Walk into any NYC bookstore, and they’ll have plenty of titles on display related to Brooklyn and Manhattan. But ask for books that take place in Queens, and you might get a blank stare. The literature covering our borough may not be marketed as aggressively, but it does exist – so we took it upon ourselves to uncover some of the novels, short story collections, and memoirs set in Queens neighborhoods. Here’s our guide; maybe you’ll find a few titles to add to your wishlist.
Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms with Queens, edited by Nicole Steinberg (2011)
Nicole Steinberg grew up between Corona and Jackson Heights, and her lifelong love of Queens led her to put together this collection of contemporary stories, essays, and poems. To give you a sampling of the voices and neighborhoods found within the anthology: Julia Alvarez writes about racial integration in Jamaica Estates, Marcy Dermansky writes about going into labor while eating at Cafe Bar in Astoria, Margarita Shalina writes about watching gas tanks get blown up in Maspeth, and John Weir writes about a gay Queens College professor spending time at a pornographic movie theater in East Elmhurst.
Queens Noir, edited by Robert Knightly (2008)
For those who like their literature dark and creepy, there’s always the Queens edition of the Akashic Noir series. The disturbing stories by 19 different authors take place in neighborhoods from Astoria to Bayside to Rockaway, in settings such as the 7 train, a Forest Hills bowling alley, a Greek diner, and under the Throgs Neck Bridge. As the editor, who used to live in Jackson Heights, said, “Queens is bigger than Brooklyn physically, and it has more pockets of different people, more opportunities for the bizarre.”
Patchwork of Dreams: Voices from the Heart of the New America, edited by Morty Skylar and Joseph Barbato (1996)
This older compilation celebrates Queens as the most ethnically diverse area in the country. It includes photos by Harvey Wang and Corky Lee, stories by Bharati Mukherjee and Thomas E. Kennedy, a poem by Julia Alvarez, a novel excerpt from Jaime Manrique, and much more. The variety of works and contributors definitely showcases the “patchwork” nature of our diverse borough.
Novels and Short Stories
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle (2012)
Victor LaValle, who grew up in Flushing and Rosedale, tends to write on themes of mental illness, and his latest novel is no exception. The terrifying premise is that the main character, although not mentally ill, ends up in an underfunded public mental institution in Queens. He and the other inmates have to take action against an evil monster that haunts the hallways at night.
Good Neighbors by Ryan David Jahn (2011)
This thriller is based on the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens. The event is a famous example of the social psychological phenomenon known as the “bystander effect,” because, as the woman was attacked outside of her apartment building, 38 people witnessed the crime but did nothing about it. Jahn’s fiction version of the story is slightly altered: the victim has a different name, and many of the details are reimagined, as we get to know the neighbors involved (or not so involved) in the scene.
Dogfight, A Love Story by Matt Burgess (2010)
This fresh, witty novel follows an exuberant 19-year-old drug dealer in Jackson Heights whose girlfriend is eight months pregnant and whose older brother is about to be released from prison. The prose is so detailed in its descriptions of neighborhood spots – from Elmhurst Hospital to Travers Park to the used car dealerships on Northern Boulevard – that it could have only be written by someone who grew up in and has mad love for Queens.
A Good Fall by Ha Jin (2010)
This collection of short stories sheds light on the everyday lives and feelings of fictional Chinese immigrants in Flushing. The characters include a professor, a student, a composer, a caregiver, and a kung fu instructor, and the stories touch on relationships, money, and culture. Although Jin’s writing style is simple and restrained, and many of his settings are mundane, he expertly expresses the loneliness of the immigrant experience.
What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn (2008)
A modern-day reimagining of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, this novel is centered on the Russian and Bukharan Jewish immigrant community of Rego Park. The young heroine is in an unhappy marriage and begins an affair with her cousin’s boyfriend; meanwhile, another man is wooing her cousin. The drama gives us insight into the inner workings of this ethnic group and neighborhood.
The Ecstatic by Victor LaValle (2002)
LaValle’s first novel tells the story of an overweight young African American man who has just been expelled from Cornell University, and goes back to live in the basement of his family’s home in Southeast Queens. He may be schizophrenic, and his relatives are not so mentally stable themselves. The result is a chaotic, funny novel full of interesting characters.
Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee (1996)
The story of Korean American private spy Henry Park has become one of the most celebrated novels in the Asian American literary world, and one of the most famous books that takes place largely in Queens. The main character is given an undercover assignment to investigate a rising Korean American city councilman in Flushing, and becomes part of a fascinating underworld of the neighborhood and local politics. Chang-Rae Lee’s debut novel succeeds in portraying the subtle emotional turmoil that goes with being an outsider, in many ways.
Park Lane South, Queens by Mary Anne Kelly (1990)
This murder mystery is set in Richmond Hill, where the Breslinksky family has a peaceful life, until a young boy is brutally killed. The main character, a globe-trotting photographer, becomes involved in the investigation, and we meet a host of other characters, including a detective, a restaurant owner, a woman thought to be a witch, and a four-year-old boy who knows too much.
Another exciting addition to this list of novels will likely be published in Fall 2013: Jonathan Lethem, who has gained adoration for his books about Brooklyn and Manhattan, is coming out next with Dissident Gardens, set in Sunnyside Gardens.
Memoirs and Autobiographies
Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult by Jayanti Tamm (2009)
Many Queens residents have heard of the late Sri Chinmoy, as his name is still associated with 5K runs, vegetarian restaurants, and other businesses and events in the borough. The spiritual leader was definitely both influential and controversial, and Jayanti Tamm’s perspective on him is a complex but intimate one: She grew up as part of his innermost circle of “disciples,” and eventually struggled to transition into mainstream culture and out of what she ultimately realized was a cult. The detailed account of her and her family’s involvement in the religious organization shows a not-so-typical side of the neighborhood of Jamaica.
If you would rather read about some of Queens’s most famous residents, try autobiographies such as Enter Whining by Fran Drescher (1997), the nasal-voiced “Nanny” from Flushing; From Pieces to Weight: Once upon a Time in Southside Queens by 50 Cent with Kris Ex (2005), the rapper with a rep from South Jamaica; or Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone (2012), the posthumously published account of the punk rocker from Forest Hills.
We hope, if and when the Astoria Bookshop opens, that it features many of these titles and becomes an advocate for Queens-based literature of all kinds. Although they are not as easy to find as books about Brooklyn and Manhattan, there are plenty of books set in Queens to help us gain new perspectives on our myriad story-filled neighborhoods.