Friday, September 30, 2016

Kali Fajardo-Anstine: Writing the Outcast

We are always happy here at La Bloga to feature fresh, exciting writers who bring new voices and perspectives to the literary world.  Today it is my pleasure to shine the spotlight on Kali Fajardo-Anstine, a Denver writer making waves with her short stories. 

Kali’s fiction appears in the American Scholar, Boston Review, Southwestern American Literature, the Idaho Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from the University of Wyoming. Kali’s writing focuses on Chicanas in the American West and she is at work on a Depression-era novel set in Denver.


Manuel Ramos Welcome to La Bloga, Kali.  And thanks for taking time to answer a few questions for our readers.  To begin:  Why writing?  What has brought you to the point where you are published and working on a novel? 

Kali Fajardo-Anstine  I write because I’m in love with literature. Long before I wrote stories, I read chapter books and dated encyclopedias. I was sent into the hallway in fourth grade because a teacher caught me reading The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe inside my social studies textbook. My relationship with traditional schooling was always rocky and when failing high school, my AP English teacher kicked me out of class for not turning in any assignments. Before leaving school for good, I handed her an essay on Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People and said that I loved the character Hulga.

Though nothing I have written matches the greatness of the books that inspire me, I hope to someday get closer. I suppose attempting to write a beautiful story is my thank you to the books that kept me company when there was no one else.

MR  Little bit of rebel with a cause - in the fourth grade? C.S. Lewis - and then Flannery O'Connor in high school?  Nice.

Given the focus of your writing (Chicanas in the American West), have you found editors or publishers receptive to your work? That is, have you had to contend with issues of race or gender in order to pursue your writing goals, or have you found varied and encouraging opportunities? Or is it something else entirely?

KFA I haven’t yet tried to place my short story collection or novel with a publisher, but some magazine editors seem excited to see characters like mine represented in literature. I will say that as a writer of color, one from Denver, who is mixed-race, it was lonely starting out. My work was often misread. During my graduate thesis defense, a reader asked how I felt that I was writing stories about poor people. I’ve been asked to put more elements of magic realism in my work. I’ve been asked to explain, in a short story, the entire history of Hispanos in the southwest.

Despite all this, I’ve found a community in writing workshops like VONA (Voice of Our Nation Arts Foundation) and my MFA program at the University of Wyoming, where I worked closely with Joy Williams and Rattawut Lapcharoensap. Both championed my work and gave me the courage to write race and gender in a way that felt true to me.

MR  The support and validation of a good teacher (or mentor) often is the turning point for a writer.  I also owe a debt to a teacher that supported my work.  

How would you describe your professional writing experience, especially to other young writers who are just beginning to pursue their creative dreams?  Has the experience been positive, motivating, discouraging, or something else?

KFA My experience as a writer has been a full one, if anything. My writing has sent me around the country. I’ve taken literary opportunities in California, Wyoming, Florida, and South Carolina. There’s exquisite beauty in the diverse peoples and landscapes of the United States and as a young writer in my twenties, this almost meditative roaming has been vital to my worldview.

Moreover, it’s been isolating. There have been years where the writing hasn’t come so easy and the rejections seem relentless. Because I’ve had some success, I know that these things are cyclical. When I was starting out, I didn’t have this foresight or patience. My advice to young writers is to keep working, even when it seems you’re throwing your soul into a rather off-putting sea. The tide will change.

MR Keep on keepin' on.  Sometimes that's all a writer can do.

I've read only one of your stories (All Her Names, which I thought was excellent), so it's unfair to generalize, but in that one story, your main character, Alicia, is a street-wise young woman who knows what she wants but who also has some regrets and even second-thoughts about her choices. Do you often write about such characters? What is it about Chicanas that makes you want to write about them?

KFA I often write women similar to Alicia. When read together as a collection, I want my stories to create a historical and cultural landscape that is undeniably unique. I want these Chicana characters to feel as real as the lands they inhabit, even if the lands themselves fall victim to mythology.

I write about Chicanas in the American West because I want my region represented in a way that feels accurate, the land as I know it—a populated urban center with skyscrapers, universities, homelessness, and an ongoing cycle of boom and bust. Denver, my Queen City of the Plains.

MR   A rich vein of inspiration, yes, I agree.  Denver, the New West, life in the Rocky Mountains.  

How much of Alicia comes from people in your own life, if any?  Some readers might react negatively to a character who relies on folk medicine "cures" and tags freight train cars under cover of darkness.  Why should the reader care about Alicia?

KFA I’m an outcast. I’m a Chicana. And I’ve certainly known people who paint trains. It’s only natural that these voices come to me. Alicia is sort of an archetypal character. Different versions of her appear throughout the stories, and somewhat in the novel. She’s usually emotionally closed yet funny and sensitive. Alicia, like many of my characters, also carries within her the pain of generational suffering. That is to say, the sorrows of her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are transferred through story and memories of place.

In All Her Names, Alicia has lost her heritage language, she’s been displaced due to gentrification, her mother abandoned her, and her father died of cancer brought on by hazardous working conditions. Even before the story begins, Alicia has known mostly loss. That’s why readers should care about her. She’s deserving of love. Sometimes I wonder, however, if readers expect a greater level of sentimentality from women writers. The ways to hurt another human being are innumerable, and for reasons I can’t quite know, mapping those crimes feels valuable. I think my Chicana characters are often misread as unemotional, numb, and even cruel. But I view them as fierce, even if they are wounded.

MR  I find the subject of your novel-in-progress intriguing -- Depression-era Denver --in fact, I've played around with my own story idea about that time period.  There's an abundance of drama about that time in Colorado:  dustbowl poverty, the political power of the KKK,  the status of various immigrants who worked in the fields, mines, and on the ranches, the mystique of a vanishing prairie and frontier, etc.  What can you tell La Bloga's readers about your novel?

KFA The novel is inspired by my family lore, in particular the tales of my great-grandmother and her sisters. With sections that move between the late 1890s and mid 1930s, the story follows Luz Lopez, daughter of a Pueblo/Spanish woman and a Belgian miner. Luz and her older brother are abandoned by their father in southern Colorado, somewhat for being mixed-race, and sent to fend for themselves in Denver.

The novel in some ways is a story of migration. Luz and her brother cross no physical borders, but as they enter the city, they encounter international characters and customs. And, hey, there’s also snake charming, sharpshooting, and tea leaf reading. 

MR  That sounds great.  I want to read it.  Good luck with the writing and then the process of getting it published.

What do you think is in store for Kali Fajardo-Anstine, the writer?  What would have to happen for you to say you had a perfect day as a writer?

KFA I’d like to find a home for my collection and novel. Then I’d celebrate with a shot of Don Julio, and maybe get a tattoo, a Toni Morrison quote from the end of Beloved. But in general, I’d like my work to reach a wider audience. An eighth-grade teacher in Vermont once sent me class projects her students made after reading my story Any Further West from Boston Review. Their work was remarkable. It was the first time that I saw art created after my writing. That was the perfect day for me as a writer.    

MR  Thank you, Kali -- so glad we've crossed paths, can't wait to read more of your stuff.  I'll see you at Lighthouse on October 9 (Kali and I are both presenting workshops for Lighthouse that weekend.)  Best of luck with the writing.
Manuel Ramos is the author of several novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction books and articles. His collection of short stories, The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories, was a finalist for the 2016 Colorado Book Award. My Bad: A Mile High Noir is scheduled for publication by Arte Público Press in October, 2016.


Anonymous said...

"A shot of Don Julio?" My kind of writer. Can't wait to check out her stories. [Links to her stories would be good.]

Trent Segura said...

You can find some of her work in the links below:

"Any Further West"


"All Her Names" [Behind a paywall]