Interview with Daphne Palasi Andreades, Author of Brown Girls

January 6, 2022

Our first interview of 2022 comes to us courtesy of Monica Macansantos, a former contributor to TMR’s anthology. Brown Girls, out this week from Random House, is Andreades’s debut novel, and is receiving praise from writers such as Raven Leilani, Sandra Cisneros, and more.

Daphne Palasi Andreades’s debut novel, Brown Girls, is innovative in its telling, gathering a chorus of immigrant daughters from “the dregs of Queens” to collectively render the story of an immigrant community living on the margins of American life. Told from the choral “we”, this novel is ambitious in scope, yet flexible in its depictions of lived experience within this group of childhood friends. Like many novels that deal with the immigrant experience, Brown Girls turns the spotlight on the second generation, showing us how these girls and women grapple with the expectations of their parents, while confronting the freedoms available to them (as well as the limitations accompanying these freedoms) once they step outside their homes and neighborhoods. As a reader, I was drawn to Brown Girls for its tender and intimate portrayal of girlhood and womanhood as experienced by the culturally and economically marginalized, and for its depiction of female friendship as a necessary element of survival for these women who come of age in working-class Queens.

I recently talked to Daphne, over email, about the challenges of writing from life as a second-generation immigrant, the task of writing about female friendship in a society that undervalues its importance, and how one wrestles with the complexity of one’s identity resulting from the complicated histories of our homelands.

Brown Girls is probably the first novel I’ve read that is told entirely in the first-person plural, a point-of-view that can be difficult to sustain even in short fiction. What made this point-of-view feel right for Brown Girls? Did you encounter any challenges in maintaining this voice throughout the novel, especially as it showcases a multiplicity of voices and perspectives? And were there any rewards in these challenges?

It is funny and strange to think back on it, but I didn’t even attempt to tell the story from any other point-of-view. Once I started using the “we,” or what I prefer to call, at least with regard to Brown Girls, the “choral” point-of-view—I knew it couldn’t be any other way. The challenges I encountered using this POV included needing to define: 1.) Who the “we” would encapsulate, and 2.) How I wanted this point-of-view to operate within the story. It was necessary for me to define these things precisely because it was a less traditional POV. Eventually, I decided this chorus of voices would encompass women of color, mainly second-gen immigrants—Women belonging to different diasporas, but all raised in Queens, NY. I wanted to use the “we” in a way that was as elastic as possible, with the ability to expand (to narrate the group) and contract (to focus on an individual). It was a tricky balance but rewarding to push myself as an artist and take this risk. Later on, I understood that the fluidity of this point-of-view mirrored the fluidity of these characters’ identities.

On that note, what I loved about this novel was its polyphonic texture as it built a bildungsroman of a life, or a multiplicity of women’s lives, emerging from a working-class immigrant neighborhood in Queens. The novel presents a uniquely “Brown Girl” identity that grounds and informs these women’s lives. Were there any challenges you encountered in drawing a unifying identity for these women while also portraying their uniqueness and complexity? Did you feel like these two creative impulses informed one another in their execution?

Absolutely. Capturing both the multiplicity of these women’s lives, as well as the complexity and specificity within their experiences, were definitely challenges throughout writing the book.

By using the “we,” I was really interested in examining the shared experiences of women of color from this particular place, experiences such as the racism and marginalization they face in the U.S., their family histories that include colonialism, imperialism, migration, and assimilation; the gender expectations imposed upon them by society; how they navigate predominantly white spaces such as academia; and who they choose as romantic partners. However, I realized that, despite these shared experiences, there were numerous possibilities and paths for how, for example, one family’s history with colonialism could be expressed. I did my best to capture this wide range of experiences while being as specific as possible. In the end, I wanted to illustrate the solidarity that could exist between these women of color from different diasporas.

I love how you wrote from experience to create a rich and multifaceted portrait of this neighborhood in Queens, showing us the things that go on in these girls’ homes that bring them closer together in the schoolyard and beyond. You also captured in vivid detail the varied cultural backgrounds of these girls, and I was wondering if you also had to do research to get these details right, especially when depicting cultures other than your own. If so, what was that experience like?

I’m so glad you asked about this! About four months into writing the book—Brown Girls originally began as a short story that morphed into a novella and, later, a novel—I recognized that I needed to move beyond my own memories and experiences in order to truly capture this multitude of voices and experiences. To do so, I interviewed a handful of my best friends whom I’d grown up with in this area. I asked them questions like, “What are the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that you remember growing up in Queens?”, “What are things you know, having been raised in the States, that your parents don’t know? By contrast, what are things your parents know that you don’t know?” and so on. My friends very generously responded by sending voice notes and emails. It was very illuminating and fun to do this research, and to see how our experiences overlapped and diverged. My friends are of Filipino, Haitian, Panamanian, Chinese, Dominican descent, to name a few. However, I will say that their responses did not make it into the book in any parallel sort of way—Instead, their experiences were a springboard into imagining different scenes, conflicts, and an atmosphere for my book.

Brown Girls centers women of color in its explorations of girlhood, womanhood, and queerness, in ways that contemporary feminist literature has often failed to do. Were there any authors and books that informed the writing of this book, and in what ways did they guide your journey?

I love Claudia Rankine. Her hybrid work, Citizen, which incorporates visual art, interviews, history, and media to discuss racism and white supremacy as they pertain to the U.S., was extremely influential—not only in writing my debut, but in expanding my idea of what writing could do. Similarly, Maggie Nelson’s hybrid work, Bluets, which includes philosophy and autobiography, was formative. Both authors taught me that I could be voracious in what I included in my work, and that I didn’t have to bound by the conventions of genre. They taught me hybrid forms could be used to express hybrid identities. In short, their work helped me feel freer in my own approach to writing. The same goes for work by the authors Paul Beatty, Arundhati Roy, Anelise Chen, and many others. Reading Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri in high school and college helped me see that women of color could, in fact, be writers; no one in my community growing up was an artist, and I didn’t think it was a path that was possible or open to me. Reading their work changed that. Writers such as Mia Alvar, Lysley Tenorio, and Elaine Castillo were authors who helped me see myself as Filipino American in contemporary literature.

What heals the generational rift between these Americanized daughters and their immigrant mothers is a newfound understanding of the common experience of sacrifice that these brown girls share with their immigrant mothers in this country. Aspiring towards the same freedoms that privileged white people take for granted, for instance, entails certain sacrifices that are not unlike what their mothers had to endure when they left their homelands in hopes of a better life. These sacrifices, as Brown Girls acknowledges, are often accompanied with profound loss. I was wondering what your journey was like in reaching this understanding of the commonalities that these two generations share.

For the characters in my book, I think it is age and distance that give them perspective on their mothers and allow them to view their mothers with greater compassion. I think it’s important to distinguish that, while both generations undergo assimilation, and both experience the difficulty and loss that accompany this process, there are several important differences in their experiences—What’s powerful for the protagonists in the book, in fact, is finally recognizing and having empathy for these differences: that their mothers moved to another continent, needed to gain fluency in another language, and raise their children on foreign soil, often away from their loved ones and a culture they understood. This experience differs from the second-gen characters who were born and raised in the U.S., are native English speakers, and grow up within American culture and are products of its school system, its values and history. The first and second-gen characters have different relationships to the U.S., as well as different expectations and aspirations, all of which causes conflict in the novel. However, the daughters come to realize, in part, just how difficult it must have been for their mothers. They also realize that they’ve inherited this same spirit of strength, resilience, and determination from their matriarchs.

In my book—without giving too much away—there’s a part where the daughters time-travel to when their mothers board airplanes and first arrive in the U.S. When I began drafting this scene, I was like, oh, okay—Time travel? We’re going here? Let’s do it. It ended up being incredibly fun to envision and write. It’s a moment that enables the characters to experience, first-hand, what their mothers went through. As a fiction writer, I see it as part of my job to imagine, research, and have empathy for someone else’s experiences that may be completely different from my own, in order to render these experiences with honesty and complexity on the page.

I’ve felt for a long time that there’s something uniquely sustaining about female friendship. We see in Brown Girls how it provides these women with the fortitude to survive a rough childhood in “the dregs of Queens,” and gives many of them the strength to either forge new paths of their own outside their old neighborhood, or to simply survive the kind of poverty and neglect that plague their communities if they choose to stay on. It’s a theme you also explore in your short fiction, like in “Dreaming in Tongues” in which Isabel, a new immigrant from the Philippines, seeks relief from her loneliness and alienation in her romantic relationships with men, before finding a more sustaining bond with a new female friend, a Muslim woman from her ESL class whom she once treated with scorn. Since your examinations of female friendship are viewed through the lens of the immigrant experience, could you talk a little more about the process of braiding these two themes in your work? Did you learn anything new about female friendship and the immigrant experience by viewing these as parts of a whole?  

Thank you—I love that you noted those recurring themes in my work. As a second-generation immigrant daughter, I have felt both a sense of belonging and disconnectedness from my loved ones who are first-generation immigrants. This alienation also accompanied me, somewhat, throughout elementary and middle school, where I didn’t have any Filipino American classmates. But, during these years, I became friends with girls who were, ostensibly, “different” than me—they were Latinx, Caribbean, Black, South Asian, mixed. But the more my friends and I talked and grew to know each other, the more I learned about the overlaps in our experiences as people of color. For example, one of my best friends is second-generation Panamanian; when I learned about the Panama Canal, I couldn’t help but connect this to the U.S. naval presence in the Philippines—I also recognized the shared history of Spanish colonialism in our ancestral countries. Another friend is Nigerian—when I learned about the Anglican missionaries in Nigeria, I saw connections to the Anglican missionaries in Northern Philippines, who were influential to my own family’s conversion. There are so many additional examples I could list.

On the topic of friendship, I’ve observed that—in literature and in life—friendship is treated by society as less valuable compared to romantic relationships. But my own friendships with other women of color have been life-giving over the years. I wanted to bring these experiences to my fiction.

When these brown girls visit their motherlands to reclaim what has been erased or forgotten in their Americanization, they come to a realization that they inhabit both the identities of the colonized and colonizer. As someone who was born and mostly raised in the Philippines, my colonization in the way I think and express myself is something I’ve wrestled with. However, there is also a strange empowerment to be had in accepting that I am the sum of many histories and identities. Do you feel that this can be an act of resistance against the many erasures of colonization, despite the ironies of “accepting” the colonizer as part of our identity?

By portraying this realization that the girls can lay claim to both the “colonizer” and “colonized” aspects of their identities and family history, I wanted to show how complicated—how not clean-cut—our identities, in fact, are. They are multi-faceted, complex, and messy, whether we like it or not. Growing up in the U.S., I always felt the need to “choose” between different identities. But I am Filipino and American; my family history includes one of colonization and migration, and because my parents moved to the U.S., it is also true to say that I have reaped both the privileges and losses of their decision. But I don’t think a person has to be an American to identify with this feeling—Many other places include the mixing and hybridization of ethnicities and races, languages, cultures, and belief systems. It was this damaging and false mythology of purity that I wanted to expose and critique in Brown Girls. My book wrestles with these complexities and wonders if it’s possible to integrate these seemingly disparate aspects of one’s identity, and, if so, how.

Both of us have roots in the Cordillera Region of the Philippines, which is very different from the rest of the country in terms of culture and topography. A Cordilleran like me (though with non-indigenous ethnic roots) sees small things like the newly arrived cousin from the motherland who loves listening to country music, or the Filipina immigrant who loves wearing her cowboy boots even as her Manileña friend scoffs at her countrified tastes, and these details immediately speak to me (especially since they lack the fetishization I’ve often seen in other depictions of Cordilleran life). Even this yearning for the mountains of Baguio and the fog descending into the valleys of Benguet is woven so seamlessly into your work. I wonder what it was like to claim your Cordilleran identity in your writing, since it carries with it a unique perspective that doesn’t often show up in Filipino-American writing.

I am so glad that you connected with these details. Weaving in the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of the Cordillera Region of the Philippines, as well as characters who can trace their immigration stories to this particular place, has been really fun and wonderful. My family has indigenous Filipino roots—both my parents have Igorot blood. They grew up in Benguet and met in Manila. When they immigrated to Queens, they connected with other Igorots, and over the years, we became one another’s community and extended family. I heard incredible stories about this place, observed loved ones who lived with us in New York, and got to travel to the Cordilleras myself over the years—It was inevitable that I’d bring everything I observed to my fiction; it was a place that impressed deeply on my mind and spirit.

My siblings and I, as well other second-generation kids we grew up with, were raised to have immense pride in our indigenous roots, our Igorot culture, despite the challenges of geographic distance and language barriers. Later on, as a teen and young adult, it was a surprise to me to encounter the prejudice of other Filipino ethnic groups against Igorots—to hear stereotypes that are commonly held with regard to other indigenous groups, too: that they are uncivilized, backwards, ugly—This was the myth that was promoted by the Spaniards and internalized by other Filipinos. Growing up, however, I was taught to have immense pride at how the Igorots resisted Spanish colonizers and maintained their culture. I mention these experiences because they taught me how vital it is to examine and critique narratives that have racist or prejudiced roots, as well as how important it is to re-claim these narratives, and tell stories that illustrate joy, solidarity, and resistance.

Interviewed by Monica Macansantos. Macansantos is a former James A. Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, The Hopkins Review, Lunch Ticket, Oyster River Pages, and The Masters Review, among other places. Her debut collection of stories, Love and Other Rituals, is forthcoming from Grattan Street Press in Australia. 



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