Denver novelist Kali Fajardo-Anstine on the decade it took to write ‘Woman of Light’

Listen Now
44min 23sec
Courtesy of Alyson McClaran/MSU Denver
Kali Fajardo-Anstine the author of “Woman of Light,” is interviewed about her new book by Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner on June 7, 2022 at Tattered Cover Bookstore.

Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s incandescent new novel “Woman of Light” is set in both Denver and Southern Colorado. Following four generations of Hispano and Indigenous women, including a sharpshooter, a clairvoyant, and a mirror maker, “Woman of Light” alternates between the 1860s and 1930s.

But its themes are thoroughly contemporary – the wealth gap, police brutality, and migration.

Fajardo-Anstine's literary debut, "Sabrina & Corina," was a finalist for The National Book Award. For the Colorado release of “Woman of Light,” she spoke with Colorado Matters Senior Host Ryan Warner at The Tattered Cover Bookstore on Colfax Ave. in Denver. The following has been edited for clarity and length:

Warner: There are four generations in this book, but in the earliest pages – even before the table of contents – you make it clear that you are the embodiment of the fifth generation. How would you describe your connection to these characters?

Fajardo-Anstine: These characters are all inspired by my ancestors. Luz, for example, who is our guide through this big adventure, Luz is based on my own Auntie Lucy, who was my great grandmother Esther's sister. When I was growing up, I heard all kinds of stories about their lives, coming up from Southern Colorado in the mining camps. I remember being in their homes, my great grandmother lived over on the edge of Five Points with my grandpa Alfonso. My Auntie Lucy lived on the West Side with my Uncle Abel. And so every character in this book basically has an ancestral mirror from my own family. When I was working on this book (it took me over 10 years), it felt like I was visiting my friends and my family and would make me feel really at home and warm.

Warner: To be clear, are any of the characters based on family members you never knew?

Fajardo-Anstine: Definitely.

Warner: So there was a certain amount of channeling that had to happen here?

Fajardo-Anstine: Well, some people don't believe channeling is real, but I'm not one of those people! So yeah. One of the characters, Maria Josie, is the matriarch of this entire family in 1933 in Denver. She is a masculine woman. She prefers the company of women herself. She is a lesbian and she walks north to the city in the 1920s. She's based on my aunt Mary and I never met my aunt Mary, but I heard so many stories of her growing up. I heard about her motorcycle, I heard about her doctor girlfriend. And just hearing those stories, I would have this vivid image of her and it was like I knew her.

Warner: This book unfolds in two places: Metro Denver and Southern Colorado. Your protagonist, Luz Lopez, is born in what you call ‘The Lost Territory,’ the sacred lands of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. At a young age, Luz and her brother Diego come to live with their aunt in Denver. Their abusive father has abandoned them, their mother, an alcoholic, simply can't care for them. Luz (and it's fitting that her name should mean light because she is our guide) has a gift. What is her gift?

Fajardo-Anstine: She starts by reading tea leaves and she's pretty good at it. Sometimes she sees more than she would like. The opening of the novel is set at a fairgrounds over by the Platte River and Luz is reading tea leaves, and she's seeing further into people's lives and their personal lives than they would like to know. But as Luz goes on throughout the story, she actually starts having visions. And these visions are fully immersive and they're taking over her life. So there are a lot of sections of this book where you're thrown into the 1860s, you're suddenly in a wild west show, you're seeing people get attacked by bears, you're meeting sharpshooters, and all of that is coming through Luz's gift.

Warner: Have you had your tea leaves read?

Fajardo-Anstine: I've had some things read. I actually have a really interesting story. About 10 years ago, I went with my mother and my siblings to see some psychic in Omaha, Nebraska, where my dad is from. And I told the psychic that I was really worried that I would never, ever be able to publish books. And the woman looked at me and she said, ‘You're going to publish books and they're going to mean a lot to a lot of people.’ And I just thought, ‘Okay, well that doesn't make me feel any better. I'm still really worried it's never going to happen.’ But here I am, so I don't know, maybe she was right.

Warner: Is that psychic someone you can track down?

Fajardo-Anstine: We tried! We were just in Omaha and we were looking and it's like the shop evaporated. It’s like we all, as a family, just invented it.

Courtesy of Alyson McClaran/MSU Denver
Kali Fajardo-Anstine, the author of “Woman of Light,” is interviewed about her new book by Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner on June 7, 2022 at Tattered Cover Bookstore.

Warner: When you were a kid, did you find yourself daydreaming or imagining?

Fajardo-Anstine: My parents actually would say my first words – it wasn't a word – I asked, ‘what's it?’ And I wanted to know what other words were and so I kept asking what things were. And I think a lot of that curiosity has gotten me into some trouble in my life – always asking, always demanding, and always knowing when things are a little off. Adults don't like that in a kid. But it's definitely been a part of me for as long as I've been around.

Warner: Let's go back to Luz Lopez who, at first, works in a laundry that's located at York and Colfax. What is Denver like in the early 1930s for a young woman of color? And how do you step into her shoes as a writer?

Fajardo-Anstine: Well, a lot of this was done through research, both in terms of talking to my elders, my godmother, Joanna Lucero, I would ask her questions. She would tell stories and I would record her talking to my grandfather. But one of the things, too, was trusting my intuition. So I remember being in a Colorado history class when I was in college at Metro State and we were talking about the KKK. And when I grew up, I had heard stories about how The Klan terrorized my ancestors. But in this class, the professor announced to everybody that The Klan was not a hate group, but a social organization and really tried to downplay what The Klan was.

I remember everybody in that classroom was just appalled. I mean, Metro is a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Most of us were Latino. There were students from all different backgrounds, Black students, Asian students, queer students, Catholic students, everybody, we would not be allowed in that ‘social organization,’ so to speak. And that really felt so wrong. And when I started doing more research, I came across that kind of language again and again. So that's actually how I would get into the shoes of these characters. I would think about the injustice that I had heard about in my own life, and I would go hunting and think about, ‘Well, what was it really like in the 1930s?’ Luz's life is really controlled by the restrictions placed upon her by the powers that be and, unfortunately, most of them are racist.

Warner: Did you intend to write a book that felt so darn contemporary? Because I kept thinking as I read this, ‘Boy, the more things change, the more they stay the same.’

Fajardo-Anstine: I didn't because I started this over 10 years ago and I had the first idea for it when I was a teenager. So I didn't plan to write a contemporary book in 2022 when I was a 15-year-old girl. I finished the first draft in the summer of 2020. America is going through this racial reckoning. I'm living right downtown. I'm looking out my window. I'm seeing protests, but I'm also seeing counter protests from right-wing militias. They have guns. And I'm suddenly realizing that the stories that my ancestors told me look a lot like what I'm looking outside of my window at. So no, it was not my intention, but it made me wonder about us as a human people, as a species. We need to make some changes and we need to learn from what we've done in the past so we can make those changes.

Warner: At one point Luz says she is ‘made of mountains.’ Kali, do you feel made of mountains?

Fajardo-Anstine: Yeah. I am not made of the ocean. I lived in Key West. I lived in San Diego. I love going out and being with the land. I deal a lot with depression. But the ocean does not cut it for me. I remember being a little girl, every Memorial Day weekend, we would drive up with my family to Breckenridge and I remember looking out and just imagining that my arm extended all the way into the mountain and it was like I was hugging it the whole way up.

Warner: It is lovely to read a book that features Huerfano, Animas, Antonito. They serve as a backdrop to this novel. So do the Pueblos of Northern New Mexico. I've often heard of the long established families there, ‘we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us.’ I know you spent some time in Antonito, writing Women of Light. I think you might have finished the draft there. How important is it for you to feel connected to the land – the place you're writing about?

Fajardo-Anstine: It's extremely important. If you've read any of my work, you know that I'm a very sense-based writer. So one of the things I'm trying to do with my work is fully immerse my readers in a world. And I found when I was in my twenties and I was trying to write this book and I was struggling with different jobs and bad bosses and I was living all over the country, it was extremely difficult to write about Colorado while being in a McDonald's in Key West using the free wi-fi. So when I finished the draft in Antonito, I could go out and I could walk every day and look at the sunflowers and look at the old graveyard and I could go talk to somebody at the store and I could hear the sound of the voice – the old accent that my elders had, that I don't have anymore. And so being connected to those spaces, it really changed the way I work and I write.

Warner: Interesting. You said, ‘an accent I don't have any more.’ So you used to have it?

Fajardo-Anstine: I mean, when I say ‘we,’ I usually mean ‘we, my ancestors.’ So there's a collective inside of me. And I actually find myself doing that a lot.

Warner: What do you still struggle with in writing? What gives you a hard time?

Fajardo-Anstine: I wish I could write books for you once a year. I'm slow because I'm so meticulous. And I know that Sabrina & Corina came out three years ago and now here we are and I've got this full blown novel. But this novel took a lot of years, over a decade. In the future, I think I've learned some tricks. I think I've learned to be a little bit more disciplined and my life is set up now so I can be a full-time writer. So I'm hoping that I can get quicker with my books.

Warner: You talked about discipline. Was that just a function of not having enough time?

Fajardo-Anstine: No. Like a lot of people, it's just difficult for me to sit and do something over and over again for a huge block of time, and then do it every day for 10 years. So it's hard for me and I had to really learn how to work with my own brain. And I've taught, I've been an educator, I will be teaching at Texas State coming this fall, and I'm really looking forward to working with atypical learners because I am one myself.

Warner: What's a trick you learned?

Fajardo-Anstine: One of the tricks I learned is to get up and go for a walk when I'm starting to feel really antsy. And I play a song on repeat that brings me back into my novel. So there's a lot of Patsy Cline that goes into my work. When Luz is feeling pretty sad about something that's going on with one of her lovers, I'll put on ‘She's Got You,’ but play it over and over and over again and then I have to go back and work. So there's only so many times you can listen to a song before you're actually bored again.

Warner: These are tools you can impart to students and make them feel less like othered, I guess?

Fajardo-Anstine: Yeah. And that's one of my goals as an educator. I mean, my own English teacher in high school told me to drop out and I did drop out and I got a GED because of that. I was able to go on. I have a master's degree, but I also dropped out of my first master's program. And I used to be really ashamed of this. I used to try to hide the fact that I had a GED, that I was a two-time dropout. I'm not ashamed anymore because it wasn't all my fault. Sure, I could have worked harder, I guess, but maybe my teachers could have found some other culturally-relevant ways to work with me, that would've helped me. And if you're a teacher, I love you, you're doing great work. Sorry, I don't mean to diss on teachers. Not you, other teachers. I love you.

Warner: That really resonates with me because I had a teacher in high school who said I couldn't write. And I think there's a part of me that wants her to run across my name on the internet and then just have a little bit of pain. Just a little. Do you feel that Schadenfreude?

Fajardo-Anstine: Well, I did do something. So thanks to my dad for suggesting this. When Sabrina & Corina first was published, my papa told me, ‘You have to go and give a copy to your English teacher that told you to drop out.’ And so I signed it and I delivered it to her house and I put it in the mailbox and I said, ‘Thanks for telling me to drop out of high school, I'm an author now.’ And then I took a picture of it and I put it on the internet and then people were fighting with me like, ‘How dare you talk to an educator like that!’ and unfriending me and I was like, ‘Whatever.’ And then I came home and told my dad, I'm like, ‘there's backlash.’ And he's like, ‘I didn't tell you to do the second step!’

Warner: Did she ever circle back?

Fajardo-Anstine: No, but maybe I'll go drop off Women of Light later today, I don't know.

Warner: My heart is racing at that story! In this book, you sometimes invoke Tiwa, which is an Indigenous language of Northern New Mexico. Did you learn about it writing this book or did you go in with a fair amount of knowledge of Tiwa?

Fajardo-Anstine: No. I also don't have a fair amount of knowledge of Spanish, because we lost it due to all the forced assimilation. But because my ancestors (our records indicate that they came off several Pueblos in Northern New Mexico), they were not speaking Spanish, then they weren't speaking English, they would've been speaking Tiwa and Taos. And so you'll notice that in my books, I actually don't use other languages. I just code and say, ‘And then he said in Tiwa, then she said in Greek, then he said in Spanish.’ And that's actually a way for me to be respectful to those languages. I'm not a linguist. I also struggled with trying to learn Spanish. I actually know more than I think I do. I visited a friend in Puerto Rico and she and the Uber driver were having a really funny conversation and I could laugh. But I'm not going to ever butcher languages that I don't fully possess. And that's why you'll see me just doing a code switch in my work and it's very purposeful.

Warner: Do you imagine the reader as you're writing?

Fajardo-Anstine: I don't because, honestly, my ideal reader is the little Kali who is depressed and being told to drop out of high school. And I love the fact that so many of you resonate and read my books and you enjoy them. And I think you would've liked little Kali. I think you would've been friends with her. But I think if I thought of the wants and needs of the audience, it would change the way that I write. Even I, as a reader, sometimes want things from authors that maybe aren’t the best thing for me. Maybe I need to struggle a little bit with some of these authors’ choices before I know what I really do want. How many of you have ever read a book and you hated it the first time, but then you came to it 10 years later or something and all of a sudden it's the best book you've ever read?!

Warner: What does little Kali need when you're writing for her?

Fajardo-Anstine: She needs to be able to go into a bookstore and there are literally hundreds and thousands of books with characters who look like her, who sound like her, who have names like her, from many different authors.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the author has not been medically diagnosed with ADHD.