Guggenheim Fellow Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Journey from Self-Doubt to Woman of Light

"It was extremely hard on me when Woman of Light wasn’t reviewed by major newspapers... It took months for me to accept that’s not why I write. I write for my ancestors, myself and my community."

A book cover featuring a woman on horseback on the left and a photo of a seated woman wearing an open jean shirt on the right.
The nationally bestselling author has been widely praised, but that praise was slow to come. Photo: Bear Gutierrez

One might imagine that Kali Fajardo-Anstine is bubbling with confidence. She is a nationally bestselling author and has been widely praised for her novel Woman of Light (2022) and debut short story collection Sabrina & Corina (2019). To date, Fajardo-Anstine has been nominated for the National Book Award, the PEN/Bingham Prize, the Carol Shields Prize, the Story Prize, the Saroyan International Prize and the Joyce Carol Oates Prize.

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But when the Denver, Colorado-born author was announced as a 2023 Guggenheim Fellow in March, she took to Instagram to share that “there were many times that I felt discouraged as a writer and as though my work wasn’t acknowledged. It was extremely hard on me when Woman of Light wasn’t reviewed by major newspapers… I felt like I had failed; that I had let my community down. It took months for me to accept that’s not why I write. I write for my ancestors, myself and my community.”

The uplifting impact of the Guggenheim Fellowship

Currently dividing her time between Wyoming and Texas, where she is the Texas State University Endowed Chair in Creative Writing, Fajardo-Anstine is generous and candid in our conversation, revealing that there were many years in which she piled up rejection letters and felt her hope dissipating. The Guggenheim Fellowship somewhat ameliorates the sense of anger and rejection she experienced when Woman of Light was overlooked by mainstream media and—for years before that—publishers.

“That hurt has lessened,” she says, “because I feel like you can only win the Guggenheim once in your whole life. It signifies that I’m part of this community of writers who are important.”

Since 1925, Guggenheim Fellowships have provided grants annually to those who demonstrate exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts. Fajardo-Anstine reflects that, “With the Guggenheim, I know now that there are writers whose opinions I value, who are interrogating my work and think that it’s important and deserves to be recognized.”

In addition to the recognition, there’s the financial uplift. Guggenheim grants provide an average stipend of around $50,000, which can be life-altering for artists who haven’t received the mainstream, monetary rewards of commercial exposure. For Fajardo-Anstine, it will provide the foundation she needs to take a break from the years of touring and giving presentations to colleges and universities that let her earn a living.

“The basis of selection is very secretive,” she admits. “I’m not certain of the judgment process, but once you’re in, you’re a Guggenheim Fellow for life. The monetary award is an investment in our future as writers, supporting the idea that I should have time to focus on new work.”

Like most writers, Fajardo-Anstine didn’t grow up dreaming of being a public speaker, but that’s what funded her writing career up until now—for better or for worse. “I’ve been touring since 2019 when Sabrina & Corina came out,” she explains. “It’s so hard to travel all the time, then come home and have the energy for the sort of intensively researched, multilayered writing that I do.”

Validation after years of rejection

Fajardo-Anstine’s current dual-state living arrangement feels stable, which is a far cry from the years in which she was writing Woman of Light and feeling constantly worried for her ability to pay rent, buy food and secure her apartment against thieves.

“When I was working on Woman of Light, I had housing insecurity, she says. “I had to leave an apartment in a low-income building in downtown Denver. It was completely unsafe. The locks didn’t work and the landlord wouldn’t fix it, so I finished the book without any security of a home. I was running all over, wondering how I’d feed myself or buy clothes to go and do presentations. This is new to me, having money to have a standard quality of living.”

When Sabrina & Corina was nominated for the National Book Award in the U.S. in 2019, it offered Fajardo-Anstine the validation she urgently needed. By then, she had faced ten years of rejection and the nomination provided confirmation of her dedication and commitment to her craft. Still, she had no idea whether she’d ever get published or be a full-time author.

“Everyone had told me that because of the work on my first book, my second book would definitely get attention from reviewers,” she recalls. “One of the reasons I wanted reviews is because historically, people from my background are overlooked. I’m a Chicana of mixed ancestry; Indigenous, Filipino, and my father’s white from Nebraska. I’ve talked a lot about how blended I am, and the characters in Woman of Light reflect that. Historically, we have been denied reviews, which has harmed our ability to be in the historical record and in the literary canon.”

When there was no review coverage of Woman of Light, Fajardo-Anstine was deeply hurt. Looking back, it is hard to fathom how major newspapers overlooked her debut novel given the recognition she received for Sabrina & Corina. She won a 2020 American Book Award and the 2021 Addison M. Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, along with a handful of fellowships (Yaddo in 2017 and 2021, MacDowell in 2018 and 2021, Hedgebrook and Tin House).

A book exploring generational experiences

Woman of Light is more than a work of fiction; it is a history-spanning, multigenerational collection of stories that ultimately reveal the battles and sacrifices of Chicana women stretching back over a century, and how those battles are not definitively won in this patriarchal world. Did editors look at the synopsis and decide it was too sci-fi, or magic realism, or that a broader readership might not relate to Mexican Americans?

Set in the American West of 1930s Denver, the novel depicts five generations of an Indigenous Chicano family as their homeland becomes increasingly colonized by white settlers, bringing the violence of racism, division and segregation, poverty and devastation to their people, their heritage, and their land. As bleak as this sounds, this robust novel is woven through with the most deliciously beautiful evocations of language. It is cinematic in scope, delighting in color, texture, sound and the nuances in gestures, fashion, heat and light.

The beating heart of the novel is Luz Lopez (or ‘Little Light’), and she is unforgettable. She has an innate ability to read people’s futures in their tea dregs, which is a talent that she is praised and maligned for in equal measure. It’s a deeply respected skill within the Chicano community, but one viewed with contempt and suspicion by others.

Fajardo-Anstine recalls that as a child, her mother would take her and six siblings to visit their elders in Denver, where they’d be entertained with photos and stories of run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and 1930s, women murdered by violent partners and pregnant women who had to walk miles to the city centres to give birth safely. Those stories fueled Fajardo-Anstine’s hours of research into library archives to understand what was erased from history as much as what was focal. Her goal with Woman of Light was that modern Chicano and Latinx men and women would appreciate their roots as living history and be proud of their ancestry.

What many readers may not know is that Fajardo-Anstine began writing Woman of Light while she was writing Sabrina & Corina. She’d dropped out of high school, and it was on her second enrollment in graduate school that she began to build the worlds of her blended-ancestry, multi-generational characters.

“I knew as a late teenager, and in my early 20s, that I wanted to tell the stories of my ancestors in a novel form, but I didn’t have the skills or confidence level,” she explains. “When I got into the second program in graduate school in Wyoming, I studied with writers like Joy Williams and the late Brad Watson, and between 2011 and 2013, that program really emphasised short stories. That’s where I started writing Sabrina & Corina, and I was sending those stories out to journals and piling up rejection after rejection.”

She describes that period as feeling like it went on for an eternity, and she didn’t get a contract for Sabrina & Corina, or Woman of Light, until she’d been working with agent Julia Masnik for years. As the rejections piled up, she told Masnik, “I think we need to make a sale because I’m running out of money. I’m going to be 30 years old with nothing to my name, and I don’t know if I can keep hope going.”

Not long afterwards, Masnik emailed Fajardo-Anstine with an offer from One World/Random House. They wanted Woman of Light and Sabrina & Corrina, and that offer “began a whole new journey.”

The importance of community

Today, Fajardo-Anstine regularly receives messages and letters from women around the world who recognise themselves and their families and friends in her books.

There are themes in Woman of Light that resonate with all women—the sense of being destined, or expected, to marry and procreate and get a job that doesn’t emasculate the men in the family and the consequences of wanting something else, the intensity of female friendship and the sense that one is prey to men, whether they are wearing suits and polished shoes or handling snakes.

“I treat my women characters as full human beings, which transcends culture,” Fajardo-Anstine reflects. “We like to think that we’re in a post-feminist structure right now, but we’re not. There’s violence enacted upon us in many different forms, or we grow up feeling inadequate. Unfortunately, these themes resonate with women all over the world.” 

It’s important to note that even if publishers and critics have been slow to acknowledge Fajardo-Anstine’s literary talents, other voices have propped her up through tougher times. As one of seven children—all sisters besides one lone brother—Fajardo-Anstine has received boundless encouragement and support.

“A lot of my siblings have gotten married and started families, and I’m doing those things later because I’ve been writing books,” she says. “[Their] children are mostly girls too, so it’s a very matriarchal clan that I come from. Being one of seven, I have a lot of voices keeping me on track and they read my books and give me feedback. They’re telling me that they can pass my books on to their children to teach them about our family and our ancestors. In a way, I’m a storykeeper like Luz.”

As our conversation nears its end, Fajardo-Anstine returns to the importance of recognition and the power of the Guggenheim Fellowship to signal to other writers that there is space for them.

“I’m not a writer who feels like if someone else gets something, it takes away from me,” she explains. “When someone else succeeds, the gates open a bit wider. There’s not many Chicano writers in history who have received a Guggenheim, so anytime I get an award or an accolade, in my mind, that opens the gates.”

Fajardo-Anstine attributes her success thus far to her readership, who she says are her community, and when someone in that community has a book published, she feels nothing but pride.

“I’m about getting as many voices into publishing as possible, because it doesn’t do me any favours as an artist to be the only one in the room,” she adds. “I want to have friends there, I want people in the room with me.”

Guggenheim Fellow Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Journey from Self-Doubt to Woman of Light