Night at the Fiestas
By Kirstin Valdez Quade
W.W. Norton & Company, March 23, 2015
I first fell in love with Kirstin Valdez Quade when I read a story not included in this collection, Kidline, which won the Mississippi Review’s 2014 fiction prize. In Kidline, a lonely, superior sixth grade girl meets a blind transfer student who quickly surpasses her in popularity and social confidence. What the lonely girl ends up doing to her blind classmate is almost cartoonish in its cruelty – the kind of outrageous behavior that gives a quietly told tale a welcome jolt of adrenaline – but it only makes us care all the more deeply for the twelve year old who is just learning who she is. Quade’s work is a master class in learning how to forgive.
This love of people who aren’t all that loveable infuses Night of the Fiestas, a collection of exquisitely crafted stories centered in New Mexico. Almost all the characters are Hispanic, and many suffer from a powerful sense of insecurity, but Quade is not interested in a heavy handed depiction of racism. Instead, she takes up the more difficult task of exploring the internalized belief of one’s own inferiority, and we suffer along with the characters at every handout, misguided praise, or God forbid, attempt at encouragement from people who are more privileged.
In Jubilee, both Parker, the daughter of William Lowell, a wealthy landowner, and Andrea, the daughter of his estate manager are accepted to Quade’s alma mater, Stanford. “Andrea receives honor roll certificates from the Chicano student association, which had made her proud until she realized they were just part of all the extra efforts made on behalf of minority students . . . Still, she’d sent the certificates home to her parents, who didn’t know the difference. Now, though, she had a hideous vision of her father flapping the flimsy sheets in William Lowell’s face, William Lowell’s indulgent smile. William Lowell didn’t brag to Salvador about Parker’s accomplishments, you could be sure of that.”
Class and race are not the only stressors. In Five Wounds, an unemployed father tries to redeem himself by reenacting Christ’s death as part of a local tradition. He longs to do more than just acquit himself well in front of his community; he wants to achieve transcendence. The presence of his estranged, pregnant teenaged daughter makes it difficult. In Canute Commands the Tides, a wealthy woman moves from New England to the desert in order to devote herself to her art. Once there, she stares at her paintings in dismay. “(T)he familiar and nauseating cocktail of emotions surged: guilt, impatience, dread, ambition. She must get herself organized: set up her studio, begin a strict schedule. She would tackle Canute; she would move forward.” She ends up running instead. She is not a laughable or contemptible woman. She simply isn’t as big as her dreams.
Mojave Rats places us in a trailer with a broken heater, listening to the wind blow across the salt flats while a mother tries to care for her two children and to believe in the future with her graduate-student husband. Little is said about the mother’s past, but there’s enough for us to understand that she’s running out of options and afraid that she may have failed again to free herself from the bleak horizons of her childhood. Quade deftly depicts the shifting relationships between the parents and the daughters, as the mother is slowly worn down by her older girl’s relentless judgment. The mother’s impulsive act — trivial, silly, something that could even be seen as an act of generosity in other circumstances – signals a grim change in the family dynamics. Even as she regrets it and tries to back peddle, the mother makes her choice to turn away from her daughter. The need for self preservation is just that great.
Although this is a debut work, Quade has already won a string of awards, culminating in being named one of 5 writers under 35 by the National Book Foundation. She is a spectacularly talented young woman positioned to become one of the great writers of the early 21st century. And while she has no shortage of the qualities you would expect of someone who has won so much acclaim – a powerful sense of place, wicked humor, lovely images, and startling, original prose – what is most striking in her work can best be understood from something she said in a New Yorker interview. When asked about Crystal, a character in Ordinary Sins, Quade says, “I hope that Crystal sticks with her job, because she needs it, and I hope that she’s able to continue seeing a place for herself in the Church. . . . After today, she’ll feel more alone, but I hope that she’ll also have more faith in her own capacity for compassion, which is what she truly needs.” When was the last time you heard a writer express so much concern for the imaginary future of one of her imaginary characters? She left me just as convinced as she was of their importance and just as invested in their salvation.
By Vickie Fang, www.vickiefang.com