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INTERVIEW WITH 2021 FICTION PRIZE JUDGE, KALI FAJARDO-ANSTINE

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. 

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ANNOUNCING THE 2020 CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE WINNER

We are excited to announce “On Desire” by Caitlin McGill as the winner of the 2020 Creative Nonfiction Prize, judged by Bassey Ikpi. Many thanks to everyone who submitted their work and made this year’s prize possible!

On “On Desire,” Bassey Ikpi said:

“I’ve often felt like the word ‘beautiful’ is overused when describing writing. I tend to use it when I know I like the work but can’t find the correct collection of words to make the point. Maybe a sentence or two or a passage or three jumps and sticks with me and makes it enough to coat the entire thing with ‘beautiful.’

After reading “On Desire,” I want to take back 90% of the times I’ve used the word out of sheer laziness and nothing else. “On Desire” is architectural in the way it builds on itself, stacking foundation, and layer after layer of story into a slowly crafted structure. Each line is wonderful; passages poignant, but there was a moment, in the middle of reading, when I realized I’d been holding my breath. I was afraid to disturb the thing that was being constructed. At first,  It felt fragile and delicate, but then I realized how solid the writer was, how sure, how steady, how purposeful. How much I trusted them to tell this story. 

We’ve all had quietly devastating breakups, have all slipped out of love like an oversized jacket. We’ve all gathered pieces of our childhood and dragged them into confusing adult personality quirks. We’ve all been in these worlds where our pasts and our futures and our presents become a collage of our existence. “On Desire” turns those ‘ordinary experiences’ into a praise song. Into a poem. Into all these mixed metaphors I’ve collected. 

This non-fiction short story made me hold my breath in spaces… not due to fear but to feeling like if I could hold this breath in, maybe this sentence won’t end. I wanted to live in some of these lines as the writers skipped and danced across the page– each memory sliding from the past, into the present, laying claim to the future. When I began, I settled into an essay about a break-up, I was prepared for tears or pity, what I felt was relief, not just for the author, but for myself. Thinking of the times I’ve held on to a relationship out of guilt, or fear, to watch the writer free herself from the relationships (romantic and familial) and her expectations of the past, was triumphant. The story was good and ‘regular.’

But, my goodness, the writing made my heart skip a few times. I found myself reading pages over and over just to make sure I didn’t miss any bit of the intent. This was one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. 

‘Beautiful’ is overused, but not here—it can not be stated enough.”

FINALISTS

Jonathan Gleason, “Gilead”

Mimi Tempestt, “blue black venus” 

Lauren Rhoades, “Solomon Story”

Lee Anne Gallaway-Mitchell, “The Devil’s Balls”

Alisha Acquaye, “Fruit Snack Fairytale”

The winner will be published in the Summer 2021 issue of the Indiana Review.

INTERVIEW WITH 2020 CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE JUDGE, BASSEY IKPI

Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Creative Nonfiction Prize until October 31st, 2020! In this interview with 2020 judge Bassey Ikpi, Nonfiction Editor El Williams invites her to talk about literary techniques and influences in her essay collection, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, and what excites her about creative nonfiction.

New York Times Best Selling author Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-American, ex-poet, current writer, constant mental health advocate, underachieving overachiever and memoir procrastinator. She lives in Maryland and is working on various creative projects.

In your book, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, the POV switches from essay to essay, oftentimes changing from first to second person perspective in a single piece: What power do you feel shifting POV has on a reader’s imagination or emotional response?

I think it does a few things depending on the story being told and why: some of the stories needed to feel immersive. I wanted the audience to live in the experience with me. I also wanted them to be able to activate empathy by placing them as close to the experience as I could. There are essays where I’ve been told that the reader was exhausted after a certain point and, yes, I too was exhausted living it. I want you to know what it feels like for people who live lives with this longer than just between the pages of a book.  It also gives me the opportunity to tell a full story based on how I see it. For instance, I needed to tell the story as completely as I could. In the writing, I found myself telling myself the same lies and half-truths I’d always told myself, so giving myself permission to distance helped tell a fuller story. There were times when in the middle of the writing, a part of me would say, “You forgot to mention how…” and rather than editing those out or rewriting them once they were written, I kept them.  I would love to say that it was more deliberate than that but it wasn’t. Many of those essays were born out of free writes in the moment; me needing to find some grounding and centering as I was experiencing anxiety or insomnia or what have you. But once I saw how effective it was, I gave myself permission to write as it came instead of worry about making it standard. The plan was always to go back and change the tense and clean up the pronouns and make it look “normal,” but I tried to do that and it changed everything about what I wanted. It just didn’t work and it would have been a lesser book had I done that. 

Which writers inspire you and what does their work teach you?

A lot of writers inspire me, for this book: 

Lorrie Moore taught me how to tell a short story. 

Melissa Febos taught me that poetry can live in prose. She taught me that the truth can be told both unvarnished and beautifully carved. She taught me to tell the truth but edit with kindness. Melissa taught me about freedom in writing.

Megan Stielstra taught me that the “ending” of a sentence or a paragraph or a book didn’t need to be smooth. That a thought, or an emotion, can hang and sit with the reader while the writing has moved on. It was because of her book that I didn’t feel the need to write the “last essay.” I left when I was done and with the idea that there is more to the story than fits in the pages.

J. California Cooper taught me about beauty in brevity. She taught me that some of the most impactful moments can be contained in just a few short sentences.

Ntozake Shange taught me that my two loves, writing and dance, were lovers and I could have them both.

Toni Morrison taught me to write for myself and for my people. No matter who those people are.

Nana-Ama Danquah taught me about telling the truth despite the fear. Telling your story for the sake of the story and nothing else.

Kiese Laymon taught me to be fearless. He gave me permission to write the story ugly.

Many people taught me many things. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people but these are what came to my mind when I read this question. I’m sure I’ll think of about 95 other people tomorrow and want to edit this. 

While reading creative nonfiction, what excites you the most and why?

Beautifully crafted sentences and brilliant, or clever, turns of phrases that take a moment I’ve experienced many times and turn it on it’s side, exposing something I’ve never seen. Or when I read something and say, “I didn’t know how to say that. I didn’t know what that was until I read it.” I love feeling like the author is showing me something that I forgot to look at. I love having my breath catch or escape with worry or compassion or anger or frustration. I want to live in it with the writer. I want to read something beautiful and ugly and authentic and lived in. 

I know your collection of essays was published last year and is still fresh, but what’s next for you or what are you most excited for that is happening in the near future?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy the publishing process or anything that came after it. It made me very tense so I’m not in any rush or hurry to write another book. I think this was the book I was meant to write and I don’t have much else to say. I couldn’t be happier with what I wrote and I think it’s okay to let it live.

I did enjoy recording the audiobook so I’m going to be doing some more around that later.

I can’t say too much about some of the other things but I’m excited to see what other shape this book can take. 

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What We’re Reading: Summer Spotlight

Summertime is all about kicking back in the warm sunshine with a good book to revisit lost worlds, meet new faces, and let nostalgia carry you through the afternoon. At least, that’s what the IR staff thinks! Here’s what we’re currently reading (when we aren’t reading your splendid 1/2 K Prize submissions, of course):

Alberto Sveum, Editor-In-Chief:

A couple years back, I had Paul Beatty’s The Sellout assigned in one of my courses, and I have not stopped thinking about it since. Lately I have been getting into an earlier one of Beatty’s, The White Boy Shuffle, which follows Gunnar Kaufman, the “reluctant messiah” in Hillside California. This is a book, an author, whose settings, characters, and dialogue are masterfully comic and ridiculous, and the 25 years since this book came out have only affirmed how astute and relevant Beatty’s witticisms on class, race, and culture remain.

Shreya Fadia, Associate Editor:

Lately, I’ve been craving truly immersive worlds, the sorts of books you can get lost in, in that flashlight under the covers, middle of summer, cicadas buzzing and glass of iced tea within arm’s reach kind of way. But I’ve also been struggling to commit to any one story, and certainly not to a whole novel. R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days and T. Kingfisher’s Jackalope Wives and Other Stories have managed to thread both needles. Narayan’s fictional Malgudi and its inhabitants are rendered honestly but tenderly, and in terms of craft, these stories are models of concision. As for Jackalope Wives, the collection (especially the title story) has just the right balance of strange and creepy and funny and magical and visually rich. Next on the list? If my attention span is up to the challenge, probably N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, and if not, Tananarive Due’s Ghost Summer: Stories.

Morgan Heck, Prize Intern:

I recently finished reading Maya Angelou’s first autobiography in a series of seven, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Since its publication in 1969, it has continued to endure and inspire. Angelou’s descriptions of her childhood are poetic, yet direct; painful, yet packed with strength and hope for a better, more just tomorrow. Her own experiences give a voice to the tragedies—racism, rape, etc.— and triumphs—liberation, self-discovery, etc.—many Black children have shared throughout American history. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a celebration of Blackness, of family, of dignity. Despite the trauma and hardships Angelou faces in her youth, she overcomes.

“We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls” (184).

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Announcing the 2020 Poetry Prize Winner

We are excited to announce the winner and runners-up of the 2020 Poetry Prize, judged by Javier Zamora. Many thanks to everyone who submitted their work and made this year’s prizes possible!

2020 Poetry Prize Winner

“I Looked At You and I Said Yes” by Wo Chan

Javier Zamora says, “What draws me into a poem is tension, the very first opportunity for such tension being the space between title and first line, and then, first line to second line, moving all the way down the page. Sometimes I call this speed, force, duende. When you couple this tension/speed with surprise (be it in language, content, form, etc.), then, you have achieved something that the best works of art do: spark multiple emotions we didn’t know we had, or we weren’t aware we had, or, we weren’t aware we hid them.

‘I Looked At You and I Said Yes’ sparked so many emotions in me that I didn’t know what to do with their juxtaposition. Part Elegy, part Ode, part just shooting the shit, and throughout it, a confession of love, humanity, friendship. I smiled, I nodded, I frowned, shook my head, almost cried. The deeper I dug into the poem, the more it revealed the hardships, the fucked-upness of the world we live under. Let this poem be the beginning of some sort of change. Change we all know we need, especially now. Change some of us have known we needed for years.”

Runners-Up

“Corpse Pose” by Rachel Galvin

“HORS_” by Day Heisinger-Nixon

Finalists

Marissa Davis

Karstin Hale

Ae Hee Lee

Parker O’Connor

Clare Paniccia

Daniel Schonning

Stella Yin-Yin Wong

The winner will be published in the Winter 2020 issue of Indiana Review.