Featured Speaker Friday
Each week the Hank Center highlights a speaker at the 2019 Catholic Imagination Conference. This week we are featuring writer and professor Kirstin Valdez Quade.
Kirstin Valdez Quade
Kirstin Valdez Quade is a wanderer. She estimates that while she was growing up, she attended 13 different schools throughout the Southwest as her father, a research geologist, moved around for work. She read constantly in the backseat of the car, as they traveled for her father’s field studies, and absorbed desert lore. “My parents would tell me stories connected to where we were,” Ms. Valdez Quade says in her sunny office on the campus of Princeton University. “We frequently crossed the Mojave Desert. There’s this one span called the Forty Mile Desert, where a lot of settlers would die because there was no water for 40 miles. In the middle of it there’s a grave that’s allegedly that of the LeBeau sisters—three sisters who died of diphtheria.”
Valdez Quade carried the stories she picked up in her childhood travels with her as she continued her peripatetic ways into adulthood, garnering prizes for her writing along the way. She attended Stanford University as an undergraduate, earned her master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Oregon and returned to Stanford as a prestigious Stegner Fellow in 2009. She was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, and also lived in Texas and Nova Scotia, among other places. “I feel like I’ve lived all over,” she says.
Valdez Quade’s short stories, in contrast, are for the most part firmly rooted in the northern New Mexico landscape, where her family has lived for generations, imbued with the imagery and traditions of the Catholic faith her grandmothers passed on to her. Many readers first encountered her work in 2009 when The New Yorker published her arresting story “The Five Wounds,” about a ne’er-do-well named Amadeo Padilla, who hopes portraying Jesus in his town’s re-enactment of the crucifixion will bring him redemption in the eyes of the community.
Valdez Quade kept crafting rich, layered family dramas, culminating in the publication of her debut collection, Night at the Fiestas, in 2015. The National Book Foundation chose it for their 5 Under 35 honor, and The New York Times and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications, named it among the best books of the year.
Valdez Quade believes one of the reasons she became a fiction writer is the observational skills she honed from always being the new kid: “When you enter a new place you have to be really alert to what the rules and social structures are. I was always having to figure out my place in the world, and who I was in each new context, because that shifts in each new place.”
She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Princeton, where she has taught undergraduates since the fall of 2016.
When Ms. Valdez Quade interviewed at Princeton, she was dazzled by the literary stars on its faculty, including Jeffrey Eugenides, Joyce Carol Oates and the Pulitzer winner and the current U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. It is clear they believe Ms. Valdez Quade’s work is strong enough to achieve similar honors. Ms. Smith told a Princeton publication that she admired Ms. Valdez Quade’s stories’ “ability to keep a number of thematic balls in the air in the compressed manner of poetry.”
“It’s funny, all I’ve wanted since I was a kid is to live in one house and stay there for the rest of my life,” Ms. Valdez Quade says. She may have finally achieved that vision for a stable address with this latest move.
Valdez Quade found yet more mysteries to ponder in the rituals of the Catholic Church. “My sense of myself as a Catholic comes from my great-grandmother and my grandmother,” she says. “When I was a child my great-grandmother took care of me. She lived in this high-rise of subsidized apartments. There were lots of other elderly people there, and people with developmental disabilities. It was such a wonderful place to be a kid. My great-grandmother would take me down the hall and we’d visit all of her friends and they’d feed me caramels, and we’d go down to Mass in the common room...We would light candles on her altar. Catholicism felt both cozy and mysterious to me. This idea that you could light a candle for your prayer: I loved that."
Valdez Quade tries to cultivate a kind of serenity in which to work by staying off social media. She has no blog, Twitter handle or Facebook account, which is unusual for young writers today, who are often asked to promote their work in this way. Staying out of social media dramas helps her root herself in the fictional worlds she creates, with nothing to distract her but her parrot Frito’s squawking.
While Ms. Valdez Quade’s stories frequently feature Catholic characters, she says her relationship to the church “has always been a little bit complicated.”
“I consider myself Catholic,” she says. “That history, that tradition, feels very central to my understanding of my family history and my place in the world. On the other hand, there are a lot of ways in which I feel that it’s a pretty inhospitable religion for me. I think that’s another tension that I keep returning to. What does it mean for me to love this religion that I don’t always feel wants me?”
Since only some of her work includes a Catholic dimension, Ms. Valdez Quade says she has been surprised by how many Catholic and Christian publications, conferences and events are enthusiastic to feature her. “I always feel a little bit like I’m maybe not equal to the task,” she says. “I think one of the reasons I continue to write about these themes is because my own thoughts about it are still uncertain. I’m still figuring out what I think and I believe. So I don’t always feel like I’m the best person to actually talk about it.”
But the growing number of Ms. Valdez Quade’s fans might consider her the best person to talk about it, and will continue to read her work eagerly as she writes into the mystery of being a woman in the Catholic Church, and into the larger mystery of being a human in this world.