Incarnational Catholic literature: The fiction of Kirstin Valdez Quade
“This year Amadeo Padilla is Jesus.” This opening line in a 2009 story in The New Yorker introduced the larger literary world to the fiction of Kirstin Valdez Quade. That Amadeo Padilla in “The Five Wounds” is also the local ne’er-do-well, an absent father with multiple DUIs and more scars on his body than jobs on his resume, also revealed Valdez Quade’s remarkable ability to work within and around religious symbols and metaphors in her work. Padilla, readers soon found out, is just playing Jesus in his town’s yearly reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus. Nevertheless, he ultimately asks not for a faked crucifixion, but for real nails to be used on his hands and his feet. Jesus, his savior, was convicted and executed as a criminal. Padilla, a criminal, asks to share in the literal sufferings of Jesus.
Valdez Quade included “The Five Wounds” in her 2015 short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, which earned plaudits from The National Book Foundation, The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. She then expanded and adapted the story for her eponymous debut novel in 2021, another award-winning effort that author Colm Tóibín praised for its “luminous and memorable detail.” In addition to the novel’s perfect pacing, he wrote, each scene was made with tact and care: “Kirstin Valdez Quade, by concentrating on the truth of small moments, has brought a whole world into focus."
Colm Tóibín: "Kirstin Valdez Quade, by concentrating on the truth of small moments, has brought a whole world into focus."
Valdez Quade was raised in rural New Mexico (the setting for The Five Wounds and most of her stories) and credits her grandmother and great-grandmother for the sense of Catholicity in her work. “I consider myself Catholic,” she told Jenny Shank in a 2018 interview for America. “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?”
Regardless of that tension, the incarnational sense of Catholic fiction that David Tracy and Andrew Greeley have both written about in the past is immediately recognizable in Valdez Quade’s work. “Jesus Christ’s paschal pain is everywhere in The Five Wounds,” wrote Kevin Spinale, S.J., the moderator of America’s Catholic Book Club, in a 2021 essay for America. Indeed, in the visceral reenactment of the passion of Jesus that bookends the novel, Father Spinale notes, Amadeo Padilla “recognizes a further truth: ‘To feel a little of what Christ felt. Tío Tíve said that over a year ago. And what Christ felt was love. Amadeo doesn’t know how he lost track of this. Love: both gift and challenge.’”
Another short story from Night at the Fiestas, “Ordinary Sins,” takes place in a parish office, where a woman partially based on Valdez Quade’s grandmother keeps the parish running in the midst of the sacred and the quotidian. For the priests and the lay employees alike, the daily work is by turns boring and sublime.
Kirstin Valdez Quade: "I consider myself Catholic. That history, that tradition, feels very central to my understanding of my family history and my place in the world."
“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 told Shank in 2018. “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. I love the juxtaposition of the everyday tedium of the job and the holiness of it.”
Some of Valdez Quade’s other short stories, like “Christina the Astonishing (1150-1224),” also explore the parallels between holiness and everyday struggles, as with the title character’s unacknowledged mental illness in that story.
What does Valdez Quade herself think about how religious her stories and characters can be, even when the theme is not religion at all? “I always feel a little bit like I’m maybe not equal to the task,” she told Shank of the many Catholic and Christian publications that have praised her work. “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.”
Her readers seem to disagree about that. “What I continually recognize in Valdez Quade’s work is the pursuit of grace,” wrote the author Liam Callanan in a 2017 essay for America. “Grace is often out of reach of her characters—but only ever just out of reach.” It is a testament to Valdez Quade’s skill, he writes, “that engaged readers come to see the truth even as her characters do not.”
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James T. Keane