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'Sabrina and Corina' thoughtfully captures changing realities and relationships

a devil's bookshelf

5/5 Blue Devils 

Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s 2019 short story collection and National Book Award finalist, “Sabrina and Corina,” is everything a short story should be. With an eye for the most minute-yet-profound details, Fajardo-Anstine excavates the narratives of Latina women living in Denver, Colo. through characters that shine. Incorporating both their indigenous heritage and modern experiences, Fajardo-Anstine develops a vibrant set of female characters of different ages, each with a nuanced backstory and malleable future. Although Fajardo-Anstine focuses on one particular American locale and perspective, she never neglects the individuality of her characters or their unique life experiences. 

When I read short stories, I find that their most striking quality is their immediacy. The stakes are often raised right at the start, with each scene demarcating a fundamental character-building moment. In this way, no word goes unnoticed or misplaced. Every writing project has its own challenges for an author — developing honest characters, describing tangible scenes and conveying genuine emotions. However, I believe short stories are perhaps even more challenging: they must be compact while accomplishing all of these goals. Essentially, in a much more limited space, readers expect a world just as plausible and promising as that of a novel. In “Sabrina and Corina,” Fajardo-Anstine rises to this challenge and exceeds expectation.

Denver's gentrification in recent years is one of the unifying themes in the collection. Although these stories are fictional, they shed light on the difficulties of changing city spaces. With the inevitably extinguished memories of a past life, Denver now exists with a different atmosphere demarcated by “black BMWs” and “multimillion-dollar condos.” Although she notes how each of her characters navigate their changing city, Fajardo-Anstine does not describe this evolution with disdain or confusion. Instead, she melds the two worlds of past and present Denver together, intertwining them in a series of highs and lows like any other urban area in transition. 

An equally essential theme that Fajardo-Anstine explores is family. Many short story collections narrate family lives, but Fajardo-Anstine incorporates the fact that an absence of family members oftentimes speaks louder than a presence. Relatives that have moved away or passed on remain just as central to the plot of each story as the protagonists. Mothers and fathers who have left for new families and futures are described by their children in poignant and vivid detail. Grandmothers are memorialized through their recipes, advice and wisdom. 

Fajardo-Anstine champions the connections between mothers, daughters, nieces, grandmothers, aunts and cousins. She navigates all sorts of familial dynamics, but the majority of these moments focus on a shared womanhood. To Fajardo-Anstine, there is something particularly meaningful in how women build and grow with their families, leading them toward a united identity. For example, titular characters Sabrina and Corina are two cousins with a past of secret-sharing, devotion and memory making. As they grow older, their lives become more differentiated and divergent, but they never forget their interdependence and naive beginnings. 

Throughout the collection, these familial relationships inform the personal identities of Fajardo-Anstine’s characters. Through their interactions as they age and change, they become both self-aware and motivated. Oftentimes, they are also left at a crossroads in how they can respond to their familial dynamics. For example, they may dwell on the trials of their past or emerge as a newfound, powerful adult from the painful way they were treated. Similarly, they may question how to fill the void of a loved one or keep alive the legacies of those who believed in their potential. 

In the most special moments of each tale, Fajardo-Anstine inspires her readers to reflect on their own relationships and growth as her characters do the  same. Here, she bridges fiction and nonfiction, erasing any reader’s preconceived illusions of stories as mythical or inapplicable. As much as we may relish in stories of fantasy, Fajardo-Anstine reminds us of the necessity to explore our realities. 

Finally, Fajardo-Anstine prioritizes the home in each of her stories in “Sabrina and Corina.” All of her characters demonstrate their own relationships with home — none of which are picturesque. Some return to live in a childhood home, leave their home for threat of danger, move to a new state and settle into a makeshift home or relocate to a friend’s home to be cared for in terminal illness. As the reader learns, Fajardo-Anstine’s characters experience home as a concept rather than a place. If they can be cultivated and cared for, even the most barren or unfurnished spaces can make the most memorable homes.

This collection is undoubtedly 5/5 Blue Devils. As she paints physical descriptions with the same tonality of vivid landscapes and meshes humor with profound heartache, Kali Fajardo-Anstine gracefully captures the whirlwind of life in “Sabrina and Corina.”

Bates Crawford is a Trinity junior. Her book column, “A Devil’s Bookshelf,” runs bimonthly and she rates reads on a 0-5 Blue Devil scale. Bates recommends books to her fellow students for free-time reading when (or if) they have spare time in their busy Duke lives.

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