Making Space at the Center: Talking with Kali Fajardo-Anstine

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Born and raised in Denver, Colorado, Kali Fajardo-Anstine is committed to researching and telling the stories of her people and place. Her mesmerizing debut story collection, Sabrina & Corina, shines a new light on the American West. Centered on Latinas of Indigenous ancestry, the stories in Sabrina & Corina explore friendship, mothers and daughters, and the deep-rooted truths of our homelands.

Fajardo-Anstine’s fiction has appeared in The American Scholar, Boston Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Idaho Review, Southwestern American Literature, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Wyoming and has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, and Hedgebrook.

Fajardo-Anstine and I recently spoke about finding her place in the white male canon, the state of the short story, rewriting history to reflect lost Indigenous voices, and the importance of the first thing a person can remember.

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The Rumpus: In Sabrina & Corina, there’s a specific place that comes up a few times, Saguarita, first in “Sugar Babies,” and again toward the end of the book in, “Any Farther West.” Now, I’m from Colorado and I recognized all the other places in your book so I ask myself; how is it I’ve never heard of Saguarita? Is Saguarita a real place?

Kali Fajardo-Anstine: Haha. No, Saguarita is a fictional place based on the San Luis Valley. I was really interested in Faulkner’s fictional place, his Yoknapatawpha County, although apparently I can’t pronounce it. So, I am really interested in Saguarita, too, because when I was inventing the Lost Territory, a place that exists in my novel coming out in 2020 or 2021, I needed to work with a large palatte of the place my ancestors came from in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

I am from Denver. I was born in Rose Medical Center. I’ve been here my entire life, although I’ve traveled all around, but I needed some fictional leeway with the place of my ancestors. I needed to be able to break the rules of a real place, you know?

Rumpus: In Sabrina & Corina, you write that Saguarita is “a place where the land with its silken fibers of swaying grass resembled a sleeping woman with her face pressed firmly to the pillow, a golden blonde by day, a raven haired beauty by night.” Coming from an academic perspective, I’m tempted to call your language something like personification, anthropomorphism, or even magical realism. But I can’t help thinking you would balk at those terms; your language seems to come, simply, from a different way of seeing the world.

Fajardo-Anstine: I think early on, like in workshops and things, like at the University of Wyoming where I got my MFA, I was embedded in the West and I was writing about the West but I didn’t really have ownership of the West because I’m not a white male. The Western canon is usually reserved for those voices. The way that I experienced the land is a very feminine view of place and it comes out of my ancient heritage here.

So, personification? Magic realism? You’re right, I would never use those terms. When I look at the land, I see the land as something alive and feminine. That’s the way that my worldview developed and that’s probably because that’s how my ancestors and my people and my family talk about our people and where we come from. It’s just how it is.

Rumpus: You grew up a voracious reader, worked in a bookstore, then went to school to study literature and writing. What’s it like to not see yourself in the canon, as you said?

Fajardo-Anstine: The entire reason I’m a writer is because I didn’t see myself in the space. Books are my culture—I mean I started selling books when I was fifteen years old at West Side Books in Denver. I remember somebody once at the bookstore said something like, How audacious do you have to be to think that you can have your voice on all these shelves? And they did that gesture where they like spun their hand around at the books. And I was like, but I need to because my people aren’t here.

That being said, there are some books about my people. There is Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, and a lot of other books in the Chicano canon that are from San Antonio or Texas or California, but I didn’t see anything specific to Chicanos in Colorado or from those who migrated up from northern New Mexico.

To not be able to identify with the Western canon at all felt alienating, and it was almost like I was an outsider in the place that I am Indigenous. I was filled with frustration, and anger, and later in my life that kind of gave way to a sense of calm. I wrote my stories because I had to—if I don’t do it, who will? I’m hoping that with my books more people with my background, and from other marginalized spaces across the country, will take on this task of trying to put themselves more in the center of spaces that have been reserved for white men.

Rumpus: In a blog post for Lighthouse, a Denver workshop and writing space where you occasionally teach, you write about taking your first trip to Random House in New York City. You describe walking into the lobby, seeing the books of all the writers you’ve studied and loved, then going up to the front desk to announce yourself proudly: “I’m a writer and I’m here to meet with my editor.” That moment seems so transformative—can you fill in the before and after? Like, who was the woman that walked into the building and what was different when she walked out?

Fajardo-Anstine: My whole life I wanted to be an author. So I envisioned that moment for a long time, and even Random House. There was this time I got kind of scoffed at a party from some more popular writers and I went and sat in my car afterwards and said, what if I had been on Random House? They probably wouldn’t have done that. Literally less than a year later I am on Random House.

I wanted to go visit my editor, Nicole Counts, over at One World, and I wanted to visit my agent. I hadn’t met my editor in person before and she’d changed my life by buying these two books and so I got on a plane and I went out there and it was this drizzly cold week. I was visibly shaking in the taxi on my way over, I was nervous, and when I stepped into the lobby full of books I immediately went looking for Sandra Cisneros. I was like, “Where is The House on Mango Street?” I found it, eventually.

And then they took me up to an office with Nicole and I was so overwhelmed with how warm and beautiful and intellectual she was. And that she is a young black woman in this space; it was so awesome to be in her company.

And after I left I felt really, really good. Knowing that people want to hear from me, that people are interested in my mind. Something changed in me in that moment. I think that was the moment I realized I had made it, whatever that means. Like, “today I’m an author.”

Rumpus: So, say we get to a point where the Chicano/Indigenous voice is no longer a negative space in the publishing industry. Imagine your ancestry, geography, and traditions have a well-developed presence in the world of literature. Would you still feel compelled to write?

Fajardo-Anstine: Yes. I would. Absolutely. Because I come from storytelling. I am programmed to be a writer and to be a storyteller. I am an old soul and an old voice, a voice which I have been given from my ancestors and my mother, from my aunties, and from my great grandmother. My voice was gifted to me and I am just a vehicle to bring it. So if we get to that place that you are talking about, I am going to be so joyous and happy and I want to be able to be with those writers. I want the community to be vibrant and bustling. We don’t have that right now, but I will never stop writing because I need to be a part of the community when it comes.

Rumpus: Shifting back to form and craft: you’ve said that you wanted to write this book for people who love short stories and to honor the storytelling tradition from which you come. In your opinion, what is the state of the short story form in American publishing today?

Fajardo-Anstine: It’s incredibly vibrant and flourishing, in a way that I don’t think we have seen since the 1990s.

Rumpus: Why do you think that is?

Fajardo-Anstine: There are a number of reasons. I think MFA programs train students to write short stories. But, more importantly, I think marginalized voices are being published right now and the short story form, I feel, is closer to oral storytelling and a lot of us come from cultures that are embedded in that. So it’s a natural result.

I always think of Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice, a book about, among other things, how the short story form lends itself better to marginalized voices and submerged population groups while the novel is better suited to deal with institutional power on a larger scale.

I started writing my short stories primarily because that was what I was told to write and, while I loved them, it’s worth mentioning I wasn’t ready to write my novel. Which isn’t to say it was practice, but the form was more contained so I could work out my theoretical concerns. In my short stories I am able to explore the individual, as well as the individual against the family or the landscape. I get to have a lot more leeway in exploring the kinds of intimate relationships I am interested in. But in my novel I am dealing with big concepts like the institutional power of the Ku Klux Klan and with Wild West shows, which I can do because a novel is an enormous canvas.

Rumpus: Regarding short stories, you have also said that the form was your chance to “crystalize” and “harden” the oral storytelling you knew growing up. But is there a risk in that for you?

Fajardo-Anstine: It’s an interesting question that I get asked a lot. I am so unhappy and frustrated and sad that my people don’t have a place, they don’t even exist in the official state archives. You can walk into a history museum in Colorado and not see us, ever. So for me, the ability to have a showcase and to be preserved as a part of the official narrative is much more important than maybe upsetting some of my family members or tradition. But I shouldn’t say they are upset because they are happy for me and my stories.

A lot of the plot lines in Sabrina & Corina do come from oral stories. Like what happens in “Sisters” is a story I’ve been told over and over and over again since I was a tiny little girl. I need to work out the trauma I inherited though that telling, about the pressure of a woman to let a white man take care of her and the inevitable tragedy that follows. And, I think it’s important that those kind of crimes, of white men against women of color, are recorded now, and looking back in history as in that story. Historical preservation is so important.

Rumpus: This is bringing me back to the beginning of our conversation, when you brought up having to invent a place in order to house these lost histories.

Fajardo-Anstine: Yes, exactly. Because I don’t have access to the official record in a way that Anglos do, which is something I learned by doing my research. When I was starting out I would call up archives and ask something like, “Hey, I have this story that my aunty tells me about being turned away from a Denver hospital for being Mexican, and she was pregnant, and I need to know if this is documented anywhere.” And they would say, “No! Of course that would never have happened.”

But then I went to the Black American West Museum in Five Points and I told them that story, you know what they said? “Do you think they put racism in the by-laws? No. It won’t be written down anywhere so you need to trust your ancestors. Trust your intuition.”

I have learned to trust my storytelling instincts in this process. That’s where the truth lies.

Rumpus: Ah, because history is written by the victors, right? So how do you, all these generations later, start to try to reclaim what was lost? And to reclaim it on an intuitive level in a world that doesn’t always support that?

Fajardo-Anstine: That’s something Gloria Anzaldúa talks about in her critical work, Borderlands / La Frontera, the idea of the faculdade or the sixth sense that women and people of color and queer people have developed over time for protection.

And I do a lot of research. I just had a fellowship at History Colorado, actually. Research is something I have really brought into my process. I don’t think I am ever going to write without research again because it actually provides scenes for me. I can feel an object and I get chills from it, and then I can build a scene from that.

I started doing this in grad school with “Sisters,” because that story is set in the 1960s. What really launched it was that I was looking at cold cases of murdered women of color, or at least as far as I could tell from descriptions of Jane Doe. I found out about a girl who was coming from Iowa on her way to California to become an actress and she didn’t make it all the way, getting murdered in Colorado. I read this image of a black dog carrying her severed hand in his mouth—it haunted me. Researching is becoming my way of giving respect and honoring these women who have been murdered. Someday I hope to teach workshops to encourage marginalized people to start to put their work and their family stories back into the archives.

Rumpus: I know you have an appreciation and an eye for how the narrative arc of a short story collection is put together. And in the case of the stories in Sabrina & Corina, you aren’t just looking for those arcs, but also to put an umbrella on stories written over the span of six years, from 2010 to 2016. How did the collection find its structure?

Fajardo-Anstine: I didn’t start writing these stories thinking I would ever have a book. I wanted to be an author but it didn’t seem possible. So when I was starting these stories I just had to explore what was inside my heart that I couldn’t let go of.

I wrote “Remedies” in 2010 and you can tell it’s an early one because there is so much I was trying to work out from my own life. A lot of my characters are composites of things I’ve experienced, ordering them in a plot so to speak. But it wasn’t until I got to the University of Wyoming and I worked with my mentors that I realized I was writing a collection, that all the stories were centering on the same themes. It took a while, and some outside perspective, to see I was working on something over and over and over again, that I was obsessed. This book is really where my mind was at during my twenties.

And later, when I thought about an overall arc, I wanted a depiction of my community, especially its women, and I wanted to do them some justice. A big influence that came into my life was Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City. The way that he handled African Americans in Washington, DC in his exquisite prose conveyed with a beautiful naturalism and realism—I wanted to do that for my people, too, to give them the gift of a documentation in a high literary form.

I am aware it doesn’t always fit together, but I think that my characters fit together in my mind and so it feels connected that way. This conversation that they are all having across the book is happening in a deeper level in my mind than I am even aware of.

Rumpus: In the eponymous story, “Sabrina & Corina,” the two main characters sort of compete for what they both claim as their first memory so that we don’t know who the memory actually belongs. Do you remember your first memory?

Fajardo-Anstine: I do. And I love asking people about what their first memory is because I think it sets the tone for their worldview. It’s the first thing that your mind attaches itself to.

I come from a family of seven children, five sisters and one brother. My first memory is when I was almost three and my brother and sister, who are twins, were being born. I was in a waiting room, all alone, pushing a pink stroller with a baby doll in it, just waiting, I think, for them to show up.

I think the reason I’m attached to that memory so much is the significance of a birth in my family, the anticipation and the excitement. Family is incredibly important to me. My siblings and my parents are my life. So it’s only natural that welcoming them into my life is the first thing I would remember.

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Photograph of Kali Fajardo-Anstine by Estevan Ruiz.


Sarah Haas is a journalist, critic, essayist, columnist, and picture book author living in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Find her work at sarahrosehaas.com. Sarah is on Twitter @haassr. More from this author →