A Note from Celeste Ng, Author of Little Fires Everywhere:
I read Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Woman of Light during a very gray January, when a new wave of COVID had confined many of us to our homes yet again, and the realities of the real world felt inescapable. And yet, as I read, all of that dropped away and was replaced by wide-open skies, prophecies mapped out at the bottoms of teacups, speakeasies and sharpshooters, and the fierce, complicated, tender love between family. This is a world where bank robbers like Bonnie and Clyde still roam, where snake charmers and visions sit side-by-side with labor strikes and struggles for racial justice.
Woman of Light’s scope called Willa Cather to mind—but Fajardo-Anstine shines a spotlight on characters whose stories often fall into the shadows. When I turned the last page, I was still in that gray January, but somehow the world felt a little bigger, and a little more hopeful.
The following questions were written from Celeste to Kali.
There's such a wide, rich cast of characters, many of whom aren't often given voices in literature. What drew you to those stories?
First, thank you for these questions, Celeste! It’s a pleasure discussing literature with you. I had the idea for Woman of Light over a decade ago, starting with the character Luz, a 17-year-old leaf reader of Indigenous and Latinx descent. She’s inspired by my Auntie Lucy who was abandoned by her European coal miner father in the 1920s. Her life had been difficult, but it was also filled with glamour and beauty. Most of the characters are based on my family and ancestors, like Diego who is a nod to one of my great uncles, a marvelous snake charmer. I wanted these characters to feel alive, so I did years of research in archives and museums, in the homes of my Colorado elders. I asked questions, learned their stories, and in Woman of Light I hope to honor them.
This novel feels like stepping into the world of 1930s Denver. Yet while reading, I couldn't help feeling it was eerily resonant with where we are today. Could you talk about the parallels there?
Woman of Light takes a look at many issues of social justice—from the impacts of historical trauma, racism, sexism, class struggle, and more. One question I’m asking with this novel is how has American culture changed over time, and how has it remained the same? After Luz goes to work for David, a young Greek-American attorney, she sees how the bureaucracy of the city functions to uphold the status quo. David’s big case involves the police killing of a young Mexican man from the Westside. My question for readers is how does this differ or feel similar to our reality and relationship with police brutality in the United States? How can we use lessons from the past to allow rapid progress in the future?
One of the scenes that's indelibly described in my memory involves the Klan. Can you tell us about writing this intense scene?
I grew up hearing stories of the KKK and how they terrorized my ancestors in Denver. To grapple with the horror of that scene, I researched. Some Colorado archives house Klan artifacts and I was shocked when examining physical robes at the Denver Public Library that these hoods came in many sizes, some to fit babies and children. During that scene, Luz looks into the faces of young mothers with their babies during that hideous march.
In some ways, this is a novel about storytelling and bearing witness, as Luz keeps hold of stories of her family's past. What do you think of the role of books—and stories generally—is right now?
Throughout this novel, storytelling is used as entertainment, but also as a vehicle for cultural survival. My writing is guided by the need to feel culturally seen and acknowledged as a vital part of the American identity. For much of my life, I felt invisible, as if the ancestors’ hardships were forgotten. With this novel, I wanted to know how history has informed my existence. I wanted to understand how my Indigenous, Chicano, Filipino, and European ancestors met each other and fell in love, essentially how did I become a person?
You've mentioned that this book took you years to write. What was the biggest challenge, and what was the greatest joy in the process?
Woman of Light took over ten years to complete and it’s unbelievable that it’s finally out in the world. This didn’t come easy. I dropped out of high school and my first MFA program, and I struggled with typical classroom learning throughout my life. I had periods of depression and struggle in my 20s while working low-paying joys and writing this novel. During those difficult years, I also had the beautiful moments of inspiration, teaching, growing, and happiness. The biggest thing I learned from writing this novel is that if I can do it, I can help others find the belief in themselves that they, too, can write novels.
A Final Note from Celeste:
Woman of Light is an epic novel that never shies away from its characters’ harsh realities, yet it’s suffused with the joys of life—unexpected kindness, moments of beauty, new love and open horizons—that make it possible to persevere despite everything. I hope you’ll pick it up at your local independent bookstore.