Honoring the Past That Built Us: Talking with Kali Fajardo-Anstine

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It’s only been three years since Kali Fajardo-Anstine burst onto the literary scene with Sabrina & Corina—a finalist for the National Book Award, the PEN/Bingham Prize, among many other accolades and achievements—and established herself as an important voice in fiction. From bookshelves to bookstores and book clubs everywhere—even a Japanese rap video—Fajardo-Anstine has amassed a fierce and loyal readership all over the world. She’s even received a positive review in the Vatican’s newspaper in Italy. Now, she brings us her highly anticipated first novel, Woman of Light, out from One World.

A magnificently imagined multigenerational saga inspired by Fajardo-Anstine’s own family history in the American West, Woman of Light introduces us to Luz “Little Light” Lopez. A tea leaf reader and laundress, Luz is reeling from her brother’s absence after he’s been driven out of town by a violent white mob. Left to fend for herself in 1930s Denver, she begins to have visions of the past that recollect her ancestors’ origins from the Indigenous homeland of the Lost Territory nearby. In these visions, she sees her people both thrive and be threatened on ancestral land that has since been encroached. She also witnesses violence in the present, from the same people hellbent on fragmenting her community. Yet joy continues to be found, celebrations ensue regardless, and love flourishes, and at the novel’s center is a family whose light can never be dimmed.

Woman of Light is a novel that was ten years in the making, a testament to the power of story and our ability to pass along oral history. I spoke with Fajardo-Anstine, who told me more about her own family’s stories, how they influenced her novel and helped her shine her own light, and the power that comes from being seen.

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The Rumpus: How does it feel to have this book make its way into the world after working on it for over ten years?

Kali Fajardo-Anstine: It’s unbelievable! This didn’t come easy for me. I dropped out of both high school and my first MFA program, and I struggled with typical classroom learning throughout my life. I had so many dead-end jobs, bad bosses, and periods of depression and struggle in my twenties. I also had beautiful moments of inspiration, teaching, growing and happiness. The biggest thing I learned from writing Woman of Light is that if I can do it, I can help others find the belief in themselves that they, too, can write novels.

Rumpus: This book has been extensively researched. Where did you begin?

Fajardo-Anstine: Many of the scenes in Woman of Light couldn’t exist with complexity without historical research. A chapter that comes to mind is “Shelter from the Storm,” which details a horrifying Ku Klux Klan march through downtown Denver in 1934. While I grew up hearing stories of the Klan and the ways in which they terrorized my ancestors in Denver, in order to fully grasp the horror of that march I noticed in several archival databases throughout Colorado that Klan memorabilia was accessible to researchers. I was shocked when examining physical Klan robes at the Denver Public Library that they were many sizes, even some to fit children and babies. There is a detail in Woman of Light where the protagonist, Luz, looks into the faces of young mothers with their babies during that hideous Klan march. It’s a terrifying moment, and I remember as I was examining those robes in the library, it felt like happening upon a dried and discarded snake skin, knowing full well a live serpent wasn’t far away.

Rumpus: Were there any questions that you were asking yourself that helped guide your research?

Fajardo-Anstine: All of my writing is guided by the need to feel culturally seen and acknowledged as a vital part of the American identity. For much of my life, I felt invisible and as if the hardships of my ancestors were forgotten. I wanted to understand how history informed my existence and how I came to be. I remember I walked into the Denver Public Library’s Western History and Genealogy floor and I asked the archivists: “Do you have any resources that will help me understand how my Indigenous, Chicano, Filipino, and European ancestors met each other and fell in love—essentially how did I become a person?”

 

Rumpus: What were some things that surprised you?

Fajardo-Anstine: One of the most beautiful moments in the researching of Woman of Light is when my godmother and cousin, Joanna Lucero, revealed to me a family folder of our queer history. My godmother herself is a lesbian in her eighties, and for decades she worked in the male-dominated field of electricians. Her brother, my godfather Avel—“Napoleon” was his nickname—worked as a janitor but was a gifted artist who died of AIDS in the late 1980s. My godmother revealed a treasure trove of family photos of our ancestors in drag from the 1930s to the 1970s, oral histories she had conducted with academics in the 1990s, and photographs of my great-great aunt Mary with her motorcycle and girlfriend in the 1930s. The character of Maria Josie is inspired by my queer ancestors, and it was such a profound moment in the research of this book to see these sacred items of our queer family.

Rumpus: That is amazing. I love Maria Josie even more now. 

Fajardo-Anstine: I love her so much. I wanted to honor both my godmother Joanna and my great-great-aunt Mary. That’s how I ended up with Maria-Josie, those two family figures combined. One of the most important aspects of Maria Josie in the novel is that she’s the matriarch, a strong, hardworking lesbian matriarch. The Lopez family wouldn’t have survived without the sacrifices made by Maria Josie, who walked to Denver from Southern Colorado seeking a better life. In a time of widespread poverty, racial and gender discrimination, Maria Josie doesn’t announce her queerness outright in order to protect herself and her family from violence, but her relationships with women are well-known throughout the community. She also dresses in masculine clothing, and while some may consider Woman of Light a love story, to me, at the heart of this novel is the love of family and the ways in which Luz learns to recognize the sacrifices Maria Josie has made for her people.

Rumpus: What are some other ways your characters have come to you?

Fajardo-Anstine: Luz’s best friend and cousin, Lizette, is such an outspoken, hilarious, and sassy character. She’s engaged to be married to a young Filipino waiter who is obsessed with his cowboy image, she loves her liquor, and she’s an amazing seamstress. I was surprised when first drafting the novel that she didn’t have her own chapter. However, one day I took a nap on the sofa beside my writing desk, and in my dreams I saw Lizette walking through a strange Victorian house. I realized immediately that she had a secret to reveal about the whereabouts of a missing girl in the novel. It was such a moment of adventure while writing this book, and I had to laugh at how dramatically Lizette revealed this information to me.

Rumpus: She is the perfect foil for Luz, the heart of this book. I love how Luz is at once reserved, but at the same time playful. She dreams. She desires. She messes up. She loves fiercely. She’s funny. She’s quick. It’s hard not to miss her when the book ends.

Fajardo-Anstine: That means a lot to me because Luz is such a soul companion of mine. I knew while writing Luz that she would cause some difficulties for readers who expect one-dimensionality from female characters. Her intelligence is often surging in the novel’s subtext, almost like she has a secret language between her and marginalized readers. She’s dear to my heart for that reason. I can say, even as her creator, I feel seen by Luz. I feel that my complexities as a full human are honored through her adventures, and I hope other readers feel the same way.

Rumpus: She can also read tea leaves. Why was it important for her to possess the gift of foresight?

Fajardo-Anstine: Years ago, while I was writing the first drafts of Woman of Light, I visited my great-grandparents’ grave on the outskirts of Denver. The cemetery rows were covered in snow and crisp air kicked down from the mountains against my back. “Grandma Esther,” I said, “I am writing a book about us, and I hope to make you proud.”

This was before I even published Sabrina & Corina. I had no book deal, no idea that someday I would be a published author. I had the belief and foresight in myself to believe I could do it someday. I’ve always known it would be part of my life’s work to tell the story of my ancestors, and if I had given up before the future revealed itself, none of this would have happened for me. Sometimes we have to imagine ourselves into the future that we want in order to honor the past that built us.

Rumpus: Speaking of snow and mountain air, this book is a full-sensory experience; you can almost smell the jasmine wafting from the page. Usually if a book spends more than one paragraph describing the woods, my mind drifts to what’s for lunch. But I would read a whole book of you just describing vegetation. How do you do it in such a way that is engaging and brimming with life?

Fajardo-Anstine: There is a scene set during Luz’s childhood in the early 1920s. She and her brother, Diego, are out playing in the mountains near their company cabin in a coal mining camp in Southern Colorado. Diego is poking around the cracks in a granite boulder searching for a trapped rattlesnake, Luz is busy running away from wasps, and all around there are wildflowers and the musical sounds of a rushing river. These landscapes are embedded in my experiences as a human being, but also that of my parents, my grandparents, and all the generations of my ancestors stretching back to time immemorial. I view the land as alive; I don’t see it as something to corrupt, to gut, and to poison. When I’m sad or struggling with my depression, it is the land that has healed me with its embrace. I’ll go hiking, for a walk on the prairie, visit the river, or my grandfather’s favorite spots in the mountains. I think that’s why the landscapes I write are so alive because to me the land is family.

 Rumpus: This is a story that spans five generations. Which character came to you first? How did their genesis inform the rest of the lineage?

Fajardo-Anstine: Woman of Light always began with Luz, our protagonist of light. While she was inspired by my Auntie Lucy and my great-grandmother (both of whom the novel is dedicated to), she also felt so wholly herself and fascinating that I could hear echoes of her for many years before the book even resembled its final form. I’ve dreamed of Luz and heard her voice, the sounds outside of her window in Denver in 1933, the feeling of her clothing and her back aching from carrying laundry across town. She was always the guiding light, so to speak, always the star.

Rumpus: You mentioned earlier that Lizette appeared in your dreams, too. Do your dreams often influence your work?

Fajardo-Anstine: Yes and no. If I’m going through a lot of anxiety and depression, I tend to dream less frequently. But I’ve had pronounced moments of inspiration come to me in dreams. Actually, a couple weeks ago, my Auntie Lucy appeared to me in a dream—and this part made me laugh—but I was trying to get a selfie with her before she had to “go back.” I felt like crying when I woke up, like I had been visited upon by the earliest source of Woman of Light. It felt like a huge honor—this esteemed matriarch just popping by to say hello in my dreams, weeks before launching this novel.

Rumpus: A lot of the history that’s in the book is not the history that’s written in textbooks—at least not in the ones I read growing up. What makes fiction, for you, the right vessel for these stories?

Fajardo-Anstine: Fiction is a magical thing and I am forever in awe of its powers to make people think, feel, and question the status quo. That’s why so many novels of the oppressed are being targeted by book bans across the nation. Growing up, I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be part of the big American story. At home, I looked around and we were people of many cultures, poor, queer, struggling with mental illness, generational trauma, and the hardships of community violence. There were no TV dramas, sitcoms, or even commercials that made me feel like I wasn’t alone in these experiences. But I found that camaraderie through fiction, the tiny mentions of secret emotions that I felt everyday—shame, jealousy, joy, happiness, lust. Fiction has a way of expressing these emotions and making the reader feel as if they are not alone. I wanted Woman of Light to make people of my diverse backgrounds feel seen, but I also wanted those unlike me to realize how alike we truly are. That is why fiction is powerful.

Rumpus: Your debut collection, Sabrina & Corina, which marked you as a literary star-on-the-rise, continues to amass readers all over the world. Where will your writing take us next?

Fajardo-Anstine: Can I just say, I love my readers so much! I’ve received countless notes, emails, drawings, and other expressions of gratitude from readers around the world. There’s this wonderful hip-hop artist named MoNa in Japan and she ‘effin put the Japanese translation of Sabrina & Corina in one of her rap videos! Like, what? The podcast, Feminist Book Club, made an entire episode entitled: “A Love Letter to Kali Fajardo-Anstine.” That meant so much to me; I was feeling so down that day and the incredible insight on that podcast just picked me up. I want my readers to know how much they mean to me, how thankful I am to have them.

With that said, I’ll keep writing until I’m no longer capable. I have a new short story coming out this fall in Freeman’s, and I’m moving to Texas later this summer as the Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State. I’m in the early stages of planning a new novel, and I know my time in Texas will widen my use of setting in the American West.

 

 

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Author photo by Bear Guitirrez


Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public. More from this author →