Bookforum talks with T Kira Madden

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir BY T Kira Madden. Bloomsbury Publishing. Hardcover, 336 pages. $27.

T Kira Madden grew up queer and biracial in Boca Raton, Florida, the only child of parents battling drug and alcohol addictions. In her widely-lauded debut memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, she details her coming-of-age and her search, admist such volatile circumstances, for connection and stability. She often finds those things—or semblances of them—in unlikely places. The first few pages of the memoir find Madden befriending the J.C. Penney jewelry mannequin her mother sets up in their living room to ward off intruders, naming him "Uncle Nuke." She twists off his plastic hand, keeps it in her lunchbox at school. A few years later, she strikes up a pen-pal correspondence (through an ad she posts in '90s teen mag TigerBeat) with a fifty-one-year-old man named Jet. But it’s in the eponymous tribe of fatherless girls—and, finally, in the women of her own family—that Madden finds her most vital lifelines.

The memoir oscillates between meticulously-structured essays and shorter fragments—some no longer than a paragraph—that examine desire, identity, grief, and the mutable nature of memory. All are linked together by an overarching focus on the resilience of women. While the events detailed are at turns gutting and laugh-out-loud funny, equally of note is Madden's command of language and form; her ability to describe people, places, and emotions in ways that feel at once familiar and utterly novel.

I’ve worked with Madden at No Tokens, the literary journal she founded in 2012, for nearly a decade now. We sat down in the living room of the Inwood apartment she shares with her fiancée, the poet Hannah Beresford, and their two toy poodles, Chaplin and Ruby-June, on the eve of her first-ever book tour. We talked about revision, generosity, the unknowability of the self, and the impossibility, in memoir, of ever getting things “right.”

This book had a different ending initially—how did that ending change once you found out more details about a long-kept family secret?

For me, that’s one of the most special parts of the writing process of this book, and of the book itself—there was so little planned or calculated about it. There was no posturing about the story I wanted to tell, because it was happening to me in real time. The story I gave my agent looks very different than the story I gave my editor, which looks very different than the story that became the galley, and that’s very different from the story in the final book. I do think the book is about revision and our shortcomings as storytellers, which is something I would’ve never found had I not allowed those mistakes to happen, allowing myself to get things wrong as much as I got them “right.” There is no right.

I love how you acknowledge, at the end of the book, that this story is unfinished—that no story can ever truly be finished.

That, to me, is what it’s really about. There’s a very deliberate reason why, at the very end, the book goes back to those beginning pages and rewrites them, slightly differently, with the information I gained from starting the book to finishing it—I had to start over. And that feels true to life experience; you can continue starting over and starting again with every piece of new information you gather about a person, or an experience, and that became how I found the structure. This recursive, circular shape was a complete accident, and kind of an admittance of my own failure and the freedom to embrace that.

That line you mentioned—that maybe the unfinished story is the story—that’s themost important piece of the book for me. We always reach to narrativize our own “Hero’s Journey” about ourselves, or about whatever story we’re telling, and we find the perfect arc because that feels comfortable and tidy, and that’s our way of organizing an otherwise very messy existence.

How has writing a memoir changed your writing process?

I think it’s easy to say that if you’re writing a memoir you’re writing what you know, because it’s your life. But I’m pretty sure it was Alexander Chee who said in a lecture once that there’s nothing you know less about than your own life. You can control, in a way, your fiction—you can control that world; you’re creating it. But your own life: There are so many variables, so many revisions. I’ve always pushed back against “write what you know” and reached for these other universes that felt really extreme, and then I realized that writing about myself and my own experiences is still writing about the unknown, it’s still writing into the extremities of personhood, and that’s reaching for something deeper and more spiritual.

Having written a memoir, do you now feel that you know yourself better?

No, what this book taught me was how little I know about myself, and about everybody. Because as soon as I began to feel like I’d wrangled a character, or a self, or a full personality, I would be proven wrong again and again and again. The more conversations I had with people, the more I would research, the more I’d reflect on my own memories and be contradicted by them—the more I would realize how fractured human existence is. No one is full or complete by one person’s singular interpretation. And interpretation isn’t static.

Throughout the book, you shift so fluidly between past, present, and future tense—and though most of the story is written in the first person, you move into second (in “The Feels of Love”)and third (in “Kuleana”). Did your choices of tense and point of view happen intuitively, or were they conscious decisions?

Writing at its best, for me, is when you find those moments that feel like possession, when your subconscious pushes forward and tells you something about the work. Some people phrase it as, “the work tells you what it wants to do,” and that’s a lovely idea, but I think what’s actually happening is a release of the editing, analytic brain. Most of the choices in the book between tense and point of view happened really naturally in that other space of consciousness. The first memory that came to me when I was writing “The Feels of Love”was my best friend saying, “A senior thinks you’re cute,” and because that line, which is still the first line of the essay, has the word “you’re,” the “you” continued as the subject. I think it was my body’s way of protecting me through the writing of it—that it wasn’t just me, it was universal “you” experience.

There’s a line in your essay “The Lizard,” where you write, in present tense, “‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ I say.” And then you shift to past, writing, “I said that.” It pulls the reader briefly out of the moment and reminds us of the overarching voice telling the story—the framework of memory, and the greater knowledge that present voice has.

I’m really proud of those two lines. Because the present “me” knows that I did hurt that lizard. That feels true to memory, for me. Interjections make for drama.

You convey some of your most painful moments with love and an open heart. I think you succeed in showing the reader how to empathize with certain characters, even as they are hurting you. How did you find your way to that place?

At the risk of sounding too self-proud, I think that’s the way I live my life. I’ve had to understand from a very early age what it means to have family members who are drug addicts, who are alcoholics, who are in prison. That’s how I grew up, understanding that the people considered “bad,” in the false, clichéd binaries of our existence, are not “bad”—they’re human beings who have made poor decisions, perhaps. I’ve had to understand that for as long as I’ve been alive.

You teach creative writing and edit No Tokens. How have those experiences influenced your life as a writer?

I always tell my students: your job as a writer is not to be in it for yourself, but to be in it with and for everyone else who’s doing the good work. To lift everyone else up with you. If you rise up, your job is to lift other people with you as often as you can. This is a job of solitude, but you still need people to show up for you, to be on the other side of the page, to be on the other side of that dialogue—to be there, waiting.

Annabel Graham is a fiction writer, photographer, and arts journalist. She serves as co-fiction editor of No Tokens, and is currently at work on her first novel.