Staying Power: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina

By Abbey Paxton

Sabrina & Corina is a hearth fire in the form of short stories. Colorado author Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s indigenous Latina characters burn with the power of home, beckoning the reader to come closer, to feel the heat.

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The daughters, grandmothers, best friends, and sisters in this debut collection are breaking out and coming home. They are coming of age and aging. They are returning again and again to family, to sisterhood, and to their ancestral Southern Colorado mountains and the Northwest Denver neighborhoods. And they are arrestingly real.

Here in Colorado, there’s a lot of talk about the state’s ‘natives’ vs. ‘transplants.’  Like most Denver transplants, I left my home behind in a rush to break out and start a new adventure. At the time, it felt like pure liberation. A brave climb backdropped by all the metaphorical possibilities of those Rocky Mountains.

Working on a particularly trendy street in North Denver, I hear this a lot:

“Wow. This neighborhood has really changed.” Colorado ‘natives’ remark, followed by a wistful, “I remember when this place used to be a hardware store.”

In the story “Galapago,” a shocking murder frames the conflict between Pearla and her granddaughter Alana. Alana is determined to move Pearla from her Denver home on Galapago street to senior housing. Pearla’s house is her pride and joy, although she has been forced to board up the windows over the years as the population flux has kept the neighborhood dicey. The story is about generational and economic change. Pearla chuckles while bemoaning how neighborhoods like the Northside like have been re-christened to suit her new Anglo neighbors with names like Highlands instead. These neighbors have gradually replaced the old with their expensive cars and an insatiable desire for renovation. All the while, the murder propels toward an ending that packs some serious staying power.

Fajardo-Anstine’s own indigenous Colorado heritage is as present and steadfast as the very mountains draped over each story. Her characters stare down generational suppression, the wounds of gentrification, violence at the hands of men, and complicated family relationships where sisterhood often equals salvation.

In the titular, “Sabrina & Corina,” Corina, a young makeup artist, learns her cousin Sabrina has been killed and is called upon to do her makeup for a funeral viewing. For as long as Corina can remember, Sabrina has been defined by her beauty. Not only have men threatened to consume it, but their family even thought of her as a living doll. The relationship between beauty and violence is visceral. The image of Corina facing her cousin as a lovely lifeless doll strikes to the heart of the story: what is the cost of beauty?

Fajardo-Anstine’s writing is a gift. Thank goodness she’s already working on a forthcoming novel. Her insight into the feminine pulses as close to the earth as what Lauren Groff did in Florida.  My heart beats alongside these fierce women as they fight for each other, for family, and for place. I am left curious about the stories of my own grandmothers and the feminine power already around me. But this collection also blazes with perspective. Fajardo-Anstine generously throws open a window into her rich heritage and roots in the West.

In Sabrina & Corina, there is a kinship among the characters and with Colorado itself. She captures how we are tied to place, to geography. And lately, I’ve been sensing my absence from the cornfields and no-nonsense work ethic of my home state of Iowa. I wonder about that decision many of us face: to leave or to stay. Both options seem brave and tragic and good and greedy all at the same time.

I am left thinking about those of us who have been eager to stake a flag in the ground – to start a new adventure in places where we’ve only just arrived. Remembering to slow down and listen to the history that is already here. Wondering, what have we trampled in our rush to make new homes? And what have we lost in the leaving?

Abbey Paxton is BookBar’s books and gifts buyer.