Daphne Palasi Andreades can remember when she first started writing her debut novel, “Brown Girls.” She was riding the subway home after a graduate fiction workshop at Columbia, where she was pursuing an MFA. Her teacher had quoted Toni Morrison in class (“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”).
“I was thinking of that quote, and about who I wanted to read about,” Andreades said. “On the train home, really inspired by her class,” she started writing about girls growing up where she did: “this vibrant place on the margins, Queens, my hometown.”
“Brown Girls” is narrated by a collective “we” reflecting the diversity of Queens — its protagonists are the daughters of immigrant parents from all over the world. “The choice was very organic,” said Andreades. “I really was just trying to think of a perspective or have a perspective that would reflect this chorus of women’s voices, and I really wanted a perspective that would also show these shared experiences between these different women who belong to different diasporas.”
She’d initially thought those subway pages would become a short story, but then “the pages just kind of accumulated and the story kept growing. The direction that it took was to follow them as they aged,” she said. “I always remembered that I could do anything that I wanted on the page. I had total freedom to do whatever strange thing that was exciting or exhilarating for me on the page.”
The book follows its main characters all the way from girlhood to the end of their lives. Its final section, Andreades said, was written during the first wave of COVID-19, as she feared for her mother and brother, both nurses in New York City hospitals. “The book ending on death is really just a reflection,” she said, “an artifact of where I was in that moment of time and also where we were in the world.”
Daphne Palasi Andreades will read at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 6, in a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.