The stories of our lives are impossible to tell without conjuring the magic of narrative to proffer some sense, an organizing principle. In the very first vignette of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls (Bloomsbury), the transcendent debut memoir-mosaic by writer T Kira Madden (who, I should mention, identifies as an “amateur magician” in her bio), Kira and her Chinese Hawaiian mother cohabitate with a JC Penney mannequin they’ve named Uncle Nuke in their Coconut Grove apartment in the late ‘80s. Uncle Nuke makes them a family because Kira’s father, of the wildly successful shoe enterprise that shares their last name, only comes to visit at night—for now, he still lives downtown, in a fancy loft with his wife and two blonde sons. At night, a toddler-aged Kira curls up at Uncle Nuke’s feet (he’s been positioned in a rocking chair, to give the illusion of a man at home if someone were to look through the window), and sleeps. Uncle Nuke is the first of many stand-ins for her father Kira will attempt to adopt (“My mother has my father and I have Uncle Nuke,” Madden explains), but none take the place of the love she has for her own father, of the reach of her compassion for both her parents, as she tells their stories interconnected as a part of her own. Because, what is our life, if not a somewhat magical continuation of that of our parents’ own stories?
In the reptilian South Florida heat, inside the bubble of ennui run by Boca Raton teens, where wealthy kids “watch America’s finest yachts split black water like a zipper,” Kira grows. We are witnesses to the moments and relationships that shape her adolescence—when she is nine and adopts a much older penpal, we wince. When she is cruelly assaulted by a senior boy we mourn, we cannot breathe. When a queer, biracial Kira discovers how to make herself hetero-normatively “hot” to her predominantly white, Jewish community and joins the titular “tribe of fatherless girls,” we worry (but we watch with glee!) as they plan a Porn Star-themed house party, costumes required. The environment of middle and high school in Boca is as juicy as Gossip Girls or a Russian novel, with ancillary characters that feel as bright, as tragic, as complex as those we stay with for the entirety of the memoir. Madden’s prose is poppy and digestible, still soaring with heartrending, poetic reflection. It situates us both inside and outside this teendom bubble, and Madden’s use of present tense keeps Kira’s adolescence as urgent as it must have felt when she herself experienced it.
While experimental in form, Kira’s memoir is more or less structured into three parts— part one focuses on her childhood and ends on a heartbreaking, full-stop end of innocence. The second section sees Kira in her teenage years and into her twenties, in and out of the worst of her parents’ drug addictions. The memoir’s third section, which in another writer’s hands might feel like a late, act-three edit, rewards us with unsurprising turns that force Kira to question and reform what she remembers and how she remembers it. This is memoir without ego, written with so much compassion for her younger self, as well as for those whom Madden loves — Madden writes about her parents with extreme, selfless love and care. When Uncle Nuke himself returns at the end of the memoir, this early scene is given more meaning, and more heartbreak, because of everything Madden has told us, of all she has learned, a perfect refrain. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is a reminder to us all that there is often no clear-cut answers when looking back at a life. But storytelling and time allow us, at the very least, a fractured understanding—not closure, per se, but context.
Madden’s memoir is a flashlight for bicultural girls, saying it’s okay to live between two identities. It’s a flashlight for survivors of teenage sexual assault, for queer womxn who may or may not know they are queer yet, for those who have loved addicts, who have felt the need to put that love elsewhere, for those who are brave, for those who live. More than anything, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is a mine for truth, a compassionate excavation of trying to find meaning in one’s own experiences, in one’s own trauma. Madden is a precise and exquisite archaeologist — sometimes it feels as though she is peeling sequins off poster board, a pleasant feeling, pimple-popping. But with that same aplomb, she excavates excruciating pain. I sat and cried, gratefully, when I finished reading. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of this book, by the bravery of it, by its magical, impeccable wholeness in the face of life’s incomplete story. I am just grateful it was written, that I had the experience of reading it. That others will have this, too.