‘I’m Always Writing Against This Idea That Denver’s a White Space.’

Kali Fajardo-Anstine talks about her new short story collection “Sabrina & Corina,” her obsession with dualities, and Chicano and Indigenous history in Denver.

Adam Morgan | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2,462 words)

 

There’s a section in Robert Bolaño’s 2666 — “The Part About the Crimes” — where women are raped and murdered for nearly 300 pages, their mutilated bodies abandoned in the deserts of northern Mexico. The violence is brutal enough to seem gratuitous, even sadistic, but Bolaño was merely fictionalizing the real-life female homicides of Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. And while 2666 circles these murders like a vulture, the women themselves barely get a chance to speak.

The women in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection of short stories, Sabrina & Corina — Chicana and Indigenous women living in Denver and southern Colorado — suffer similar fates. But we meet their sisters, mothers, and daughters. We meet the men who abuse them. And finally, we hear their voices.

In the title story, a teenaged cosmetology student is tasked with applying her murdered cousin’s funeral makeup. In “Sisters”, a double date leaves one sibling blind. In “Cheesman Park”, a bank teller flees Los Angeles for Denver after she and her mother are attacked, separately, by the men who claim to love them. And in “Any Further West,” a sex worker and her daughter travel in the opposite direction in search of a better life.

Sabrina & Corina is a moving, textured, masterful collection, saturated with a strong sense of place. I spoke with Kali Fajardo-Anstine about her book, the cycles of violence, and the gentrification of her hometown’s Chicano and Indigenous communities.

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Adam Morgan: I know you were born in Denver, but how far back does your family’s history in the city go?

Kali Fajardo-Anstine: My mom’s family has been in Denver since the 1930s when they came up from southern Colorado. I come from a really big artist and storytelling family and I have a sister who’s a musician. I have five sisters and one brother, and we were raised among elders like my great grandmother and my aunties, who lived in different parts of Denver — the Five Points neighborhood, which is pretty gentrified now, and Galapago Street on the West Side, which is the title of one of the stories in Sabrina & Corina.

My biological father’s home was in North Denver, and then my other home was in Arvada, a suburb outside Denver, in a lower middle-class neighborhood. I actually had to look up the demographics of my elementary school yesterday for a piece I’m writing, and it’s 50% white, 40% Latino and other ethnicities. I thought, “Oh, that’s just like me!”

When I was in the second or third grade, we joined the Aztec dance communities in Denver. That’s when we started looking at our family records and learned that we’re not very far removed from the Pueblo. When you go to March Pow Wow in Denver, it’s a very mixed group of people. You’ll see people from all kinds of different communities. But we’re all there. We’re all together.

Growing up around so much art and culture, when did writing first come into your life?

There was a lot of chaos and violence in my childhood because of my biological father, who I don’t have a relationship with anymore. But when I would go between my two different homes, I could take my Little House on the Prairie books or my Chronicles of Narnia books and I would feel safe again because I was back in the story. It was like bringing a safe space with me wherever I went.

And then [in middle school] I went through some pretty dark depression and started writing journals. In the sixth or seventh grade, my mother found them and sent me to therapy because of what I’d written. And I decided if I’m going to get in trouble for writing about how I feel, I’m going to start making things up instead. So that’s when I really started writing short stories, back in middle school. By the time I got to high school, all I wanted to do was read. I was friends with the librarians and then I started working in a bookstore. So yeah, I could feel early on the pull to become a writer.

My mother found [my journals] and sent me to therapy because of what I’d written. And I decided if I’m going to get in trouble for writing about how I feel, I’m going to start making things up instead.

You worked in several bookstores, right?

The main bookstore I worked at was West Side Books in Denver, when I was 15 or 16. People always assume I’m going to say Tattered Cover, with all those clean shelves and everything, but no, I was in the trenches of bookselling. I was around antiquarian and rare books and really eccentric collectors, and I think that’s why my reading taste is so voracious — I don’t discriminate against any genres because I had to know about everything. I worked there through college and then every time I came home, they would give me a job. I was bookselling there when I sold Sabrina & Corina to One World.

Are you comfortable talking about your family and your past?

You can tell from my book that there have been cycles of violence in my family. I knew my biological father but then I also had my father in the household, so we would go between the two of them. When we were in North Denver with my biological father, we didn’t know when we’d get kicked out in the middle of the night. We didn’t know how long his mania would last or if he would slip into a depression. I think it created the worldview that’s in my book.

My biological father was a white man from Detroit with an eighth grade education who moved to Denver in ‘80s when we had a lot of Midwesterners coming in. And then my father who raised me is a white man from Nebraska. So it was kind of a duality of two paternal figures. One was a benevolent white man who brought me books and nurtured me and said “One day you’re gonna grow up to be an author.” And then I had somebody who was like, “One day you’re going to grow up to be an author with all this information I’m giving you about violence.”

Writing this book served as sort of a healing function for me. Just being able to talk to you about this . . . If I had tried to talk to you about this 10 years ago, I would have burst into tears. I think the book was cathartic for me.

Your stories have a very strong sense of place. What drew you to set most of them in your hometown and home state?

I did my MFA at the University of Wyoming and a lot of people in my program were writing about the American West, but they were from somewhere else. And I thought that was really interesting because as a woman with Indigenous ancestry in the American West, I was like, “Why isn’t my voice considered representative of this region?” I really started leaning into that.

And also, place had been something that I’d heard about from so many different generations in my family. First there was the struggle to get up to Denver, and then it was a struggle to own property and then we lost property. So in some ways all the theoretical concerns I was writing about were intricately tied to place. To remove the place would be to gut the work. Denver’s not a character, but Denver is the atmospheric quality of the stories. My novel is set in Denver. This is my Yoknapatawpha County. This is my space to work in.

Can you talk about the role Denver plays in Indigenous and Chicano communities out West?

I grew up with this awareness that my Chicano Indigenous community was the community. And when I got to college at Metro State in Denver, we had the first Chicano Studies program in the nation. We had Corky Gonzales there, we had the Crusade for Justice. [Denver] is a huge part of history, but it’s hidden. It creates this disconnect: How does my community loom so large in my consciousness and in all the choices I make, but when I talk to people on the street they’re like, “What do you mean you’re from Colorado? What do you mean there are brown people here? I thought this was just a white space where weed’s legal.”

I’m always writing against this idea that Denver’s a white space that was settled after World War II. A lot of people think it was an empty free-for-all. I want to show people that we are vibrant, we are here, we have communities with a rich tradition of art and history.


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How has Denver’s gentrification impacted those communities?

The most concerning thing it’s done is displace the populations of color that lived in these neighborhoods. In college, I lived over on the West Side off Inca Street, and my auntie lived like two blocks away, my cousin lived another few blocks away, and I could ride my bike or walk over. Everybody knew each other. When gentrification hit, people started leaving and it was like the opposite of white flight: everyone was pushed to the suburbs and you no longer have that heart of your community. Two years ago, the art gallery that had been in the community for 25 years, where we would go every First Friday for these art openings with the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council, the landlords hiked the rent and they couldn’t afford it, so they had to move. That’s what’s happening. We’re losing community centers and community art spaces and that’s taking the culture with it.

My hope is that we can retain some of them. I think there needs to be some education about how to buy property and earn enough money. But also, we’re getting trained for these jobs that people are coming in and striking it rich with. These are jobs for outsiders coming to Denver. So it kind of feels like it’s stacked against us, like a game we can’t play.

Does Denver have grassroots organizations that are fighting gentrification?

Yes. Definitely. There’s a lot of activism happening. I don’t know if it made national headlines but ink! Coffee had a sandwich sign that said “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014,” and I went to a big rally about that. There are formal channels. People are pushing for affordable housing and housing for artists. When I sold this book, I was living in affordable housing downtown. I wouldn’t be able to live in Denver without that affordable housing. There are some things happening, but it’s just not enough to keep up with all the people coming in with all their money. When I drive by one of the old houses that used to belong to my family, I’m triggered. It’s a deep, deep grief. I think there are a lot of people walking around mourning. You don’t recognize your space anymore. You don’t have access to your space.

I did my MFA at the University of Wyoming and a lot of people in my program were writing about the American West, but they were from somewhere else … I was like, Why isn’t my voice considered representative of this region?

In the past, you’ve said injustice is your muse, because you’re interested in exploring why people hurt each other. Why do people hurt each other?

I think a lot of the injustices we face end up poisoning us. And then you can either heal yourself or perpetuate the injustice on to others. I think people hurt each other because they’ve been hurt badly and they don’t know how to contain that pain. Some of my characters will hold their own pain to the point where they can’t, but others will push their pain on other people. “Cheesman Park” is a good example of people moving different pains around on each other.

Which story did this collection start with?

The first story I wrote from Sabrina & Corina was “Remedies,” and a slightly different version was published in Bellevue Literary Review in 2010. It went on to receive a Best American Non-Required Reading the following year and that was such a source of motivation for me. It’s important to note that around the time I wrote “Remedies,” I also wrote the first drafts of “Ghost Sickness.” That story is set on a college campus that is very much based on where I went to college in Denver, Metro State.

Which story was the most difficult to write?

“Sisters,” hands down. That story is based on an event that occurred in my family generations back, and to write in Doty’s voice while knowing her fate was a heartbreaking experience. But she’s also one of the strongest and most fascinating characters to ever have presented themselves to me. One day, I was in my apartment in Wyoming, and I heard Doty talking through me in a way. I sometimes will pace and speak aloud in my characters’ voices, and Doty had a lot to say, almost as if she was tired of being silenced. She wanted her story told.

I love working in her mind and experiencing that world of the past as she views it. However, certain scenes in that story, particularly the night when violence strikes, hurt me for days, maybe weeks afterward. But I wanted to tell this story and I wanted to show these kind of crimes. I had to for Doty.

How did you settle on “Sabrina & Corina” as the title story?

There were a number of reasons. First, I wanted a title that spoke to the twinning aspects present in my stories. In each of my stories, a type of point/counterpoint relationship exists among family members, lovers, and friends. I am obsessed with duality, night and day, love and hatred, and in terms of the inner-self and how that self is projected onto others. I felt that of all my stories, “Sabrina & Corina” represented this obsession best.

But also, I am a reader and my work is always in conversation with the books that came before me. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think immediately of Franny and Zooey and my love of that book from late high school and my early twenties. I wanted a collection title that sounded familiar yet new at the same time.

What can you tell us about your forthcoming novel?

My novel is based on family lore set between 1875 and 1933, following the generation of my ancestors that migrated north from Southern Colorado to Denver in the 1920s. The book focuses on an 18-year-old clairvoyant named Luz, who works as a laundress with her cousin Lizette. The novel takes a pointed look at the institutional power of the Ku Klux Klan in Denver and also explores mixed-race relations, Wild West shows, and female sexuality from a young indigenous Latina’s perspective. It will be published by One World in late 2020 or early 2021.

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Adam Morgan is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books who writes about place, books, and the arts for The Paris ReviewLos Angeles TimesChicago TribuneChicago magazine, and elsewhere. He now lives in Charlotte, NC.

Editor: Dana Snitzky