By Daphne Palasi Andreades
Daphne Palasi Andreades’s debut novel is not your traditional novel. It’s a series of vignettes exploring the experiences of a group of girls whose families hail from India, the Philippines, Mexico, Jamaica, Ghana and the Dominican Republic. They live in multigenerational households in the “dregs” of Queens, N.Y. They “know never to talk back” and “how to cram into our parents’ beds when loved ones from distant lands and warm climates immigrate to the States with their suitcases and dreams and empty wallets. Stay for months, years.” These girls come in all the glorious shades of brown, including “7-Eleven root beer,” “grilled hamburger patties” and peanut butter.
Andreades’s descriptive writing is glorious, with a confidence one might expect from a veteran novelist. For instance, she describes the very New York experience of eating pizza while waiting for the train: “Ray’s Not Your Mama’s pizzeria with spongy Sicilian slices whose Cheetos-colored oil trickles down our chins when we take a bite.” The main characters “lie, starfish-like and still, atop sun-warmed concrete in backyards.”
While there is much that many brown girls will relate to — including experiences that feel stolen straight from my memories — Andreades succeeds in making the stories feel specific beyond a singular experience. The shared immigrant story is crystal clear: “It doesn’t matter if we don’t share a drop of blood with these people, we have been taught to call them family.” Readers become part of scenes where the fourth wall is not only broken but shattered.
Andreades doesn’t shy away from topics that sting — colorism, racism, internalized trauma and otherness. She shows teachers looking right through us, mixing up one brown girl for another, because we all look alike; plus a brown boy not seeing our beauty because “he only likes those kinds of girls, the Vanessa Kleinberg types, we heard him say so.” Those who grew up going to predominantly white schools, and eventually working in predominantly white spaces — anyone who is familiar with being the darkest person in the room — will feel seen. For readers who want to understand that experience, “Brown Girls” will walk you through the journey, ending in a discussion of death. Touching on the pandemic, then broadening the scope to death in the BIPOC community, Andreades delivers her story to a place that can feel either life-affirming or depressing, depending on how you look at it.
“Brown Girls” reads like spoken-word poetry and makes you feel as if you should be sitting in the basement of Cafe Wha? in New York’s West Village, wearing a black beret and sunglasses and snapping your fingers along with the beat of the social commentary. Ultimately, though, Andreades’s choice to write in short pieces, with some “chapters” clocking in at only two pages, proves tedious. I never felt quite connected to the characters, and they didn’t feel as connected to one another as lifelong friends should be. For some, the truth of our lived experience may be more palatable in small appetizer portions. But with their breadth, depth and enormous richness, I found myself wanting to savor these raw stories on a large, overflowing plate.