By: Pallavi Yetur
The debut memoir of essayist T Kira Madden has already been hailed as a gorgeous and harrowing coming-of-age story. And so it is. But the delivery of her story is nowhere near as generic as the term “coming-of age.” In this memoir Madden achieves the feat of creating universal nostalgia and relatability while crafting a world uniquely her own. Conflicts abound—between her mother and father, between her fantasies and reality, between her inner self and her outer appearance. But by its end, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls proves itself a moving ode to the family and identity Madden fiercely owns.
As the only daughter of a Chinese-Hawaiian mother and Jewish father, T Kira Madden characterizes her youth with the loneliness of being “other.” She is in between, unsure of her belonging even in her parents’ eyes—which parent’s ethnic identity belongs to her? Do her parents even belong to her? In the sun-glazed, self-conscious landscape of Boca Raton, Florida, Madden’s body becomes the battleground for her inner conflict. With a friend in middle school, she writes songs “about blonde girls and their supreme blonde beauty and about how nobody will even love us because we are neither blonde nor beautiful.” Like many Americans of color, children of immigrants, and LGBTQ youth, she endures racial and homophobic slurs to the point of their normalcy. Her Jewish grandmother is even among those making comments about her Chinese and Hawaiian heritage, insisting that Madden “learn to hold knives and forks properly, instead of chopsticks.” But Madden also lets us know that it is not only the tolerance of ignorance and bigotry that she shares with readers. She sprinkles her scenes with names, scents, and items that richly shape the world of preteen girls in the ’90s: Nair, Cucumber Melon, Juniper Breeze, Hanson, Ginuwine, Leonardo DiCaprio, butterfly clips, middle school dances, being heartbroken and humiliated at those dances, how the mean girls will pretend to be your best friend if you do things for them. The nostalgic references are delightful and also triggering reminders for the now grown-up millennial. But what we may not personally understand is that in her specific case, Madden is victimized not only for looking different, but also because the mean girls at school are after her family’s famous footwear.
As one might expect, though, Steve Madden shoes don’t take center stage in T Kira Madden’s childhood. The major theme that reemerges in the book is how lonely and unseen Madden has felt throughout her life. She implores others to pay attention to her. She finds herself bragging to her uncle: “The school news did a whole segment on me,” and “I’m kind of a big deal.” Her child self dangerously longs for love, friendship, to be whisked away. It is this longing that embroils a nine-year-old Madden in a precarious relationship with a pen pal, a 51-year-old man who calls himself Jet (Buzzfeed published this story as an excerpt entitled: “My Childhood Pen Pal Convinced Me Our Future was Together. He was 51.”). It is here that we begin to understand the young girl’s fantasy life and the darkness that resides therein: “Before Jet, I imagined myself murdered by twenty…nowhere in this future. Now, I think maybe we could grow old together on his boat. I can see us holding each other through the darkness of Y2K, surviving.” In chapter after chapter, Madden desperately tries to get men to love her and relishes when they do. She notes: “I love it when my father asks me questions,” and “Whatever comes before or after men is a footnote.” In the process, Madden exhibits a daring honesty about her childhood and adolescent sexual explorations. Scandalous episodes of teenage dysfunction feel exhausting two-thirds into the book, which perhaps mimics the experience of how exhausting it must have been for Madden to live them, particularly with addict parents to contribute to her anxiety. Madden paints a vivid picture of her parents’ preoccupation with their own drama, a preoccupation that precludes them from being consistent guiding or protective powers for their growing daughter. Yet, it is very difficult to be black and white about the mistakes made by these characters because of Madden’s reiteration of the ineffable love between them.
While the jumps back and forth in time between and even within chapters are sometimes disorienting, it is clear that Madden’s progression of scenes is carefully chosen, building on what came before to create the context for her emotional development and struggles. Her seductive and affecting prose is at once simple and florid, reflective of the softness and power of the Hawaiian language that defines so much of her family’s history. Hawaiian images and sounds, like shoeless school children and the word kuleana, represent memories and central tenets, and live alongside gloomy Floridian scenes: “Long live our tribe of fatherless girls, Nelle says, wind-whip of hair stinging our faces, daybreak warbling from bird-blackened trees.” The conversations themselves, italicized rather than in traditional quotations, seem almost imagined fantasies. There is a magical realism evocative of a middle-grade novel in the voice of her childhood self: “I’m convinced the temperature of Nicky’s nose can predict the weather. Today, I feel rain.” And when she does command our perception of time, Madden implants valuable nuggets that foreshadow future clarity and tragedy. In a scene from her childhood, Madden writes: “I love my father more than anyone, for reasons I have yet to understand, but I feel more loyal to my mother.” Then, about her mother, Madden writes: “Years later, when she swallows a bottle of pills and survives the overdose, I’ll wonder if she considers this moment…” By the end, readers are satisfied by Madden’s ability to address fully all the ideas and allusions she presents.
As a narrator, Madden holds her readers steady and sometimes also leaves them as she was left. She navigates her world and her life with a sureness, even when her younger selves are dripping in doubt. This is not the story of the shoe company’s affairs and resulting incarcerations. The story is not legal or financial—it is emotional, familial, corporeal. The onslaught of disquieting scenes at times had me wondering how Madden herself conceives of these moments as a whole, as a life. From her writing, a clear takeaway is the unconditional love of a family apparently plagued by nothing but conditions. In this way, Madden avoids the “daddy issues” cliché—even as a self-proclaimed fatherless girl, Madden has palpable love for her father, and that love is, in fact, reciprocated by him. Of her father she writes both “I think of my heart breaking in stages” and “…my father gave me magic.” In many ways, T Kira Madden’s childhood is all of ours, but her experience is exclusively hers. Ultimately, she leaves us with an ending that sheds light on her parents’ addiction and preoccupation, challenging the reader to question the meaning of it all. Her imagery cements in your brain; it will stay with you. Whether you’ve been an “other” or just a person in the world, Madden’s memoir leaves a mark.
Pallavi Yetur was born and raised in Southern California and moved to New York City in 2008. She completed her undergraduate studies at UC San Diego where she turned her pop culture nerddom into academic projects as she studied Communication, and Literature with an emphasis in Writing. She was then fortunate to be able to opt out of prolonged recession unemployment by attending graduate school at NYU where she earned her MA in Mental Health Counseling. Pallavi splits her time between practicing psychotherapy in Manhattan, freelance coaching for a consulting firm, winning silver medals in amateur pole sport competitions, watching lots of movies and TV, and working toward her MFA in Nonfiction at UCR Palm Desert. She lives in Jersey City, where she and her husband do what basic married couples do: watch Bravo, and argue over whose home state has the best tomatoes. @pallaviyetur on Instagram and Twitter.