By Gabriel San Román
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.