I had seen and heard a lot about this book already when it popped up in my NetGalley emails and I was very pleased to win it back in November. I thought it would be an interesting companion piece to “Wahala“, with the latter about young women of colour in London and this about young women of colour in New York, however, although they are both fresh, new and atmospheric, they’re nothing like each other. I did love them both, though!

Daphne Palasi Andreades – “Brown Girls”

(15 November 2021)

We have been admonished to Study hard! yet have also been told Don’t go far, stay close, stay near, aren’t we good enough for you? We long for more, but keep our dreams to ourselves.

Have you ever read a book that’s written in the first person plural? Nope, me neither. The whole books is written in this way, so cleverly. What a stunning way for a writer to put together her debut – it’s so technically accomplished as well as authentic-sounding, raw, emotional, real and brilliant. When the experiences of the “Brown girls” divide, you might have a few names then we … a few more names, another we … she does not put a foot wrong the whole way through and this is not an easy thing to do (note, I wrote my review of “Open Water” in the second person singular it was written; I couldn’t do the same for this one!).

The Brown Girls of the title are a loose friendship group in Queens, New York (“The dregs of Queens”), starting aged ten around, presumably the turn of the millennium (their mothers are described as having come there in the 1990s) and then presumably stretching into the future, although this is not explicitly described. Where are their families from? Well, when they go to their “motherlands or fatherlands” part-way through the book, they …

… purchase flights to capital cities: Dhaka, Port-au-Prince, Malia, Kingston and Santo Domingo. I n a week, we will fly to Mexico City, Islamabad, Accra, Caracas, Seoul, Damascus, Bogota. Soon, with our own eyes, we will see San Juan, Cairo, Tehran, Beijing, Panama City, Georgetown, New Delhi, and many more places.

They do interact with White people, particularly men, idolising boys like those in White boy bands in their youth, marrying interracially but then maybe drifting back to the boys who look like their first male friends and brothers, and all the microaggressions are detailed, whether from posh families who think they’re charming then ask about the causes of poverty in their country or from lower-class parents who have fought in “Korea, Vietnam, Gulf wars” and want to talk about it; microaggressions about race, about class, about gender. Some of them experience racist or gender violence; they share tales as they still go out into the world, determined not to become trapped like their mothers, getting trapped like their mothers.

There’s a contrast between who leaves and who stays behind, and with one girl who stays behind forever, always her age at her death but present in everyone’s dreams. They start to interrogate colonialism when they visit their parents’ homelands and find hospitals and schools “named after people whose life missions, they believed, were to uplift savage nations”. And all life is covered – life and death, for while I will admit I found the opening chapters with the young women finding their places in the world, working out their sexualities and their genders, daring to dare, the book goes on beyond their deaths, more and more lyrical and beautifully written, looking to their daughters and granddaughters.

Although Andreades is the product of writing courses, her work doesn’t read like an exercise, a particular bugbear of mine. Yes, it reads a bit like autofiction, but so many different lives, cultures and experiences are described, it’s not just that. It’s fresh, exciting and moving, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

Thank you to 4th Estate for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.