I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls has literal sparkles and an endorsement from Mary Gaitskill on it, so perhaps we can bend the rule: this tale is a gritty glittering treat, composed of sentences and essays that will surprise you with their form as much as their content. The book is inspired by the event of T Kira’s father’s death, chronicling a girlhood defined in some ways by his absence. Weaving threads of family, addiction, queerness, belonging, violence, gratitude, racism, forgiveness, and awe to form a complicated and generous rendering of her life and the characters in it, T Kira takes the reader on a journey through private school and hot air balloon rides, seedy bars and rehab centers, Boca Raton and New York and Hawaii. At the center of the book is the deep love T Kira holds for her parents, in spite of their flaws, and her hunger to find out where she belongs and what belonging looks like.
The book is divided into three chronological sections – childhood, teen/young adult life, and present – though the work, filled with rhyming action, often dips and spirals back, mirroring the experience of memory rather than strict linear sequence. What every single essay in the book has in common is the earnestness and cynicism of a child who often had to parent the grown ups in her life, cultivated from an early age. There is also a sense of urgency and a hint of danger within each individual sentence. In “Uncle Nuke,” the very first chapter in the book, T Kira writes about a mannequin her mother “rescued” from a JC Penny dump, meant to be stationed at the window of their “canary-yellow” apartment. Her father, who has another family, does not yet live with T Kira and her mother.
My mother had little to defend in that first apartment of ours – a few gems from her father, frosted Christmas ornaments, her Chinese jade, some case – but then there was me. We needed a man in our home, a figure bigger than us, she said, to scare off all the other men who would come. All of this is to say that the reason she rescued that mannequin, the reason she wrapped her arms wickedly tight around his waist, carrying him to the backseat of our Volvo where the top half of his body slung out the window, his bald head pat-pattering under the rain on our car ride home, all the reasons she did anything – the wrong things, the strange things, the dangerous, the sublime – the reason she does any of it, still, is to protect me. Remember this.
Later, in “Why You Like It,” the narrator describes a relationship she formed at age nine with a pen pal, an adult man. “I wanted love the size of a fist,” the chapter begins, and I was immediately on edge. That feeling lasts throughout the entirety of the book – even when the narrator is safe, there is a sense of anxiety, a knowledge that danger could be just a breath away. The narrator looks back on her child self with expert precision, recalls a line her adult male pen pal wrote her: Do you know what it means to be a grown-up? And she reflects: “How much I wanted it before I knew.”
I met T Kira in September of last year, in a classroom: she taught my very first class at grad school, a craft of nonfiction class at Sarah Lawrence College. An APIA writer and photographer and amateur magician, the founding editor-in-chief of No Tokens, and a lesbian who loves both Jenny Schecter and Tracy Chapman (and once jokingly threatened to teach an entire class on “Fast Car”), I was in awe of T Kira from the start. T Kira taught me and thirteen other students how to ascertain the shape of a narrative, why a writer might choose to end an essay with a sentence that opens rather than closes, the importance of observing and writing down the things you notice, and how to express gratitude: for the craft, for each other, for ourselves. After learning with T Kira for four months, I knew her book would blow me away. And still I wasn’t quite prepared for how her story shattered me. I was not prepared for the way her words could crack open a life, a heart, and then – carefully, purposefully – put it back together.
Part two of the book, focusing on T Kira’s teens and young adult life, contains multiple stories that do indeed crack my heart open, but one does so more than all the rest: “The Greeter,” which T Kira calls “the most important (and agonizing) piece I’ve ever written,” and which you can read right now at The Sun if you want to (trust me, you want to). The essay, which describes T Kira’s mother’s drug addiction more bluntly than any other segment of the book, still grounds itself in what I think of as the foundation of this work: compassion. When her mother decides to give up drugs but then cannot follow through, the narrator writes: “On the seventh day, she is not sick anymore, but she is also no longer my mother.”
The rage — it’s never toward my mother or father. It’s their dealers: Benzo Brad, Uncle Nacho, Nurse Harmony, Karate Kurt. I fantasize about slitting them with paper between the webs of their fingers, their eyelids. Karate Kurt has kids push the drugs for him, kids in his karate class. He gets them hooked. In two years he’ll wrap his lips around a handgun — later, Benzo Brad will do the same. I’ll smile both times I hear the news.
After sharing this essay online a few days ago, T Kira tweeted the following: “All my thanks for the kindness and support you’ve shown me and The Greeter. My mother supported me sharing this story w/ the sincere hope that she & others could be seen as more than drug addicts, but mothers & humans doing their best. Thank you, deeply, for meeting us here.”
T Kira hosted me at her apartment to chat about the book in late January. She lives with her fiancée, Hannah, and their two dogs in Manhattan, and offered me water, kombucha, and wine as soon as I walked in the door. We’d both had weird mornings and were grateful to spend an afternoon together talking about writing, coming out, gender, female friendship, and of course, Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls. I asked “what’s the best part of knowing the book will soon be in readers’ hands,” and she referenced a conversation she had with her agent. “She was the only person who didn’t focus on the business side of things and instead said, I think this book could really help kids in your situation,” T Kira said, and I thought immediately of “The Greeter.” “That was really my central focus when I was working on this. You know, it wasn’t a fun book to write. But when I thought about it in terms of creating the literature I wish I had at certain times in my life, then it became worth it for that dialogue… just to open up that conversation and let kids or adults know that addiction is not an exception. Addiction is something that’s everywhere, there are real humans behind addiction, and it’s not something that needs to be shrouded in shame. So that’s exciting to me being able to stand behind that.”
One of the things that stands out most in Long Live is T Kira’s incredible generosity; almost everyone gets a shade of nuance, a gesture that shows us their humanity. When I asked how she was able to be so empathetic to her characters, even the ones who treated her so badly, she laughed. “Well, the very easy, cheap, but true answer is my fear of upsetting people and my fear of confrontation, and people hating me. I didn’t want anyone to read the book and feel like they are rendered in such an atrocious way that I ruin their life in some way.” She turned serious, and confided that a family member, someone whose opinion she cared about deeply, had expressed disappointment in the book. “[They] said, you really should have waited for your mother to pass away before you wrote this… it’s so hurtful. And that really stayed with me.”
T Kira cited Lidia Yuknavitch and Melissa Febos as fellow writers who helped her figure out how to navigate this challenging aspect of writing memoir, and said she wished people focused more on what the process of writing a memoir about people close to you can look like, rather than assuming a writer doesn’t take this task seriously. “Writing and art is my spirituality,” she said. “I don’t have a God; my spirituality is being good to that and always being humbled and honored by the privilege of being able to do what I do. Of course my mom was the most important person to me in this book because my father has passed away so yes, I had every difficult conversation possible with her… she was amazing, from the very get-go she would say, this is your lived experience, this is your point of view, I don’t want to tell you to change anything.”
While T Kira took Lidia seriously and her advice that a writer owes her abusers nothing, she described a long, difficult process that took place over the course of years with her mom, even though her mother was supportive of the project, and also described some unease that her father was never given the chance to weigh in on the project. “I don’t feel comfortable with the fact that my dad can’t defend himself or speak for himself,” she said. “That’s hard for me to reconcile. But I have to hope that between me, my mother, and my brothers all approving it, that I did right by him.”
Though the book never strays from being a true love letter to T Kira’s parents, the reader is also granted many peeks into T Kira’s rich inner world, which includes a concentrated effort to discover where she belongs, both in context of her family and in context of her self. Her discovery of her own queerness rang so true to me, and the way T Kira places clues that are not obvious to the reader until the reveal later in the book mirrored the way coming out sometimes feels. “I had been given every cue but didn’t have the context to put it together,” T Kira said. “As much as I wish the book were more front-loaded with queer material, that wasn’t true to my lived experience or understanding. That’s why it kind of comes on fast,” she said, referencing an essay in the book wherein she without warning is dating a woman. “Then in the final section, I just am gay because that’s how it happened. Once I realized, then I could just settle into it.” Reading the book a second time, as I feel certain almost every reader will feel inclined to do, is especially delicious because you know to be looking for queer clues, and they are abundant. The particular art of this book, I think, is the way its honesty and earnest voice allows us to feel as though we could all live inside these stories, despite their obvious specificity to T Kira.
When I asked if she is finally settled into her queerness and the queer community, T Kira was hesitant. “I try,” she said. “It’s taken time. The longer I’ve been out, I think the more important it has become for me.” We talked about some frustrating aspects of queer community, particularly everyone’s desire to label those around them aggressively, as well as the necessity of being surrounded by people who share the same lived experiences. T Kira said that for a long time, she felt similarly about Asian community, and her initial dismissal of it and current desire to be a part of it. “I think a lot of that rejection of Asian community or gay community was a rejection of myself,” she said, “just like self loathing, you know? …I didn’t want to feel Othered or labeled, but now my mind has changed and I realize how important those communities are, and what a comfort those communities are. And I think that has everything to do with self loathing and then self acceptance.”
Though she’s now happily ensconced in queer community, Asian community, and artist community, T Kira hopes her book will reach readers across all audience demographics. In particular when we discussed “The Feels of Love,” an essay that covers sexual abuse and trauma, T Kira said that she often hears from readers what an important essay it is for girls to read. “And I appreciate that,” she said, “but then I’m like, you know who really needs to this? Boys.”
I want to tell you everything we talked about, our entire conversation over the course of three hours on that oddly mild January afternoon, but of course that’s impossible. A sampling: We talked about craft and the mechanics of publishing memoir, about T Kira’s favorite queer writer – Heather Lewis – and the validity of sad endings in queer stories. We talked about how cute T Kira’s dogs are, about daily life as a writer and specific writing practices, about Autostraddle and mutual friends and all the regular queer shit one comfortably falls into discussing when hanging out with another queer person.
Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls – which T Kira initially wanted to title The Rat’s Mouth, the literal translation for Boca Raton, but which was shot down by her editors because it’s “a marketing nightmare” and everyone wanted something slightly more triumphant for a book that is both very dark but also filled with hope – is a must-read for all humans who enjoy good storytelling, careful renderings of the characters that make up a life, and blunt candor about what it can mean to be a girl. I think it is a particular must-read for queer humans – T Kira is one of us, and her story of how she comes to her queerness, her self, and ultimately her belonging on this earth is one that I think every queer person will feel deep inside their heart. I know I did, and I am grateful.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls comes out on March 5, and is available for pre-order now.