“When I grow up, after I leave this town, I tuck in alone at night, listen to the garbage trucks lift and crash their arms through the New York freeze. I sip lukewarm water from a clay mug on my nightstand. Three A.M.—bewitched. Just last week I had a father.”
Here’s what I suspect: T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is the forerunner of a new phase of creative non-fiction. That paragraph is from the memoir’s introduction. You might spot shades of Renata Adler or Elizabeth Hardwick in those confident, descriptive sentences, but with the time shifts and object fixations that give this book a lurking instability all its own.
The sensationalist plot summary of this sequence of banded essays, which doesn’t capture the lyric experience of reading it, would be something like “the niece of Steve Madden grows up queer and biracial in the Rat’s Mouth, Florida, as her parents battle alcohol and opiate addictions.” We should be—and too often in this industry aren’t—transparent. T Kira is a friend of mine. Sexual assault, abuse, drugs, abandonment—all of these were more harrowing because I care about the author on a personal level.
But then, the contemporary CNF promotional industry is often about simulating that very thing: the feeling of knowing the author. Of friendship. T Kira touches on our need for connection in “Why You Like It,” a prescient essay placed early in the book. Aged 12, her request for pen-pals is published in Tiger Beat magazine. It is a moment of euphoria, until hundreds of letters pour in. Overwhelmed, she is reduced to stuffing unanswered missives into dresser drawers. And these connections aren’t just from children. Chillingly, she begins a correspondence with a man named Jet, who is in his 50s and hopes to take her away on his boat. This is a sort of turn that LLtToFg takes frequently—innocence and hope conflated with the adult world and all the attendant cruelties. We are always younger than we think we are.
In “The Greeter,” a bravura section about her mother’s overdose, there is a shocking moment. T Kira has spent the essay getting her tongue pierced, being driven around town by older boys, working in a shoe shop. But suddenly, we see her:
“The paramedics will not let me ride in the back of the ambulance with my mother. You sit in front, they say. Ride shotgun like a big girl.”
Millennial non-fiction is going to be different. Our generation went through puberty Xangaing and LiveJournaling (my own personal blog was a propaganda device for a girl I liked from camp). The outside world was a live wire our parents didn’t know that we could touch. From a young age, we learned to package ourselves artfully—not just imagistically, but linguistically. We expect, in our everyday lives, confession mingled with faux-confidence, levity riding shotgun with pain. LLtToFG is an ode to the 1990s, that special, horrible place. The Spice Girls, bright colors, Jon Benet Ramsey (who appears in interesting, recurring ways throughout this memoir), all of us waiting for a buzzing modem to connect us to far-off people we likely shouldn’t love.
And so you might feel that you know T Kira. That’s good. It means the machine is working. But because of this, it’s all too possible that the book’s reception will stop being about her creativity and zero in on her biography. What she has overcome, and not what she has accomplished. And that would be a shame, because this book is exquisitely crafted. It’s structured around some major tent-pole essays: “The Feels of Love,” “The Greeter,” “The Letter,” a couple of others, each of which could be pulled out and appreciated as we would a short story.
Let’s just break down “The Feels of Love,” which was first published in these pages.
“These are the days of private telephone lines, inflatable furniture, Juicy Tubes, America Online,” it begins. We are in the present tense, as in many of these stories. “Here’s the thing about America Online, about the instant messaging: you can be anyone—Dominique Dawes, Britney Spears’s cousin, a milkmaid from Mississippi, a criminal—anyone except yours.” The second person deepens the intimacy—this could be us. The initial sequence, told in an adolescent rush, ends with the ping of a message from Chad, a senior. She is 12 years old.
We flash forward. The tone shifts just slightly. “Fifteen years later, you are twenty-seven years old, a writer, and your father has just died.” T Kira is at a writing residency, and has just gotten a message from Chad, apologizing. We immediately see the plot. We know that we are moving toward an assault—in one frame, Chad keeps messaging T Kira and she is thrilled, in the other, his words hurt. Time moves toward the assault inexorably in both directions. Finally, in the past frame, she goes to the mall, and Chad invites her to his car.
A single, chilling sentence: “You could change the story.”
Then the assault, told directly, which I won’t dwell on. I can only read it at breakneck speed, in pain. Afterward, T Kira considers herself in a mall mirror, a short, masterful, honest sequence:
“In the mirror you think: I don’t look like a girl anymore.
And then: I look like such a pathetic little girl.
And then: maybe this is what a woman looks like.
And then: I look sexy like this. Beaten. Theirs.
And then: I wish I were a boy.
And then: I look like every other girl there ever was.”
Two years ago, Jia Tolentino’s “The Personal Essay Boom is Over” suggested that we’d reached an end-time for our first wave of XoJane-style articles.
“These essays were mostly written by women,” Tolentino writes. “They came off as unseemly, the writer’s judgment as flawed. They were too personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers…There were essays that incited outrage for the life styles they described…There were those that incited outrage by giving voice to horrible, uncharitable thoughts…Finally, there were those essays that directed outrage at society by describing incidents of sexism, abuse, or rape…”
T Kira’s book has some thematic commonalities with this personal essay boom, but it elevates the form. With Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, we have the beginning of a personal memoir boom. Non-fiction pieces, break-apartable, yet strangely intact. An essay collection doesn’t make up a life. This does.
LLtToFG follows many novelistic rules. It behaves chronologically, as objects accumulate in the background to be used hundreds of pages later. A companion mannequin on page 10 reappears at the ending. Her father keeps calling her son. Supporting characters—aunts; the temporary, intensely loved friends of adolescence—pop on and off the screen. The book is, among many other things, a marvelous coming-of-age tale of a gay woman, a fact that is buried early in the book and only emerges slowly over time. At one point, T Kira talks about her crush on local internet celebrity Lennox Price; in a totally separate, later essay, she meets and dates her in New York. Several chapters are very short, remora fish trailing behind their parent essays like skits in mid-90s rap albums. These are further simulations of life. Not everything that happens is publishable in longform. Sometimes we’re sent to North Carolina after our mother overdoses and all that really happens is that we eat soup and practice magic.
The cascading close of the book sets this memoir further apart from what I’m used to seeing, and made this feel like the forerunner of something very new—the very idea of a bound essay collection fractures. T Kira wraps up many of the threads of her book with “Collected Dates with my Father,” a series of short scenes that jumps back and forth through time. It could be a good ending. And then, everything changes.
“Kuleana,” an extraordinary 50-page sequence, is T Kira’s mother’s story, filled with photographs and archival research, techniques that don’t appear elsewhere in the book. This flash to the past starts simply: “I am not here.” T Kira tracks her mother through time, as she moves to Boca Raton, hearing many of the same slurs and going through the same trials as her daughter. Spoilers follow: At one point, T Kira and her mother watch a beauty pageant, and are drawn to contestant #2—an APIAC woman. At the same time, in the other frame, T Kira’s mother becomes pregnant, and gives the child up for adoption. She never tells T Kira’s father, or T Kira. A lost sibling, in a book about isolation, about no one connecting with you. Extraordinarily, T Kira finds her sister on a DNA website: contestant #2. The mother and two daughters meet in New York. It feels perfect. It is the ending. Except it’s not.
The last two pages is an imperfect ending, more true. There is the sudden discovery another sibling, a full sibling: a brother, put up for adoption when T Kira was three. I know from her that she found out about this after having already sold the book—she went in and restructured. Life as craft, offering its setups and call backs. Her father always called her son.
T Kira recently published a piece on LitHub about catharsis: “What I am proposing,” she wrote, “is that we get real about what it means to render an experience for the sake of art, for the sake of sharing. To craft something and chisel it until there’s room for more than catharsis…Writing, for me, is no catharsis. Writing is work. Writing is my job. Writing is the only divinity or spirituality I have found, a medium through which, at my best, I can speak through time and space.”
With Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, we have a job done intricately, intensely, over years of labor. Something that should be celebrated. At T Kira’s book launch, she read from “Cry Baby,” an essay destined to be underappreciated because it is funny and charming and primarily about a middle school dance imbroglio. She is getting ready in a high school bathroom;
“Open your eyes, Chink, says one of the girls coming out of a stall, “Oh that’s right you can’t.”
“I have a book now, bitch,” T Kira said, interrupting her own text. The crowd went mad. Those who knew her, those who didn’t. All of us, in between.