Radical encouragement: That’s how T Kira Māhealani Madden teaches, allowing her students to explore the written word through multiple genres and creative exercises.
“I try to facilitate in ways and styles I wasn’t necessarily offered,” she explains. “What people really need is encouragement that their ideas – their natural inclination and style and voice – matter and that they are good enough. Playfulness, experimentation and encouragement are what I know, from experience, make for the best writing.”
Her experience after the 2019 publication of her memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, is a case in point: She received rave reviews, awards and even a deal selling the film rights to Hollywood.
The book, Madden’s first, chronicles her early life growing up as a Chinese, Kānaka Maoli girl in a privileged community in Boca Raton, Florida, to her life as a young queer woman in New York processing her father’s death – all told through sharp, lyrical prose woven with creative storytelling.
Ever since she joined the CofC English department in the fall of 2021 to teach fiction and creative nonfiction writing, she has encouraged that same kind of creativity in her students, assigning unexpected texts to create conversations. She may, for example, pair an Eastern text with a Shakespeare play and an episode of Euphoria.
“Writing isn’t a monolith,” explains Madden, who left the College after the spring 2022 semester.
It wasn’t until Madden read Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets as an undergraduate at Parsons School of Design in New York City that she realized there were far more genres of writing than she’d been taught in school.
“It changed everything,” she says of the collection of 27 short stories – an American classic. “A full story accomplished in one page: I had no idea that that could be a story. I had only narrow ways, then, of understanding literature and stories.”
Things are different now, of course.
“T Kira loves the kaleidoscope of meaning that is precise to each word, and the sonic quality you can make of a particular way of stringing them together,” says her wife, Hannah Beresford, who teaches poetry as an adjunct faculty member at the College. “She loves when words surprise her – how an image can shape-shift on the page, and afterward she can’t ever see the world quite the same way again.
“When T Kira first felt that as a student, it was revelatory for her, and that magic has truly never faded,” adds Beresford. “Her teaching practice is an invitation. She wants to share her joy, not to bestow anything onto her students. She doesn’t claim any ownership of language, nor do I think she considers there to be an authority to be had about language. Instead, she wants company in celebrating it, and she wants to learn what unique joy each of her students can find in it as well.”
When she’s not teaching, Madden is writing, editing the literary magazine No Tokens, cooking or trying new restaurants around Charleston. Her next book is a novel titled Whidbey, which she describes as “my nightmare ferryboat thriller.”
Says Madden: “I am so challenged every single day by writing, and it never gets easier, and I love that about it.”