Keeping the Stories: A Profile of Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Rigoberto González
From the July/August 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The Southern Rocky Mountains are capped in snow and plainly visible from Colorado’s South Platte River Valley, where Denver is located. This is where fiction writer Kali Fajardo-Anstine was born and raised and where she still calls home. Denver and its surrounding area is also the setting of her two books, both published by Penguin Random House imprint One World: the story collection Sabrina & Corina, which was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award, and her new novel, Woman of Light, released in June. 

The novelist in the archives of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, where she received her MFA and conducted research for Woman of Light. (Credit: Caleb Santiago Alvarado)

Although the sun shines brightly the morning we’re set to meet, the spring air in Denver is crisp. Fajardo-Anstine picks me up from my hotel in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, rolling up in her compact SUV. She is sporting a Southwestern chic ensemble: a pair of boots, fitted jeans, and a glamorous black blouse. We’re about to embark on a tour of her personal landmarks in the city.

“I began writing the novel long before Sabrina & Corina, when I was still a teenager,” she tells me as we pull out into traffic. The second oldest of seven children, Fajardo-Anstine recalls strangers expressing dismay at the size of her family. “But what really got some people,” she says, “is that my parents had six daughters and only one son. I remember people saying they felt sorry for my parents for having so many girls. There was an awful subtext there, that our lives as daughters weren’t as valuable as sons.” 

Although those kinds of remarks didn’t have an adverse effect on her self-esteem, she struggled with depression when she was young because she didn’t feel she fit in culturally or socially with her peers. She turned to books for comfort, often skipping class in high school to engross herself in reading at the park. It was during her adolescence that she began to crave more from literature; she wanted to see herself and others like her in novels. “I wanted to make sure that someone like me could open a book and see themselves in that space,” she says.

When her English teacher callously suggested that Fajardo-Anstine wasn’t cut out for school, it reaffirmed what she had been feeling for some time, so she dropped out just weeks into her senior year. Undaunted, she was more determined than ever to someday become a novelist. “I didn’t let it stop me,” she says. “I got my GED the next year, and I enrolled in summer classes at Metropolitan State University in Denver, eventually becoming a full-time student.” 

While an undergraduate studying English and Chicana/o studies at MSU, she pursued her dream of becoming a novelist, writing passages and chapters toward a book she titled “The Scar,” because “it was all about the metaphysical scars the women in my family had,” she says. But Fajardo-Anstine set aside the project in 2011, after enrolling in the MFA program at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, about 130 miles north of Denver. During her time in the program she was encouraged to hone her skills with story-writing, which is how Sabrina & Corina began taking shape, under the tutelage of Joy Williams, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and Brad Watson. She also credits novelist Mat Johnson, who was her instructor at a VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) workshop in 2010, with critical mentorship.

“I had an epiphany at a workshop,” she recalls. “The stories that were being celebrated were about white men coming from the East, pushing West, and finding themselves in the so-called wilderness. And I thought to myself, ‘I’m already doing this, writing about the West.’”  

Our first stop is a two-story brick house that sits alongside Tremont Place in the Clements District of Denver, near the Five Points neighborhood. “This is where my great-grandmother Esther lived with my great-grandfather Alfonso Fajardo,” she says. “She was of Pueblo descent, Mexican, and Belgian. He was from the Philippines, by way of California.”

Fajardo-Anstine is proud of her mixed ancestry, something she wanted to bring across in Woman of Light, a multigenerational saga that moves between two time lines. The first takes place in the 1930s and centers on Luz “Little Light” Lopez, a mixed-race young woman working as a laundress whose extraordinary gift of sight makes her a sought-after tea-leaf reader. Her familial circle also includes her brother Diego, a factory worker and snake charmer; her cousin Lizette; and their strong-willed aunt Maria Josie. As racial tensions begin to rise in the greater Denver community, Luz starts to experience visions about her family’s past, dating to the 1800s. 

The novel’s second time line relates the compelling story of Luz’s ancestors: Pidre, a “mixed-blood” Indigenous man, and his Mexican wife, Simodecea, who also contend with racial injustice. As the two narratives entwine and unfold, a startling portrait takes shape of how conflicts over land and political territory are fueled by racial strife and imposed segregations, even as communities and individual families reflect a much more integrated society. Though these communities are far from perfect, people still fight for—and sometimes find—happiness, like Lizette, whose urgent motivations include finding true love.                 

“There’s still this strong need to define who we are based on a racial caste system,” Fajardo-Anstine says. “My multiethnic existence is a protest against a racial hierarchy. If you ask me about my identity, prepare to hear about a complicated ancestry. I am a Chicana of Indigenous and mixed ancestry, and the story of who I am is inextricably tied to this country.”  

We walk around the block to reach the alley and get a better view of the back of the house, which has since been sold. The plot where a garden once flourished is now paved over in an effort to modernize the structure. 

“This used to be my family’s social space, where they gathered with their Greek and Italian friends,” Fajardo-Anstine points out. “I wanted to capture that multicultural Denver in my novel because that was the reality of the city’s history. I find the unique convergence of cultures inspiring, and without them I would not exist.”

Finding that inclusive history, however, proved to be a challenge during her research. She sifted through the archives and records of places such as the Denver Public Library, the History Colorado Center, and the Center of Southwest Studies in Durango, Colorado, but came up short. “We were not in the archives.” she says with chagrin. “The historical record was filled with stories of white Americans. I even came across a collection of Klan hoods with family names sewed inside the brim. But my people’s narratives were few and far between. So I went to the storytellers, the elders, to get their accounts of history.” 

In truth, she had already been accumulating those stories over the years by way of the women in her family: her aunts, her godmother, and her mother. “Women shared the stories,” she says. “I also grew up with mostly sisters, which is why my worldview is not patriarchal. I saw how women made things happen, and not necessarily in traditional gender roles, like my godmother, who looked so cool in her leather jackets.” Fajardo-Anstine credits this lived experience as an important influence in the creation of her strong, sometimes defiant female characters, like Simodecea, the Mexican sharpshooter in Woman of Light. In the book Simodecea amazes the crowds with her skills. Fajardo-Anstine writes of how, when Simodecea poses for publicity photos for her show, “her gaze spoke for her. What did it have to say? She laughed inside her mind. I’m a damned good shot, her eyes told the world.” Those who forget that message and do her wrong, readers later learn, will pay a hefty price.     

Our next stop is in the Highlands neighborhood: West Side Books, where Fajardo-Anstine worked from age sixteen to twenty-two, and then sporadically until she was thirty—“whenever I needed a job,” she says. We are greeted by the store owner, Lois Harvey, who enlists Fajardo-Anstine to sign stock because her story collection keeps selling out. 

It is here that Fajardo-Anstine cultivated her dream of becoming a writer. “I knew I wanted to stay close to books, and at one point I thought I would become a librarian,” she recalls. The popularity of novels signaled to her that if she wanted to become an author, she should become a novelist. “I wanted to be part of this wall of fiction,” she says, gesturing toward the shelves.

After we’ve browsed the packed shelves, as we prepare to head out, Harvey gives Fajardo-Anstine an affectionate hug and a small gift, a metal charm in the shape of a sacred heart, a token of her recent trip to Arizona. “She’s been my biggest champion,” Fajardo-Anstine states proudly.

Outside, on Galapago Street, we pause in front of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, a Gothic structure built in 1888. This is where Fajardo-Anstine’s brother recently baptized his baby, and where one of her sisters’ quinceañera was celebrated. But it’s the unassuming house just down the block that she wants us to visit. The house became a refuge for gay men dying of AIDS in the 1980s, men who had been alienated from their families but found a home among a sympathetic family who had always been queer-accepting.

“This is where my aunt Lucy lived for fifty years,” she says. “She inspired both Luz and her cousin Lizette in my novel. My aunt Lucy’s brother Jake, who was gay, and who was also a snake charmer in real life, inspired Diego. Their sister Mary, a lesbian, inspired Maria Josie.” Despite these connections to her immediate family, Fajardo-Anstine wants to be clear that Woman of Light is not a memoir or a biography of the Fajardo family. 

“The novel is what my imagination was capable of inventing,” Fajardo-Anstine says. “It actually covers such a small fraction of my family story. I want to believe the book preserves a certain knowledge about the people who inhabited this land and who continue to have ties to the land despite dramatic shifts in its demographic.”

Indeed, the novel follows the contours of a changing Colorado landscape during the Great Depression. Economic need forced many in the rural areas of Southern Colorado to move toward urban spaces for survival. “I became fascinated by the generation that had to reinvent itself and deal with a difficult adjustment in the cities,” she says. 

Aunt Lucy’s house holds much sentimental value for Fajardo-Anstine because it was also her haven during her college years. “I would visit her often to get a homemade meal,” she says. “But Auntie Lucy also nurtured me with the stories about our family history and ancestry.” As to the detail about Aunt Lucy’s gift of premonitions, which shows up in the character Luz in Woman of Light, Fajardo-Anstine waves her hand away: “We didn’t consider it supernatural or magical; it was just normal in our family. I know that those who read this will be skeptical about it, and I’m fine with that.” 

Aunt Lucy’s house, however, is no longer in the family’s possession because Denver is currently going through another dramatic shift: gentrification. “It’s becoming wealthier and whiter and getting too expensive, serving a certain commercial taste and hipster living. But the same could be said of many cities around the country,” she says. And yet Fajardo-Anstine takes hope from the fact that there are people and spaces still trying to preserve history and culture, even if it’s through the act of memory and storytelling.

For lunch we meet up with Fajardo-Anstine’s mother, Renee, at the Blue Bonnet, one of the oldest family-owned restaurants in Denver, which also boasts of being the first to obtain a liquor license after Prohibition. Though it opened its doors in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it became a Mexican restaurant.

Since Renee Fajardo runs the Journey Through Our Heritage program in the Department of Chicana/o Studies Department at MSU, she is well aware of her daughter’s place in Latinx letters, but she is equally invested in acknowledging the family’s Indigenous roots and their historical connections to Colorado. Our conversation takes us everywhere from the Ludlow Massacre of 1914—an attack on striking coal miners and their families by the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel and Iron Company guards in Ludlow, which resulted in the deaths of twenty-five people, including eleven children—to the displaced working-class Mexicans of the Auraria neighborhood, where MSU now stands. Though the Ludlow Massacre is not mentioned explicitly in her novel, Fajardo-Anstine wanted to reference it tangentially, paying homage to one of its first victims by giving his name to the Greek owner of Tikas Market in Woman of Light. Other histories are woven more directly into the novel’s plot, such as that of St. Cajetan Catholic Church which was founded in 1922 and is now part of the MSU campus—it is there that Lizette gets married.

Our final stop is in downtown Denver, with its historic buildings standing among the more modern corporate architecture. The older structures, Fajardo-Anstine notes, “may not have been built for people like me, but it was important to imagine people like me moving through them in my novel.” She points out a neoclassical revival–style building, which was the Chamber of Commerce from 1910 to 1950 and has since been converted into lofts. “I lived there during the early months of the pandemic, while I was deep in the novel,” she says.

It is also the setting of the law offices where Luz eventually gets a job after Diego is run out of town by a violent white mob. And it is here that Luz has an encounter with a KKK march, an effort by white supremacists to assert dominance after a highly publicized police murder of a young Mexican man is about to go to trial. That incident is also inspired by the marches witnessed by Fajardo-Anstine’s aunt Lucy, who, like Luz, hid from sight for her safety. Fajardo-Anstine knew that by setting a novel in these early periods of American history, she couldn’t be shy about the discrimination and prejudice that people of color and other ethnic minorities experienced.        

“When I was working on this book, I didn’t realize how much of a mirror it was going to be to the contemporary period,” she says. “It became quite apparent to me in the summer of 2020, when downtown Denver was active with Black Lives Matter marches and protests for Elijah McClain, a young Black man who was killed while in police custody. At one point there were right-wing militias patrolling the streets with rifles, so I stayed indoors, and I thought, ‘Here I am hiding out like Luz, like my Auntie Lucy. Has anything really changed?’”

Luz, however, is also a pillar of strength, whose intelligence gives her insights into the fraught world around her. She’s fluently bilingual and literate and becomes knowledgeable about legal issues as she comes across the documents critical to the social justice case surrounding the murder of the young Mexican man. “Literacy was not prevalent for my ancestors and people like Lucy at that time, but making sure that future generations were educated was extremely important to my family,” Fajardo-Anstine says. “So I had to write Luz as a curious and resourceful woman, despite the lack of educational opportunities.” It also mattered to her that Luz maintains her belief in her premonitions—and herself—even as she delved into the abstract and bureaucratic world of lawyers.

“I had the whole law thing covered,” Fajardo-Anstine says coyly. “My father’s an attorney, my mother studied law, and my little sister, Piper, and brother, Tim, both graduated from law school.” Though she grew up knowing about the virtues of the law, she also learned how it could be bent to favor certain groups over others. But it was while working as an office manager for the League of Women Voters of Denver that she realized how someone like Luz, as a secretary, could have access to all the same knowledge the degreed lawyers had. This allowed the narration to remain centered on Luz instead of making her peripheral as a white lawyer became an important character in the novel.     

We walk into the Renaissance Hotel lobby, which was another work space for Fajardo-Anstine in the summer of 2020. The hotel is home to sixteen paintings by the muralist Allen Tupper True, known for his depictions of a romanticized American West, many envisioning Indigenous life before the arrival of Europeans. A few of them are prominently displayed, high up above eye level, like miracle paintings on church walls. It is a fitting end point to the day’s tour. A final lesson about history: Mythology is intriguing, but reality is much more interesting. 

Fajardo-Anstine takes in the vastness of the building. “I am frustrated by our nation, but I am also inspired by my ancestors and people like us,” she says, “because despite oppression we are still able to imagine a future.” Just like the characters in Woman of Light. 


Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.