As our April short story writing theme comes to a close, I’m very excited to share my conversation with Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of the beautifully captivating short story collection, Sabrina & Corina. Rooted in feminine power, these stories explore the heritage, relationships and fiercely believable lives of Latina and indigenous women living in the Southwest.
I fell in love with this collection from the first story, “Sugar Babies,” which follows Sierra, a young girl who is assigned the to care for a sack of sugar cane, as if it were a real baby, for a school project during the return of her distant mother. Through caring for this “sugar baby” and trying to understand the resentment and love she feels towards her mother, Fajardo-Anstine highlights the duality of emotions we feel for the people who have loved and abandoned us.
Despite the violence and abandonment of men, the working class women that bring life to these stories are resilient as they navigate their lives with a fierce loyalty to family and love for their homelands.
These stories have stayed with me since finishing the book and I can’t wait to read it again. I was so fortunate to speak with Kali Fajardo-Anstine over the phone last week, where we discussed the lack of working class women in represented in literature, her matriarchal Colorado roots, and how this beautiful book came into being.
Kailey Brennan: I'm really excited to talk to you about your collection. I absolutely loved it. I really haven't read a lot of books about the Latino community and I thought your book was so well done. You have a real gift for storytelling.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine: Thank you. I really appreciate that so much and I'm glad that like you read a book about us, especially if you haven't read very many about the different Latino communities that exist.
KB: Yeah. I don't know if that's just me not being exposed to this kind of literature or if there isn’t a lot representing your community out there.
KFA: I think we definitely don't get published as much as other groups. It's really hard for Latinas to get reviews in major magazines and things like that. So I think it's a combination of people are just not exposed to our work because a lot of our work is on the small independent presses. We're not getting as many book deals and some other writers.
KB: I've been seeing your book everywhere on Instagram, in the bookstagram world, so I hope that you're getting all the love and recognition.
KFA: Thank you! Instagram is my favorite of the social media platforms, so the fact that's where the book lives - on Instagram - I love it.
KB: So within your collection, most, if not all, of the stories are about women, through a woman’s perspective. Can you speak to what made you want to give these women a voice through your fiction?
KFA: So it was not a conscious choice. I didn't set out thinking, I'm going to write a book about women. I actually didn't even set out thinking I was going to write a book. I was just writing stories. Then one of my professors at the University of Wyoming where I got my MFA, Rattawut Lapcharoensap - he wrote the book Sightseeing - he said, “you're writing about a community over and over again. Just from different angles.” So that's when I actually started to reflect and realize that I was writing these stories about women.
The reason, I think, it's so woman centric is because that's my experience. I'm a woman. I have five sisters. I came from an incredibly matriarchal family where the women in my family are the keepers of the story and of all the traditions. I wasn't around my biological father's family. There were men in my life, but I came from an incredibly female worldview.
KB: You talk a lot about working class women, which I love because, again, I don't feel like I read that much about this group. Do feel that working class women and working class Latino women are underrepresented or sort of looked over?
KFA: I think another interesting thing about this is that Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States, but we're all considered one group. But there's so many different cultural groups within the greater Latinex experience. The people I'm writing about come out of the Southwest - a mixed people from Native American ancestry, from the Pueblos and Northern New Mexico, so they've never immigrated to the United States or anything. They've always been placed here in the Southwest. I definitely did not see books about my community very often. I think some of Rudolfo Anaya and a few others were writing about Chicanos from Colorado. But in terms of mainstream literary fiction, I was super frustrated that I didn’t see us represented.
I think working class literature as it pertains to women, especially, is overlooked. It’s often that I'll read fiction, and I’m thinking, what did these people do for jobs? They're going to these fancy lake houses on the East Coast. Where did they get all this money to buy that property?
I come from people who work and I worked. I'm not one of those writers that work in academia. These are the kinds of stories I wanted to tell because I find working class lives to be the most interesting. It’s the world I come from.
KB: I agree. I think that's probably why I was so drawn to these stories as well because I question that a lot when I read. I always want to know what people are doing for work. I come from a working class family and I'm still struggling to like get my shit together. (laughs) So I’m always curious about how people are making money and what they are doing for work.
KFA: Yeah. And I talked about this a lot when people ask me about my MFA experience. I went to one program that was putting me into debt so I dropped out and got into the University of Wyoming, where I was fully funded. I think that's so important to talk about. A lot of people can afford to go to these programs but there are a lot of people are just going into debt. So I think it sways the kinds of literature that we're getting out of the programs.
KB: Definitely. Can you speak about your connection with Colorado - your life, your family history- since a lot of your stories are set there?
KFA: We can't trace how far we go back because some of my ancestors were baptized on the Picuris Pueblo and Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico and the records vanish at a certain point. So these were indigenous people that were colonized by Spain and then mixed with other groups of people, such as Europeans. I have a great grandfather who came to Denver in 1920s from the Philippines and I have a Jewish grandmother. So my characters are essentially these people that came out of the new Spain, so to speak. But in order to survive, they were always mixing with new groups.
I just thought we were normal. A lot of people I knew had Spanish last names and we cooked the same kinds of foods. A lot of us don’t speak Spanish anymore, myself included, because it's something we lost along with our indigenous languages and other languages in the family. But I thought our group was so normal and wondered why didn’t this make sense to people outside of this place?
My current history is I was born here, I was raised here, I lived in different parts of the city. I watched gentrification happening in real time and I moved away in my twenties where I lived in different places following different literary opportunities. But then I decided, in 2016, that I was never going to finish my book if I was working all the time.
So at 30 years old, I moved back home with my parents and I got a part time job book selling and working as a secretary. I wrote my ass off and that's when I was able to get my book deal.
I think what changed for me is that I came back to Denver, I came back to the place that I was actually writing about, that had sort of become the realm of story for me. I was able to take the story realm and put it together with the physical location of where I was.
KB: What were you doing before?
KFA: So I was always writing and working on stories. I didn't decide to just quit everything in my life and come home with my parents. I taught for a year in the composition writing program at Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colorado. I just visited Durando which was such an incredible experience. Fort Lewis has free tuition for Native American students because it used to be a native boarding school, so it has a pretty ugly history. I felt so connected to my students and to the Southwest there. Before that, I was in Key West. I worked for literary nonprofit. Before Key West, I was in South Carolina. I had a fellowship at Hub City Press. I went to a lot of different locations that couldn't be more different than Colorado. Being in those locations helped me to understand the place that I came from better.
KB: Are any of your stories autobiographical?
KFA: A lot of my stories pull elements from my own live. I would say that all of them do. I don't invent things out of thin air. I live in the world and I see things and I experience things. Sometimes I do invent things but I just find our own lives so interesting. For example, I really raised a sugar baby when I was in middle school. The school system invented that, not me. Then in some uglier cases, the story “Sisters” is based on an act that happened to an ancestor of mine. I like to pull things together and I'm very interested in structure and plot. I'll take these different elements of my life and characters and people that I know. It's like weaving a quilt. I just put them together in a way that I feel looks beautiful.
KB: The cycle of violence against women really stood out to me. The story, “Sisters” that you just mentioned, broke my heart. Do you think we are having enough conversations about violence towards women in the Latino community or at all? Or do you think it's not being addressed?
KFA: So violence against women, specifically, is something that like I've heard, statistically, impacts all classes and races, almost equally. Which is something that's really interesting because it's so under reported. I don't think it's spoken about enough in all communities. I remember when I was in South Carolina, I met this very wealthy woman and she like owned half the town. Someone told me that she'd been a victim of domestic violence in her previous marriage. I was thinking, but she's so wealthy and she has so much. It was an eye opening experience for me.
The reason I choose to talk about it is I come from violence. I come out of that kind of reality. When I was growing up, I felt so alone and so ashamed of what I was experiencing and seeing. I couldn't tell anybody about it because, that's one of the great ways this kind of violence survives. There's all this shame attached to it. Some people have said that my stories are too violent or they're too dark. And I think that's fine. They might be too sad for some people, but I think for other people, reading about these kinds of stories will make them feel less alone if they've experienced that kind of violence. And if they haven't, maybe this can make them more empathetic and pay more attention to the lives of women since they might not even know about what we're experiencing.
KB: A lot of the stories, I noticed, have a speaker or protagonist that only has one parent, either losing them to drug abuse or suicide. Was this something else that came out of your own experiences that you wanted to talk about?
KFA: Yeah. I don't want to get into too much autobiography, but I definitely have an abandonment experience in my life. When I give talks, I speak about how my biological father was no longer in my life and how that was having my heart broken for the first time. I was so young. I think a lot of people know what it feels like to be under parented or have a missing parent. I still have my father that raised me, so it wasn't like I didn't have a father figure. But I think that there's so many of us who don't get enough from our parents in a way that we need and it's an emotion that I wanted to explore because I felt it so deeply.
I think, for my stories in particular, the child is trying to figure out why it's happening. Like in “Sugar Babies”, I feel really sad for Sierra’s mom. She had Sierra so young. So I think that there are ways to talk about it where it's not just the one side of that the parent, as an evil person for doing this to a child.
KB: That's what I really loved about your stories, actually. Even though, as in this example, the mother wasn't there, she was just a flawed human. I felt that deeply in your stories.
KFA: I think about that a lot too. I still love people that have hurt me. I want to explore that in characters.
KB: Why did you choose the Sabrina & Corina as the title of this collection?
KFA: It’s kind of funny, when I originally wrote most of these stories is my thesis at the University of Wyoming, I originally called it “Sugar Babies and other stories”. But I ended up moving away from “Sugar Babies” because I started getting funny comments, like, this isn't the kind of sugar baby I expected. (laughs)
As I wrote more stories, some of my character got older and sugar babies didn’t feel like it represented the theme anymore. But what I did notice was that all my characters sort of experience dualities within themselves and with their partners and their sisters and loved ones.
I think Sabrina & Corina really showcases that sort of dark double, that duality that all of us have within ourselves. Sometimes when I give readings, people will ask me, who do you identify with more, Sabrina or Corina? And I say, they're all of me because they came out of me. And I think in some ways I was sort of splitting. There was something in my psyche that I wanted to split and think about the two different sides of women in that way. I feel like they kind of represent all the struggles in the stories.
KB: That was one of my favorite stories as well. You mentioned briefly that the stories were part of a thesis, but I was curious about what your writing process look like for this book. Did you have a routine? How long did it take you?
KFA: So when I was writing this book, I was really learning how to be a serious writer. I didn't know how to revise when I first started writing this book. I did not know how to plot. And those are all things that you need to have a steady grasp on and do them in increments. “Remedies” was the first story for this collection that I wrote. I would get these creative bursts, like I could be out at a party, drinking and talking to people and suddenly I'd be like, I have to run home! I feel like I have to write! I would only be able to write on demand, when that creative energy would show up.
And it was throughout my MFA program where I learned through deadlines and I learned through reading steadily how to show up at the page or at the desk most days and just try to write. So a lot of the stories were written in sort of creative bursts and then revised over a span of years, in some cases.
It’s totally different from how I write my novel. I've been having to take a break from working on it because of the promotion for Sabrina & Corina, but when I'm deep into my novel, I'll make sure that I'm at least hitting a thousand words a day, five days a week.
KFA: Yeah. That's not typical for the stories because in some ways you can finish faster. I used to finish a story in about a week and then I revise for God knows how long. A novel- you can't write in a week. (laughs)
KB: Can you tell us about your new novel?
KFA: Yes! So it’s under contract with Oneworld as well. We don't know exactly the pub day but it’s due in the fall of this year. It’s an epic in scope and spans 1875 to 1933 in southern Colorado in Denver. It follows a wild west performing family in the original generation. Because of a racially motivated act of violence, the family members flee to Denver. So it's about them making their way, but it examines, specifically, Luz, who's a tea leaf reader. She's 18 years old and she's just trying to figure out her life. Her brother Diego, he's a snake charmer and a factory line man, gets a white girl pregnant. Because of that, he gets sent away and Luz needs to figure out how she's going to survive in this world without a male's income.
So it does examine a lot of the same elements that Sabrina & Corina has in it, but I did it in a larger scope and historical. I totally love writing historical fiction. Maybe I'll always do this, or a mix of it, I’m sure.
KB: That sounds really good. Historical fiction seems so intimidating to me! But I love reading it.
KFA: I think I was intimidated at first. My agent one day was like, have you done any research? And I was like, what do you mean? No? She said, you need to start researching. (laughs) I absolutely fell in love with learning about the past and seeing how it's not that different from today. People are people.
KB: One last question, that is not book related. I saw on Instagram that you are a Game of Thrones fan. I’m a huge fan also and I’m wondering how you think it's going to end?
KFA: (Laughs) I don’t know. My secret hope is that Arya is going to win the whole thing. I always most identified with her in the earlier seasons, which I feel like were better before they went off book. I haven’t read the book, but you can just tell. But Arya was just so badass and wild and feminist. Then she got kind of consumed by hatred. I don’t know how it will end but maybe she will be the winner.
KB: I just love hearing people's theories because everyone on the Internet is talking about it. I have no idea how it will end either.
KFA: There's all those grand theories surrounding the white walkers and who really is one and it’s become too much for me to wrap my head around.
KB: I recently got stuck in a youtube theory video black hole and I'm like, what am I doing with myself? (laughs)
KFA: That actually sounds fun.
KB: It was actually. Well thank you so much for answering my questions. I really loved this book and I can’t wait to share this.
KFA: Thank you so much for asking me. I really love when I talk to an interviewer who responded like you are to the book. Thank you so much for like enjoying my stories.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine is from Denver, Colorado. She is the author of the debut short story collection, Sabrina & Corina from One World/ Random House, a historical novel to follow. Her fiction has appeared in The American Scholar, Boston Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Idaho Review, Southwestern American Literature, andelsewhere. Kali has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, and Hedgebrook. She has an MFA from the University of Wyoming.