‘Woman of Light’ author explores the American West through her characters, family history

Kali Fajardo-Anstine is one of the New Voices Fellows of the 2022 Sun Valley Writers’ Conference.

Her collection of short stories “Sabrina & Corina” was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award. And her first novel, “Woman of Light,” which came out in June, is a story that tells five generations of an indigenous Chicano family from the West.

Fajardo-Anstine spoke with Boise State Public Radio about her new book.

BSPR: I wanted to start with the main character of “Woman of Light”, Luz Lopez. Luz reads the tea leaves, she has visions and her mother tells her that there is a person in every generation, a seer, who keeps the stories. And I was wondering if you could tell us about Luz and what she sees.

KFA: So Luz is a 17-year-old laundress in 1933 Denver, and she lives with her aunt, Maria Josie, and her older brother, Diego, who is a factory worker and snake charmer. Diego has been kicked out of town for his involvement with a white woman, and Luz is suddenly left on her own to try and find a way to make more money. She ends up going to work for a civil rights attorney, a Greek-American attorney, and while she learns about all this kind of violence going on in Denver and Greater Colorado, she also begins to have visions of her ancestors in the 1890s in southern Colorado. .

BSPR: There’s a place in the book called the Lost Territory. This is where we come back, as readers, usually to the late 1800s. What is the role of the Lost Territory in this novel?

KFA: So Woman of Light is a novel that is very much based on my own family history. And my ancestors migrated north from southern Colorado in the 1920s, and they told fabulous stories about that desert region. And I knew when I was working on “Woman of Light” that I also wanted to talk about lost territory, and that’s basically the territory that the United States won in Mexico. And so in this part of the book, things are a little more magical. There are shows about the Wild West, we’ve got a gunslinger, and this part of the novel really transports readers back in time in a different way than the 1930s sections.

BSPR: You talked about how this book parallels your own family’s history in Colorado. To what extent is this the case and where in the story do the characters become their own?

KFA: Well, the characters really surprised me because they’re all based on my ancestors, like Luz is based on my Aunt Lucy, who really had her eyesight and she read tea leaves.

But in the process of writing this novel, [the characters] started going rogue. I mean, they date people I don’t recommend. They get drunk on lemonade and peppermint schnapps. They are sort of young and fun American teenagers. And in this way, they are really difficult to control. I started realizing it probably, I would say about a third of the way through the novel, I couldn’t keep them on the straight and tight path that was my family history, and suddenly the book got a whole lot bigger. than the tales of my family.

BSPR: Your own family stories provided much of the material for the book. But you also dug deep into archives and old newspapers. When you were doing this, what did you have in mind? What do you think you were looking for?

KFA: I was looking for us. You know I’m still kinda the nerd of the story that if I see a black and white picture in the hall of some ranch or lodge in the Wild West I look up and see where the women of color are , where are the indigenous people in these black and white photos? And often, I watch all day because we’re not there.

And so, when I dug deep into the records, I found that my ancestors – their stories – weren’t as complete as the stories of white Americans. But I also saw everyday life reflected in a really fascinating way. The price of diamonds really surprised me – they were still very expensive. Fur coats were very popular, and just seeing advertisements and how people lived and how close their lives are to our lives today was really surprising.

BSPR: What do you hope to say about the American West, the Mountain West, in “Woman of Light” and your writing in general?

KFA: I want people to know that Mountains West is an incredibly multicultural space. So I’m a person of Native, Latino, Filipino, Jewish and White American ancestry. And the only reason a person like me could exist is because of our region and the people who gather here. I don’t want our stories to be some kind of history, which is the white cowboy story. Don’t get me wrong, I love westerns and I love all the new westerns that come on TV. But we have a lot more stories than the obvious Western tropes. So I really want to change the perception of what the American West is.

BSPR: I wonder if any of your family members have read the novel and what were their reactions?

KFA: I was really a little nervous because this book is basically about my grandfather’s parents. My grandfather, he’s over 80 and he’s an avid outdoorsman, and we’ve connected a lot over the years that he likes to tell stories. But I’m always a bit curious, what does he think of my books?

And he read “Woman of Light” and he loved it. He said his favorite character was sniper Simo Salazar-Smith. And I can see why, as a hunter, he would love this sniper character. Also, my godmother, she’s over 80, she’s my cousin, she read the book. She’s a queer woman, and she told me that when she finished, she looked up at the sky and said to the ancestors, “We’re inside a book! And she was so proud. I’m just very happy to have been able to share this with my elders.

Lola R. McClure