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Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades review – raised by Queens | Fiction

Very early on, in a chapter titled “Musical Chairs”, we’re told that teachers at a New York City school can’t tell brown girls apart. They call upon Nadira but stare at Anjali; they ask Michaela to answer a question only to hand the marker pen to Naz. “We stand when our names are called, and our teachers halt, confused.” Nadira is Pakistani, Anjali is Guyanese, Michaela is Haitian, and Naz’s family are from Ivory Coast. The students laugh at their teachers, but think: “Her body is not mine is not mine is not mine. And yet.” And yet. In Daphne Palasi Andreades’s boisterous and infectious debut novel, such impulses to simplify identities or lean on stereotypes are dismissed, then turned to dust.

A largely plotless coming-of-age story about a group of friends, and a love letter to a community and a city, Brown Girls is set in “the dregs of Queens” and told in eight parts consisting of vignettes and short sentences. Moving in a fairly linear fashion from girlhood to adulthood and even into the afterlife, all the while riding the waves of successes and failures, hopes and tragedies, these could be anyone’s life stories. But it’s the particular microaggressions the girls face, and the collective bonds they forge as a consequence, that set them apart.

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At 10, the eponymous brown girls “already know how to be good” and how to cross the “Boulevard of Death” en route to their schools. At 15, they are learning to “memorise the subway lines as if they are the very veins that run through our bodies”. They notice that brown boys’ eyes begin to roam their bodies. By 16 or 17, at dinner with their white boyfriends’ families, they “suddenly become Ambassadors of Third World Nations”.

The more ambitious ones go on to Ivy Leagues – where “we don’t look like anybody in these books. And nobody looks like us” – and others on to small and sometimes no jobs. At malls they’re accused of stealing; at mostly white parties they are assumed to be the help. Later on in life, they take tourist trips to “the motherland (fatherland?)”, to countries across Asia and Africa. Always, they return to each other, and to their “hidden, peripheral” homes in Queens, where their friendship and feminism were born.

Brown Girls

Fiction writers have often used the collective narrator. Recently we’ve had the mysterious buzz of mosquitoes in Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, the Greek chorus-like voices of a rock star’s fans in Sarvat Hasin’s The Giant Dark, and a triad of chapters capturing the collective experiences of immigrants in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Told mostly from the perspective of the plural pronoun “we”, Brown Girls reads like a rap song, like an anthem. Rise up, it says, to the dutiful daughters who listen to their mothers’ commandments and know never to talk back, to the “good immigrants” who have learned to keep their heads down. Rise up and question your histories and legacies, colonialism and the curriculum, everyday sexism and racism, your place in the world, and who you really are.

At the beginning of the novel we’re told that, for those who really want to know, these brown girls are the colour of 7-Eleven root beer, the colour of sand at Rockaway Beach, the colour of peanut butter, etc. By the end – no matter who or where they are – they know that there’s no (one) place like home; “existing in these bodies means holding many worlds within us”. Brown Girls, too, holds worlds within its pages.

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades is published by 4th Estate (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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