Bustle's I'm So Jealous series is dedicated to the books, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and more that super fans are so jealous someone else gets to experience for the first time. In this installment, Andrea Williams writes about T Kira Madden's memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.
I sometimes flip back to page 10 of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, to author T Kira Madden’s description of the letter she wrote to Tiger Beat magazine at the age of nine. She was begging madly for a pen pal and also, embarrassed by her unconventional name, imploring editors to forget about the T at the beginning of it. Her youthful anxiety and eagerness screams from the page, at once cradled tenderly by the bold assuredness of her literary genius. Now, as an adult, she commands the world to write her name properly. With no period.
Warning: This story contains information about sexual assault, which some readers may find triggering.
I was first introduced to T Kira Madden’s work through her essay, “The Feels of Love,” published online in late 2016. At turns nostalgic and devastating, the account of Madden’s sexual assault at the age of 12 is searing, unflinching. In my own stomach, I could feel Madden’s pride give way to a liquid, burning disgrace when she was locked in a car with two high school seniors — older, cooler boys — and forced to perform oral sex.
I read it first on my phone; then again, immediately, on my laptop. I magnified her words to triple the size.
From time to time, I stop women in Barnes and Noble and Nashville’s Parnassus, quietly tapping them on the shoulder when their perusal appears aimless. Are you looking for a book? Have you read T Kira Madden?
I had no idea that the piece was to be part of a collection of essays that would form Madden’s debut memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. Publisher’s Marketplace didn’t announce her book deal until the following March, so perhaps Madden didn’t know yet, either. Maybe “The Feels of Love” was published during the sort of testing period that writers sometimes endure, when we tinker with ideas to see if they have staying power, holding a match to a pile of wood to see if it will ignite.
Madden published more essays-cum-excerpts leading up to her memoir's publish date — which happened to be my birthday, an occurrence I still choose to receive as a welcome sign from above. I devoured them all, and I’ve been downright evangelical in my recommendation of her book-length masterpiece ever since. From time to time, I stop women in Barnes and Noble and Nashville’s Parnassus, quietly tapping them on the shoulder when their perusal appears aimless. Are you looking for a book? Have you read T Kira Madden?
I watch as these women pick it up, marveling at the book’s fanciful cover, and I secretly want to follow them home, to curl up onto their couches next to them and watch as they read Madden’s words for the first time:
"At night, I drove along Deerfield Beach and waited for that fullness in my ears, those voices deep and melodic as gospel as we crawled through the streets of Miami looking for somebody, anybody — I love you. I love you. I love you, too — alone in my father’s convertible."
Standing by as the women make their final purchases, I remember the way Madden’s words first gutted me, how they scrubbed my emotions raw even as they danced together on the page in perfect prose. As I remember, I anticipate how those women will feel when they begin reading, their cheeks flushed, their fingers furiously flipping pages. I think of this, and I am jealous.
Most of us have experienced some degree of childhood trauma. Indeed, these are the scars that ACE scores, therapy sessions, and an entire literary genre are made of. And in the world of memoir, certain subjects — addicted parents, racism, sexual assault, youthful bad behavior — can feel almost trope-y. Like the sassy black girlfriend who always pops off at the mouth, or the depressed but beautiful housewife who married into money and lost all sense of worth, you wonder whether they can be rendered fresh, compelling.
This is to say nothing of the writers' experiences. They are valid, of course, as are the complaints of editors who’ve grown weary in seeing the same material presented the same way, or the readers who have no desire to read yet another iteration of the tried and tired, no matter how true. Yet with Madden’s brilliance, topics that have the potential to feel overworked and redundant are magically elevated to a status of dazzling urgency.
And this is Madden’s intent: to pull readers into a sweeping narrative; to make sharp the dullness of their own pasts even as they engage with hers. "I am not proposing that we ignore the healing benefits of creation," she writes the essay "Against Catharsis: Writing is not Therapy." "What I am proposing 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."
Real talk: Ya girl is literally a magician.
I recently saw Elizabeth Gilbert speak while on tour for her new book, City of Girls. Gilbert’s latest novel is historical, a 1940s-era tale of women who are loose and free in their sexuality, yet who are able to survive the consequences of their actions without ever becoming undone. During her reading, she spoke about the human need to create, to make something out of nothing even when the realities of our fragile existence make the task seem impossible.
Gilbert told the audience that her grandmother made quilts. She needed them to keep her warm in northern Minnesota, and thanks to limited finances in the height of the Depression, she needed to make them herself. Yet despite these constraints, Gilbert said that her grandmother didn’t construct any basic blankets. She made them beautiful. Superfluously so.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is filled with vivid accounts that are sometimes grim, and often disturbing. Still, Madden was willing to mine these painful memories. And with care and skill and a little glitter sprinkled on cover, she made them beautiful. Superfluously so.
If you’re picking up Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls for the first time: Be prepared that the writing is sometimes graphic, and it may trigger painful, or harmful, thoughts.
If you love it and want more of brilliant women reflecting on difficult fathers and difficult pasts: Read The Apology by Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. Ensler’s father sexually and physically abused her when she was a child, and even though she entered adulthood still broken and reeling, her father died without ever apologizing. Written in the voice of her father, The Apology is the atonement she’d always needed, the words that are helping her to finally move past the trauma.
And if this book turns you into a T Kira Madden superfan: Know that the internet gods are smiling down on you. Fiction is where Madden began — she’s studied it, taught it, wrote and published it — and there are numerous short stories by Madden, including "Later" and "Souvenirs: An Excerpt," that you can read online right now.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.