Investigating Mystery: The Fictional Journeys of Kirstin Valdez Quade

Kirstin Valdez Quade is a wanderer. She estimates that while she was growing up, she attended 13 different schools throughout the Southwest as her father, a research geologist, moved around for work. She read constantly in the backseat of the car, as they traveled for her father’s field studies, and absorbed desert lore. “My parents would tell me stories connected to where we were,” Ms. Valdez Quade says in her sunny office on the campus of Princeton University. “We frequently crossed the Mojave Desert. There’s this one span called the Forty Mile Desert, where a lot of settlers would die because there was no water for 40 miles. In the middle of it there’s a grave that’s allegedly that of the LeBeau sisters—three sisters who died of diphtheria.”

Ms. Valdez Quade carried the stories she picked up in her childhood travels with her as she continued her peripatetic ways into adulthood, garnering prizes for her writing along the way. She attended Stanford University as an undergraduate, earned her master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Oregon and returned to Stanford as a prestigious Stegner Fellow in 2009. She was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, and also lived in Texas and Nova Scotia, among other places. “I feel like I’ve lived all over,” she says.

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Ms. Valdez Quade’s short stories, in contrast, are for the most part firmly rooted in the northern New Mexico landscape, where her family has lived for generations, imbued with the imagery and traditions of the Catholic faith her grandmothers passed on to her. Many readers first encountered her work in 2009 when The New Yorker published her arresting story “The Five Wounds,” about a ne’er-do-well named Amadeo Padilla, who hopes portraying Jesus in his town’s re-enactment of the crucifixion will bring him redemption in the eyes of the community.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s short stories are for the most part firmly rooted in the northern New Mexico landscape, where her family has lived for generations.

“I think what interested me about that story and the penitential rites in general is the pageantry of it,” Ms. Valdez Quade explains, “and that tension between pageantry and performance and the feeling of faith, which is a very private, quiet experience. I wanted to explore what it meant for Amadeo to have this outsized role of the most important person in Christianity. And he needs redemption. It’s so important to him. He was going to go over the top. He was going to do anything he could to be Jesus.”

Ms. Valdez Quade kept crafting rich, layered family dramas, culminating in the publication of her debut collection, Night at the Fiestas, in 2015. The National Book Foundation chose it for their 5 Under 35 honor, and The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications, named it among the best books of the year.

‘Night at the Fiestas’
‘Night at the Fiestas’ was published in 2015

In Ms. Valdez Quade’s tidy Princeton office, with a neon portrait of her parrot Frito (a “beautiful” but “tricky family member” because of his loud voice and possessiveness) and a Virginia Woolf doll on the shelf, she appears to have settled in. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Princeton, where she has taught undergraduates since the fall of 2016.

When Ms. Valdez Quade interviewed at Princeton, she was dazzled by the literary stars on its faculty, including Jeffrey Eugenides, Joyce Carol Oates and the Pulitzer winner and the current U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. It is clear they believe Ms. Valdez Quade’s work is strong enough to achieve similar honors. Ms. Smith told a Princeton publication that she admired Ms. Valdez Quade’s stories’ “ability to keep a number of thematic balls in the air in the compressed manner of poetry.”

“It’s funny, all I’ve wanted since I was a kid is to live in one house and stay there for the rest of my life,” Ms. Valdez Quade says. She may have finally achieved that vision for a stable address with this latest move.

Ms. Valdez Quade believes one of the reasons she became a fiction writer is the observational skills she honed from always being the new kid: “When you enter a new place you have to be really alert to what the rules and social structures are. I was always having to figure out my place in the world, and who I was in each new context, because that shifts in each new place.”

“We have these family stories that are incredibly mysterious to me and that nobody will explain.”

She also thinks her curiosity about unanswered questions in her family’s stories drove her to seek answers through fiction, such as the mystery of the time she was cursed with mal de ojo (“the evil eye”) as a child: “When I was an infant I got very sick—stomach cramps or something. My mother took me to the pediatrician and nothing really changed. My great-grandmother, who used to take care of me every day while my mother worked, diagnosed me with having the ojo. She took me to a curandera, one of her friends, who did something and cured me. I asked my mother, ‘What did the curandera do?’ and she said, ‘I don’'t know, I didn’t ask.’ And I asked my grandmother and she said the same thing.” Ms. Valdez Quade laughs. “Why would you not ask?

“We have these family stories that are incredibly mysterious to me and that nobody will explain,” she continues. “My grandfather’s father, Epifanio, was one of 10 kids in his family. They lived on a big ranch in Miami, N.M. His parents declared that none of the children were allowed to get married, and that if they did they would be disinherited. Epifanio was the only one who did. He fell in love with my great-grandmother because she was the girl in school who always raised her hand. And in fact, he was disinherited. That makes no sense. Why would parents decree that?”

Ms. Valdez Quade found yet more mysteries to ponder in the rituals of the Catholic Church. “My sense of myself as a Catholic comes from my great-grandmother and my grandmother,” she says. “When I was a child my great-grandmother took care of me. She lived in this high-rise of subsidized apartments. There were lots of other elderly people there, and people with developmental disabilities. It was such a wonderful place to be a kid. My great-grandmother would take me down the hall and we’d visit all of her friends and they’d feed me caramels, and we’d go down to Mass in the common room...We would light candles on her altar. Catholicism felt both cozy and mysterious to me. This idea that you could light a candle for your prayer: I loved that.”

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe
Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe

Ms. Valdez Quade also became fascinated with the more quotidian aspects of the church when her grandmother would take her to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, whose parish office is the model for the story “Ordinary Sins.” In that story a young, unmarried pregnant woman named Crystal works in a parish office and keeps the church running smoothly despite priest crises and co-worker crankiness. Ms. Valdez Quade’s grandmother “was in the altar society for years. I used to love going up to the altar to clean it with her. She would gather the sacramental cloths. I was so excited about the opportunity to go through the door behind the altar and see the secret backstage of the Mass.” In the parish office, she says, “I was interested that this was just an office job, clearly, for some of the people working there.”

“I love the juxtaposition of the everyday tedium of the job and the holiness of it,” she continues.

While Ms. Valdez Quade’s stories frequently feature Catholic characters, she says her relationship to the church “has always been a little bit complicated.”

“I’m interested in priests because they are dealing with the most sacred and important moments in their parishioners’ lives, and they’re this intermediary between their parishioners and God,” she says. “On the other hand, it’s a job that they have to do, day in and day out. And presumably there are office politics and all kinds of tedium.”

While Ms. Valdez Quade’s stories frequently feature Catholic characters, she says her relationship to the church “has always been a little bit complicated.”

“I consider myself Catholic,” she says. “That history, that tradition, feels very central to my understanding of my family history and my place in the world. On the other hand, there are a lot of ways in which I feel that it’s a pretty inhospitable religion for me. I think that’s another tension that I keep returning to. What does it mean for me to love this religion that I don’t always feel wants me?”

Photo by Ricardo Barros

While Ms. Valdez Quade’s grandmothers took her to Mass, her father offered her a different perspective: “My dad is a geochemist and an atheist. I grew up knowing about early man. Science was important to me. It always felt like I was living between absolutes. I remember being in Sunday school and asking questions and being really frustrated by the answers that I got. I didn’t feel that my teacher was taking me seriously. She was talking about how Jesus was man and he was also perfect. I was like, ‘But if he’s human, then he’s not perfect. Because humans aren’t perfect.’”

Even saints are not perfect, which the author explores in her most recent published story, “Christina the Astonishing (1150-1224),” which appeared in The New Yorker in July. The life of Christina, a 12th-century Belgian holy woman revered as a saint in her times, who has never been formally canonized by the Catholic Church, inspired the story.

“How much of mental illness could be grace?” Ms. Valdez Quade asks. “I do think we have this tendency to diagnose and dismiss people.”

“I have to tell everyone to read Margo H. King’s translation of Thomas de Cantimpré’s story of Christina’s life because it’s just delightful and so outlandish,” she says. “The details that I put in my story are just the tip of the iceberg. When I encountered the story of Christina the Astonishing, I just thought, she is awful. What an awful human being to live near! She was always screeching at people and telling them they stank. Not terrifically Christian behavior! I was interested in how hard it must have been to live with her, and how hard it must have been for her. That kind of compulsive judgment of other people and the compulsion to hurt herself: it must have been so lonely and so painful.”

If Christina lived today, some of her behavior might be attributed to mental illness. “How much of mental illness could be grace?” Ms. Valdez Quade asks. “I do think we have this tendency to diagnose and dismiss people. Certainly for a fiction writer, that’s the least interesting path to take. So I did want to take her holiness seriously. In the world of the story, I wanted to respect that and still explore what it might have been like to live with her.”

Ms. Valdez Quade found her entry point into this story set hundreds of years ago through a “throwaway line” in de Cantimpré’s account, which mentioned “her sisters tied her up like a dog, and nobody had any pity for her suffering.” Ms. Valdez Quade explains: “When I saw that, I thought, oh, there were sisters...how galling to live with somebody who causes so much trouble—and to see her lifted up out of their lives and be revered.”

“I’m interested in jealousy,” Ms. Valdez Quade says. “I have felt jealousy and it’s an ugly, ugly emotion.”

Jealousy over a family member’s elevation also surfaces in her story “Nemecia,” narrated by a New Mexico girl named Maria, whose cousin Nemecia is sent to live with her family because her mother “couldn’t care for her” after a tragedy. When Maria is finally chosen to lead the Corpus Christi procession because of her superior recitation of a psalm, Maria’s mother instead installs Nemecia as the procession leader, because of her hard childhood. This sparks a family-splitting revolt. “I’m interested in jealousy,” Ms. Valdez Quade says. “I have felt jealousy and it’s an ugly, ugly emotion. I’m interested in how a person can be jealous of trauma—jealous of the attention and the story. Maria is jealous of Nemecia’s larger-than-life backstory. It’s no good for Nemecia—her life isn’t great. But in Maria’s jealousy, she doesn’t see that.”

Ms. Valdez Quade tries to cultivate a kind of serenity in which to work by staying off social media. She has no blog, Twitter handle or Facebook account, which is unusual for young writers today, who are often asked to promote their work in this way. Staying out of social media dramas helps her root herself in the fictional worlds she creates, with nothing to distract her but Frito’s squawking.

She prefers writing fiction to nonfiction, and found the experience of reviewing another writer’s book uncomfortable because she kept thinking about how she felt when she was waiting for Night at the Fiestas to be published. “I was imagining what the reviews would be like,” she recalls. “I was seeing all of the weaknesses of the book. I was certain I’d be shown to be the fraud that I am.”

 

She is “incredibly grateful” for the positive reviews her book in fact received, and is now working on her next project, a novel, with the help of regular trips to writing retreats, like the one in Umbria, Italy, she visited this summer. “There’s something about having this amount of time blocked off, and to be in a space that isn’t my own that is incredibly productive,” she says. “I don’t have that many books with me, I don’t have that many distractions, and I don’t have to clean my house, which is my main distraction. I find that incredibly productive, to be away from my life and my parrot.”

Since only some of her work includes a Catholic dimension, Ms. Valdez Quade says she has been surprised by how many Catholic and Christian publications, conferences and events are enthusiastic to feature her. “I always feel a little bit like I’m maybe not equal to the task,” she says. “I think one of the reasons I continue to write about these themes is because my own thoughts about it are still uncertain. I’m still figuring out what I think and I believe. So I don’t always feel like I’m the best person to actually talk about it.”

But the growing number of Ms. Valdez Quade’s fans might consider her the best person to talk about it, and will continue to read her work eagerly as she writes into the mystery of being a woman in the Catholic Church, and into the larger mystery of being a human in this world.

Karl Miller
3 days 21 hours ago

Wonderful interview - but I wish they would have explored more deeply Ms. Valdez Quade’s statement “What does it mean for me to love this religion that I don’t always feel wants me?” She speaks so glowingly of her participation in church activities, and clearly has an understanding of the value and importance of faith, that to allow this theme to go unexplored left me saddened. I’d love to know her answer.

Randal Agostini
3 days 12 hours ago

I agree with Karl, yet there are aspects of the interview that make me suspect that both Jenny and Kirstin prefer to be on the verge of their faith, which is very common. Too often "Religion" will get in the way of Faith and even provide the ammunition to maintain a "safe" distance from God - leaving us in charge.
It would be wonderful if a gifted writer like Kirstin could become a Child of God first, which would allow her life, her work and her Faith to fall in line with God's purpose and blossom to it's ultimate.

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