Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

The short story collection Sabrina and Corina is both beloved on Goodreads and by literary award circles. Author Kali Fajardo-Anstine crafted these eleven stories about abandonment, abuse, and sadness during her time in an MFA program. Unfortunately, I found many of them forgettable, blending together to create a mush of characters I couldn’t tell apart. During book club, we all struggled the name the protagonists.

Although I have an MFA in fiction writing, I do see the drawback of such programs. Typically, we must produce stories of at least twenty pages 2-3 times per semester for four semesters. The result is many writers circle around the same topic, feeling, and types of characters, oftentimes based on one’s own experiences because where else can you draw from to produce so much so quickly that doesn’t turn into genre fiction — because MFA programs generally don’t allow genre writing. Fajardo-Anstine seems to be in the same boat. Her characters are mostly Latina girls whose mothers either abandon them or are drawn to horrible white boyfriends. Some are Latina women living dangerously because their family history is rife with suicides, divorce, and trauma. A few times there are pairs of sisters and grannies with healing herbs that work when over-the-counter medicines don’t. Many women are beaten by boyfriends, which result in strangulation marks and head injuries. Sound depressing? It is.

I couldn’t get a strong sense of place or character because settings and people blurred together. Fajardo-Anstine’s stories started to sound like similar stories about people in the Midwest, the kind who live in trailer homes with single mothers and distant, alcoholic fathers. Neglect is obvious. Sadness is palpable. Pain carries down the generations. Since Sabrina and Corina is advertised as a “magnetic story collection [that] breathes life into her Latina characters of indigenous ancestry and the land they inhabit.” But rarely does the land have much to do with anything, and the focus tends to be on Latina women pairing off with rich white men for a better life.

Then there is an element I see often in MFA fiction: a “poignant” moment that doesn’t make sense. In the story “Sugar Babies,” a high school boy digging around outside discovers a burial site. Cut to a high school girl who is partnered with the boy and must care for a bag of sugar for their health class. The goal is to learn how hard it is to be parents, but the girl is a product of teen pregnancy, and then her mother abandoned her, demonstrating if a person doesn’t want to care for a baby, all they have to do is leave. The girl treats her bag of sugar poorly, much to the distress of her partner. After the teacher randomly assigns some babies diseases, the girl learns their baby has died of SIDs. They take the baby to the burial site and soccer punt it (this is not hyperbole) into the hole. This feels like a significant moment, but what does it really say? A fake baby is now with their ancestors? Babies are disposable? Is there some message about the afterlife?

In an example from “Galapago,” a woman wants her grandmother moved into an old folks’ home, but grandma won’t go. She’s lived in her house forever, even though she’s been robbed twice. The first time iron bars were placed over the windows, but she hated the way the shadows made the house look like a prison. After the second robbery, she had plywood nailed over the windows and bars, trapping her her in a dark home for years. The third time she is robbed, the grandma kills the intruder, claiming she aimed low, for his legs. But how did she possibly end his life aiming at his legs while inside a house? Finally, the grandma is convinced she should move into the assisted living home. She and her granddaughter tear down the plywood, and beautiful sunlight streams through. What does the light signify? New beginnings? She wasn’t afraid of the robberies, so it’s not a symbol of escape from fear and entrapment. Also, the shadows that look like prison bars are noticeably gone. Did the author forget that detail?

I did enjoy one story called “Tomi” in which a woman recently released from prison is left to watch her ten-year-old nephew, Tomi, while his dad is at work. The aunt was an alcoholic and drove her car into someone’s house, leading to prison time, but Tomi calls her a goth crackhead. His obvious dismissal of this woman actually made me laugh because he’s so brazen. However, he’s dealing with his own problems; like many children in Sabrina and Corina, his mom abandoned him. Not knowing what to do, his father lets the son play video games and eat junk food all day, hoping his son is just coping, instead of going to school. However, a particularly memorable section of the story is the father’s anger over the mother taking every pillow in the house when she left, so everyone is sleeping on rolled up towels.

Unfortunately, Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine was fairly forgettable because she didn’t choose a broader array of topics and emotions to convey to the reader. The Goodreads synopsis claims “Tomi” is about a woman who “leaves prison and finds herself in a gentrified city that is a shadow of the one she remembers from her childhood.” Uhhh, when did we get to gentrification in this story? She almost never leaves the house. I feel like the collection was advertised one way and delivered differently. I can see her writing a memorable novel and will keep an eye open for more work from her in the future.

23 comments

  1. MFAs – the people not the degrees – are like modern day politicians, going straight from school to uni to practicing their craft with no life/work experience to inform their writing/decision making. I prefer people in both cases who have got their hands dirty.

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  2. I had no idea that most MFA programmes don’t allow genre writing – as someone who zigzags between reading genre and non-genre fiction, I’m extremely curious about the reasoning for this. Are there specialist MFA programmes for different genres, or is it the old snobbishness about novels that are popular not being worthy of literary attention?

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    • I think it’s whatever fits the program, and most MFA programs tout themselves as “Literary” with the capital L or have a certain bent. The one I attended leaned toward experimental writing. I believe low-residency MFA programs tend to have more room for genre writing. I think it’s a mistake not to have students write genre fiction, and then push them to do amazing work within the genre.

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  3. This is just the sort of book that, sorry, screams writing school class to me and I run from. It’s all very well if you have some life experience, but the stuff churned out is often its own genre, right?

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  4. I enjoyed your personal experience commentary on MFAs Melanie, because I try to keep an open mind about these courses. Why can’t you learn some writing skills in such courses, I think? However, if the courses constrain you too much in content, form, style and/or genre, then that really lessens their potential I would have thought.

    As soon as you said the word “poignant” I groaned.

    Anyhow, it’s a shame about this book because it had such potential to explore come significant issues – or even to just give us a voice that we don’t hear so often.

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    • Hi, Sue! What I found in my own experiences is that classes aren’t about writing. They’re about sharing one’s opinions on another person’s stories. These writers come from all walks of life, including folks who have never before given feedback on a story and basically share what they would have done instead. The only place for a student to get some writing chops is in the most basic, introductory to writing course. When I taught creative writing for a few semesters, I made sure to spend a few weeks teaching students how and why we give feedback on stories and never to share what they would have done instead. That sounds like horn tooting, and it is, but I went through a lot of creative writing rough seas to learn how to steer the classroom ship.

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  5. Hmm, a shame. I like it when short story collections are sort of linked, or deal with similar themes, but this sounds much too similar, the characters have to be different, or just make them the same character!

    That’s weird that MFA programs don’t allow genre writing…I had no idea!!!

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  6. It is such a pet peeve of mine when a book doesn’t match what was advertised in the synopsis! It seems like the advertising in this case was especially misleading. Sometimes I wonder if misleading synopses are intentionally written that way in order to sound more appealing/sell more copies of the book, or if they’re just poorly written?

    Anyway. It doesn’t sound like I’ll be prioritizing this one in the near future, but I appreciated your thoughtful and honest review!

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    • I half wondered if this one was intentionally misleading due to the focus on indigenous life being a selling point for readers who are trying to read more about characters who aren’t white. I dunno. That sounds harsh, but it was my suspicion.

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  7. Wait. MFAs don’t allow genre writing? But… isn’t that what drives the majority of creative writing sales today? I’m so confused.

    I can relate to short stories all blending together and being therefore forgettable. I find this happens even in anthologies, however. Sometimes I find a theme too constricting for even a collection of very diverse authors to come up with unique points and perspectives.

    But in this case, it sounds like a lot of the stories just… existed. I get so frustrated with short works when I don’t understand what the author is trying to say. Why did I read your story then? I expect to gain something. I don’t need wisdom, but I do need a theme, moral, or… I dunno. SOMETHING.

    Why do you think this collection is so beloved by Goodreads readers and literary circles?

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    • Not all MFA programs allow in genre writers. They’re trying to create “literary writers,” which oftentimes excludes genre, though some fantastic writers who teach in creative writing programs are working to change that.

      I have the feeling that a lot of folks read Sabrina and Corina and maybe didn’t connect with it but were concerned that the gap was created because they are white. I understand that I cannot fully comprehend daily life as an indigenous person (though, again, the author didn’t talk about any indigenous characters??), but I do have the background to recognize when writing doesn’t work.

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