Kali Fajardo-Anstine Interviewed by Ahja Fox

Kali Fajardo-Anstine has a novel and story collection forthcoming from One World/ Random House. Her fiction has appeared in The American Scholar, Boston Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Idaho Review, Southwestern American Literature, and elsewhere. Kali has been in residence at Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and Hub City Press. She holds an MFA from the University of Wyoming.

Interviewer: Your Chicana/o heritage is a driving force in your writing. When was it that you felt your ancestors’ stories needed to be told?

Kali Fajardo-Anstine: The world of my childhood was enormous. My earliest memories are situated in the homes of my elders who were multicultural Wild West figures. I remember my great-grandfather Alfonso, who came to Denver from the Philippines in the 1920s, would tinker with cheap jewelry in his basement on Tremont Place while my Great-Grandmother, Esther, would make chili and listen to Patsy Cline in the upstairs kitchen. My five sisters and I would help and while we cooked and cleaned and listened to sad country songs, we learned about our people. My ancestors were incredibly hard-working, generous, kind, and brilliant Coloradans. But they were also poor and brown and this meant our stories were only elevated within our communities. When I began writing seriously in my early twenties, I was reading books by James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Edward P. Jones, Richard Ford, and Katherine Anne Porter, and many, many others. I saw how these authors shined the spotlight on their people, whether they were in Chicago, the South, D.C., or Harlem. I also wanted to write work that was incredibly sophisticated that honored my cultural group, making us more visible in the mainstream.

I: This is a question sent in by Art of Storytelling Co-host/ Co-partner, Steven Dunn: “I remember hearing you read and telling you something like ‘I forgot that I was listening to you read because you made everything feel alive: the setting and the characters.’ You mentioned that your mom used to come to your school and tell stories. Could you talk a little more about that and if that has any effect on how you write/tell/read your stories?”

Kali: My little twin sisters tell a story about our mother driving her old 1992 Suburban on the lawn of the elementary school in her full Aztec garb, honking and waving while the kids were at recess. She was late for a storytelling gig, or at least this is how the story has changed over the years. I have a complicated relationship with my mother that is evident to anyone who has read my work. With that said, much of the complication is due to how similar we are, both in temperate and interests. I’ll most likely write a memoir about her one day.

But, to give you a small idea of how influential she has been, when I decided to move home to Colorado after nearly a decade away, my mother drove us to the Four Corners region, where my ancestors are from, and we hiked Chimney Rock. I’ve always been a cynic and thought it was silly when my mother, at the top, blessed me with sage. As soon as she finished, two eagles drop from the sky. They plunged over my shoulders and my mother said, “They are welcoming you home.” I didn’t want her to know how moved I was, so I turned around as I cried.

I: Sense of place is heavy in your stories, so I am not surprised to see that the era and location of your forthcoming novel are of central importance. What led you to choose the twentieth century and the state of Colorado for your novel Woman of Light? In M.L Tod’s article about the elements of historical fiction, he explains that all fiction has seven elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. Tod claims that these elements fit under the overlying challenge of “bringing the past to life” when implementing history. Your forthcoming book has led you to conduct research. How do you choose what to focus on/include when there is so much to any history?

Kali: I think my decision to write a novel set in the past was a natural one, given how my elders influenced my storytelling. Essentially, they were novelists who chronicled our family, but through the oral tradition instead of the written word. I’ve always wanted to tell the biggest, most important, most aggressively beautiful story I could. The moment in time when my ancestors left the rural life of southern Colorado and entered their new existence in Denver is essentially our family genesis. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my mother’s storytelling, it’s that origin myths are incredibly entertaining and crucial to understanding a group of people.

With that said, I initially tried writing my novel without much research. I was naïve and over-sure of my abilities to imagine the past. Problems arose when I realized I didn’t even know how these people were heating their homes. A lot of my research started out general—what kinds of cars were around, what sort of music was on the radio, how much was rent? I sifted through old newspapers, visited vintage clothing shops, listened to oral histories from the era, and dove through archives across the West. At this point, I moved into my focused research on Hispano, Filipino, and indigenous communities. Now, this is when my heart began to break. I found few records devoted to these groups in the American West from the late 1890s to the 1930s. There’s a rage that ignites nearly all my work and it burned brighter and hotter as I saw, first hand, how erasure works.

I am incredibly lucky, however, because my great-grandmother kept meticulous family notes and my mother interviewed and videotaped the elders in my family before they passed.

I: In your announcement regarding publication of Woman of Light and Sabrina and Corina, you stated that you wrote them “for those who ever felt pushed down, overlooked, rejected, underestimated, unheard and unseen.” Where does that stem from? What do you want your readers and fellow writers to know about the road as a writer?

Kali: I am outcast, through and through. As a kid, I remember feeling this overwhelming sense of fear and shame over my family being too poor, too dysfunctional, too big, too loud, too everything. Over time, that fear and shame gave way to a sense of pride, but the memory of never feeling good enough hasn’t left me. Everything I do, whether it’s my writing or teaching, is to help others feel that the best aspects of themselves are both seen and understood by another. And I hope through my art, at least one person is made to feel less lonely by reading characters who are also outcasts.

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