Q&A: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s “Woman of Light”
National Book Award finalist and MSU Denver alumna talks cultural survival and familial storytelling in her new novel.
Time and place shape the stories we live.
Over a decade in the making, Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s novel “Woman of Light” weaves vibrant characters through a nonchronological, intergenerational timeline. Anchored in 1930s Denver with the nearby Lost Territory an omnipresent backdrop, the story interrogates the impact of past family members’ actions, which ripple like the water in protagonist Luz’s teacup before one of her prophetic readings.
“To be able to write about my ancestors is the most joyous thing … It’s made me understand them, myself and my culture,” she told author Steven Dunn at her Tattered Cover reading June 8.
Fajardo-Anstine’s storytelling is quick and sharp, iridescent and expansive. The result is a rollicking summer read that’s easy to dive into and hard to put down.
RED interviewed Fajardo-Anstine, author of the National Book Award-nominated short-story collection “Sabrina & Corina” and an English and Chicana/o Studies graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver, to discuss the widely anticipated work, released by Penguin Random House on June 7.
What made you decide to pursue an intergenerational timeline for this novel?
“Woman of Light” opens with an abandoned baby, Pidre, in 1868. He’s left by his mother under mysterious circumstances near a pueblo on the banks of an arroyo. Though Pidre is just an infant when we first meet him on that starry night, throughout the novel we follow the lives of his children and grandchildren — all of whom possess special gifts. Luz, our protagonist, can read tea leaves with the ability to see back and forth in time. Her brother, Diego, is a snake charmer and a factory worker.
These characters, while living nearly 60 years apart in time, showcase how the past informs the present. This is especially important for the Lopez family, as their history and stories are at risk of being obliterated.
This is a story that is not uncommon for many Chicanx families of Colorado, and throughout my time living in various parts of the state while writing this novel, each time period came into sharper focus.
There’s a musical quality to the syntax that causes the narrative to sing. How do sound and music factor into your writing? How do oral traditions affect the storytelling?
Throughout “Woman of Light,” storytelling is used both as a form of entertainment but also as a means of cultural survival. When we first meet Luz, it’s downtown at a chile-harvest festival on the banks of the Platte River, reading the fortune of an old man in a cowboy hat, as she sees his struggle with health problems. Later in the novel, Luz’s Auntie Maria Josie, who cares for her and her brother, says she forgot her mother and father because the stories related to them and their untimely deaths are too hard to recall.
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With a character like Luz, who through her gifts can access lost family stories, there’s a certain level of magic. The lyrical prose and storytelling in “Woman of Light” are a means of re-creating the singsong quality of our ancestral stories — it’s a fully immersive way to go along with Luz on this adventure.
Amid backdrops of violence, exploitation and loss, “Woman of Light” offers a message of love and hope. How can historical fiction help us address contemporary struggles to find the same?
“Woman of Light” addresses many pressing issues of today — from the impacts of historical trauma, racism, class struggle and more. But one of the big questions I’m asking with this novel is: “How has human culture evolved over time, and how have we changed or remained the same?”
After Luz goes to work for David, a young Greek American attorney in Denver, she sees how the bureaucracy of the city functions to uphold the status quo. David’s big case involves the police killing of a young Mexican man from the Westside. Though this young man was brutally beaten to death, the police claim he had simply fallen to his death as an accident.
My question for readers is: “How does this differ or feel similar to our current reality and relationship with brutality in the United States?”
Your mom is also a prolific storyteller. How does her work influence the work you’re doing?
Like Luz in “Woman of Light,” I’m not the first storyteller in my family. My mother, Renee Fajardo, who runs the Journey Through Our Heritage Program at MSU Denver, is a voracious and gifted storyteller. Her passion for preserving our cultural history and stories was undoubtedly passed down to me, much in the same way the characters in “Woman of Light” pass their gifts between different generations.
This is an aspect of our community and culture that I love — I’m thinking of friends who are fourth- or fifth-generation bead workers, painters or musicians. So much of our artistic and cultural expression is passed down like stories.
What are you working on next?
I’m excited to move to Texas later this summer as the endowed chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University. I’ll be teaching in the MFA program and am beyond delighted to work with these promising writers.