Woman of Light: An Interview with Kali Fajardo-Anstine
When I first met Kali Fajardo-Anstine, her short story collection Sabrina & Corina was on the verge of explosion. She came to San Antonio, Texas for a series of events and filled auditoriums during Fiesta, a city wide celebration of diversity and culture. It’s been exciting to watch her career unfold from a grassroots self-promotion all the way to the short list for the National Book Award. Her humility and enthusiasm have been an anchor and inspiration.
Recently, we met via Zoom to discuss craft and research ahead of the launch of her latest project, the historical novel Woman of Light. In 1930’s Denver, Luz Lopez is left to fend for herself after her older brother, Diego, is run out of town by a violent white mob. She begins to have visions of her Indigenous homeland in the nearby Lost Territory, bearing witness to sinister forces that have devastated her people and their homelands for generations. In the end, it is up to Luz to save her family’s stories from disappearing.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine is from Denver, Colorado. The author of Sabrina & Corina, a finalist for the National Book Award, the PEN/Bingham Prize, The Clark Prize, The Story Prize, the Saroyan International Prize, and winner of an American Book Award, she is the 2021 recipient of the Addison M. Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work has been honored with the Denver Mayor’s Award for Global Impact in the Arts and the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Reading the West Award. She has written for The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, O: the Oprah Magazine, The American Scholar, Boston Review, and elsewhere, and has received fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and Tin House. Fajardo-Anstine earned her MFA from the University of Wyoming and has lived across the country, from Durango, Colorado, to Key West, Florida. She is the 2022/23 Endowed Chair of Creative Writing at Texas State University. Her debut novel, Woman of Light, will be published in June, 2022. www.kalifajardoanstine.com
Patrick Stockwell: You mentioned that you became a writer because you’d not seen yourself represented in fiction. Of the many characters you’ve created, with whom did you feel your authorial distance collapse the most?
Kali Fajardo-Anstine: Part of the reason I’m a writer is that I’m searching for wholeness. By putting all these different parts of myself into this universe makes me feel like I can wrangle all the different parts together. Even the men in my books—Robbie’s dad, Sierra’s dad in “Sugar Babies,” Tomi’s father Manny in the story “Tomi,” the men in Woman of Light—they’re part of me.
A lot of people think I’m an extrovert. I would never consider myself that. It takes a lot out of me to be around a lot of people. But when people see me performing or doing readings, I’m very outgoing. So that’s why you get a lot of characters like Sabrina, who’s outgoing, and Corina, who’s introverted. The same thing with Woman of Light. You have Luz, who is very quiet, very observant, then you have Lizette, her best friend and cousin who’s super outgoing, says what she means, doesn’t let people push her around. It’s healthy to watch them work through it. Like, “that’s how I would have responded in a different form.” It’s good for us to think about ourselves as full humans.
PS: “Sugar Babies” is the first of your stories to be anthologized. Congratulations!! As your stories make their way into classrooms, does your experience of them shift?
KFA: One of Sabrina & Corina’s tasks out in the world is to break down stereotypes through the use of storytelling. Some people will look at that book and say it's about something that it's completely not. That’s okay, because I can only bring them so far with the text. As the readership has grown I’m seeing less control over how it’s talked about.
When the collection first came out, it only sold a few hundred copies in its opening week. I worked my way up from a very tiny readership that was mostly regional—you were a part of it. It was people in the Southwest primarily—to an ever-increasing audience. Sabrina & Corina is now being translated into Japanese, Turkish, Italian, and more. I never dreamed that people in Italy would write to me and say that “I feel really strongly about these women characters. They seem like my family.” I had a young man write to me from Beirut and tell me that it reminded him of his family. I now have an ongoing artistic relationship with several Japanese women novelists because of my work being translated into Japanese. I could never read that translation—maybe I’ll learn Japanese someday—but right now I never could.
PS: How does one find the right narrator to tell a story? How did you find Luz, the narrator of Woman of Light?
KFA: I began this novel when I was a teenager. This was the story of my great grandmother, Esther, and her sister, my Auntie Lucy. I knew from the time I was a young teenager that I wanted to contribute to the world of literature with a story of our migration, which was not very far. We went from urban New Mexico, southern Colorado to Denver in the 1930s. You can drive it today in four hours. I knew that this was a very big story that needed to be in literature but I didn’t know how to do it.
When I first started writing drafts of Woman of Light it was in first person. Luz was very young, she had many siblings just like my great-grandma did, and it was much more quaint. Over the years, as I dreamed up more scenes and I researched more, I realized that I needed some more flexibility. I needed to be able to jump into other people. The story was much larger than Luz’s perspective would allow. I realized it needed to be close third with moments of omniscience, which is very unusual for me. With this narrative flexibility, I could go further and further into the layers of distance. At some points the third person narration even collapses into first person. Not just Luz but Maria Josie and Diego and other characters. So it was mostly by trial and error, and listening to my own intuition and artistic taste.
PS: Last week, I was discussing the idea of narrative stance with the writer Antonya Nelson as part of a conversation about Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. She described it as “not simply the point of view but more of a sensibility that oversees the project. Knowing when to get in and out of a moment. Where to linger and where to accelerate.” Can you describe narrative stance as you see it?
KFA: So I was reading an old Jungian analysis book last night—the book itself was trash— but there was this one analogy that was really good and actually explains a lot of how I view this. We’re walking a path. Our whole body of work is this long path. For me, it’s all connected. It’s part of the same universe. Short stories, novels, anything–it’s all on there. When you shine a light on the path in the dark you’re only seeing sections of the path. The more lights you keep shining, the more full the view of the path. It’s your decision where you want to shine the light but the person walking it can still feel that they’re on a path. It’s your decision where to linger, and to ask yourself, “Why do I want it to be here?”
With my short stories, I was practicing the multi-lineal timeline that I now have in Woman of Light. In my stories, I tend to hop around in time but I have a tight understanding of the narrative timeline. I’m thinking of stories like “Sabrina & Corina” which flip back and forth—flashback, present, flashback, present—and then stories that get a little more complicated, like “Sisters,” where it’s completely set in an historical time period, but I also have moments where the narrative will come up and resurge from the past.
When I started to write Woman of Light, it was very hard to decide where I’d set the novel because I grew up with these elders my entire life. They lived throughout many decades. My great grandmother was born in 1912. She didn’t die until the late 90s. So it’s like ‘what part of thai story do I tell?’ I found their youth fascinating. In the novel, I go back into the 1860s. I wanted to start with the birth of their grandparents' generation. So once I had the parameters of the world, I had to research. I had to understand everything that was happening in between these generations. That’s how I wound up with plot points like the radium boom, because it’s all part of this continuous path. It’s fascinating and I love this part of writing but it’s also complicated, I think.
PS: For you, where does craft intersect with identity?
KFA: People approach me and my texts with biases and stereotypes; in some ways my texts are facing the same ‘isms’ that I face. The very form of the short story converges with my identity as a marginalized Chicana of mixed ancestry, of indigenous ancestry. I came out of short stories, which are very marginalized in the literary world; We’re told that collections don’t sell, that publishers don’t want to give a lot of resources to try to market them—in a lot of ways they’re the underdog.
PS: The novel’s description includes this haunting line: “In the end, it is up to Luz to save her family stories from disappearing into oblivion.” Can you describe Luz’ calling as a chosen one, a literal savior of her family’s history, and the ways that intersects with your own role as a storyteller?
KFA: It was really late in the drafting process when I realized that it was Luz who was the driving force, the character who was having visions. I was writing this narrative set in the 1860s to the early 1900s and I said to myself, “How are we able to see this?” I thought it was the godlike consciousness. Then I realized that it was Luz who’s able to see these things because throughout the story she’s been building her strength as a seer. Then I began to think about mysticism, the idea of being illuminated, and the rich history in literature of characters going into altered, trance-like states.
When you come from a people that has been marginalized through racial oppression, oppression of sexual identity, class discrimination, one of the mechanisms for this oppression is the control of your narratives. It is sort of a mystical experience to reach out and grab them, to say, “you’re not going to take these. I’m bringing them with me and I’m putting them into a book and they’re going into the future.”
I do have high hopes for this book, one of which is that it will be a permanent record of the subjectivity of characters like this, like my family and like many people in the Southwest. It’s something that cannot easily be destroyed because it’s now printed and bound, and will be pushed out into the world. As a professional storyteller, I’m second generation. My mother writes and has collected stories. But all the women in my family, the elders that have passed, they also kept storytelling alive through the oral tradition. I’m just the first to publish on a large scale.
PS: The story “Ghost Sickness” ends Sabrina & Corina with commentary on the necessity of safeguarding narratives in danger of being overwritten. What have you learned through this act of preservation that’s carried over into Woman of Light?
KFA: It’s unfortunate that, because the experience of being silenced is so overwhelming in my family and my community, it’s literally a part of me. I’ve been doing interviews for this novel where people ask me to take them around Denver and show them some sites. I felt like a broken record because in every single place I’d have to say, “This house used to be in our family but we don’t have it anymore” or “That used to be an arts center but it was shut down and now it's condos.” After the third or fourth time you start to realize that your entire existence is, unfortunately, marked by loss. Not just loss through gentrification, but westward expansion, attempted genocide of natives in our region, and the danger of blending people. It naturally shows up in each of the narratives I’ve written. When I see it, I think, “Whoa, that’s an inherited memory.” It’s something that was passed down, it’s in my cells. So in addition to a generational trauma, I believe that we also have an embedded, generational resilience. That’s the two sides of the coin; We wouldn’t exist without that resilience.
PS: With my own writing, I am interested in research and how to incorporate it into fiction. Could you share your experience of researching your novel? How did you know when you had enough material to work with?
KFA: Research itself is part of my interest as a human being. I will always be interested in historically Latinx populations that came from northern New Mexico and lived in the Denver area. I just found out that there’s another community in Laramie, Wyoming that also came up the Manito Trail.
I have an oral history videotape with my mom interviewing my great grandma. Not everyone will have something like this—a document that will serve as the beating heart of your research. I went through it and wrote down key terms, key names, dates, things that would lead to other pathways of research. From there I started learning about the different things that she mentioned. Her father was a coal miner who abandoned the family. I had to learn about coal mining camps. About the different labor movements. One of their jobs was to pick sugar beets so I started to learn about the migrant farmers who did this work. I would go off along many different avenues.
But I think you can feel when you have enough. After all, I’m not writing a book about beets. I’m writing a book where the people in it go for one day and they do this work. So how much research do I need to respect it and honor it and give it enough depth? I’ve seen both beginning and experienced writers getting lost in the loop of research and use it as a form of procrastination. If you're doing way more research than actual writing, you can feel the imbalance.
PS: We’ve talked about how writing Woman of Light was a journey of several years. Were there times when you worried it wouldn’t come together? Was there a moment when you sat up and said, “Yeah. I got this”?
It was scary. As I said before, I didn’t know until the last draft that Luz was controlling the visions. With the help of my editor I got to where I could see that every time we go into a vision there’s a new part, a new section of the book. It’s helpful to have outside readers to help you see what you’re doing. It taught me to trust myself, trust the process, because I had been faithfully accepting that at the end of the day this was going to fit together.
I sold this book with Sabrina & Corina in a two-book deal. I was thirty years old. I was working as a part time office manager. That was probably the scariest time because I’d been rewriting and redrafting, getting the opening as tight as possible, and once it sold it had to be completed. So, building in footholds for yourself: there’s no turning back, we’ve got to get a draft done, stop rewriting and changing the beginning. Just try to get through the whole book. I knew with the first full draft that I didn’t like some of the sections, that I would rewrite them, but I needed them to be placeholders. There was a chapter that I wrote in 2017 that was left out of the book for four years. At the very end I realized, wow, it has a spot. It goes here.
PS: Do you see a creative nonfiction project in your future?
KFA: I don’t because right now I feel called to write fiction. I find it satisfies my hunger as an artist the most. But I am a writer who is very open about the fact that I borrow from reality. I am borrowing moments that actually happened and breaking and rearranging them. I won’t say never because I do write articles and essays. For me, fiction also provides a mask. I didn’t grow up very proud of certain things in my life. I grew up with a lot of shame in some aspects. Fiction has always been this artistic exercise where I’m able to talk about that shame but with the mask on. So I’m very close to my fiction.
PS: In the past we’ve talked about writing place and representing homeland. Now that you’re pivoting in your career to your second book, what are the craft conversations you’re interested in having? What’s the class you’d love to teach?
KFA: I would love to teach a class on how we come to texts with bias. Some of the responses I get to Woman of Light are utterly wrong. People set the book on the current US-Mexico border despite all the hints that it's set in what we now call Colorado. There was a review that set it in Animas, New Mexico, which is a completely different location, completely different place. That, to me, is a fascinating phenomenon. So I would love to talk about what a text is actually doing versus what our response as readers is doing on top of it.
But I’m also really interested in mysticism. Now that I see Luz in that way, I want to talk about all kinds of different fiction that explores trance-like states, about connecting humanity in a sort of wholeness. I think that would be a fascinating class across cultures.
Patrick Stockwell is an Inprint MD Anderson Foundation fellow and PhD candidate in fiction at the University of Houston. He holds an MFA from New Mexico State University and is the author of The Light Here Changes Everything, winner of the 2018 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. www.patrickestockwell.com