The year 2022 ushered in a crop of new literary novels set in Queens, New York and written by authors of color who grew up there: Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades (Random House), Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman (Flatiron), and my own book, The Girls in Queens (HarperVia).
While it might not be unheard of to read a novel that’s set in Queens, it has historically been harder to find one written by a woman of color who was raised there (though certainly not impossible: Meg Medina, Ishle Yi Park, Min Jin Lee, and Stephanie Jimenez have all published books at least partially set in Queens). The borough tends to remain outcast from literary New York, as well; in a recent New York Times article, contemporary authors named their favorite New York City novels, and of the 100+ books named, only one was set in Queens.
With even more Queens novels set to publish in 2023, including Patricia Park’s Imposter Syndrome (Crown Books) and Jennifer Baker’s Forgive Me Not (Nancy Paulsen Books), I spoke with Daphne and Bushra about Queens literature, what it really means to grow up in New York City, and the importance of centering marginalized voices in the most diverse county in the world.
Christine Kandic Torres: All of our Queens-based books focus on female friendship and surviving girlhood. In what ways do you see the setting of Queens supporting those themes?
Bushra Rehman: When you say “surviving girlhood,” that is such a Queens question. Being a femme girl can be dangerous in many situations, but in Queens it’s very particular and real. From the moment you leave your house, the level of sexual harassment when you go to school, if you’re on the bus, on the subway—friendship then is a survival tool. There is power in packs. Once I figured that out, I was always traveling with packs of female friends because there was safety in numbers.
I wanted to write a story celebrating the friendships that I had and how those friendships were so much light in this real hard moment for all of us. You don’t have money or resources, but you have each other and you have laughter. And so each other’s company is your treasure. I really wanted to have a book about that.
CKT: I love what you’re saying about the light and the laughter amidst the pain and the harshness, too. That is something I tried to weave into my novel, which tackles heavy topics like assault and rape culture and internalized misogyny. But I did want to bring that to light, too—that even in complicated female friendships, there is almost a feral joy of connection and power as young girls, especially as we’re navigating and developing our own individual sexual identities.
I grew up in Woodside and Elmhurst, and one of the influences for me was Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I think she captures Naples so well, and the dynamics between female friendship. But there is an awareness of class in that novel, and a looking-down at the surroundings that they’re in a little bit. I wanted to write about these neighborhoods that are seen as “impoverished.”
One of the examples of this that struck me most from Roses is the roaches. That experience is very familiar to me as someone who grew up in NYC—how the presence of roaches can be complicated and woven into feelings about how you view yourself, how neighbors view you, and I just thought that you presented it wonderfully and without disdain.
BR: Corona is an “under-resourced” neighborhood. I really do like this reframing that I’ve learned, instead of calling it “poor,” which has so much judgment, because it shows that resources are distributed differently. We work just as hard, we’re taxed even more probably, and yet the resources are not sent to our neighborhoods.
And you know the thing about the roaches, at one point the mother’s like, “Well, we didn’t have these back in Pakistan.” I think a lot of times people will associate Pakistani immigrants with dirtiness, or as if they brought that here. And no, we didn’t have these in Pakistan, so we didn’t even know how to deal with them here. Even the way the characters do a roach bomb, it becomes a chance to have a big party and a sleepover at their friend’s house, and it’s just this way of—how do we support each other?
The mother’s friend comes over and helps her get the house ready, and then they have a big feast. It’s so beautiful how we as immigrants and second-generation people can turn everything into a joyous kind of occasion, even a roach bombing.
CKT: How has Queens influenced you as a writer? What makes Queens special to you?
Daphne Palasi Andreades: Queens has influenced me as a writer in more ways than I can count. Now that I’m older, I see what a unique experience it was to have grown up around all different kinds of people, languages, beliefs, religions, walks of life. But I’ll be honest—when I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to leave! Queens, to me at that point, was a place that felt provincial, old-fashioned, far from what I thought was exciting and cool (i.e., Manhattan, ha!). I left as soon as I could—for Southeast Asia, actually. But it took the act of leaving—and distance, and time, and the perspective that comes with that—to truly appreciate the incredible place I am lucky enough to call my hometown.
Queens has made me a better writer, too, because it primed me to notice the sights, sounds, smells, tastes of a place. Growing up in Queens has also helped me recognize and embrace the complexity of people, and their contradictions.
BR: When I’m in Queens, there are a number of languages that I understand and many more that I don’t. And so I’m able to just listen and follow the music of people speaking. I think as writers, the sound and music of language is something we practice maybe instinctually, but when you’re immersed in so much beautiful music of languages from around the world, we kind of have this edge on the experience of the musicality of it.
Growing up in Queens has also helped me recognize and embrace the complexity of people, and their contradictions.
I also think I have a certain sense of awareness and strength and even self-confidence that comes from growing up as an immigrant among other immigrants (or second generation amongst other second generations), so—although the white hierarchy and oppression was always there—I was always among other people who were just like me. I wasn’t isolated. I have a sense of myself. There was never a point of assimilating into whiteness. Whiteness was the teachers and the police officers, and it was like, “oh, I’m not going to be like that, I’m going to be myself.” I didn’t want this to be a book about assimilating into whiteness or thinking that’s better, or thinking the western American way is somehow better than our ways. I think that that comes from growing up in Queens.
CKT: The compositions of New York neighborhoods are infamously in flux across generations because of immigration, gentrification, white flight, etc. There are innumerable books about the transplant who relocates to NYC and finds their way in “the Big Apple.” Why do you think it’s important to hear from marginalized voices who actually grew up in the underserved neighborhoods we write about, the neighborhoods that make NYC run?
DPA: It is important to hear from the voices of people who are actually from these neighborhoods because our perspectives—specifically that of people of color and immigrants in Queens—have historically not been included in the art that is made, distributed, talked about.
Our voices have been excluded in favor of narratives that center people and parts of New York City that are perceived as more “interesting”—more glamorous, more affluent, whiter—and therefore more “worthy” of being considered art and literature. It’s crucial and necessary for artists and gatekeepers alike to expand the range of narratives.
I also know that Brown Girls is just one story, one perspective. Though I am overjoyed when people tell me they read my work and see themselves reflected, I hope that my book opens the door for other people to tell their stories, too.
BR: I remember this writer Ed Lin said to me, “Are you afraid if you write about Queens, it’s going to be the new Brooklyn and everybody’s going to come gentrify it?” And as we know, that’s already happening! Our stories are disappearing. I’m pissed off about it. We aren’t just a place with delicious food and cheap rent. We are neighborhoods of families and communities. I feel welcoming to anybody who is going to be joining and respecting the community. There are different ways you can move into a space and get involved without thinking, “I’m just gonna take this over.”
Covid, too, really affected the composition of Corona. I didn’t realize I was creating a time capsule of people who would no longer be with us. That these lives happened, we existed, our lives mattered, we laughed, we made this home. And it’s hard because I really have a fierce love for Queens and I don’t want it to get erased. I want our stories to be remembered and recorded.Our voices have been excluded in favor of narratives that center people and parts of New York City that are perceived as more “interesting” and therefore more “worthy” of being considered art and literature.
CKT: I think that anger is well-placed and that anger makes us Queens writers, too. I’ve described it as a chip on our shoulder, but I don’t know that that’s necessarily the right way to phrase it. Especially as marginalized voices, we’re so often spoken over, or there’s an effort to erase or ignore us, or insist this is not really the experience we’re having. We’re made to feel inconvenient. And other voices are valued and rewarded instead, which instigates a sort of righteous anger within us, a fire in our bellies that demands for our voices to be heard.
Queens is often lauded as the most diverse county in the US, and there is a beautiful commingling of cultures and ethnicities in many of our neighborhoods, but if we are honest, there is also simmering racial tension, and oftentimes segregation. How did you approach writing this tension into your stories? What considerations did you make to not cater to or center whiteness in crafting an accurate portrayal of these communities?
DPA: First and foremost, I knew that the audience I was writing toward was other immigrant kids, people of color, and folks from Queens. I also wrote, in part, to my younger self—I wrote a story that I wished I could’ve stumbled upon at the Queens Public Library growing up. I wrote the story I wanted to tell my younger sister and cousins. Writing with these specific people in mind gave me the freedom to not feel obligated to explain or translate anything to anyone. Not the references, the slang, the inside jokes. Having this audience in mind allowed me to write with a certain intimacy, as if I were telling a secret to my best friends.
Of course, I also knew that readers who might not identify as women or immigrants or people of color would read my work. But I still didn’t want to explain or translate anything to them, either! I wanted these readers to feel like they were stepping through a portal, and privileged enough to enter this other world.
BR: There’s never going to be centering whiteness [in my work] because it’s not what I’m about.
I wanted to write a story that was honest to what I had experienced and lived, and there’s some really rough stuff in there. The book opens up with an anti-Asian hate crime. The book early on shows violence that these Pakistani children [display] toward a cat, because when you’re growing up in a tense environment, sometimes children act out the violence they’re experiencing and feeling.
I grew up in New York City pre- and post-9/11. After 9/11, you saw the way that violence erupted amongst people of color. That’s why me and my friend Daisy Hernández did Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism (Seal Press 2002, 2019) together—because we were realizing as communities of color, we are a majority, and we need to stop fighting amongst each other. With this hierarchy of whiteness and the systems of oppression, we end up hurting each other, when we could use our collective power to create revolution.
CKT: I’ve begun to chafe at the description of Queens as diverse, despite having used the word countlessly during the promotion of the novel. It is diverse, literally and factually, the most diverse county in the world. But so often when we talk about its diversity, it leaves a bitter tang, an aftertaste which I’ve come to realize is still centering whiteness, right? As if we were walking around in kindergarten patting ourselves on the back for being “so diverse.”
For the sake of brevity, when talking about my book, the characters unfortunately often get flattened into “Latinxs,” but the reality is that they are Puerto Rican, Colombian and Irish, Bolivian, Filipino, and there are unique nuances not only to each of their family’s immigration/migration journey to Queens, but also to their place in the social hierarchy of the neighborhood—which, while 70 percent non-white, is still informed by white supremacy (because of colonization and because we live in America).
I sought to tell a story that would depict the truth and beauty of growing up amongst families from all corners of the planet in a manner that felt authentic to the Queens experience, while also wanting to acknowledge the very real poison of white supremacy that remains lurking alive and well within Latinidad, and many other immigrant communities as well.I wanted these readers to feel like they were stepping through a portal, and privileged enough to enter this other world.
At the beginning of the pandemic in the US, Elmhurst Hospital and the surrounding neighborhoods became the epicenter of the coronavirus. At one point, Corona had the highest concentration of positive cases in the country. Could you talk about whether this had any particular effect on you as a Queens writer, or on the process of writing or revising your novel?
DPA: The first wave of the pandemic was an incredibly difficult time, the hardest season of my life. My mother and brother were both nurses at Elmhurst Hospital, which was called “the epicenter of the epicenter.” My mom’s been a nurse for longer than I’ve been alive; my brother was just starting his career after graduating from college. Many of my extended family, my aunts and cousins, are healthcare workers throughout the tri-state area.
It’s hard to fully articulate the fear, uncertainty, and grief that I felt during this time. The weight of these feelings nearly obliterated me. I’d speak on the phone with my mom and brother almost every day; they’d describe harrowing nights where a dozen patients died during their shift, how they were understaffed and the hospital was overflowing with the sick and the dead. They described losing colleagues to the virus, and anger and sadness at other Americans not taking it seriously.
During this time, I was also working on completing Brown Girls. But I had an existential crisis: I seriously wondered what the point of pursuing art was. I didn’t believe it could help anyone. I was also furloughed from my two jobs, which made pursing this path feel even more precarious. Seeing death all around me, however, also made me think: if I were to die tomorrow, how would I want to live today? I knew that I wanted to be writing, that it was okay to write for myself—for my spirit. This time also made me write with greater urgency.
The pandemic makes a brief appearance in my book. It just felt right to include: to memorialize the moment we were living in, to have the book be an artifact of our time.
BR: I’ve actually been bringing that up at readings, the idea that we were so hurt during the pandemic, and it drives me crazy when people say it wasn’t real. Grief is infused throughout Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion. Grief is there because I lost friends, uncles, cousins—and that word “lost” is not the right word. It was because of a corrupt president, a lack of resources. It just shows the virus did not affect everyone equally. And if you’re from a neighborhood like Corona, the impact was horrible. It is hard to look back and understand the weight of it, the scale of it.
I have personally experienced great loss from a lot of Covid and Covid-adjacent deaths in my family and community. A friend recently told me he loved the way the elders [in the book] are three-dimensional. And I could see how if I was younger, I could have written a book in which the elders are just bossy and telling us what to do… but because they were dying right in front of me, I wanted to honor them.
I feel like we’re already in that space where people are like, “It’s over!” But we can’t forget how terribly it was managed, how a corrupt administration caused so much unnecessary death. There’s so much healing that has to happen for all of us, still.
Daphne Palasi Andreades was born and raised in Queens, New York. Her debut novel, Brown Girls, was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, an Indie Next Pick by booksellers across the US, and was a finalist for several awards: the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the New American Voices Award, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her fiction often explores diaspora, immigration, family, and hybrid identities; her work also embraces formal innovation, experimentation, and draws from disciplines such as poetry, history, visual art, and more. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. Daphne lives in New York City, and is at work on her second novel.
Bushra Rehman’s dark comedy, Corona, was chosen by the NY Public Library as one of its favorite books about NYC. She is co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism and author of the collection of poetry, Marianna’s Beauty Salon, described by Joseph O. Legaspi as “a love poem for Muslim girls, Queens, and immigrants making sense of their foreign home—and surviving.” Her new novel, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion, is a modern classic about what it means to be Muslim and queer in a Pakistani-American community. Roses was chosen as a Best Book and Editor’s Choice by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Lit Hub, Los Angeles Times, People Magazine, Buzzfeed, Ms. Magazine and more.