and it’s not predominantly white. For all those reasons, I feel like that’s why perhaps it was a place that was on the margins or sidelined, whether intentionally or unintentionally, in literature or media or art in general.
I’ve grown up in Queens and didn’t leave; I mean I didn’t go that far to be honest. I live in Brooklyn now, and I’ve been here for seven years, but Queens is a place that’s close to my heart, and I think was really important for me to see it represented in literature. Even as a graduate student, reading all these different narratives and stories, classic and contemporary, I didn’t see those stories that were set in Queens or that really centered these immigrant communities. That was really important to me to show. I’m thinking, Well, what would it look like and what would it mean for another kid in Queens, New York, to pick up this book and maybe see a Queens that they know, or a Queens that they don’t know? Maybe it’ll inspire them to write other narratives. I think that’s really beautiful, just to think about how the book may resonate with future generations, hopefully.
Rumpus: I also feel like some of those ideas really connect to the theme of visibility that I noticed throughout, especially in the earlier sections of the book. There are so many aspects of these women and these girls that, you know, some of them are only visible to each other, like the interactions that they have and the contexts that they’re able to interact in that might be invisible to other people. And I thought it was fun that you used the phrase “brown girls” as opposed to, you know, sometimes people say women of color or children of immigrants, something like that. Is there a reason that the phrase “brown girls” really stuck out to you?
Palasi Andreades: I’ll be honest, it’s sometimes a little difficult for me to know exactly why I made some of those choices. I think, at least for me, a lot of art-making or creation happens on an unconscious level, and it just comes out sometimes. I’m still thinking about what you said about earlier in the book, the book focusing on visibility and invisibility. I was thinking too, also about how I think the girls, the characters, feel erased in some ways, whether by teachers, romantic interests, or sometimes their own families. I think so much of their friendship is also just recognizing one another and seeing one another.
As the book goes on, it was important to show that in the narrative, and just in the book existing itself, these characters, these women of color, brown girls, however they identify, would also not be complicit in their own erasure, which I think is a conflict within the book as well, whether they will be complicit in their own erasure. It’s important for me to stress and to show characters who forge their own paths, refuse to be erased. That’s what I’m thinking with regard to that great visibility/invisibility question you had.
To go back to the “brown girls” refrain and title of the book, I can’t say that it was something that was necessarily conscious, but maybe it also ties into that idea of just like, brown girls, brown girls, brown girls—it’s in your face. They are very much racialized, of course. Living in the States, it’s obvious. Looking at someone, you can see their skin color. It’s stressed even more growing up in America, so maybe it was partly not wanting to shy away from their differences.
Rumpus: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. The choral voice is able to achieve a lot of really interesting things content-wise, but I also felt like your writing was very lyrical and the prose itself was very beautiful. Is that something that’s consciously important to you while you’re writing? Do you take a lot of influence from poetry, for example? How does that factor into your writing process?
Palasi Andreades: Yes, thank you so much. With the choral voice and this unconventional point of view, the first-person plural, I really saw it as a chorus of voices. When I think of first-person plural, it’s still first person, so there’s an “I” behind the “we,” but I really didn’t see this particular “we” as operating in that mode. I’m so glad you asked about form because it was important to not only take what felt like, for me, thematic risks in my writing, or risks related to an emotional vulnerability on the page, but also formal risks and making formal choices that aren’t necessarily traditional or what’s often seen in literature or creative writing.
I saw the “we” as this way that I could just explore hybridity. I loved and was always impacted by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I first read them in a college poetry class and they’ve always stuck with me. They’re technically poets, but I really see those two works as hybrid texts in that they draw from philosophy, from history, from interviews; they draw from visual arts and social media and YouTube, those kinds of media platforms. I saw that as really daring, but also just totally voracious and free in what those writers felt like they could draw from and also how they could write in vignettes or notes to oneself or lists or just having a painting suddenly appear. I found that really incredible.
With Brown Girls and the use of the “we,” I think it’s also a book that, as I mentioned earlier, draws some of its preliminary research from interviews, but is told through this vignette form. Sometimes footnotes appear, sometimes snippets of Arabic or Spanish or Filipino or Hindi appear. I really wanted to feel that freedom to draw from all of these different sources and places. I really do see this form of drawing from different places as a reflection of Queens itself as this incredible borough, but also the characters’ hybrid identities of feeling both a connection and disconnection to this American culture that they are raised within, as well as these immigrant communities that they’re raised in and the cultures and values that stem from there. I think hybridity was, looking back, central to the book and reflected in the form.
Rumpus: That’s a really beautiful way to tie things together, right? The content and the form are so much a part of each other. I really loved how long your acknowledgements were, as sort of a marker of gratitude, and also how a community can be such an important part of a writing journey. I just wanted to ask you a little bit about that.
Palasi Andreades: Oh my gosh, I have not been asked that. I wish I were one of those cool people who could summarize their whole acknowledgements in just one page, but I am not and that’s ok. I really did want to use it as a space to thank different literary communities that I was a part of and benefitted from, even if, like for the MFA, sometimes those spaces were difficult or fraught at times. I met some incredible writers whom I am very thankful to call friends at Bread Loaf and Columbia, and just a handful of those people changed my life in that they read early excerpts and drafts of Brown Girls, and we can talk about all things related to art or outside of art.
It was really important to me, of course, to thank the communities that had raised me. I’m thinking of my family and extended family who are not necessarily literary or super into the literary world as different friends who work in publishing or are writers themselves, but they really are the best storytellers that I know. It feels like such a gift to have heard their stories over the years and to have learned a lot about storytelling from them.
Rumpus: I really loved that you were able to make a nod to so many people in your life and so many different communities.
I’m sure having your debut novel come out is something that’s really exciting, but I can imagine nerve-wracking, so I’m not sure if you’ve had time to read, but are there any books that you’ve been reading that you’ve enjoyed or books debuting in 2022 alongside yours that you’re really excited for?
Palasi Andreades: Yes, Manywhere by Morgan Thomas. Morgan is one of my dear friends; we met at Bread Loaf, they read an early manuscript of Brown Girls before I submitted it to agents, and they sold their book several months before mine. It is a short story collection that follows queer characters in the American South. I should qualify that and say that a lot of the characters are queer historical, or little-known, marginalized trans and nonbinary characters. Manywhere comes out on January 25th and Morgan is a fantastic writer.
I am also reading How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu (featured in a Rumpus interview January 3rd), which also comes out in January, and it is a novel told in stories. I’m not sure if that’s the right phrase. It is set in the future, and there is an arctic plague that has swept through the country, through the world actually, and Sequoia wrote this book before the pandemic hit, and so his book is kind of prophetic I think, in that sense, in a Severance by Ling Ma kind of way. In the vein of like, Oh my gosh, how did you know this would happen? I’m halfway through Sequoia’s book. Then I will also say that on January 4th, the same day that Brown Girls is coming out, there is a lovely author who I’ve just gotten to know over the past year. She is also a debut writer, and her name is Jessamine Chan, and her book, I think it took something like ten years to write, is called The School for Good Mothers.
Author photo by Jingyu Lin