If there’s a narrative analogue to the atlas, the debut memoir of T Kira Madden is a luminous example. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Madden’s lyrical portrait of her Florida childhood, is nothing short of astonishing. The book spoils us with stylistic and structural novelty from start to finish. It’s a song of self at once stunningly variegated and yet somehow powerfully unified.
On the level of form, we’re never quite allowed to get our bearings: the terms keep changing on us. Following a chapter called “Cousin Cindy,” a profile of a troubled relative, we’re dunked into something more like a prose poem, driven by a curious anaphora. “I found pretty” Madden repeats at the start of each sentence: “I found pretty in acrylic nails and Abercrombie & Fitch and scratch and sniff G-strings…,” “in clavicles…,” “in stupid…,” “in calling girls hot…,” “in calling girls fat.” The chapter is a single, incantatory paragraph, packed with the observations of a girl right on the bracing threshold of adolescence.
A few chapters are short meditations, dangling in the white space of their barely used pages — for example, an excerpt from Madden’s childhood journal or a brief definition of the Hawaiian word kuleana. Coming on the heels of such micro-chapters might be playful vignettes (e.g., about a lizard) or dreamy reminiscences (e.g., about a crush on an uncle) — pieces somewhat longer but equally as tight. With this range of techniques, Madden shows how the small humiliations of the teenage years can sear a young girl’s heart. Deeper into the book, we see how the flitting attentions of lovable but intermittently present parents can leave a canyon of space in which a young girl might lose herself.
The book’s refreshing variation only redoubles the force of one of its longest and strongest chapters: “The Feels of Love.” Unlike any other piece in the volume, this visceral recounting of a sexual assault in a car outside a Boca Raton mall deploys a second-person style. The chapter is both high velocity and poignant, plunging the reader into the backseat with two predatory boys. There’s no exit door: the use of “you” makes sure of this. Reading this section, one understands why Christine Blasey Ford, in her testimony at the Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, would chose the word “indelible” to describe the laughter of her attackers. The sheer vividness of Madden’s prose — not to mention its pacing, with a minute-by-minute reporting of an attack that occurred more than 15 years ago — proves that events such as these engrave. They do not leave our bodies or minds.
How, though, can a book composed of prose poems and micro-meditations, hefty essays and lyrical riffs, cohere? In a word, through its voice. Madden’s is singular: her turn of phrase throughout is both strange and arresting in its strangeness. A memorable example occurs late in the book, in a scene where the narrator loses her father:
When the doctor removes the tubes from his trach, my mother and I lift the blanket all the way up to his chin, pulling his arms out and over it. With his new shave, no snakes of plastic, he looks honorable, handsome even. Like he’s been napping all this time. I hold the seashell of his hand. […] We watch the colors — lips parting indigo, the rush of grays and blues through the square patches of visible skin, red eyelids of a pigeon. And then it happens. It happens as quiet as that. The doctor, a flash in the eye. A nod. That.
Never have I read the passing of a treasured life rendered in this way, and I’m sure I won’t again. Madden’s incantatory prose is spell-binding — which is perhaps not surprising given that her website lists her skills as “writer, photographer, & amateur magician.” Magical, yes; amateur, no.
The writer had me in her thrall from the first chapter’s opening line: “My mother rescued a mannequin from the J. C. Penney dumpster when I was two years old.” The book is like an attic kingdom the reader can climb up into, an alternative reality glinting with redemptive humor and singular pain. And the book’s thrall only intensifies in its home stretch. Right where you might expect a memoir to move to a more meditative plane, waxing reflective in a dust-settling sort of way, Madden pummels you with a suspenseful, unforeseen finale.
The stunning conclusion only makes the kaleidoscopic nature of the book all the more remarkable. The author clearly had dramatic material to exploit — a family member she didn’t know existed for the first 20 years of her life. Had she hinted at this family secret earlier, the mystery alone might have yanked us by the collar through the 26 chapters. Yet, by varying her narrative so obtrusively, Madden insures that the book isn’t simply “about” a family secret. It’s as much about a shady childhood pen pal, about cutting a mole off her skin, about discovering lice in the bathroom of a Cracker Barrel. Such is memory’s storytelling reel, honored and rendered on the page. Yes, a blood sister no one told you about is monumental in the scheme of things, but so is the night when everyone in your high school roared with laughter at the ridiculous way you danced.
We’re bound to see more memoirs like Madden’s in the coming years: variegated in form, less obedient to chronology than their conventional predecessors, even cavalier about where scenes of high drama should be placed in the sequence. There are, after all, practical influences at work. For one thing, the market now has more room for the memoir’s constituent parts: “The Feels of Love,” for example, was first published as a freestanding piece in an online literary magazine, Guernica. Personal essays can accumulate in a writer’s archive, each one an authentic telling of the past, though authored with distinct audiences in mind and bearing the curatorial imprint of particular magazine editors.
I’m not trying to take the magic out of such motley memoirs, suggesting that they’re merely sewings together from a grab bag of outlets (or mislabeled essay collections). Instead, I see in Madden’s book the fruit of a multi-modal process, a work that may very well have been penned piecemeal but which achieves its own coherence when the pieces are assembled between two covers. The cartographer, after years of drawing dozens of maps of the same location, finds clarity and coherence at last, by gathering these maps into an atlas. A story atlas transcends any single story arc, any unified take on events.
What Madden has given us in an atlas of self. A book that whispers: I don’t believe in one story. I believe in the collective force of many.
Colleen Kinder is an essayist and travel writer. She is the co-founder of the literary magazine Off Assignment. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, A Public Space, The Atlantic, National Geographic Traveler, Salon, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Creative Nonfiction, Ms., The New York Times Travel Section, and Best American Travel Writing.