The author’s latest book is a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in North Texas and her relationship with her mother.
It’s a warm Sunday morning in August, and I’m driving outside Terminal E at DFW Airport, looking for Kendra Allen, a rising literary star from Dallas. She’s on her way to San Antonio from a writer’s residency in the Berkshires, where she worked in a cabin named after Henry David Thoreau. Before leaving Dallas, she needs to pick up her Jeep at her mom’s house. I spot her near Gate 15.
She’s wearing a black tank-top, cuffed jeans, fleecy slip-ons and cheetah-embossed spectacles. After putting her bags in the trunk, I ask where to go first. Start at the Dallas VA, she says, and we’ll go from there. About thirty minutes later, we’re parked near the entrance that she went through all the time to the Dallas VA Medical Center, in Oak Cliff. She hasn’t been here since high school, but it looks the same.
“It has a very distinct smell,” says the 27-year-old author, born and raised in Dallas. “Not a hospital smell, but like an old sandwich smell. It’s disgusting.” Her mom, or her “momma,” as Kendra calls her, worked at this VA for nearly three decades as a clerk in the women’s health clinic.
Kendra was often there, before and after school, with her mom and her coworkers. One of them, Richard, thought he was Elvis. He wore a big belt buckle and cowboy boots and was Kendra’s first crush.
“It never felt like I was a child,” she says. “I would just be chilling with the adults, listening to the hospital gossip. They didn’t really like each other, like any workplace.” But they all heard L.A., Kendra’s mom, brag about her daughter.
Kendra pulls out her phone and shows me a photo of herself in the hospital from when she was about six. Smiling in a light pink dress, stockings and church shoes, she’s holding a first-place trophy for a speech contest and is wearing a medal for perfect attendance. Her mom showed off Kendra and her awards to all her coworkers at the clinic.
After her parents split up, Kendra started being more like her mom’s spouse than her daughter. They did practically everything together.
At the laundromat, they fed coins into the jukebox to play some of their favorite artists — Brandy, Britney and Beyoncé for Kendra; Sade, Sting and the S.O.S. Band for L.A. — while their clothes spun in the machines. It was there that Kendra’s mom taught her how to slow dance to Tamia’s “So into You.” They sang and danced around the store as if no one was watching.
Most days, Kendra and her mom attended her great-great-uncle’s Baptist church in Pleasant Grove. When Kendra and I stop by, on that recent Sunday, she’s surprised to see it empty at 2:30 in the afternoon. The gate is locked, some of the porch siding is peeling off and a broken basketball hoop droops out back.
Kendra rolls down the window and takes a photo on her phone. The church, which is narrow, looks the same to her, except for a new coat of paint — a peachy color she doesn’t like. Nor is she happy to be back. She left the first chance she had.
After starting therapy a few years ago, Kendra began seeing her relationship with her mom as codependent. “It feels like being married, friends — and low-key romantic in a non-incestuous way. It’s a lot of roles. I feel like the first-born son, the only son, the only child.”
Kendra grew up quickly because she had to. She had to be her mom’s best friend, her partner, her confidant. But she was still her daughter, and still a kid. This makes it harder for her to make sense of her past, and to develop a sense of self independent from her mom.
Discussing her past in therapy led her to her latest book, Fruit Punch, a coming-of-age memoir exploring patterns of violence in her life and depicting her struggles with mental illness. It’s told in an honest and authentic voice blending conversational and poetic language.
Kendra sees it as a way for her to break free from the people in her life, particularly her mom. “I feel very free and I feel proud of myself, like I stood up for myself as an adult. I think we’re so codependent that she’s having a hard time knowing that I’m an adult, and not just her child.”
Kendra is setting more boundaries with her mom to maintain a positive mental health state. One of them, actually, was (politely) declining my request to talk with both her and her mom together and have pictures taken of them for this article.
“You say you want boundaries,” Kendra says to herself, “but y’all haven’t resolved anything. And if you’re just like, ‘OK momma, let’s go talk to The Dallas Morning News, let’s go take a picture’ — in her head, she’s going to move on, because that’s how she does. She just acts like nothing has happened the day before, and I can’t handle that.”
Her mom wasn’t happy that Kendra made them look like “sister wives” in Fruit Punch. If she hears anything negative about their relationship, she thinks she’s being called a bad mother, Kendra says. “If she’s not perfect, she’s bad. It’s very extreme.”
Suppressing traumaHighly aware of the trope of Black female trauma, Kendra long suppressed her story, but ultimately felt the need to share it. She dedicated her memoir to her three young cousins — ages 5, 6 and 8 — whom she raised with her mom for about a year.
When does she think her cousins can read the book?
“I want them to read it as kids, honestly. I don’t know who they’re talking to, who is touching them, who is scaring them. I don’t know and I’m not in their life every single day.”
Kendra hopes to protect them from the trauma she experienced. When she was nine, she was molested by her cousin, who lived with her and her mom on and off for years after being kicked out of his uncle’s house. She didn’t tell anyone what happened and often forgot about it, remembering every now and then.
Her therapist encouraged her to tell her mom, but she resisted, anticipating how she would react.
When Kendra did tell L.A., who was raped as a child, L.A. kept questioning her about it, also promising that her cousin wouldn’t have lived with them anymore if she knew. But Kendra doesn’t think anything would have changed. “I don’t believe her, and that kind of hurts me.”
Writing the memoir was painful for Kendra. She hated re-reading it when editing and almost cried when recording the audio book.
“People be saying words like courage and courageous, but no it’s desperation. Because I tried every other thing, and if this don’t work, I don’t know what’s going to work. Not like work as in career-wise, but work as in my actual personal life. It’s like a last resort. And the reason I can be so honest or courageous is out of desperation, not because I’m like stepping up to the plate. It’s like I’m on the floor, it’s the opposite.” But the book doesn’t stay in a dark place. Kendra weaves in humor and levity, showing the full range of her childhood.
Before school, she and her friend, Des, bought breakfasts of soda and hot Cheetos at Smart Mart, where the employees watched to make sure no one was stealing. They then ran across a busy two-sided street to their middle school, which is now nothing but a dry, grassy field. After school, they crossed back over the street and got milkshakes and hot wings at Good Luck Drive-In.
A few blocks away, at the Cummings Recreation Center, Kendra organized talent shows, went to weekend-long sleepovers and played all kinds of sports — volleyball, softball, soccer, tennis.
The tennis courts are locked when we stop by around noon. It’s in the 90s, but there’s a slight breeze and passing clouds sometimes block the sun.
Kendra hops on a swing, which squeaks just like it did when she was a kid, and a photographer snaps photos. She and her friends would swing back and forth and jump off at the highest point, rapping Nelly lyrics. She says those were the greatest days of her life.
‘I wonder if who I am this day — is who I’ll always be from here on out’It’s because of the rec center that Kendra first saw herself as a writer. Her tennis coach, Mr. Jimmy, once asked her to write an essay about tennis legend Arthur Ashe for the team to gain entry into a tournament. After her essay won, the coach declared she’d be a writer, not a tennis player, and removed her from the tournament.
Like so many other parts of her life, Kendra is an avid reader because of her mom, who has a bookcase full of urban fiction and mystery novels at home. Books have helped her in difficult times.
In 9th grade, Kendra went to Skyline High School in East Dallas, leaving behind all her friends in Oak Cliff. Skyline is a large, sprawling structure. Class sizes ranged from 35 and up, Kendra says, and the rush of students streaming out of school at the end of the day was like at a concert.
Overcome by panic attacks, she found refuge in the girls’ bathroom, where she read unassigned books by authors like Eric Jerome Dickey and Suzanne Collins, who wrote The Hunger Games. If she didn’t have a book, she recited song lyrics to herself while locking and unlocking her knees to the beat.
“The stall is gross, but the capacity of its close confines make me feel safe, close to something, and most importantly — it calms me down,” she writes in Fruit Punch. “This is before I learn where the school library is and that it’s there for students like me in moments like this and before I eventually make friends with people who are like the other side of me, the ones I let them see; but while I’m hiding, somedays I learn that there’s others around who share its confines with me. Who are like me, and who can’t move either. How we lock ourselves inside in order to get away. … How on all the days, I wonder if who I am this day — is who I’ll always be from here on out.”
Kendra’s prose can be dark and introspective, but in person she’s outgoing and kind. When a man asks for money at an intersection, near the VA, she looks at him and says “sorry, sir,” making sure he felt seen. She is a great conversationalist, curious about other people’s lives, and has an infectious laugh.
But deep down, she wants to be alone. That’s why she likes San Antonio, where she moved last year. “I’ve been there a year, and I can go another year without knowing nobody. I feel like I’ve been needing that. I actually feel like myself.”
Coming homeOn the last leg of our trip, from Pleasant Grove to her mom’s house, Kendra and I chat about our favorite snacks. She likes Lay’s potato chips and remembers a butter cookie from Walmart that she hasn’t seen in a while.
We turn off I-20, in Forney. On the side of the road, a family is selling snow cones under a canopy tent. Kendra directs me into a residential community. It’s greener here, and the brick and stone houses look new. After a few turns, we’re outside her mom’s house.
We get out, I remove the luggage from the trunk and we say goodbye.
As I’m getting back in the car, Kendra hoists her purse over her shoulder and grabs her roller bag. She takes a couple breathes and walks toward the house.
This time, on her terms.
SOURCE- Dallas Morning News