Kirstin Valdez Quade has recently joined the faculty of U-M’s creative writing program as a Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor. This new position brings emerging writers to the U for a few years as they work to solidify their reputations and move further into their careers. The requirement is that they have published at least one book. Quade’s collection of short stories, Night at the Fiestas, is just out.
The first story in the book, “Nemecia,” has already had quite a life, selected for bothBest American Stories 2013 and the annual O. Henry Prize Stories. It is a frightening story of a young girl and her damaged cousin as they grow into their world. It establishes the atmosphere and setting for many of the other stories in the book. In Quade’s own words, most “are set in northern New Mexico, against a backdrop of the miracle-laden, medieval Hispanic Catholicism practiced in the region where my family is from.” Many also turn on formative moments of violence, loss, or profound disappointment.
There is a village of fascinating characters in this book, including the wife of a young geologist who spends his days searching out dissertation topics in the implacable desert that surrounds their small trailer, a sixteen-year-old girl from a small town who goes into Santa Fe for her first Fiestas de Santa Fe and the famous burning of Zozobra, and the haunting story of a man who has abandoned his family, disappeared into drink, and hopes to somehow redeem himself in the eyes of his pregnant teenaged daughter by playing the role of Christ in the local Passion play.
“The Guesthouse,” my favorite story in the collection, works a bit differently. Here two grandchildren return to the home of their maternal grandmother after her death to prepare it for new owners, only to discover their father living out back in the guesthouse. A bit of a con man, Victor has left his family to their own devices long ago. Now, in his ex-mother-in-law’s backyard, he is raising rats that stay alive by eating each other until he feeds them to his gigantic pet boa constrictor. The snake is pregnant, and he hopes to sell the snake babies.
[Victor] hoists the snake over his head and drapes it around his shoulders, stroking the thick creamy flank. It moves with muscular silkiness, lifting the weight of head and tail, curling itself around Victor’s body. It’s languid and sensual and Jeff is repulsed by the thought of his father and the snake living here together.
The story ends with an even more terrifyingly vivid moment. Kirstin Valdez Quade is able to create an atmosphere of terror–but also something more complex, something that might even be a sort of wise humor.
She reads from Night at the Fiestas on April 3 at Literati Bookstore.