ARC · Contemporary Literature

Brown Girls

So, I got this book as an eARC from Netgalley a few months ago. I had a goal, of course, of reading it before publication, but I am just terrible at following through on that. However, I am only a couple weeks late (so that’s an improvement!). Plus, I have to say I’m not mad about being able to get my hands on a legit physical copy – I do prefer reading that way to reading on a kindle. And I have a soft spot for a cute small book like this one. 

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades

“Why did we ever believe home could only be one place? When existing in these bodies means holding many worlds within us. At last, we see.”

In Brown Girls, Andreades takes us into the lives of brown girls from Queens. From middle school cliques and make-up trials and parties to post-high school graduation career and education choices. From family expectations and get-togethers that defy assimilation to friends and siblings whose dreams have fallen flat or choices have led them to futures they never planned. From being the ones who “got out” (and the ones who are “too good for us now, huh?”) to the ones who never left (by choice or through inertia). From those who studied law and medicine to those who studied arts and performance. From those who visited family homelands to those who never want to. From those who married and had children to those who followed non-traditional family paths. From those who speak up, choosing activism on behalf of their race/womanhood/sexuality to those who stay silent, choosing not to “rock the boat.” And all of them the brown girls who fought tooth and nail for visibility and hope and a future and did it all while singing together at the tops of their lungs and meeting up for midnight pizza and donuts because that’s what being there for each other means.  

This is an electric and completely original debut novel. Based on the description, I was expecting something totally different: a story that follows a few friends through their specific lives and stories. But this book was decidedly not that. The whole novel is told from a first person plural, “we,” point of view (something I’ve read rarely, if ever), and Andreades gives more of a survey of the lives of brown girls, with many examples and representations and inclusions. There is a range of voices (I love, love, love the repeated recitation of names) and reactions that encompass more than an individual but don’t assign traits specifically. There are shared traits and possibilities. There are places where realities diverge. I was really glad for the short chapters. With the “we” and “our” writing style, as well as the overview type perspective, as opposed to following anyone with more individual detail, it could easily have gotten out of control or overwhelming (and made me feel distant from the voices the author was trying to highlight). Instead, it brought a tangible life to the page, laying out the small details that make a daily existence, that make a life, and it feels like you can reach out and touch it, smell it, taste it, hear it. There’s a tenderness in that shortness that is a masterful literary combination.

For such a short overall piece, Andreades was able to address so many larger, complicated, issues. She highlights all the conflicting messages to (brown) girls like “grow up to have babies/families but don’t get pregnant” and “study and get good grades for success but stay close to home and do you think you’re too good for us?” She touches on class, race, gender and sexuality, family, style, names (oh so many names and, again, I loved that detail). She shows all the messages explicitly or implicitly, from family and strangers, delivered about what is expected of a brown girl. And she takes the “we,” the faceless/lumped together, and gives them individuality in the myriad ways these brown girls internalize and react to their realities. I feel like I want to really point out that last part again, because it was just masterful. Andreadres really addresses the breadth in the definition/idea of brown girls, and shows the diversity that is lost with the lumping together of all non-white faces. And overall, I love the way all these very real issues and truths are presented as simple reality/fact/existence, without direct judgement or commentary from the author (not at all, not towards a single decision or choice). 

I sped through this novel in two or three quick sittings, the writing was just that propulsive. Like I said, I’ve never read anything like it before and I was blown away by the creativity and the strength of the group voice, the many voices. This was so human, so alive, so fierce. Big yes from me.  

A few passages:

“We wonder, But did she look like us? Was she as dark as us? But come on- We don’t look like anybody in these books. And nobody looks like us.”

“Our English, impeccable. Our mother tongues, if we were taught them at all, become atrophied muscles, half-remembered melodies.”

“Or families’ legacies, the histories we’ve inherited: grandparents who never learned to read, U.S.-backed dictatorships, bombs, war, refugee camps, naval bases, canals, gold, diamonds, missionaries, brain drain, the American Dream.”

“We are so visible we have become invisible. Odd that in this moment we dreamt of, we are faceless.”

“Brown girls brown girls brown girls who, in their bones, are beginning to understand that they are the sum of many identities, many histories, at once. The colonized, the colonizers. Where do we fall? […] Realize: whether we like it or not, we lay claim to both.”

“Our brown girls. Strong enough for life itself. Or so we hope. We hope, and that is all we can do.”

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