Q&A with Christine Kandic Torres, author of THE GIRLS IN QUEENS
Christine Kandic Torres was born and raised in New York City. Her fiction has received support from Hedgebrook, VONA, the Jerome Foundation, and the Queens Council on the Arts, and been featured in publications such as Catapult, Kweli, and Fractured Lit. The Girls in Queens is her first novel. Christine has served as the Newtown Literary writing-class coordinator and as the editor of this very blog, and we are excited to feature this interview here!
The Girls in Queens gingerly depicts the lives of adolescent girls growing up together and facing the very real dangers within their community; the book respects the characters and their power and vulnerabilities, doesn’t belittle them. Do you have thoughts about the depiction of young girls and female friendships in mainstream creative media? What about that of kids of color?
I think we’re seeing a lot of beautiful stories of fully-realized women and young girls in relationship with each other and navigating trauma and tough issues, while also maintaining their youthful humor and playfulness. I’m thinking of PEN15, Yellowjackets, and even the friendships at the core of I May Destroy You on television; in fiction, Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho, Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades are two recent books that I think strike this balance beautifully.
Circumstances in The Girls in Queens force Brisma and Kelly to reckon with the dangers in their community, but as an author, I wanted to highlight the dissonance of what is presented as an outside threat vs. the violence we overlook in our brothers, friends, neighbors, uncles. It was important for me to try to bring as much humanity to all of the characters portrayed in the novel, and respect each of their vulnerabilities as you say, and their potential for both growth and harm during that tenuous coming-of-age period.
Two novelists who greatly influenced my approach to this novel were Elena Ferrante with her Neapolitan Novels, and Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. I think what’s key with most of these works I’ve mentioned are that they were created by marginalized writers, women and/or women of color writing about experiences they have intimate knowledge of. Growing up, I was hungry for true representation; to read a mirror to the kind of things I was seeing in my own life. And I think we’re in an age where more and more people are able to find that.
How did it feel to write about the neighborhood in which you grew up?
Scary and beautiful! Scary in that I was fictionalizing it (some street names and locations don’t exist, and I worried about how people would react to that), but I certainly still felt a responsibility to capture the essence of Woodside and Elmhurst. I wanted to honor, in some way, the communities that raise us and hold space for us—us, being first- and second-generation immigrant and working-class kids of color, who can oftentimes find themselves caught between, suffocated by, or excluded from the cultures of their families of origin. I wanted to write a tribute to these working-class communities of, essentially, outsiders which end up becoming our true homeland; while also staying true to the more complicated dynamics at play, including the racial and class tensions simmering just beneath the surface.
There are so many deliciously cringey 1990s and early 2000s details here. How did you narrow down which details to include in the book?
Oh, there could have been so much more. Usually, literary relevance won out. The girls listen to Boyz II Men in the basement because their name is literally about “coming of age.” “Show Me (You Really Love Me)” is almost too obvious as one of Kelly’s favorite songs, but it felt like the appropriate choice to inform her character early in the book, and how desperate she was for love. (And also, freestyle music blasting from cars is quintessential 90s NYC). The Craftwas a perfect movie to parallel their interest in brujeria, yes, but moreso, in regaining control of their lives from men and claiming their own power.
I think the 90s and 2000s pop culture references were more than just fun, too; Brisma wants to be a screenwriter, and finds comfort in television from a young age, especially as a latchkey kid with her mother working long hours at the hospital. Kelly is less enamored by television, but enjoys singing along to tapes and CDs as an escape from the rest of her home life. They both use popular media of the time to escape their own lives in different ways.
And how did you manage the braided chronology / jumps in time period as you were writing and developing the book?
I allowed myself to write the scenes as they came to me—I started in 2006 with the main action of the novel, but quickly wrote one of the earliest 1996 scenes to appear in the book, and understood that a significant portion of the book was going to be about the past, memory, and how trauma survivors construct a narrative like a life raft. That’s also how I knew I had to keep the POV in close first-person, with Brisma.
I had these scene sketches written before I broke out a full outline on index cards and arranged them until I realized I could in fact switch back and forth, and that the very structure of the novel would then come to mirror a trauma survivor’s memory; the first half of the novel’s flashbacks constitute the story Brisma’s told herself, and the second half contains the seedier elements she’s edited out to survive.
What are your thoughts on writing the natural elements of an urban setting? For example, in this illustrative excerpt: “'Chica chica!'” she said, pointing toward wild dandelions growing out from under a wooden fence that walled off a tiny concrete yard and an aging rottweiler.”
I think the cliched metaphor would be to say that despite the harsh lives these girls live, they struggle to grow from between the cracks of the asphalt toward the sun, right? But what I want to say with The Girls in Queens is that there is life here, full stop. Just as Kelly and Brisma don’t quite understand the weight of the relentless oppression they experience in the face of everyday violence, they also don’t know any other kind of landscape beyond their urban one. And so naturally, they find beauty and connection and laughter and community here. I’ve approached writing these scenescapes with my own deep love and respect for these neighborhoods; an aging rottweiler and chain link fences might not exactly be idyllic, but all of these elements together comprise the natural—and I would say, beautiful—tapestry of these characters’ lives, which I hope the reader receives not with pity, but with the reverence intended. Even the blacktop glitters at night.
What sort of research was involved in creating the book, and what are your research methods? (What I really want to ask is: Did you look up video and statistics from the Mets games depicted?)
I had to look up old baseball stats, blogs, and videos of the Mets games depicted in the book to make sure I had the right players pitching, batting, etc. The famous Endy Chavez postseason catch I remember, as many Mets fans do, with great affection, but perhaps because of that, I thought it had happened in a game they won—it did not.
When during your writing of the book did the #MeToo movement blossom, and did that inform your writing?
My very first idea for this book came to me during the Mets/Royals World Series in 2015, but I didn’t start writing the novel in earnest until 2017. I had about half of my first draft done by the time the #MeToo movement really picked up steam on social media in the fall of that year. It absolutely informed my writing! It helped me understand, actually, that I still had quite a bit of internalized misogyny to deconstruct myself. It kicked loose and helped sharpen my thoughts on how and why women come to protect men accused of assault—even if they’d survived assault, abuse, or harassment themselves.
The voice and tone of The Girls in Queens really stand out. How was the experience of inhabiting Brisma (the narrator)?
The voice came easily to me, and in a way, I felt her voice shined most when attempting to temper Kelly’s wild ideas. They’re really a team in my mind, both struggling with what it means to actually support each other. Inhabiting the voice of Brisma felt almost sacred in a way; the most challenging part was having to embody and write through her teenage emotions of insecurity and heartbreak.
How would you describe your writing/drafting method?
I am absolutely a planner, in that I need at least a basic outline to have an idea of where I want to go—though of course, that can and does change! I also feel like the characters have to live inside my head for a good amount of time before I’m able to fully bring them to life. Brisma, Kelly, and Brian lived in my head for two years before I committed to the journey of a novel; though I had already written brief scenes, or sketches, as I called them. The characters in my second novel have been living with me for two years now too. I guess that is my standard incubation period, because they are demanding to get out and stretch their limbs on the page.
Do you have any superstitions or unique habits as a writer?
I drink a disturbing amount of coffee throughout the day, but I don’t think that is unique amongst writers.
What is your advice to emerging writers? Anything specific for Latinx writers?
Become comfortable with rejection. You will be rejected many, many, many times. The road to publishing is chock full of blocks and gatekeepers; build community with kind and generous fellow writers, editors, bookish and creative people.