Looking back at one’s former self is truly a haunting thing, parsing through the different lives and selves and ghosts that one person can hold. And if you put a troubling growing up and parental situation in the mix, at times, it might be easier to erase all those former iterations. But T Kira Madden in her gorgeous new memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, about her life growing up too quickly as a biracial queer teen in Florida with addict parents who she loves fiercely, fully owns and grapples with her past, her future and the past lives of her beloved mother and father where she writes through addiction, adoption and sexuality. EW got on the phone with Madden to talk about putting herself out there, memory, and Taylor Hanson.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you have any reservations when it came to putting it all out there with this book?
T KIRA MADDEN: I was more concerned with protecting the people I love. I wrote this as I was grieving my father and in that state of mind, it almost felt I had nothing to lose. But as I’ve spent more time away from the writing of it, it’s the publication process and the dialogue that’s been the scary part. You know, will people judge my mother, will people judge me, my father who’s not here to speak for himself or defend himself in any way. So those [are] new emotions to consider and reconcile.
Was this a way to parse through your relationship with your parents? It reminded me a lot of my relationship with my parents and processing them as an adult is so different from living it as a child.
Everyone’s first question is this must have been so hard but also so cathartic for you. I’m actually writing a piece called “Against Catharsis” because it wasn’t about that, it wasn’t about reliving trauma on the page. I relived trauma in my life. It was so much more about creating art, elevating it, and shining light on it in new ways. And that was a wonderful thing to really explore my parents and the people in the book in a fully dimensional way to map out our relationship as a whole instead of just isolated incidents or stories you might tell at the dinner table.
In the back of half of the book you have a reconstruction of your mom’s life growing up. Do you feel like that helped deepen your relationship?
Something that comes across in the book is that there are many family secrets in my family and in most families. There were so many things that were never talked about in my father’s lifetime, in generations, in my grandfather’s lifetime. The book was cathartic and therapeutic for me to finally bring those things into the room. Now it’s safe, we don’t have to live in that time anymore where everything is so shrouded in shame and addiction and adoption, it’s the story with context for people to finally understand something beyond the surface facts to really get a sense of the story and the reasoning and the history behind these decisions that were made. Decisions that my mother had never felt comfortable sharing and she was grateful that one of our first conversations was how comfortable do you feel about me writing about your addiction? She said, “I think you can lend humanity to it.”
The essay format of the book, while they are connected, it feels like we’re getting little glimpses into your life and not everything is answered. That was purposeful, I’m assuming.
When I first begun to understand that this was a book, I was searching for answers. I wanted to have a neat ending. When I found my sister, I was writing things as they were happening in real-time and I thought this is the perfect happy ending to a kind of sad book. And once I wrote that and then as I was in the editing process and I found out about my brother, I [thought] this ending is false. Everything will always be suspended into the next question. What I learned is that power of the unfinished story being the real one.
The note from the author at the beginning made me think a lot about the reconstruction of memory, rewriting your own memories and how do you trust yourself?
At first I was upset and then I was really excited about interviewing my family members for the final section, Kuleana. I was getting all these notes for each person. And then I would go to the next person and realized they were recalling the same memory completely differently. I was so bothered at first. I was like, how am I ever going to write this story when everyone’s telling me a different story? Then I was excited by it because I had had those doubts about myself. What if I’m remembering this incorrectly? Realizing that’s always the truth. We’re always remembering something because you’ve lived with that memory and it’s going to look different. So I wrote that author’s note last about memories and different bodies. I’m glad that resonated because that’s what the book is about to me is those individual experiences and the constant revisions.
In a way it feels like you’ve lived so many different lives and the same thing with the section about your mother. Was that something you thought about as well, the different lives?
I think of it as a catalog of many different versions of myself. I tried my best to create friction between those versions of myself, by manipulating time, having the present me step when telling the story in the voice of past me to show those differences. That was important to me examining what that looks like and the friction and electricity that can happen between those different selves in different minds and different languages even.
Did exploring the many different lives of your parents make you feel like closer to them in some way?
Yes, especially with my mother. The book was focused on my experiences when I submitted the book. And then later when I found out about my sister, I had to learn about what brought her [Madden’s mother] to that place. Why was that decision made and when, and it wasn’t until interviewing her and my aunt and my grandma and hearing about this time in her life that she’s never really talked about for a reason. It was seeing that we’ve actually lived parallel lives. There’s a moment where she’s called a chink in school and then I’m telling her the same thing that happens to me. She was also trying so desperately to find her place in a really complicated family, growing up too soon and giving a child up. Seeing those parallels, I knew the last section is hers because it’s also mine, you know?
I am convinced that Taylor Hanson is many queer women’s gateway crush. I’ve been figuring my sexuality out later in life, so it was interesting reading about your later in life coming out process. And the very intense female friendships that you write about as a teenager, reminded me so much of my own. Like, this was definitely there the whole time.
As much as I wished the book was more front loaded with queer material, I actually liked the way it slowly comes out, but we have these shadow markers throughout the book because that’s how it felt in real life coming out later in my twenties. The shadow of this other version of myself or these desires were always there. But, I didn’t pick them up and I didn’t have a context to understand that until much later in my life. We have when I’m seeing two women kiss for the first time, the Taylor Hanson thing, and those friendships have me thinking about what does it mean that I can kiss someone whenever I want and it’s this person. And I do think those friendships get so confused because when you’re younger, those female friendships are the most electric, adrenaline driven, obsessive friendships of your life. I didn’t understand until later what that meant. I couldn’t really make sense of or piece together until later when I was starting to see myself and slowly accept myself.
What are you ultimately hoping readers get from Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls?
I’ve been asked this question a lot and I think everyone’s looking for what I think the moral of the story is. And I really don’t think there is one. All I want ideally is for somebody to see a part of their experience reflected in an emotionally honest way. If that makes them feel seen or heard or they’re connecting with someone across time and space through the page then I’ve done my job because I always go to books. That’s what saved my life growing up.