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Copy of Fall 2023: Home

Bea's Book Club celebrates diversity! 
The club is named in fond memory of longtime SWIC librarian, Bea Fries. Bea held the position of librarian at SWIC for forty-five years from July 1967 until May 2012. Her generous bequest to the SWIC Library established the Bea Fries Memorial Library Fund. Through this fund, a great deal of library materials are acquired each year for all to enjoy! Bea's Book club is DEI intentional. Book selections and supplemental materials celebrate, recognize and inform readers about the culture, traditions, histories and contributions of historically marginalized communities. Everyone is invited to this enlightening forum of books and activities that inspire, educate and increase empathy as well as cultural awareness.


Hispanic Heritage Selection

Violeta: a novel  by Isabel Allende

Violeta, is a novel that begins and ends with an epidemic and that covers the last 100 years of history. Set mainly in the Chilean Patagonia, with moments in Argentina, Miami and Norway, the novel deals with a wide range of themes, from feminism and verbal abuse, human rights violations and homosexuality, to amorous passions, infidelity and even global warming. It also reviews socialist movements, communism and military dictatorships.  Read more...      

First English edition 2022. Award winning author and New York Times best seller, ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: PopSugar, Real Simple, Reader's Digest. 

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Isabel Allende

Dear Reader,

Invincible Women: Isabel Allende and Other Remarkable Women Immigrants | A  WOMEN'S THING

It is very strange to write one’s biography because it is just a list of dates, events, and achievements. In reality, the most important things about my life happened in the secret chambers of my heart and have no place in a biography. My most significant achievements are not my books, but the love I share with a few people—especially my family—and the ways in which I have tried to help others.

When I was young, I often felt desperate: so much pain in the world and so little I could do to alleviate it! But now I look back at my life and feel satisfied because few days went by without me at least trying to make a difference. In any case, here is a short summary.

B i o g r a p h y

Name: Isabel Allende Llona

Nationality: Chilean/American. Born in Peru to Chilean parents; became an American citizen in 1993.

Date of Birth: August 2, 1942

Profession: Writer Journalist Teacher - Creative Writing and Latin American Literature

Advocacy and Activism: In 1995 Isabel created the Isabel Allende Foundation to support the empowerment of women and girls worldwide ( For over 20 years she has lecutured internationally about women's rights and the empowerment of women, Latin American an world politics, Chile, writing and the creative process, spirituality and her own work. 


Isabel Allende

I receive innumerable letters from readers, academics, and journalists regarding my work. Since it is impossible to answer them all, I hope the following section—a compilation of interview questions I have received over the years—will be helpful. Those interested in learning more about my life and work may also wish to read Isabel Allende: Life and Spirit by Celia Correas Zapata.

Q. You’re famous for your narrative, but are there other writing genres you're interested in exploring as well?
A. I wrote plays in my youth and loved it. I also tried writing children’s stories when my kids were small. I told them stories every night, and it was a wonderful training that I have maintained. In 2001, in fact, I wrote City of the Beasts, my first novel for kids and young adults. I have written humor for years, and I think that is the most difficult genre of all. I've never tried poetry and I don't think I will.
Q. Do you write in Spanish?
A. I can only write fiction in Spanish, because it is for me a very organic process that I can only do in my native language. Fortunately, I have excellent translators all over the world.
Q. Can you elaborate on the idea of writing fiction—of telling a truth, of telling lies, of uncovering some kind of reality? Can you also talk about how these ideas might work together or against one another?
A. The first lie of fiction is that the author gives some order to the chaos of life: chronological order, or whatever order the author chooses. As a writer, you select some part of a whole. You decide that those things are important and the rest is not. And you write about those things from your perspective. Life is not that way. Everything happens simultaneously, in a chaotic way, and you don't make choices. You are not the boss; life is the boss. So when you accept as a writer that fiction is lying, then you become free. You can do anything. Then you start walking in circles. The larger the circle, the more truth you can get. The wider the horizon—the more you walk, the more you linger over everything—the better chance you have of finding particles of truth.
Q. Where do you get your inspiration?
A. I am a good listener and a story hunter. Everybody has a story and all stories are interesting if they are told in the right tone. I read newspapers, and small stories buried deep within the paper can inspire a novel.
Q. How does inspiration work?
A. I spend ten, twelve hours a day alone in a room writing. I don't talk to anybody. I don't answer the telephone. I'm just a medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me, voices that talk through me. I'm creating a world that is fiction but that doesn't belong to me. I'm not God; I'm just an instrument. And in that long, very patient daily exercise of writing I have discovered a lot about myself and about life. I have learned. I'm not conscious of what I'm writing. It’s a strange process—as if by this lying-in-fiction you discover little things that are true about yourself, about life, about people, about how the world works.
Q. Can you talk about the characters?
A. When I develop a character I usually look for a person who can serve as a model. If I have that person in mind, it is easier for me to create characters that are believable. People are complex and complicated—they seldom show all the aspects of their personalities. Characters should be that way too.
I allow the characters to live their own lives in the book. Often I have the feeling that I don't control them. The story goes in unexpected directions and my job is to write it down, not to force it into my previous ideas.
Q. What makes a good end to a story?
A. I don't know. In a short story it’s different from a novel. A short story comes whole; there is only one appropriate ending. And you know it—you feel it. If you can't find that ending, then you don't have a story. It’s useless to work on it anymore. To me a short story is like an arrow; it has to have the right direction from the beginning and you have to know exactly where you're aiming. With a novel you never know. It’s patient and daily work, like embroidering a tapestry of many colors. You go slowly, you have a pattern in mind. But all of a sudden you turn it and realize that it’s something else. It’s a very fascinating experience because it has a life of its own. In the short story you have all the control. However, there are very few good short stories. And there are many memorable novels. In a short story, it’s more important how you tell it than what you tell; the form is very important. In a novel you can make mistakes and very few people will notice. Happy endings usually don't work for me. I like open endings. I trust the reader’s imagination.
Q. Which writers have influenced you most?
A. I belong to the first generation of Latin American writers brought up reading other Latin American writers. Before my time the work of Latin American writers was not well distributed, even on our continent. In Chile it was very hard to read other writers from Latin America. My greatest influences have been all the great writers of the Latin American Boom in literature: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, Borges, Paz, Rulfo, Amado, etc.
Many Russian novelists influenced me as well: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Nabokov, Gogol, and Bulgarov. The English writers who had a big influence on me during my adolescence were Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. I loved mysteries and read all of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. Also some American authors who were very popular in Spanish, like Mark Twain, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. I remember the lasting impression that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird had on me. I read that book again every decade or so. From these books I got a sense of plot and strong characters.
I discovered fantasy and eroticism in One Thousand and One Nights, which I read in Lebanon at age fourteen. At that time and in that place, girls didn't have much social life aside from school and family; we didn't even go to the movies. My only escape from a troublesome family life was reading. My stepfather had four mysterious leather volumes in his locked closet, forbidden books that I was not supposed to see because they were “erotic.” Of course I found a way to copy the key and get in the closet when he was not around. I used a flashlight, could not mark the pages, and read quickly, skipping pages and looking for the dirty parts. My hormones were raging and my imagination went wild with those fantastic tales. When critics call me a Latin America Sheherazade I feel very flattered!
The American and European feminists that I read in my twenties gave me an articulate language to express the anger I felt against the patriarchy in which we all live. I started working at Paula, a Chilean feminist magazine, sharpening my ideas and my pen to defy the male establishment. It was the best time of my life.
I have always liked movies, and sometimes an image or a scene or a character stays with me for years and inspires me when I write. For example: the magic in Fanny and Alexander or the story within a story of Shakespeare in Love.
Q. What happens when you start a novel?
A. When I start I am in a total limbo. I don't have any idea where the story is going or what is going to happen or why I am writing it. I only know that—in a way that I can't even understand at the time—I am connected to the story. I have chosen that story because it was important to me in the past or it will be in the future.
Q. Do you do a lot of editing?
A. Yes, for language and tension, but not for plot. The story or the characters have a life of their own. I can't control them. I want the characters to be happy, to get married, and to have a lot of children and live happily ever after, but it never happens that way. As I said before, happy endings don't work for me.
Q. Can you talk about the healing elements of writing and, specifically, about writing Paula? I would think that writing Paula was very difficult and very painful.
A. When I was writing Paula, my assistant would come to the office and find me crying. She would hug me and say, “You don't have to write this.” And I would say, “I am crying because I am healing. Writing is my way of mourning.” That book was written with tears, but those were very healing tears. After it was finished, I felt that my daughter was alive in my heart, her memory preserved. As long as it is written, it will be remembered. I can't remember details, names, and places, and that is why every day I write a letter to my mother. When I wrote about Paula and our life together, I recorded it forever. I will never forget. That is the life of the spirit.
Q. When I read Paula, I was struck by how self-revelatory it was. People don't normally speak about that kind of pain. Your experience of death, sickness, and tragedy was a gift to many people.
A. I feel connected to those readers who have written to me. Pain is universal. We all experience pain, loss, and death the same way. I get letters from doctors who feel that they will never be able to see their patients in the way they did before reading the book, and from young people who identify with Paula and think for the first time about their own mortality. Many of the letters are from very young women who never have had a real loss but who feel they don't have a sense of family or support in their communities. They feel very lonely. They want a connection with a man the way Paula was connected to her husband. I receive letters from mothers who have lost children and think that they will die of sorrow. But one doesn't die. The death of a child is the oldest sorrow of women. Mothers have lost children for millennia. It is only a privileged few who can expect all of their children to live.
Q. Many reviewers regard Paula as your greatest book. Would you say that writing about Paula affected you more deeply than all the other books?
A. Yes, all the rest was rehearsal. And when I finished Paula I found it very difficult to write again. What could I possibly write about that would be as significant to me? However, after three years of writer’s block I was able to write again.
Q. Do you think that a writer chooses what to write or that the writing chooses you?
A. I think that the stories choose me.
Q. So you are a storyteller first and a writer second?
A. Yes. The storytelling is the fun part. The writing can be a lot of work!
Q. Does your background as a journalist help you?
A. I work with emotions; language is the tool, the instrument. The story is always about some very deep emotion that is important for me. When I write, I try to use language in an efficient way, the way a journalist does. You have very little space and time and have to grab your reader by the neck and not let go. That’s what I try to do with language: create tension. From journalism I have also learned other practical things, like how to research a topic, how to conduct an interview, and how to observe and to talk to people on the street.
Q. When you talk about opening yourself up to the experience, are you opening yourself up to a magical world? Do spirits actually come in and suggest words, images, and scenes for you?
A. Yes. In a certain way. There is also an intellectual process, of course. But there is something magic in the storytelling. You tap into another world. The story becomes whole when you tap into the collective story, when other people’s stories become part of the writing, and you know that it’s not your story only. I have a feeling that I don't invent anything. That, somehow, I discover things that are from another dimension. That they are already there, and my job is to find them and bring them onto the page. But I don't make them up. Over the years things have happened in my life and in my writing that have proved to me that anything is possible. I am open to all the mysteries. When you spend too many hours—as many, many hours a day as I do—alone and in silence, you are able to see that world. I imagine that people who pray or mediate for long hours, or who spend time alone in a convent or another quiet place, end up hearing voices and seeing visions because solitude and silence create the basis for that awareness.
Sometimes I write something, and I'm practically convinced that it’s just my imagination. Months or years later, I discover that it was true. And I'm always so scared when that happens. I think, “What is this? What if things happen because I write them? I have to be very careful with my words.” But my mother says, “No, they don't happen because you write them. You don't have that power. Don't be so arrogant. What happens is that you are able to see them and other people are not because they don't have the time, because they are busy in the noise of the world.” My grandmother was clairvoyant. And although she did not write, she could guess things and tap into those unknown events and feelings. She was aware. I imagine that it’s just a question of being more aware.
Q. Your stepfather called you a mythomaniac.
A. Yes. He says that I am liar. When I was writing Paula it was the first time that I wrote a memoir. In a memoir one is expected to tell the truth. My stepfather and my mother objected to every page because from my perspective the world of my childhood—of my life—is totally different from the way they see it. I see highlights, emotions, and an invisible web—threads that somehow link these things. It is another form of truth.
Q. You once said that you came from such a repressed background you have a hard time writing erotic scenes. In comparing Francisco and Irene’s lovemaking—which is heavily metaphorical, very beautiful and floaty—with scenes in later books, it seems fair to say that you've lost your repression, that you've developed the ability to write sensually. Is that conscious?
A. No, I think it has to do with the book. Every book has a way of being written. Every story has a way of being told. The story determines the tone in which we should tell things. Francisco and Irene are two very young people who lust for each other in the beginning and then they fall in love. By the time they have sex, they are really in love. They also have been touched for the first time in their lives with the brutality of death, torture, repression, and violence. Making love brings them back from hell to life, to the paradise of love. Later, they will be destroyed by events. The scene is told in such a way because, without me even being very conscious of it, it’s like the myth of Eurydice: Orpheus goes down to hell to bring his lover back to life.
Q. You write in Spanish but live in English in the U.S. I'm struck by your ability to take something the majority of the world sees as a disadvantage and make it an advantage. Most people would see living in a second language as being marginalized.
A. But that’s great! Who wants to be in the mainstream? The other day I heard something wonderful on TV about the problems this country is going to face in the next ten years—crime, violence, the lack of values, the destruction of the family, teenage pregnancy, drugs, AIDS. Someone then said something extraordinary. “Have you noticed that new immigrants don't have these problems? Because they come to this country with the same ideas and the same strength that our great-grandparents came with.” Being marginal is like being a new immigrant. If you can transform marginality into something positive, instead of dwelling on it as something negative, it’s a wonderful source of strength.
Q. We often talk about the woman’s voice in literature, and that is a perspective from which you write very successfully. Was it difficult in The Infinite Plan to write in a man’s voice?
A. No. I don't find that difficult at all. I also wrote from the perspective of a man and with man’s voice in The House of the Spirits. Esteban Trueba narrates parts of the book. With The Infinite Plan it was easy because I had my husband to guide me. Then I realized that there are more similarities than differences when it comes to gender. Essentially, human beings are very similar, but we are stuck in the differences instead of highlighting the similarities. When I got into the skin of the male protagonist, who is based on my husband, Willie Gordon, I got to know him much better than if I had lived with him for thirty years.
Q. That seems like a good place for us to turn back to the world of the spirits, to the place we started. Would you add to the characteristics of the spiritual world that it is genderless?
A. Probably in the world of spirituality gender is not an issue, just as race or age isn’t an issue. I have been a feminist all my life, fighting for feminist issues. When I was young, I fought aggressively. I was a warrior then. And now I am becoming more aware of those essential things we men and women have to explore and that could really bring us together. But don't get me wrong: I am a feminist and a very proud one!
Q. Critics define the style of your writing as “magic realism.” Are all your books written in this genre?
A. I think that every story has a way of being told and every character has a voice. And you can't always repeat the formula. Magic realism, which was overwhelmingly present in The House of the Spirits, doesn't exist in my second book, Of Love and Shadows. And that’s because my second book was based on a political crime that happened in Chile after the assassination of Salvador Allende, so it is more of a journalistic chronicle. There is no magic realism in The Infinite PlanAphroditeDaughter of Fortune or Portrait in Sepia, yet there is a lot of it in City of the Beasts, my first novel for kids.
Sometimes, magic realism works and sometimes it doesn't. In any case, you will find elements of magic realism in literature from all over the world—not just in Latin America. You will find it in Scandinavian sagas, in African poetry, in Indian literature written in English, in American literature written by ethnic minorities. Writers like Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, and Alice Hoffman all use this style.
For a while, in the U.S. and Europe, a logical and practical approach to literature prevailed, but it didn't last very long. That’s because life is full of mystery. And the goal of literature is to explore those mysteries. It actually enlarges your horizons. When you allow dreams, visions, and premonitions to enter into your everyday life and your work as a writer, reality seems to expand.
Q. You come from a most unusual family. Would you talk about your uncle, Salvador Allende, and how he influenced your life?
A. I don't think he influenced my life much until he died, although I always had great admiration for him. When we had the military coup in Chile in 1973, it was not he, but the military coup that changed the lives of so many Chileans. It affected half the population dramatically.
Salvador Allende was my father’s first cousin. I saw him on weekends, sometimes on vacations, but I did not live with him.
After the military coup, I realized that he had a historical dimension. I only saw that after I left Chile. Following the coup, his name was banned throughout Chile. When I went to Venezuela, every time I said my name, people would ask immediately if I was related to Salvador Allende. He has become a legendary figure, a hero.
Q. Will you ever write a book about Salvador Allende?
A. No, I don't think so. I'm not good at biography and in this case I could not be objective.
Q. Do you believe in destiny or karma?
A. I do believe in destiny. I believe that we are dealt a hand of cards and we have to play the game of life as best we can. And often the cards are marked.
Q. Do you believe that what happened to your uncle was destiny?
A. Yes. But that does not mean that the people who killed him are not to blame. I do believe that the torturers and the murderers are still to blame and that we should try to stop them.
Q. Will you ever go back to Chile?
A. I go back every year to see my mother and I feel very comfortable there. But I don't think I could live there now, especially since I have a home in the U.S. My son and my grandchildren are here. I don't really miss Chile because now I can go there anytime I want.
Q. You start writing all your books on January 8. Why?
A. On January 8, 1981, I was living in Venezuela and I received a phone call that my beloved grandfather was dying. I began a letter for him that later became my first novel, The House of the Spirits. It was such a lucky book from the very beginning that I kept that lucky date to start.
Q. Can you speak about any ceremonies you conduct when starting a new book?
A. January 8th is a sacred day for me. I come to my office very early in the morning, alone. I light some candles for the spirits and the muses. I meditate for a while. I always have fresh flowers and incense. And I open myself completely to the experience that begins in that moment. I never know exactly what I'm going to write. I may have finished a book months before and may have been planning something, but it has happened already twice that when I sit down at the computer and turn it on, another thing comes out. It is as if I was pregnant with something, an elephant’s pregnancy, something that has been there for a very long time, growing, and then when I am able to relax completely and open myself to the writing, then the real book comes out. I try to write the first sentence in a state of trance, as if somebody else was writing it through me. That first sentence usually determines the whole book. It’s a door that opens to an unknown territory that I have to explore with my characters. And slowly, as I write, the story seems to unfold itself, in spite of me. It just happens.
I'm not the kind of writer who can have an outline, talk about the writing to anybody, or read parts of my writing in process. Until the first draft is ready—and that first draft can take months, and it’s usually very long—I don't know what the book is about. I just sit down every day and pour out the story. When I think it’s finished, I print it and I read it for the first time. At that point I know what the story is about, and I start eliminating everything that has nothing to do with it.
Q. What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
A. Writing is like training to be an athlete. There is a lot of training and work that nobody sees in order to compete. The writer needs to write every day, just as the athlete needs to train. Much of the writing will never be used, but it is essential to do it.
I always tell my young students to write at least one good page a day. At the end of the year they will have at least 360 good pages. That is a book.
I don't share the process of writing with anybody, and when the manuscript is finished, I show it only to a very few people, because I trust my instincts and I don't want too many hands in my writing.

1. What did you think about Violeta as a character? How did she evolve throughout the course of the book? Which period of her life was the most interesting to you? Did you learn anything from her story?

2. Violeta tells her story in the form of a letter, a practice inspired by Isabel Allende’s own correspondence with her mother, Panchita. Since Allende was 16, she and her mother would write letters almost daily when they were apart, each writing one half of a shared monologue that recorded their lives. What does the epistolary style add to the overall effect of the novel?

3. The novel is bookended by two pandemics. Did that timeline encourage you examine what it means to live during and through such times more closely? What does it take to keep going when the world is filled with tur[1]moil and unease?

4. Allende chooses to leave the country unnamed in Violeta, though scenes in the novel are inspired by historical events in the region and Allende’s life—such as military coups and dictatorships, the 1918 flu pandemic, The Great Depression, the Women’s Rights movement, etc. Why do you think she made this choice? How did the open-ended setting impact your reading experience?

5. Violeta experiences different kinds and stages of love—expressed through family, security, passion, grief, kinship, tolerance, acceptance, and good humor. Discuss Violeta’s various relationships. How does Allende capture the ways we love? In what ways does our capacity for love change over time?

6. Violeta says, “It was clear to me from a young age that although I respected them, my mother and my aunts were stuck in the past, uninterested in the outside world or anything that might challenge their beliefs.” Discuss the ways different generations approach feminism.

7. Violeta is filled with playful, witty humor. What scenes or moments made you laugh? What does humor add to the overall effect of the story?

8. Violeta’s Aunt Pia observes, “Better a boring husband that an unreliable one.” Do you agree? Do you think passion or loyalty is more important for a good marriage?

9. Memory is major theme in this novel, made up of the unexpected events that make a life. Sometimes it’s a blessing and sometimes it’s a curse, as Violeta says. Discuss how the book explores memory.

10. In the last chapter, Allende writes, “There’s a time to live and time to die. In between there’s time to remember.” How did this book make you reflect on your own life? What did you take away from reading it?

Q: You have mentioned that some elements of the novel are inspired by events in your family history, and specifically your mother’s life—can you expand on this?

A: When my mother died, three years ago, many people suggested that I write about her life. I couldn’t. I was too close to her, I had no distance or perspective to see her as a character. She did not have an exceptional life, but she lived almost a century, a fascinating century of great changes for humanity; in her correspondence with me, she recorded most of it. Violeta is physically, emotionally, and intellectually like my mother, she belongs to the same generation and social class, but she had a different fate. Unfortunately, she was never financially independent. That would have made such a huge difference in her life!!

Q: You have talked about the beautiful relationship you had with your mother. Is it correct that you wrote to her every day from 1986 until she died? Can you tell us a bit more?

A: I was separated from my mother when I was 16 years old. She was in Turkey with my stepfather, who was a diplomat, and I was in Chile at my grandfather’s house. We started writing to each other almost every day. The letters took weeks to reach us but it didn’t matter, it was not a conversation, it was a shared uninterrupted monologue. We were separated most of our lives and we kept the long habit of the daily letter. I saved her letters and copies of most of mine. Recently my son decided to archive dozens of boxes with that insane correspondence. He calculated that I have 24.000 letters.

Q: Is there something of yourself in the character of Violeta?

A: I heard once that all characters are part of the author. I don’t know if that’s true. I have hundreds of characters in 26 books and I don’t think any of them are based on me. But obviously my values, memories, demons, and angels are in all of them, even in the villains. (Maybe mostly in the villains . . . ) Violeta is strong and independent, like all my female protagonists. Is that something of myself? Probably.

Q: You have said that the character of Camilo was inspired by your best friend, who is a Jesuit priest. Please could you tell us a bit more about him?

A: His name is Felipe Berríos del Solar and the book is dedicated to him. He works with the poor in a dump in the north of Chile; his religion is about compassion, inclusion, tolerance, service, unconditional love, struggle for justice, and social change. He is full of doubts about the church, but has no doubts about his faith. In the 60s, many Catholics embraced the Liberation Theology which was about those values that Felipe embraces. The hierarchy of the Church squashed. Today the Catholic church, like most religions, is not in touch with the needs of humanity and the times we are living. And they are all, without exception, patriarchal.

Q: Why did you decide to leave the country in which the novel is set unnamed?

A: It gives me more freedom, I don’t have to stick to precise dates or places. I did the same in The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows. Those stories could have happened in almost any Latin American country.

Q: Why did you choose to bookend the novel with pandemics? How do you feel that informs other elements of the story?

A: Violeta lives to be a hundred years old. In her deathbed, isolated because of the pandemic, she reflects, remembers and writes to her grandson. I thought it would be poetic to place her century between the two pandemics. Now that we are living under Covid-19 we can easily imagine what the influenza pandemic was a century ago. So much happened in these years and here we are, in the same place. Isn’t it ironic?

Q: Is the character of Nieves inspired by a real person?

A: I was married for 28 years to a man whose three children were addicts. Tragically, they all died of drug-related causes. I lived very close to addiction for a long time and I know first hand how devastating it is for the patient, the family, and everybody else around. Nieves is inspired by Jennifer, Willie’s only daughter, who died very young, shortly after giving birth.

Q: Love is a recurrent theme in your books and lately you have written a lot about love at an old age. Can you talk about that?

A: I am an invincible romantic. I have been in love always since age seven to this day. So no wonder love appears constantly in my writing. I believe it is the most powerful force in the world, in different ways, it moves everything in nature. In my old age—I will be 80 this year 2022—I value love more than ever. I am often asked how it is to love at this stage. It’s like falling in love in our youth but with more patience, tolerance, good humor, and a sense that we have very little time left. We have to enjoy it. That’s what Violeta does in her old age, when she falls in love with the Norwegian birdwatcher. 

Q: Some of the plot of Violeta is inspired by actual historical events—can you talk about what you hoped to achieve with this? Were you hoping to write about the impact of sweeping historical changes on individual lives?

A: I have written several historical novels, so I have become keenly interested in the past and how it shapes the present. My characters are not detached from the real world, the social and political events impact their lives. My own life has been determined by external events that I could not control. I can’t narrate my own life without referring to those circumstances. In the same way, I can’t create believable characters—complex and contradictory as real people are—without describing the time and the place where they live.



LGBTQ+ Selection

The Thirty Names of Night  by Zeyn Joukhadar

A novel about a Syrian American transgender man reckoning with the histories of his family and his homeland. Nadir's story is interwoven with that of another artist, a Syrian immigrant from more than half a century earlier. A vivid exploration of loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history, The Thirty Names of Night is a timely exploration of how we all search for and ultimately embrace who we are. Read more...    

Published in 2020. Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction, Winner of the ALA Stonewall Book Award—Barbara Gittings Literature Award, Named Best Book of the Year by Bustle, Named Most Anticipated Book of the Year by The MillionsElectric Literature, and HuffPost. 

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Zeyn Joukhadar

B i o g r a p h y

Zeyn Joukhadar is the author of The Map of Salt and Stars and The Thirty Names of Night. He is a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI) and of American Mensa. Joukhadar’s writing has appeared in Salon, The Paris ReviewThe Kenyon Review, and elsewhere and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Best of the NetThe Map of Salt and Stars was a 2018 Middle East Book Award winner in Youth Literature, a 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist in Historical Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. He has received fellowships from the Montalvo Arts Center, the Arab American National Museum, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Camargo Foundation, and the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. 



I n t e r v i e w   w i t h  N P R ' s  A i l s a  C h a n g e

AILSA CHANG, HOST: You can get a taste of what Zeyn Joukhadar wants to say in his new novel before you even reach Page 1. It's in the dedication - for those who name themselves. The novel is called "The Thirty Names Of Night." And since writing his last novel, Joukhadar has come out as transgender. The main character of this new book is transitioning as well. Nadir is a Syrian American artist figuring out how to live in his body and how to reckon with the history of his family and his community in New York City. Nadir's story is interwoven with that of another artist, a Syrian immigrant from more than half a century earlier, which Joukhadar told me was an important starting point for this book.
ZEYN JOUKHADAR: Our ancestors and our histories are always very much present in our lives. And also, that history is always constantly reiterating itself on the present. So we can feel that we are sort of acting independently of how we got here, but I'm not sure that's ever really true. And I think, too, that so often for trans people and for queer people in general, we do often get written out of history. And so it is really important for us to be able to remember that we've always been here. We've always existed...
JOUKHADAR: ...And that we do have a really rich history in - also in our own smaller communities, like the Arab American community, for example.
CHANG: Well, I know that personally, you had not come out yet when you had started writing this book. And tell me, what did it feel like to bring all of that history to light as you were starting your own transition and starting to come out?
JOUKHADAR: For me, it was really powerful to know that I was not alone and that I was sort of held in - this is how I think of it - that I was sort of held in the net of history; that I had all of this history behind me, that there were all of these other Arab American people who had had all of these lives that had led up to mine in some way, that their stories were a part of my story and that as I was trying to envision a future for myself, I had to know this history in order to move forward. I had to know where we had come from in order to know how to move ahead.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, there's also this other binding thread in this book across the different timelines and storylines, and that binding thread is birds. Birds figure in everywhere in this story, not just with the characters like Nadir's ornithologist mother or Laila, the artist who depicts birds. But in so many scenes, you know, birds just sort of appear out of nowhere sometimes. Tell me why. What do birds represent to you?
JOUKHADAR: Well, I think that I wanted there to be a relationship between birds and memory and birds and the sacred. I chose, for example, when I was thinking of this mysterious bird that I wanted to sort of feel real without necessarily being real, I was thinking a lot about the relationship between the ibis and the sacred in many Southwest Asian and North African cultures. And so ultimately, when I think about birds, I think about the fact that Nadir is also sort of the rare bird that, for some of the world, isn't really supposed to exist. And yet, he does. And so a lot of the story talks about the erasure of nonbinary people and how nonbinary people do often get pushed into sort of one binary gender box or another...
CHANG: Mmm hmm.
JOUKHADAR: ...But that that doesn't at all go far enough in describing what it actually feels like to be a trans person or to be a nonbinary person. And I was trying, I think, to get at that sort of wordless complexity that lies in a space beyond language.
CHANG: That's so interesting. I want to talk about how you deal with this idea of erasure when we're talking about names; like, the names that we choose, the names other people choose for us. Throughout this book, the reader doesn't actually know the main character's name. In fact, his name is scratched out at the top of each chapter. But later, he does choose the name Nadir for himself. Can you talk about that choice you made as an author to leave this main character nameless for much of the book?
JOUKHADAR: Absolutely. When I was writing the book, I was aware that there is a long history of nameless or anonymous narrators in the literary canon. But I was also thinking about this character; if this character were a real person, how he would feel if he was faced with, potentially, a book written about him in which the reader wanted a name so much that they were willing to put his birth name or his dead name on his writing or his diary entries, if you think about his chapters that way.
CHANG: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I will say as a reader, it felt, like, almost personally frustrating at the beginning to not know the main character's name. But then I had to examine, why was I so frustrated?
JOUKHADAR: Yeah. I mean, I think that that's actually really what the scribbles - when he scribbles out his name at the beginning of every chapter, I think that's what I'm trying to get at and what he as a character is getting at. He scribbles out his own name because that's the only way, in that moment, that he can take back his power.
CHANG: There are several queer characters in this book who made me think about, like, all the different ways we define masculinity in society. And I'm curious. What are the definitions of masculinity that you wanted to represent in this work?
JOUKHADAR: That's a really great question. I mean, I was really focused on this character - of Nadir grappling with what society presented to him as a prescription for masculinity and trying to wrestle with the examples he had in his own life, not all of which were positive, and sort of reinvent that for himself and say, what am I going to take for myself? What kind of masculine person am I going to be? And what am I not going to embody? What do I want to leave behind?
CHANG: Yes. You can feel him grappling throughout. Like at one point, Nadir says, I have never known men to be gentle. And that made me wonder, you know, what is it like to try to identify with a gender that you are sometimes repulsed by? It's very much, I guess, you pick and choose the traits that you want to embody, ultimately.
JOUKHADAR: I think it's probably very similar to how it is for binary cis men as well. I mean, I think that for any masculine person, whether they're binary or not - cis or not - you, at some point, have to grapple with masculine privilege. You have to grapple with what it means to relate to feminine people, what it means to be potentially read as threatening, what it means to have certain privileges that you may not want to have, but they might be given to you anyway. And what do you do with them?
CHANG: Yeah.
JOUKHADAR: And ultimately, it is really about, who do we want to be as people, you know?
CHANG: Right. Exactly. This idea of transition - you know, that's something that every trans person, I imagine, can relate to no matter what entails that transition. And I - when I was done with the book, it left me wondering, does transition ever end?
JOUKHADAR: For me personally, I think of my own transition as something that doesn't have an end point because I think that it's true to the experience of being human because we are all constantly becoming all the time. And there's always things about us that are changing or evolving, or we're learning to express ourselves better, or we're learning to inhabit our bodies in a different way. And I guess for me, it also takes some of the pressure off feeling like I ever have to get it exactly right. I always have the ability to change my mind or to grow as a person. And I always want to be growing as a person.
CHANG: Zeyn Joukhadar's new book is called "The Thirty Names Of Night."
Thank you very much for being with us today.
JOUKHADAR: Thank you so much for having me.
~'The Thirty Names of Night': A Story Of Self-Discovery And Self-Acceptance, Heard on All Things Considered


1 |  The novel begins with the sentence “Tonight, five years to the day since I lost you, forty-eight white-throated sparrows fall from the sky” (1). How do these words set up the themes that will continue throughout the book?

2 |  Two primary story lines emerge—that of Nadir and that of Laila, one in the present and one in the 1930s and ’40s. Why do you think the author chose to highlight these two characters and these two eras? What does the historical perspective add to the contemporary story line?

3 |  Early on, we learn the story of Hawa, who builds “a flying machine out of a bicycle and two sets of linen wings” and flew for a short distance before crashing in a field (13). What does this story represent? How does it contribute to the theme of AFAB people (those who were assigned female at birth) resisting the burdens placed on them by the gender binary?

4 |  The sense of an unseen city beneath the visible one permeates these pages with the remark that “Manhattan is invisible now, a city that lives only in the memories of those of us who were there” (20). What does this say about both New York City and Nadir’s reactions to the gazes of others as the novel unfolds?

5 |  Nadir’s sections often invoke the “you” of his mother. Why do you think the author includes this, and how does it mirror the “you” referenced in Laila’s letters to B? How does his mother’s ghost influence Nadir’s actions? How do the characters understand themselves through their relationships to the people they love?

6 |  Language and the act of naming are great concerns of the novel. How does naming things, from Geronticus simurghus, to love (ta’burni), to Nadir and others themselves, affect these characters’ understanding of themselves and their environments? How does Nadir claim himself in choosing a new name?

7 |  Found and chosen families play a major role in this novel. Reflect on Laila’s relationship with her mother, Khalto Tala, and Ilyas and Nadir’s relationships with Teta, Reem, Sami, and Qamar.

8 |  Sami explains his work, which draws attention to overlooked injustices and traumas within his community, by saying “I use the knots to mark where things happened. Marking a thing is a kind of witnessing. The past is already bound to the ground where it took place. I’m just making that bond visible” (104). If the characters were to apply this principle to their lives, what knots would they make?

9 |  What does Laila’s interaction with Mrs. Theodore reveal about the immigrant and artistic experience in New York City at the time? How do both gender and race impact Nadir’s and Laila’s artistic careers? How do they impact the career of Benjamin Young?

10 |  As Nadir struggles with his identity, he notes that “my truth isn’t inscribed on my body. It lives somewhere deeper, somewhere steadier, somewhere the body becomes irrelevant. . . . If I am in a state of becoming, it has no endpoint” (136). Consider the ways that transgender people are reduced to their bodies in society, and how this strips them of their humanity and complexity. How is the body treated in this novel, in both the ways the characters think of their own bodies and how others perceive them? In what ways do the characters resist being reduced to their bodies?

11 |  Nadir notes that “Teta doesn’t like to tell stories quite the way they happened” (158). What does this say about Teta’s life and the storytelling in this novel? In what ways might members of a marginalized community be forced to keep silent about the things that they have endured to survive? Do you think there is a generational difference between Nadir and his teta in how they choose to speak (or not speak) their truths? In what ways does Teta honor her truths, even if she does so differently from Nadir?

12 |  “Many species of birds have been shown to have memories of their roosting or mating sites that persist over generations,” the novel notes (212). In what ways do the characters in this novel engage with memory, the weight of history, and generational trauma?

13 |  In the end, what do you think Geronticus simurghus symbolizes to both Laila and Nadir?

14 |  What power does Nadir claim for himself in erasing his birth name from the text? Why do you think the author chose not to tell the reader his birth name? If you found this frustrating, why do you think that is?

Q & A with Zeyn Joukhadar

Q: In both The Thirty Names of Night and your debut novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, you find important uses for mythical creatures—the roc and the simorgh. How has the folklore of the Levant and of greater southwest Asia influenced your work?

A: Myths, folktales, and folklore are often used to signal thematic concepts in literature. In any culture, folklore conveys meaning, history, and commonality. Growing up in the United States, I was often exposed to Western folklore in the literary canon without understanding it as context; it isn’t universal, though it was presented to me that way as a student. Once I began to read work by other Arab authors, I understood that we possessed our own cultural, mythological, and folkloric language, and began to employ this in my own work. For me, writing in English and in diaspora in the US, this represents an important decentering of the Western literary canon.

It’s interesting that the roc and the simorgh, which are based on the same creature and are shared across several Asian cultures, not only Syria and the Levant, appear in both books. I am starting to find, as I write, that I continue to develop concepts across my novels. I’m always working something out on the page.

Q: Like your debut novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, The Thirty Names of Night features both a historical and present-day story line. What draws you to the dual-narrative structure?

A: Partly I think this is because the interweaving of multiple story threads is part of my cultural heritage; traditional Arab oral storytelling makes use of similar structures. Two or more stories, when told together, make various aspects of each one visible by contrast, by similarity of themes, or by telling the same story in different ways. Partly I think it’s also because for me, history informs not only my work, but also my life. As a person of color, as a queer and trans person, and as someone who was assigned female at birth, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring history. I have to know where I come from and how my ancestors resisted in order to survive.

Q: You did a tremendous amount of research about the Syrian diaspora, both in neighborhoods of New York City, like Little Syria and along Atlantic Avenue, and in places like Toledo, Ohio, and Dearborn, Michigan. Did anything you found in your research surprise you?

A: The thing that surprised me the most was probably the oral histories of Arab auto factory workers in Dearborn and Detroit, which I was lucky enough to have access to while I was an artist in residence at the Arab American National Museum in 2019. I was struck, in particular, by a single voice. The person was described as a woman autoworker; she spoke about the misogyny and racism she experienced while working in the auto industry over many years. But it was what I heard in her voice that surprised me. Queer and trans AFAB people (those of us assigned female at birth) have a way of recognizing one another by our voices and our way of speaking, things that cis straight people typically don’t pick up on. We developed this as a means of surviving and finding one another while remaining hidden. I heard this quiet signal in this person’s voice, even at a distance of years. We have always, always been here.

Q: Many of the characters have a connection to visual art. What artists and pieces inspired you?

A: My father was a painter, and I’ve also always been a visual artist as well as a writer. I spent a year or two as a freelance scientific illustrator after earning my doctorate. I was always inspired by nature art, but I was also acutely aware that white cis men were taken seriously as artists while people who fell outside that narrow definition were not. I’ve always loved the art and writing of Etel Adnan, mentioned in the novel, and I’m excited about so many contemporary queer and trans artists of color. I think the future of contemporary art is bright.

Q: There’s a tremendous knowledge of bird species apparent in this novel. How did you decide which kinds of birds—like the Geronticus genus or the yellow-crowned night heron—would have special meaning for the characters?

A: I’ve always had an affinity for birds, and even studied their languages from the time I was a small child. During graduate school, I lived in Massachusetts, during which time I often went to the Museum for American Bird Art at Mass Audubon. After I took a job in rural Pennsylvania, I found the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Millersburg. There is a sketch there by Ned Smith of the yellow-crowned night heron that struck me, one I went back to see many times.

But I also asked myself what it meant for white men to paint birds that lived on stolen, occupied land and be highly compensated and praised for it. Why was their art taken seriously whereas mine, and the art of others like me (nonwhite, assigned female at birth, let alone queer, let alone transgender), was seen as an amateur pastime? I wanted to see, on the page, a protagonist who could honor the birds of their land of origin as well as the land in which they found themselves, and grapple with this. This is why, in Thirty Names, I decided also to discuss birds that were important as sacred symbols in the Levant and in the SWANA region more generally. This of course included the ibises (Threskiornithidae), of which Geronticus forms a subfamily.

Q: Did you find any major differences in writing your second novel as opposed to your first?

A: My second novel took much longer to write than my first. I took more risks with this second book, particularly in terms of the narrative structure as well as in talking openly about the experiences of transmasculine people. But I like to challenge myself more with each book I embark on. I think, as many others have said, that being a little afraid of a project is a sign you’re on the right path.

Q: Why did you choose not to reveal Nadir’s birth name/deadname in the text? Why was it censored rather than simply left unsaid?

A: Historically, cis writers have treated transness as a “spoiler,” and have misgendered and deadnamed trans characters until close to the end of a book or movie, using the reveal for shock value or laughs. Being called by our deadnames or purposefully misgendered is violence and erasure. In this novel, I decided to use erasure, so often a tool of transphobic violence, as a tool of resistance. Nadir himself erases or censors his deadname in the text, even before he chooses a name for himself. This active erasure was intended to show cis readers that he does not want them to know his deadname, as well as to make them reflect on the fact that cis people are not entitled to know trans people’s deadnames, and perhaps to give them the opportunity to reflect on why they so often feel entitled to knowing them.

Q: What was the hardest scene to write? Which came most easily to you?

A: I would say my favorite scenes to write were probably the scenes in 1930s Syria and New York, though I can’t quite say they were easy, as they required close to three years of research. The scenes in which I describe gender dysphoria (particularly the scenes at the OB/GYN and in the YMCA pool), were extremely difficult to write, even though I had all the information and experience I needed to write them. I wrote the first drafts of these scenes when I was still experiencing immense dysphoria myself. But it was important to me to have a description of dysphoria on the page written by an actual trans person. So often, when cis people try to describe the experience of dysphoria, they reduce it to hating one’s body or being distressed at not “looking like the opposite sex.” Both of these are very flattened and, even for binary trans people, often quite far from the truth. At the time I was writing this book, I had rarely read a depiction of dysphoria in a nonbinary person, written by a nonbinary person, and when I had, it was typically in the context of memoir. If I had been exposed to literature with better representation twenty years ago, it would have changed the course of my life and spared me much pain. I hope other trans people will read these difficult scenes and take comfort in knowing there is a word for what they are experiencing. I hope it will make this transphobic world a little easier to bear.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I’m working on a couple of novels at the moment as well as some nonfiction projects. I’ve also been collaborating with visual artist Matteo Rubbi on a multilingual, trans-Mediterranean atlas of the night sky, for which we’ve received support from the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France.

Zeyn Joukhadar On Their New Book, THE THIRTY NAMES OF NIGHT


Although Laila Z’s work is fictional, honor her story by researching the work of Arab women artists, including Madiha Omar, Simone Fattal, and Etel Adnan (all referenced in the novel). 

Madiha Omar


Madiha Umar was a pioneer and the first artist to incorporate Arab calligraphy with modern abstract art. Her work is considered to be the precursor to the Hurufiyya movement.

She was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1908 from Circassian father and Syrian mother but she moved to Iraq being a young girl. She was trained as an art teacher with first-class honors in Art and Crafts in London, at the Maria Grey Training College in 1933. She was the first female to receive a scholarship from the Iraqi government to study in Europe. Upon return, she becomes a painter, teacher and Head of the Department of Painting and Art at the Teachers Training College in Baghdad.

 After her marriage with the diplomat Yasin Umar, she moved to Washington in 1942 where she started her research on Arabic calligraphy, inspired in Islamic Scholar Nabia Abbott’s book. In 1959, she received her MFA from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC and also studied Art Education at the George Washington University. When she came back to Iraq, she taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad and joined the One Dimension Group founded by Shakir Hassan Al Said in 1971 –George Washington Notable Alumni 1950’s. She also was a member of the Iraqi Artist Society. Read more ..


Simone Fattal


Simone Fattal was born in Damascus and grew up in Lebanon. She first studied philosophy at the Ecole des Lettres of Beirut and then at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1969 she returned to Beirut and started painting. She participated in numerous shows during the ten years when life in Lebanon was still possible. In 1980, fleeing the Civil War, she settled in California and founded the Post-Apollo Press, a publishing house dedicated to innovative and experimental literary work. In 1988, she returned to artistic practice by doing ceramic sculptures after enrolling at the Art Institute of San Francisco. Since 2006, she has produced works in Hans Spinner’s prestigious workshop in Grasse, France. In 2013, she released a movie, Autoportrait, which has been shown worldwide in many film festivals. ent to study in Europe. Upon return, she becomes a painter, teacher and Head of the Department of Painting and Art at the Teachers Training College in Baghdad. Read more ..


Etel Adnan


Etel Adnan was born in 1925 and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Her mother was a Greek from Smyrna, her father, a high ranking Ottoman officer born in Damascus. In Lebanon, she was educated in French schools.

She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris. In January 1955 she went to the United States to pursue post-graduate studies in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, and Harvard. From 1958 to 1972, she taught philosophy at Dominican College of San Rafael, California.

Based on her feelings of connection to, and solidarity with the Algerian war of independence, she began to resist the political implications of writing in French and shifted the focus of her creative expression to visual art. She became a painter. But it was with her participation in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam that she began to write poems and became, in her words, “an American poet”. Read more ..

Visit the author’s website to learn more about his work and upcoming projects.

    * About

    * The Map of Salt and Stars

    * Short Stories & Poetry

    * Selected Essays

    * Multidisciplinary Work

    * Interviews

    * Events

    * Press



Native American Heritage Selection

Woman of Light  by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Woman of Light: A Novel: Fajardo-Anstine, Kali: 9780525511328:  BooksWoman of Light is a national best-selling novel that retains a mythic quality while following the stories of five generations of an Indigenous North American family. Luz "Little Light" Lopez, a tea leaf reader and laundress, is left to fend for herself after her older brother, Diego, a sanke charmer and factory worker, is run out of town by a violent white mob. As luz navigates 1930's Denver on her own, she begins to have visions that transport her to her Indigenous homeland in the nearby Lost Territory. Luz recollects her ancestors' origins, how her family flourished and how they were threatened. She bears witness to the sinister forces that have devastated her people and and their homelands for generations. In the end, it is up to Luz to save her family stories from disappearing into oblivion. Read more…    

Published in 2022, XYZ   WINNER of Reading The West Award in Fiction, Longlisted for the 2023 Joyce Carol Oates Prize, Longlisted for the 2023 Carol Shields Prize For Fiction, Longlisted for the 2023 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

SWIC Students, Faculty and Staff can request a FREE copy of the book.

Watch this QUICK VIDEO on how to place a book request. Once requested, library staff will pull your item from the shelf and email you that it's ready for pick up at the library's front desk. You will need your SWIC ID to check items out of the library. The typical loan period for library items is 4 weeks. See our current library hours.
Trouble requesting? Please contact us, we're HAPPY to help you!



Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Dear Reader,

I grew up in Denver, the Rocky Mountains to the west and the sunrise prairie to the east. My world was steeped in family, heritage, and a deep reverence for the storytelling of my ancestors who had migrated from Southern Colorado to Denver during the Great Depression.

There was my glamourous Auntie Lucy, gifted with the sight, her snake-charming brother, my great-grandfather Alfonso from the Philippines, and great-grandma Esther who taught me her remedios in her white-walled kitchen. I heard tales of their labor in the sugar beet fields, of the gowns they handmade for the dance halls, and more sinister stories, too. My Auntie Lucy spoke of the Ku Klux Klan’s massive influence in Denver, and how as a small girl she would lie against the floorboards of her tenement, hiding from their sight for her safety.

I’ve always known my heritage to be a nuanced blending of Pueblo Native Americans, Mexican, Filipino, and European ancestors who came together in what is now known as Colorado. For many years, I thought my family story was a rare occurrence in an American society that often demands a people choose one identity, ostensibly erasing so much of our history.

Years ago, while I was writing the first drafts of Woman of Light, I visited my great-grandparents’ grave on the outskirts of Denver. The cemetery rows were covered in snow and crisp air kicked down from the mountains against my back. “Grandma Esther,” I said, “I am writing a book about us, and I hope to make you proud.”

I’ve always known it would be part of my life’s work to tell the story of my ancestors, a book that would illuminate the historical tragedies and triumphs of my community. I wanted to subvert the Western genre and to provide a space for Indigenous, Latinx, and multicultural characters based on my own ancestors to thrive in literature.

I am so excited for you to meet Luz, Diego, Maria Josie, and Lizette, and I hope you feel transported through space and time into the 1930s and beyond. I wrote these characters, and their stories, with immense love.


Kali Fajardo-Anstine     





Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Q. What made you decide to pursue an intergenerational timeline for this novel?
“Woman of Light” opens with an abandoned baby, Pidre, in 1868. He’s left by his mother under mysterious circumstances near a pueblo on the banks of an arroyo. Though Pidre is just an infant when we first meet him on that starry night, throughout the novel we follow the lives of his children and grandchildren — all of whom possess special gifts. Luz, our protagonist, can read tea leaves with the ability to see back and forth in time. Her brother, Diego, is a snake charmer and a factory worker.
These characters, while living nearly 60 years apart in time, showcase how the past informs the present. This is especially important for the Lopez family, as their history and stories are at risk of being obliterated.
This is a story that is not uncommon for many Chicanx families of Colorado, and throughout my time living in various parts of the state while writing this novel, each time period came into sharper focus.
Q. There’s a musical quality to the syntax that causes the narrative to sing. How do sound and music factor into your writing? How do oral traditions affect the storytelling?
Throughout “Woman of Light,” storytelling is used both as a form of entertainment but also as a means of cultural survival. When we first meet Luz, it’s downtown at a chile-harvest festival on the banks of the Platte River, reading the fortune of an old man in a cowboy hat, as she sees his struggle with health problems. Later in the novel, Luz’s Auntie Maria Josie, who cares for her and her brother, says she forgot her mother and father because the stories related to them and their untimely deaths are too hard to recall.
With a character like Luz, who through her gifts can access lost family stories, there’s a certain level of magic. The lyrical prose and storytelling in “Woman of Light” are a means of re-creating the singsong quality of our ancestral stories — it’s a fully immersive way to go along with Luz on this adventure.
Q. Amid backdrops of violence, exploitation and loss, “Woman of Light” offers a message of love and hope. How can historical fiction help us address contemporary struggles to find the same?
“Woman of Light” addresses many pressing issues of today — from the impacts of historical trauma, racism, class struggle and more. But one of the big questions I’m asking with this novel is: “How has human culture evolved over time, and how have we changed or remained the same?”
After Luz goes to work for David, a young Greek American attorney in Denver, 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. Though this young man was brutally beaten to death, the police claim he had simply fallen to his death as an accident.
My question for readers is: “How does this differ or feel similar to our current reality and relationship with brutality in the United States?”
Q. Your mom is also a prolific storyteller. How does her work influence the work you’re doing?
Like Luz in “Woman of Light,” I’m not the first storyteller in my family. My mother, Renee Fajardo, who runs the Journey Through Our Heritage Program at MSU Denver, is a voracious and gifted storyteller. Her passion for preserving our cultural history and stories was undoubtedly passed down to me, much in the same way the characters in “Woman of Light” pass their gifts between different generations.
This is an aspect of our community and culture that I love — I’m thinking of friends who are fourth- or fifth-generation bead workers, painters or musicians. So much of our artistic and cultural expression is passed down like stories.



1 |  Discuss the significance of the novel’s title, Woman of Light. What role does light play in the book?

2 |  Which character was your favorite, and why?

3 |  How does the novel address the importance of storytelling? How do you think we inherit the stories of our ancestors and what power do they hold over us? If you are comfortable with it, share a story about one of your ancestors and discuss the ways it influenced your life.

4 |  Kali Fajardo-Anstine writes, “Sometimes men were like that, treating a girl’s voice as if it had slipped from her mouth and fallen directly into a pit.” How does the author give the women of this novel a voice?

5 |  Discuss the novel’s visual imagery, from the landscape to the characters’ clothing. How does the author bring the setting to life?

6 |  How is Woman of Light a new narrative of the American West? How does it compare to older, more textbook literature in this canon?

7 |  Fajardo-Anstine writes of Pidre, “He couldn’t help but think that Anglos were perhaps the most dangerous storytellers of all—for they believed only their own words, and they allowed their stories to trample the truths of nearly every other man on Earth.” How does Woman of Light recenter Indigenous Chicano storytelling? Why do you think that’s important? Did reading this novel make you want to seek out other voices that have been sidelined throughout history—and literary history? Explain.

8 |  There are several fantastic elements to the novel, like a clairvoyant tea-leaf reader. Why do you think the author decided to include these elements, and how did they enhance the story?

9 |  “School doesn’t make you smart, Luz,” Ethel tells her. “It’s just a type of training. Real intelligence—that comes from our grit, our ability to read the world around us.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

10 |  The novel’s timeline shifts as Luz has visions about her ancestors, and as Fajardo-Anstine reveals more to the reader about the past. How did these shifts affect your reading experience? What does Woman of Light have to say about the passing of time, and how things do and do not change?

11 |  “Luz felt partly made of mountains,” Fajardo-Anstine writes, “as if the land was family.” Discuss this quotation, and the role that land—and ownership—play in the novel. Consider things like the names of towns, and both official and “unofficial” claims of ownership.






Put a pinch of tea leaves in the cup, pour boiling water over them, and allow it to stand for about three minutes. Drink the contents of the cup, leaving tea leaves and a very small amount of liquid in the bottom.
The person whose fortune is to be told, called the “sitter” or “consultant,” should then take the cup by the handle in the left hand, rim upwards, and move it in a circle rapidly three times from left to right. Some of the tea leaves will seem to cling to the sides of the cup while others remain in the bottom. Next, slowly invert the cup over the saucer and leave it there until all liquid drains away.
The sitter should approach the oracle with solemn seriousness, and during the ritual should concentrate on his or her future destiny and “wish” that the symbol shall correctly represent happenings to come.
The cup is divided into three parts. The rim designates the present; the side, events not far distant; and the bottom the distant future. The nearer the symbols appear to the handle the nearer the events foretold will be to fulfillment.



Now the seer receives the cup from the sitter and proceeds to tell his or her fortune, unless of course one is to tell one’s own fortune. The seer should concentrate upon the cup and upon the consultant. The seer will observe that the tea leaves are scattered over the cup in apparent confusion, but it will be noted after concentration that they form lines, circles, dots, small groups, and figures.
Note carefully the shapes and figures assumed by the leaves. Turn the cup and view the leaves from different angles until the symbols become clear. Be patient and search carefully for symbols and not their position. The more you search the clearer they become. Note the resemblance to various objects, and their relation to each other. Sometimes bad omens will be offset by good ones; good ones may be strengthened or weakened by others, good or evil, and so on.
Observe the complete picture as a whole, as well as individual symbols, for often bad omens may outweigh good ones or vice versa. One large distinct good omen may outweigh several smaller hazy bad omens. Good and bad should be balanced against each other in determining the forecast.



Who can participate?
Bea's Book! is self-guided. You can participate individually, pair up with a friend, or form a group. It is open to Southwestern Illinois College students, faculty and staff as well as the community. Everyone is invited! 

How many books do I read?
You can read as many as you like. One to three award-winning books are selected each semester. Descriptions of each book are found on this page. 

How do I participate?
Review the book descriptions and determine which book(s) you'd like to read! You can request a free copy through the library's loan system (see the 'How to Get Book' TAB on this page). Book Club TABS contain discussion questions, author information and much more to enhance your experience! Participate individually, with a friend, or better yet - gather a group and discuss your thoughts together!

I want more information ..
Talk to a friendly librarian. We're excited to meet you!  Stop by anytime the library is open. Can't make it to the library?  Contact us via email with your questions - we'll be in touch soon!