Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Fiction Prize until March 31st, 2021! In this interview with Fiction Editor Laura Dzubay, 2021 judge Kali Fajardo-Anstine opens up about her award-winning collection of short stories, Sabrina & Corina, the importance of craft in good fiction, and what’s in store for the future.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine is the author of Sabrina & Corina (One World, 2019), winner of an American Book Award and Reading the West Award. Fajardo-Anstine is the 2019 recipient of the Denver Mayor’s Award for Global Impact in the Arts. Her writing has appeared in print and online at Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, O, the Oprah Magazine, The American Scholar, Boston Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Idaho Review, Southwestern American Literature, and elsewhere.
A lot of the stories in Sabrina & Corina manage time really masterfully—weaving characters’ backstories in through flashbacks, jumping forward in time to the most relevant scenes, introducing a key event early and then explaining it later, etc. Could you say a little about how you decide to handle time when you’re writing a short story, and what you think its relationship is to structure?
Thank you! Time fascinates me, and I think much of this obsession comes from being part of a large family that has inhabited the same geographic space for generations, and in some cases since time immemorial. The way I tend to handle time in fiction is intended to replicate the reality of having numerous timelines existing at once during a scene. That is to say, if I am standing on a street corner in Denver, not only do I possess my own memories of that corner, but I often have glimmers of stories from my ancestors collapsed into my own experiences. My characters’ minds function in the same way.
Time in my work is communal, shared, and is often not linear. Structurally, this makes for time-infused scenes, where each sentence is imbued with layers of meaning, allusions to the ancestral past, but also an understanding that the future eventually brings death. “Time is an ocean,” sang Bob Dylan, “but it ends at the shore.”
Short stories can feel like microcosms of characters going through specific changes in particular areas of their lives, but in a good story we often get the sense that a character is a complete person, even when what we see of them is limited. How do you decide what parts of a character’s life to include in a story, and what does the process of getting to know a character look like for you?
During my MFA at the University of Wyoming, the first short story I turned into workshop was a draft of “All Her Names.” I was writing about a character named Alicia who had once been well-known in the Denver graffiti scene. I knew she painted trains and had an ex-boyfriend she ran around with despite being married to an older man. Back then, this was 2011 or so, the story wasn’t landing the way I wanted it to, and my professor, the late Brad Watson, stopped me in the English department hallway. We were on a split-level staircase. He was going up and I was going down. The sun was coming in a long window behind Brad’s whitish hair and the stairwell was warm. Brad told me he had been thinking about my story, but he suspected I needed to “dream on it more.” At the time, I thought his advice was ludicrous. I wanted to force my fiction into shape with rules and prescriptive advice. But Brad, a truly gifted and sensitive artist, knew better. Sometimes, we need to listen to our subconscious. Give time over to our characters. Daydream on their realities. “All Her Names” was published eventually and is included in Sabrina & Corina, but it took years for me to finally listen to Alicia.
When reading short fiction, what excites you the most and why?
Everything. If it’s a good story, I’m in love. And what makes a good story? It’s voice, a particular way of looking at the world, a dedication to craft.
Which writers and works do you look to for inspiration?
Arturo Islas, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Edward P. Jones, Katherine Anne Porter, James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Kent Haruf, Katherine Dunn, Jack Gilbert, Mark Strand, Joy Williams, Gabriel García Márquez and many, many others.
Are there any projects you want to share that you’re looking forward to in 2021?
I’ve recently finished some new short stories and I’m very close to completing my first novel. I’ve also written my first book review, which is such an intimate and energizing way to learn about a book.