My love for Clarissa is so strong it changes the temperature of the air around us — that’s how it feels — which is precisely the thing about losers, the thing that binds us here on Mrs. Vag’s floor, and the thing that will bind us even after we change, grow up, become new people, meet other former and current losers: losers stick together. We recognize one another.
— T Kira Madden, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
There are two ways to write a successful memoir. One is with sheer talent of prose, making even the ordinary moments of our lives shine with their own luster. The other is to recount kind of experiences that make most people go: “Holy crap, I can’t believe that’s been your life.”
Luckily for T Kira Madden, she gets to do both at once.
Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls is Madden’s account of growing up queer and hapa in Boca Rotan, Florida. Awkward and alien even among similarly nouveau riche classmates (her uncle is Steve Madden of the shoe empire, just to give you a sense of the tax bracket), Madden was caught in the crux of both being the Other and having immense privilege. Her language is deeply creative and visceral, and she appreciates the surreal amidst the superficial; it’s Welcome to the Dollhouse as envisioned by Francesca Lia Block.
Another movie comparison: the book reads like the flip narrative to The Wolf of Wall Street — what all that excess and drug abuse looked like when it wasn’t cinematic enough to be adapted by Scorsese, the effects on family members and daily life. That’s not so much a comparison, however, as the actual truth. Madden’s father was good buddies with Jordan Belfort, and we’re left to assume he made a lot of his money the same way. Madden’s account is quite the palate-cleansing contrast to the movie — she talks about the house rules where she was effectively locked inside her room at night when “company” came over, the sex and drug parties she glimpsed when she managed to sneak out, how she was babysat by some of the shadiest characters you’d ever think to trust with a preteen. And that’s when she isn’t digging into the real darkness, such as her parents cycling in and out of rehab, or how her father, high as a kite, once chased Madden and her mother into a locked bedroom and beat the door with a baseball bat until it splintered. He didn’t remember the incident afterward, claimed his little girl must have broken the bat herself.
One of the striking elements of the book is Madden’s lack of anger, or accusation, toward either of her parents. She has anger, but she focuses it squarely on their dealers. When it comes to the adults directly responsible for her — the ones who lied to her, neglected her, once forgot about her entirely and left her at a baseball game — Madden spends a lot of time trying to contextualize their behavior, if not excuse it. Madden clearly loves them both, and the book’s overarching narrative (if it can be said to have one, more on that later) is about attempting to incorporate that love into her adult understanding of her trauma. She unpicks her mother’s past and insists she did the best she could. But it’s her father whom Madden really labors over, sifting through her memories like they contain precious grains of wheat, even as she acknowledges the growing excess of chaff. Madden’s father is alive for most of the book, which might seem to contradict its title — but as one character in a similar situation points out, your father doesn’t have to be literally dead in order to grow up fatherless. (He’s the one who left her at a baseball game.)
It’s Madden’s strained connection to her father, or lack thereof, which guides her choices in most of the relationships she chronicles in the book. Madden now identifies as gay, and her book touches on queer desire, but her overwhelming hunger for adult, or at least older, male attention dominates the narrative. Toxic boyfriends, abusers, predators — they all find their way into her life, and as Madden tells it, they’re all connected back to that initial disconnect. It was the first really big, really damaging crack in the foundation of her life.
And Madden’s own life contains considerable damage: eating disorder, assault, addiction. There is a lot of ugliness couched in the book’s beautiful prose. Details in the later chapters make it clear that Madden eventually overcame these obstacles: marriage to a supportive partner, repaired relationships with her parents, getting clean. But the book itself isn’t interested in the resolutions, or with much of the process of reaching them. Instead Madden seems to fixate on the worst parts, such as the more bigoted reactions to her coming out among an otherwise accepting family, or her teenaged partying and its excesses instead of how she came to be a lauded nonficition writer. Arguably, that’s because these things make for a more interesting story. It can still be frustrating, to feel like Madden doesn’t acknowledge how lucky, ultimately, she has been — especially how much of her family’s money contributed to that luck. For instance, after she all but flunks out of high school, Madden is sent to a Manhattan fashion school with her tuition and expenses paid. In these chapters she talks about her ongoing emotional turmoil, her struggles with queer identity — all of which is valid. But it’s hard to ignore how much better she had it than most with similar sorrows.
In fact many of the narrative threads of Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls feel incomplete, and often we’re given endings and beginnings with no details of what happens between. Even in the very end, where the audience might finally believe Madden has reached a place of balance and perhaps emotional wholeness, a revelation in the last pages lands like a sucker punch. The book won’t give you any sense of resolution, and those in search of it should look elsewhere. But if you’re more inclined towards intensity, or a nostalgic look back at the weirdest aughts-era adolescence you never really lived, let T Kira Madden tell you stories of her tribe.
Happy #TransDayOfVisibility — today, and everyday, we are celebrating transgender and non-binary people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by trans people worldwide. Today we are recommending these books for all our customers and hope that you know, even though our store is closed right now due to COVID-19, we are still here for you.
Stuck inside for the next few weeks? This is a great chance to catch up on your reading. Self-isolation can have a real impact on your mental health, so treat yourself by getting your hands on one of these books that you can order from us right now. That’s right, even though our physical location is closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can still ship books to you!
He often found himself looking up in study carrels, bored by the material, and tending to his ever-evolving image, the mirage of himself growing fainter and fainter before disappearing entirely. Who knew what of him? How many times had he existed out there, in others’ minds? In his?
I Know You Know Who I Am
As a collection, the stories in Peter Kispert’s I Know You Know Who I Am are concerned with the white lies we tell that grow monstrously, the selves we present to others, and the people we are at our core. Unexpectedly for a collection of queer people lying, it is largely unconcerned with being closeted; most characters are out and in long-term relationships, dealing with the deeper lies of who they are after the point at which they are supposedly living their most authentic selves.
Most of the lies at the heart of the collection are small: yes, I have friends in the area; yes, I used to swim competitively; yes, I hunt; yes, I believe in God. Rather than the lies themselves, it’s how they grow to the size of giants and destabilize the relationships they are the foundations of. More so than the act of lying, the collection is focused on how people react to the lies they tell and their fraught relationship to truth. Afraid of getting caught in first-meeting spur-of-the-moment lies, they begin to live them, choosing to move forward in untruth than admit the truth of having lied. The lies gain lives of their own, growing to the turning points these stories center around.
Telling the truth is an act of full vulnerability in these stories, and that’s precisely why so many of the characters in them avoid it. In the titular story, a friendless man hires an actor to portray a friend he lied to his boyfriend about having, propelled by the fear that his loneliness marked him as unlovable. In “Breathing Underwater,” another man lies about having an illustrious background in swimming to bridge the gap he sees between himself and his boyfriend, who he considers out of his league. The lies are born out of a desire to seem more than they are and to protect themselves against points of insecurity, unwilling to recognize until it’s too late that vulnerability is the basis of intimacy. The narrator of “I Know You Know Who I Am” implausibly makes it through the gauntlet of his own making, but the relationship unravels not long after.
In one of the strongest stories in the collection, “Aim for the Heart,” a man shoots and kills a deer in an attempt to prove to his boyfriend he was telling the truth about being a hunter. The narrator, Troy, hadn’t expected to see any deer and then had planned to miss the shot, scaring it off. Instead, he’s left with the corpse and the strange liminal half-truth of having lied about something that’s now true. Like other characters in the collection, his relationship ends not because his partner finds out the truth, but because the lie sits heavily on him and his perception of himself.
In a collection of stories all centered around queer characters, “Aim for the Heart” is also the story that most directly addresses the way so many queer people are forced to lie about who they are, in ways big and small, for the simple act of survival. While other stories briefly mention the danger of being visibly queer—”If he finds us, we’re not a couple”—this story ties Troy’s compulsive lying throughout college and the rest of his life to the root of his childhood friend’s attempted suicide. After his friend narrowly misses shooting himself in the heart, Troy is asked whether his friend had ever done anything to make him uncomfortable, which Troy intuitively understands as Did he ever come onto you? Is he gay? and underlying that, Are you gay? While Troy says no, he recognizes the underlying threat and his own underlying lie. I Know You Know Who I Am ties queer people and lying together, and here questions the scars being closeted leaves.
If the book is concerned with the lies people take as truth, just as important are the truths people take for lies. In “River is to Ocean as ____ is to Heart,” a teenage boy becomes obsessed with finding the skull he swears he saw in shallow water. In “Please Hold,” a stalled actor’s best performance comes immediately in the wake of getting bad news about his boyfriend’s health. In “How to Live Your Best Life,” a secret thief’s daughter is killed when she says the crime he’d most like to commit is robbery. Truth and duplicity still war at center stage but from another angle: these are all boys who cried wolf, and who now have to deal with the unsettling fallout, internal and external, of muddying the truth themselves.
I Know You Know Who I Am takes occasional trips to dystopian Black Mirror-type landscapes, but those are ultimately its weakest stories and they stand out against the rest of the cohesive collection as not far from gimmick. Instead, the collection is at its strongest with the sensitive and insightful realism that characterizes the rest of the stories.
The prevailing theme throughout I Know You Know Who I Am is the relationship between intimacy and truth, and it explores it by looking at the way relationships and lives fall apart with lies and half-knowing. Emotional intimacy can’t be achieved before the truth comes out, the lie always hang in between. To be truly loved requires being truly known, for both the good and the bad: what makes you laugh, the things you get excited about, how you look in the light, and the uncomfortable truths of your present, your worst mistakes, your biggest insecurities. If loving requires the mortifying ordeal of being known, how does a relationship move forward when it’s based on lies? I Know You Know Who I Am says it doesn’t, but the real question it asks is if you strip a liar of their lies, what’s left?
Ever thought to yourself: “There really should be more books about found-family dynamics aboard post-apocalyptic pirate ships featuring queer romance”?
On the one hand, you might want to consider casting a wider net in general when it comes to reading choices.
On the other — oh boy, have I got a book for you.
The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie is set in the (sadly) all-too-possible future, where the seas have risen and swallowed up much of the current coastline. Our protagonist is Cassandra Leung, seventeen years old and just about to graduate her training with the Reckoners: creatures genetically engineered into massive, ocean-dwelling beasts. These Reckoners come in a variety of types, but they’re all bred to swim beside wealthy merchant or pleasure ships and defend both cargo and crew from pirates. As a newly-minted Guardian, Cas must travel with her personal Reckoner and use their bond to fight in tandem with the sea monster.
Except on her inaugural solo voyage, everything goes wrong. The Reckoner dies and Cas is captured by pirates, who offer a terrible trade: her continued life in exchange for the training of a stolen Reckoner pup, to serve as their weapon in any future battles.
The Abyss Surrounds Us is a bit like a mash-up of Waterworld and Pacific Rim, with perhaps a sprinkling of Pokémon by way of Lovecraft when it comes to the Reckoner training sequences. But Abyss’s aesthetic errs on the gritty, taking a hard look at the effects of climate change, colonialism, and class structure. Truthfully, this doesn’t always work in the book’s favor, as that’s quite a mouthful to chew over in less than 300 pages of YA-level fiction. This is before we get to the characters and their relationships: Cas and her parents, Cas and her Reckoners, Cas and the pirate queen, the connections between the pirate crew, and of course Cas and Swift.
Swift is the pirate tasked with keeping Cas in line, and heir apparent to the pirate queen. As the story progresses we discover Swift is a lot less sanguine about her place in the world than Cas first assumes, and their relationship becomes one of slow-growing trust and understanding. Personally I will live and die for a romance as complicated as this one — but again, there’s a serious question as to whether the book does it justice. With so much crammed into the narrative, it can often feel like Abyss is just dipping its toes, instead of taking the really satisfying deep dives these complex issues deserve.
Still, it’s hard to resist the sheer coolness factor of the book’s ideas and ambition. The battle sequences alone feel worth the cover price, as Skrutsie has the knack of describing action not only in exciting but interesting, original ways. (I understand an underlying theme of the book is to question the use of manmade monsters as living weapons. But also: I want one.) And while this reviewer hasn’t read it, there is a sequel that completes the series as a duology, The Edge of the Abyss, which may give Abyss’s more cramped aspects room to expand and breathe. Either way, if you missed The Abyss Surrounds Us the first time around, it’s not too late to pick up the futuristic pirates-vs-kaiju novel of your (incredibly specific) dreams.
We’ve selected our favorite children’s books from 2019. Check out these books that cover a wide variety of LGBTQ+ and feminist topics perfectly suited for young readers. Whether you are raising feminist children or want your little ones to see your family reflected in their books, we have something in store for you!