The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a grandmother’s home with a pot of green chili cooking on the stove and a Denver neighborhood carved up by gentrification all serve as scenes that color Sabrina & Corina, Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection of short stories. The author situates the lives of her working-class Latina characters in a distinctly Colorado context and, by doing so, subverts popular imaginations of the American West along the way. It’s a feat that propelled the book to deserved acclaim, but before that, the Denver-based writer had simpler ambitions in mind when Sabrina & Corina first hit the shelves last year.
“I just really wanted the book to be able to find readers,” says Fajardo-Anstine, reflecting back. “I was very afraid that it’d just get buried and hidden because a lot of books turn out that way.”
Fajardo-Anstine’s collection of eleven short stories suffered no such fate. Not only did the debut find a devoted readership, as she hoped, but it also earned accolades, becoming a National Book Award finalist for fiction in September. It’s a vindication of sorts for the author who saw a need to deepen an American West genre beyond its wide-brimmed white cowboy imagination.
“One of the things that really bothered me growing up is that I wasn’t able to read books about myself,” says Fajardo-Anstine. “Even within Chicano literature, I didn’t see books that were set in urban Denver about these people that had migrated north from southern Colorado and northern New Mexico and oftentimes were incredibly mixed.”
In the pages of Sabrina & Corina, those layers of history are finally woven into the stories of its women. And Denver, vital to Chicano history with the Crusade for Justice but always an underdog in the annals of Aztlán, finally gets its due.
But Fajardo-Anstine’s feminisms find their place in everyday life away from overt activism.
The short story that gives the book its title follows the friendship of two cousins, Sabrina and Corina, as they grow apart as adults. It begins jarringly with the news of Sabrina’s death by strangulation before threading through recollections of her troubled, increasingly inebriated days. “These pretty girls,” remarks a mortician, “they get themselves into such ugly situations.” The misogyny that pervades Sabrina’s life and death resides subtly in the backdrop, eerily like a stalker.
Corina, who works a makeup stand at a mall, doesn’t see her cousin as being a victim of her own beauty, but of a generational curse of different sorts. “The stories always ended the same,” she laments, “only different girls died, and I didn’t want to hear them anymore.”
Such prose, simple yet telling, propels all the women protagonists in the book who become immediately familiar, like a prima or homegirl readers knew in their own life. That’s because Fajardo-Anstine had no real need to research the unsung characters she already intimately became acquainted with one way or another.
“When I was growing up and was around people that resembled pieces of my characters, I knew the complexities and depths in everyone’s souls and choices,” she says. “Just because our lives weren’t these big, grand lives didn’t mean they weren’t worthy of art.”
Similarly, Fajardo-Anstine didn’t feel the need to explain everything to her readers. Sabrina & Corina certainly delves into the big ideas—gender, class, family trauma—all through seamlessly illuminating tension points central to the short stories without employing hefty lectures posing as dialogue.
“To be honest, I didn’t even know that I was dealing with those ideas in the beginning,” she says. “I was just writing about the world as I perceived and observed around me.”
It’s an approach that’s served Fajardo-Anstine well, as her collection resonated with readers at events across the country last year. She didn’t have a tour budget for Sabrina & Corina and took the book on the road much like an independent musician.
A particularly fond memory came courtesy of undocumented queer poet Yosimar Reyes’ #YosiBookClub, which invited her to read before an audience at Espacio 1839 in Boyle Heights. People wrapped around the sidewalk last summer, waiting for the chance to hear from their new Chicana literary heroine.
“I was moved to tears by how engaged people had been with the book,” says Fajardo-Anstine.
The author enjoyed some of her most receptive readers in her hometown, as well. One event at Denver Public Library came a day after Sabrina & Corina became a National Book Award finalist. A standing room only audience greeted Fajardo-Anstine, one that brought together people from her upbringing who’ve all since been displaced by gentrification. Another reading as Su Teatro returned the author to a nourishing artistic space of her youth.
And Denver is where Fajardo-Anstine is keeping her literary focus in the future.
These days, the author is working on finishing Woman of Light, sure to be a highly-anticipated sophomore effort. Fajardo-Anstine recently completed a manuscript for the novel that will breathe literary life into Colorado women once more. “It was the original big story idea I had as a late teen,” says Fajardo-Anstine. “It’s based on my auntie Lucy who was my great-grandmother Esther’s sister.”
Although poised to build off the success of Sabrina & Corina, the forthcoming novel will differ in approach. A work of historical fiction set in the 1930’s, Woman of Light promises to be a multigenerational epic that explores regional migration from southern Colorado to Denver with a touch of vision and prophecy along the way.
The effort entailed carrying out historical research in Denver’s archives where she discovered another glaring lack of representation in repositories woefully lacking documentation of the city’s Mexican history. In this, Woman of Light is poised to become another literary effort towards redefining the American West.
Before that happens, Fajardo-Anstine is guiding the manuscript through its first big revisions while continuing to celebrate Sabrina & Corina, which is now available in paperback. Her short story collection recently captured the “Reading the West” award in fiction. Even though she knows her book by heart these days, it finds new meaning in the hands of every reader, a legacy that will endure for some time to come.
“A lot of the connections I’m making are unconscious and those will be unfolding for the rest of my life,” says Fajardo-Anstine of Sabrina & Corina. “I won’t ever fully know what I made.”
Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, published April 20, 2020, One World, 240 pages. $17 (paperback)
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.