Christine Kandic Torres is the author of The Girls in Queens (HarperCollins). Her story “Quarter Juice” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on October 6, 2022. Q&A conducted by Mary Pappalardo, Fiction Editor.
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Mary Pappalardo: Your debut novel, The Girls in Queens, is centered on these characters and their intertwined relationships—how does it feel to spend time with them again in this different space and story?
Christine Kandic Torres: I was surprised at how tender I felt toward Brisma, Kelly, and Brian as I wrote “Quarter Juice.” I’ve been talking a big game lately about how I was done writing about teenagers and young adults, and how I’m so happy to be writing about full-grown mothers and their problems right now in my new project. But when I had the opportunity to return to a scene I’d had in mind during the creation of The Girls in Queens and reanimate these characters one more time, I was honestly elated. It was so fun to revisit them and see how certain lines and images that still nagged at me could be reconfigured in ways I hadn’t considered before (for example, I couldn’t shake the image of a loose spiderweb tendril in the breeze, and the line of dialogue, “me and my girl go back like quarter juice”).
MP: One thing I was struck by in this story is how perfectly you capture this precarious moment between, not to use unsophisticated language, being a “kid” and being a “grown-up”; that’s such a hard moment in life to depict honestly and authentically! What drew you to spending time with these characters at that moment in their lives?
CKT: So much of The Girls in Queens as a novel seeks to understand what it is that happens in a young girl’s life that prompts her to turn away from sisterhood and solidarity and towards defending the patriarchy and upholding the status quo. I knew that I would be diving into the early years of these characters to try to examine the traumas that inform their present, which is why the book is structured over alternating timelines. In “Quarter Juice,” I wanted to capture the excitement of young lust and romantic relationships that come at the expense of something else; a day of school, a mother’s trust, a friendship, “innocence.” Underneath Brisma’s eagerness to be with Brian there is grief, too.
But it’s also accurate to say that in general, I am drawn to writing about this time. Studies have shown that so often Black and Latine children are sexualized and adultified at very young ages, and I think because of that, we become intimately familiar with managing this dichotomy at an early age. It is why I placed the word innocence in quotation marks above; we are rarely allowed to be. We are cognizant of the male gaze, of the precipice of danger, before we should have to be, and I find that time interesting to write about: how we learn to navigate our own sexuality within a white supremacist patriarchy.
MP: Could you talk to me about that moment when Brisma feels “heat and shame and something else [she] couldn’t name” while Brian is showing her an amateur porn video? It seems like this moment is maybe when Brisma first encounters the murkiness of power dynamics in her sex life.I’m fascinated by this moment being one she carries with her for the rest of the story (and, presumably beyond the story).
CKT: I think this moment is connected to the grief underlying Brisma’s experience in the story. She so desperately wants to belong to someone, to be chosen (the context for which is understood a bit more in the novel, as we get to see more of Brisma’s family dynamics and her absent father), that she willingly quiets her intuition signaling an alarm. She’s silencing the concerns her body feels before her brain can process them in service of appeasing—and keeping—this man. In this context, her grief becomes a loss of connection to or recognition of her true self, her true desires; her “black box of data” to be unpacked at a later, safer time. After the damage is done. It’s not pretty, but I think it’s honest, and speaks to the learned behavior from their mothers’ generation that is passed down to Brisma and Kelly and questioned throughout the book.
MP: I hate to ask about it after the tough Wild Card Series, but I want to talk about the Mets (as someone whose dad has been a fan his whole life, I was really pulling for them!). Did you grow up a fan? What role has or does baseball play in your life? And what is its significance for these characters, especially Kelly and Brisma, who are growing up in Queens, with Shea Stadium as this kind of landmark?
CKT: I wasn’t born into a particularly big baseball family, but I’d certainly rep the Mets growing up, when asked. I did eventually become an avid fan in the mid-2000s with my grandmother, who’d always enjoyed rooting for the Mets as underdogs, but it became an unhealthy and unsustainable fixation for me to the point that I was buying and carrying around all 3 NYC papers each morning solely for their sports sections.
What intrigued me about this Los Mets team, constructed by (Dominican-American and Queens native) General Manager Omar Minaya, was that not only did it have major Latinx representation on the field, but that the organization was marketing to a Latinx audience for the first time, too. I wanted to capture what it felt like for working-class first- and second-generation immigrant kids of color growing up in the diverse and heavily-Latinx neighborhoods surrounding Shea Stadium to see themselves represented on such a large stage for the first time, on their own hometown team. I wanted to write about girls and women as genuine sports fans, too, something that you rarely, if ever, see across all forms of media.
Finally, in a story that very much questions what loyalty means and to what extent you can give or expect loyalty from the people you grew up with, the Mets—a team that has tested their fans’ faith and loyalty for decades—were a perfect parallel to the trials and tribulations Brisma and Kelly face in the novel.
MP: The Girls in Queens came out this summer (congratulations!) and I’m curious about what your writing life has looked like as you’ve juggled writing the novel, then doing press for the novel, and all the while thinking about other projects. Do you find it helpful to have lots of different things to work on and think about, or are you looking forward to some quiet time in the future? Are there projects you’re especially excited to spend more time with?
CKT: It is a challenging juggling act! I have enjoyed the promotional work for the novel because it’s been really special and humbling, especially as a debut author, to be able to meet readers and supporters of my work out in the wild – people outside of my family who are not required to love and support me. Yet I am looking forward to having a bit of quiet time to focus on diving deep into the second novel, whose characters have “lived” with me in my head for the last two years. That book revolves around a murder in a New England beach town, and how two mothers from very different backgrounds react to and are impacted by the investigation.
MP: Finally, I’d love to hear about what you’re reading—are there any standout books on your desk or bedside table that you’d recommend? And what are you loving about them?
CKT: I recently finished Katie Gutierrez’s More Than You’ll Ever Know which is its own murder mystery, and more: she explores women’s autonomy, how marriage and motherhood don’t and can’t meet every need a person has, and the lengths we’ll go to to protect the ones we love. It interrogates our cultural obsession with true crime stories, too, and is overall such a gripping read from beginning to end, with characters so sharply drawn that their voices echoed within me for days afterward.