I’ve been talking about Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls non-stop. From the moment I heard of this book and its engrossing title, I knew I had to read it. Written in non-linear essays, spanning throughout Madden’s life so far, we learn of her experiences growing up half Asian, half Hawaiian in Boca Raton, Florida among a privileged Jewish household. The coming of age chronicles her childhood among parents struggling with addiction, her complex relationship with her father and her understanding and becoming process of discovering who she is while coming out as queer. This book made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me want to tell everyone I know to buy a copy ASAP.
I had the wonderful privilege of meeting T Kira at one of her readings among her lengthy book tour. She was an absolute delight to meet in person and I’m very grateful to be sharing this interview today. Read below where Madden answers my questions about fathers, writing about mothers, Drew Barrymore and the importance of Leonardo DiCaprio.
The first question I wanted to ask you before even reading the book, was the story behind this fabulous title. Then upon reading, it is a quote one of your dear friends yells in a moment of recklessness. Can you talk a little bit more about why you chose this phrase as the title? What does the word “tribe” evoke for you?
I didn’t choose my title—my publishers did—and, even though it took me a while to understand why, I’m so glad they kept pushing for it. My concerns were that the title was too long, and also that men wouldn’t want to read a title with “girls” in it—but you know what? That’s all pretty stupid. That’s pandering. If a man doesn’t want to read my book because of the title they’re probably not the reader for me (and the synopsis alone would probably turn them off anyway). The title has been a great gift of a community building; it’s welcomed people in. There’s triumph in that.
Your father was such a complicated man, in and out of your life, emotionally withholding and abusive. Yet you have all these moments that are special to you, moments you shared with him. Moments that made you feel like you belonged to him. Do you identify as being “fatherless”? Was this book born out of trying to understand him and his behaviors?
I don’t think I ever truly identified as fatherless, no. I still don’t, even though he’s dead. You pointed out something interesting in your opening question, something others haven’t caught: the title comes from a line somebody else says about me, about us; it’s not something I claim or own.
What I do find interesting is the questions inside of words like fatherless, and how that status can be in flux, flickering and changing, for our entire lives. My book examines a father who is not always emotionally present due to substance abuse, and then a father who isn’t physically on this Earth. What is the truer loss? The less?
The Tribe, for me, has no clear cut delineation (dead fathers club, drunk fathers club, absent fathers club); it’s for those of us who are always wrestling that question.
As a girl of eleven, you mention one of your prized possessions as being Drew Barrymore’s memoir “Little Girl Lost.” Let’s talk about Drew Barrymore. What did she mean to you then, or still mean to you now?
I don’t know Drew Barrymore—I’ve never met her—but I can tell you that her story saved my life and made me feel known for the first time and that I will love her—or the idea of her—forever. I hope one day she finds my book, just to know how grateful I am. Little Girl Lost was the driving force of my own book, the hopeful idea that maybe Long Live could be a lifeline for someone who can’t make sense of their own messy life.
Your use of popular culture references is rich throughout this memoir, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tiger Beat magazine, Hanson. I loved this so much (we must be around the same age because I found myself smiling and nodding in agreement, head dizzy with nostalgia) and I’m curious to know what or who was the most influential on your youth and teenage years?
I’d be straight up lying if I didn’t admit Leonardo DiCaprio is that person for me. I’ve worn a Jack Dawson pin every night of my book tour; I love Leo. He’s my phone case. My star. Shannon Keating wrote an excellent article about how Leo was an early dyke icon for many of us lesbians and that was a Hallelujah moment; something about his haircut and pretty androgyny just made me fucking crazy as a kid (do I want to be him? Or be with him? The answer is the former). Long Live Leo stans.
I love how you weave your mother’s story and family history in the last portion of the book. Why was it important for you to tell her story as well?
I’ve described this book before as a series of Russian Dolls, and that feels apt to me. Once I opened up one question, there was always another hiding within it. Once I opened my father, I found my mother. Once I opened my mother, there was—well, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers—but of course there were more and more mysteries. It wasn’t until I wrote most of the book that I realized my mother and I, in many ways, lived parallel lives. Her life took a different course—a course examined in the book’s final section—but I wanted the reader to see that. To let the generational echoes and recursions and traumas ring through.
Can you share with us some of the best advice about writing or getting published that you have received? What is something you personally would like aspiring writers to know as they seek to share their stories?
As a grad student, Jo Ann Beard said something like: there’s enough garbage in the world. Don’t publish something unless you think it’s great, unless it has staying power. This seemed a little silly to me at the time—why would I publish garbage? How would I know if it’s great?—but the truth is, I think we do know. When I look back at some of my earliest published pieces, I cringe—not because the work doesn’t hold up to my current standards, of course it doesn’t, but because I knew then and know now that I was seduced by the big P word, Publication, and didn’t spend enough time making the piece the best it could be. In some cases, I took edits that never sat right because I didn’t want to say No to The Big Editor. The Prizes were and still are always tempting—the big dream magazine, or the magazine that pays better, the name, the accolade, etc.—but we must always honor our work first. Do we want a dozen half-baked books? Or do we want to aim for a masterpiece that will outlive us?
Can you tell us what you are currently reading?
I’m on tour, so I’m reading a lot of take-out menus and emails. I don’t necessarily believe the writer who lists off 20 books at this question (and I’ve done it, if anything to help promote writers who deserve the light); I guess I’m trying to say it’s ok if you’re a reader &/or a writer and you don’t always have the time to finish (or even begin!) a book. It’s ok if you have vacant gaps. Words will always be there for you, for us, and your frequency doesn’t make you a less careful or noble reader or writer. I can tell you that I’m diving into Chelsea Bieker’s forthcoming novel Godshot, which is spellbinding, but I’ll also be honest about the fact that I have 15 unread books in my suitcase right now because I’ve been too exhausted every night to make it past paragraph one.
What is next for you?
I’m returning to my novel, and I’ll always be writing stories and essays here and there, as they come to me, as I need to write them. What’s next for me is always the desire to write something better than anything I’ve written before it.
T Kira Madden is a lesbian APIA writer, photographer, and amateur magician living in New York City. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an BA in design and literature from Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College. She is the founding Editor-in-chief of No Tokens, a magazine of literature and art, and is a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in nonfiction literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Tin House, DISQUIET, Summer Literary Seminars, and Yaddo, where she was selected for the 2017 Linda Collins Endowed Residency Award. She facilitates writing workshops for homeless and formerly incarcerated individuals and currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Her debut memoir, ”Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls” is available now. There is no period in her name. You can also find her on social media via Instagram and Twitter