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A novelist’s fierce homage to New Mexico’s Latinx heritage

Kirstin Valdez Quade
Kirstin Valdez Quade, whose debut novel is “The Five Wounds.”
(Holly Andres)

The short stories of Kirstin Valdez Quade, several of which The New York Times anointed “legitimate masterpieces,” earned her a royal flush of awards — from the National Book Critics Circle, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Book Foundation and others. “The Five Wounds,” Quade’s debut novel, deserves that kind of acclaim and more. Like her stories, the novel is sheathed in sensate layers of the Northern New Mexico landscape: rough, rocky, high-desert scrabble and sagebrush scrub; the scent of piñon burning in the horno, Lotaburgers oozing green chili grease onto plastic lace tablecloths, tortillas grilling on the comal. But the novel’s driving force is its characters’ raw longings — the personal and social unrest that simmers in the Land of Enchantment, home of the author’s heart.

On the Shelf

The Five Wounds

By Kirstin Valdez Quade
Norton: 432 pages, $27

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“My family has a centuries-long history in New Mexico,” Quade told me. “Through many moves in my life, my grandmother’s house and my extended family remains the one consistent home, the home I return to. Because of my ever-changing circumstances, it’s only in my fiction that I can do that.”

Following an itinerant childhood digging up soil samples and kangaroo skulls with her geologist father, Quade, a voracious reader, built herself a high-velocity life in words. MFA in hand, she was published in The New Yorker before she turned 30 starting with her 2009 short story “The Five Wounds,” the basis for the new novel.

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In these pages, we meet five generations of the Padilla family in the fictional village of Las Penas, New Mexico. After fighting with her mom, 15-year-old Angel shows up pregnant, scared and entitled (she feels) to the care of her grandmother, Yolanda. But Yolanda is busy babying Amadeo, Angel’s 33-year-old layabout dad. A cascade of calamities ensues, with pathos and humor intertwined.

“The Five Wounds” is a pick for Roxane Gay’s Audacious Book Club, with starred reviews from the trades and early raves from O Magazine and renowned authors including Luis Alberto Urrea and Colm Tóibín. Reached at Princeton University, admittedly jittery on the eve of publication, Quade spoke to the Times about New Mexico’s fraught history, her path to publication and the importance of books (like hers) that make readers laugh.

Raven Leilani, Cathy Park Hong and Maggie O’Farrell are among the winners of the National Book Critics Circle Awards for work published in 2020.

You haven’t lived in New Mexico full-time since you were a child. What keeps you longing for and writing about that place?

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I miss my family! I miss the big parties in my grandmother’s living room with so many relatives who are gone now. I miss my great-grandmother, who cared for me when I was a kid; I miss her tortillas and the smell of the elevator in her building. I miss my grandfather. He died of Covid in October. I wish I’d been able to be with him at the end — I’d always promised him that I would if I could. When I started writing, it was to fill the gaps in their stories, missing details they couldn’t or wouldn’t explain.

I’ve also spent my whole life trying to understand the larger tangle of New Mexico’s history and identity and power. The state has a long, painful history of people being pushed off the land. The Spanish forcibly took land from the many Native American communities and then, as acreage became valuable for ranching, land shifted increasingly into the hands of white settlers and the U.S. government. Those tensions, those losses are still very much felt today. That’s one reason I find it such a fertile place for fictional exploration.

How did you go from New Mexico to literary success?

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We moved a lot and we accompanied my dad on his field trips, mostly around the deserts of the southwest. My parents and little sister and I spent months at a time living out of our VW van, in tents, in the field. I read my way through our travels. And every time we passed through a different town, I imagined what life would be like living there — which was, of course, perfect training to write fiction. When I was going to public high school in Tucson, a recruiter for Phillips Exeter Academy came and passed out brochures. I applied, and I got in with a full scholarship. Exeter, then Stanford, opened me to more and more opportunities. I took amazing literature classes, and I got to know some working writers. Meeting them made a writing life seem possible.

“Of Women and Salt,” tracking generations of Latinas, comes out of Gabriela Garcia’s family story, life experience and advocacy for migrants.

How did you expand the short story “The Five Wounds” into the novel?

A couple of years after the story was published, my book editor asked if I would consider turning it into a novel. I said “No. It’s a story!” I couldn’t see it any other way. A while after that, I was looking at some story drafts and I noticed they all dealt with the same family structure: a mother, her grown, unemployed son and his estranged daughter. I realized I was doing exactly what my editor had suggested.

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Digging into that novel: When Amadeo’s passive-aggressive sister gives him a copy of “Breaking Free From the Prison of Male Rage,” you write, “Thanks to that book, Amadeo has discovered new depths of male rage. He will never forgive his sister, ever.” Do you puzzle over the funny lines in the book, or do they simply flow from the characters?

Those moments come out of the characters. As a reader and as a writer, I’m drawn to work that incorporates humor. The darkest times in my life have always contained some element of humor. Laughter, plays on words, all sorts of comedy are big parts of my experience of being a human in the world and in my relationships.

“The Five Wounds” points to inequities and injustices, including the targets of recent movements for social change. What do you want your readers to feel and do as a result of reading this novel?

What I most hope is that readers will care about my characters. I hope they’ll laugh, that they’ll be moved by the story. My job as a writer is to allow my characters to be as fully human and complicated as we all are. Art is a tool. It can be used to injure. It can be used as propaganda. It can be used to advance the agenda of a fascist state. We’ve seen art used in those ways. But art can also challenge us to see our common humanity, to empathize with people who are unlike us. That’s the art I want to be around. That’s the art I want to make.

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Maran is the author of “The New Old Me” and a dozen other books. She lives in Silver Lake.

‘How Beautiful We Were,’ the followup to Imbolo Mbue’s acclaimed debut, ‘Behold the Dreamers,’ features an African activist fighting a world of corruption.


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