Denver author Kali Fajardo-Anstine on her debut novel “Woman of Light”

The profound lives of Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s ancestors and elders reverberated in her present day, demanding to be felt, heard, shared.

Her great-grandmother’s abandonment by her Belgian father. Her family’s migration from southern Colorado to Denver. Her great-grandmother’s sister, a lesbian who dressed in masculine clothing. The discrimination her grandfather faced as an Indigenous Chicano Filipino.

The stories were passed down through her family in the oral tradition — rich histories archived by tongue, ear and memory — but Fajardo-Anstine’s fingers itched to preserve them in ink.

“I felt this big sense of duty that I needed to be this storyteller,” Fajardo-Anstine said. “The phone rang, and I answered, and it was my destiny. It said to become a writer.”

The Denver resident’s debut novel “Woman of Light” was published last week to the delight of readers who devoured her acclaimed short story collection “Sabrina & Corina,” which won a 2020 American Book Award.

“Woman of Light” chronicles five generations of an Indigenous Chicano family told through the visions of tea-leaf reader Luz “Little Light” Lopez. Lopez’s clairvoyance and curiosity while exploring 1930s Denver anchors the sweeping novel in the familiar tensions of a city on the brink of change, while ruminating on subjects like gentrification, activism and class divisions that resonate today.

“Excessively literary family”

Fajardo-Anstine, 35, is the fruit of “an excessively literary family” — the kind that selects baby names from favorite poems and stacks of books to adorn every conceivable surface.

At 8 years old, Fajardo-Anstine — the second oldest of seven siblings — was diagnosed with depression.

“Being sad all the time, I really needed somewhere to put those thoughts and I needed to analyze them, so that’s how I ended up writing,” she said.

By the time Fajardo-Anstine was in second grade, she was writing short stories and attending writing workshops.

Lois Harvey, co-owner of Denver’s West Side Books, had a mentoring role in Anstine-Fajardo’s own coming-of-age story.

Harvey remembers a young Anstine-Fajardo curling up in corners of the store with a book while her mother held readings at the shop. Later, Harvey hired a teenaged Anstine-Fajardo, whose appetite and taste for literature were “exemplary,” the bookseller recalled.

“She said she wanted to be a librarian and I thought that was great, but she just had such a sense of story. You kind of knew she was going to do something else with it,” Harvey said.

Fajardo-Anstine struggled during her time at Arvada’s Pomona High School, finding solace in librarians who squirreled away books they thought she’d enjoy. She’d spend her lunch periods in the library absorbed in the dramas of Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, José Saramago and Sandra Cisneros, and was determined that one day her words would be a refuge for readers, too.

After missing a few classes due to a depressive episode, Fajardo-Anstine said an English teacher told told her she should just drop out a few weeks into her senior year.

“She said she didn’t think I could go on to become anything,” Fajardo-Anstine said. “I’m really stubborn and I was very sad at the time, and she handed me a paper I had written on Flannery O’Connor and said I might be a pretty good writer someday, but I’m just not cut out for school.”

Fajardo-Anstine dropped out, earned her GED and enrolled at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, taking English and Chicano studies courses before her classmates had even graduated high school. She was reinvigorated, did well and graduated in 2009.

The MSU Denver graduate earned her master of fine arts from the University of Wyoming, traveled around the country for work and fellowship opportunities, and crafted and refined her stories along the way.

Since then, Fajardo-Anstine’s first collection, “Sabrina & Corina,” was a finalist for the National Book Award, among other accolades. She’s the 2022-2023 endowed chair in creative writing at Texas State University.

Fajardo-Anstine also has had a number of prestigious writing fellowships, and her work earned the Denver Mayor’s Award for Global Impact in the Arts. She has written for publications ranging from The New York Times to O, The Oprah Magazine, and her words have been translated into many languages, from Japanese to Italian to Turkish.

“My family doesn’t let stories disappear”

The spark for “Woman of Light” dates back to when Fajardo-Anstine was a late teen and found herself inspired by her great-aunt Lucy, the muse for the novel’s main character Luz Lopez. Lucy lived on West Fifth Avenue and Galapago Street in Denver along with Fajardo-Anstine’s godmother. While Fajardo-Anstine was at MSU Denver, she lived a couple of blocks away at West Seventh Avenue and Inca Street.

Fajardo-Anstine recalls family members sitting out on porches chatting with their neighbors. She remembers the smell of beans and green chile welcoming her into her family’s homes. She remembers artist friends of her parents and siblings coming and going who showed her that a career in the arts was possible. She remembers sneaking into Sputnik with a fake ID and meeting friends at the now-defunct DIY music venue Rhinoceropolis.

As Fajardo-Anstine navigated Denver and young adulthood, she couldn’t separate the echo of her elders’ stories from her own.

“My family doesn’t let stories disappear,” she said. “That’s why I’m a storyteller, too, because I knew how important it was to keep them alive, but I also would meet other people from my background who didn’t have access to all their stories. It is really important to me to retain cultural stories.”

While Fajardo-Anstine had the voices of her ancestors whispering in the recesses of her mind, she needed the footholds of history to paint their stories with the texture they deserved.

Enter the Denver Public Library, where Fajardo-Anstine spent countless hours researching old newspaper clippings, census records and artifacts to get a feel for the time period and the events that would consume her characters’ lives.

To write a scene in which Lopez witnesses a Ku Klux Klan rally marching up 17th Street, Fajardo-Anstine drew from her family’s experiences with the Klan, but she also read about the KKK’s presence in Denver and examined KKK robes available through the library.

Splaying the robes out on a library table, Fajardo-Anstine was horrified to see them inscribed with names that were familiar to her and even more disgusted to find robes in baby sizes. Those details found a home in “Woman of Light.”

“That one scene took weeks to get that right,” she said. “Every detail in this novel is filled with research.”

“Go on a big adventure”

The attention to detail paired with raw talent has made Fajardo-Anstine an expert in giving readers a sense of place, Harvey said. Harvey has turned customers on to Fajardo-Anstine’s work more times than she can remember.

“Sometimes it’s locals,” Harvey said. “North Denver people who want to know — who need to know,  who are happy to know  — that a writer comes from our part of the world, whose parents and grandparents have lived where her grandparents and parents lived. There is a sense of recognition factor for people in the neighborhood, as well as biracial young people really appreciate getting to read her work. She is so good at place and theme. It’s fun to spot a person who would like her work and sell it to them.”

Now, Harvey has a new book of Fajardo-Anstine’s to recommend.

About 15 years from the inception of “Woman of Light” — between multiple day jobs and moves to South Carolina, Florida, Durango, Wyoming, San Diego and Denver — Fajardo-Anstine is thrilled to debut her novel and give readers a story about womanhood and the West told by someone with the roots to get it right.

“When I was going through my 20s, there were these moments I wish I had a voice to talk about the things I was experiencing as a young woman and that’s where a lot of this came from,” she said. “Knowing I had a vehicle to talk about poverty, dead-end jobs, labor rights, all that came through Luz and knowing I wanted her to go on a big adventure.”

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