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23Feb

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades review – raised by Queens

This boisterous New York coming-of-age tale uses its collective narrator to tell forceful truths about women and race

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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