T Kira Madden is a writer, photographer, and amateur magician living in New York City. She facilitates writing workshops for homeless and formerly incarcerated people and teaches in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. “The Greeter” [March 2019] is from her just-released debut memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.
She took a break from recording the audio version of her book to answer a few questions.
You’ve described “The Greeter” as the “most important (and agonizing)” piece you’ve ever written. What made these events more difficult than the other revelations in your memoir?
My mother and I are very, very close; she’s the heart-compass of my world. In other essays it’s been easier for me to render people as ghost characters, that is, people who no longer exist in my present life. My mother is still my mother. Here, in the same room. Present and sober and lovely. To reach back into some of our most difficult days — to hold them up to the light for her to revisit, for strangers to revisit, for me to go back to that place of sheer fear — is rough. It has real consequences that extend beyond me.
You’re an amateur magician as well as a writer. How do the two endeavors inform each other? What’s your best trick?
Writing is, at its core and at its best, a successful illusion: there is time travel, teleportation, defamiliarization, awe. They both require careful mechanics and a wild tedium. When I see a great illusion and when I read a perfect paragraph, I could (and sometimes do) scream; I love it that much. I’m always after the surprise: the how did she do that. The gut-kick heart-racing desire to see it again, feel it again, and the sting of knowing the first time will always be the most surprising. My best trick? That’s for other people to decide. My job as a magician and as a writer is to never tell the same story twice.
“The Greeter” is revealing about your family and the people you grew up with — but you don’t spare yourself, either. What’s the hardest part about telling the truth in so public a way?
I spend all my energy and worries on other people in the book. My family; my friends. I only wrote/write about the people I love (with the exception of maybe a few, obvious characters), and I want readers to fall in love with them, too. To see them fully dimensionally, to appreciate every aspect of them. As for me? I don’t care what readers think about me. I’ve done a lot of work to be a stand-up person, and if someone doesn’t like me because I once acted like a dumb brat in a chatroom I will still sleep tonight. I care what people think of my writing.
What do the members of a tribe of fatherless girls have in common with one another?
We see each other. It carries somewhere in our eyes, I think.
Many of the specifics in this piece help to ground the reader in the world in which you lived. The Papa John’s napkin! The Toaster Strudel! Do you still have journals from then that you referred to, or do you just have an excellent memory?
I am lucky enough to have both. I have many journals, still, from elementary, middle and high school. Those were invaluable for bringing me back to the language, the voice, of the time. And memory: it’s been said that memory can be much sharper around traumatic events. My childhood and young adulthood was, well, full of traumatic events and high-alert fear. I think I can attribute my recall to the timing of that. An unexpected gift, at least for writing.
Readers have expressed how affirming and cathartic the experience of reading this piece is. What do you hope people take away from it?
That addicts are people you meet every day. They’re people you know and love. They’re real people with beating hearts doing their damn best. That addiction isn’t linear, or tidy. That motherlove and motherloss can be felt in equal measure.