Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel "The Five Wounds" expands on her New Yorker-published short story
All of the characters in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s new book, The Five Wounds, are going through something major. While the challenges—teen pregnancy, addiction, cancer—are not uncommon, the ways that each generation of the family handles their circumstances drive the novel.
One character, Angel, has a son at age 15 and quickly becomes aware of how the adults around her do not actually have their lives together. Not only does she have that insight but she also must persevere when she doesn’t get the support that she needs and when she has to instead support the people who are supposed to be helping her.
Yet, Angel proves herself resilient, even from a young age. Her mother, Marissa, informs Angel:
“When you were three you said, ‘Mama, can you tell me all the things I don’t know?’ You were so impatient to learn and make your own way.
Angel smiles. “I don’t remember that.”
Knowing things does not comprise all of Angel’s learning, though. Along the way, she gains wisdom on what people are like and how to interact with them.
Her father, Amadeo, tries and tries to get his life together but keeps succumbing to alcoholism. He acts before he thinks. An accident caused by his carelessness and drinking miraculously results in only minor injuries, but it is the only thing that can convince him to get his life on track, not just for himself but for his family, especially as the whole family dynamic shifts when people enter and exit their lives.
Yolanda, Amadeo’s mother and Angel’s grandmother, has long supported the family and been its pillar of strength, from getting new copies of Amadeo’s DWI after he ripped them up to kicking her husband out when he started using drugs. In reflecting on her former husband, she questions, “How dare he find such cheap satisfaction when all she did was work and worry?” Yolanda remains devoted to her children, and she offers a place where they can go when things are tough. Then, her terminal cancer diagnosis forces Angel, Amadeo, and other family members to face their own roles and situations.
A compelling part of this novel is how the cancer diagnosis itself does not cause each of the characters to make changes in their lives and take responsibility for their issues when Yolanda can no longer bail them out. Amadeo has to find the thing that will convince him to stop drinking because other people’s disapproval, disappointment, and challenges are not enough. Angel must figure out who she can trust, whether it is the father of her son, her beloved teacher at her alternative school, or her new love interest. Angel realizes:
It is so easy to cut people out, to make permanent rifts. She hadn’t known this. She’d always thought there was room for fights, for cruelty, that things would work themselves out, given enough time, given enough honest conversation. She hadn’t ever really wanted to push any of them away—she was only asking them to draw her close again, testing to see whether they’d let her go. And always, always, they’ve let her go.
Angel has to change her patterns and simultaneously take care of herself and her infant son.
The characters do not always get what they want (or what the reader may be hoping for them). The Five Wounds depicts their wounds, and the fallout from those wounds, but the book also shows the characters navigating their paths and carrying on.
Quade taught at the University of Michigan and now is an assistant professor at Princeton University. I interviewed her about her time in Ann Arbor, new novel, and next plans.
Q: You were the Delbanco Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. What did you take away from your time at U-M?
A: My year teaching in the U-M Creative Writing Program was a really happy one! I had wonderful students and felt very supported by my excellent colleagues, many of whom remain friends. I also took away a real appreciation for base layers.
Q: What are your memories of Ann Arbor?
A: I have so many lovely memories! I’d never lived in the Midwest before, so I really enjoyed getting to know the region. I especially remember running along the river and hiking at Pinkney State Park. I cross-country skied for the first time since I was a kid. I also went to Traverse City several times and fell in love with Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Q: You’ve crisscrossed the country for your education and work. Tell us about teaching creative writing at Princeton University.
A: I love my job. It’s pretty much a dream to be able to gather around a table with curious, engaged readers and writers and to talk about stories. It’s a privilege to get to know my students through their fiction. It’s serious work, of course, but there’s always a lot of laughter.
Q: Congratulations on your new novel! In the acknowledgements for The Five Wounds, you express gratitude to your editor for encouraging you to expand your short story into a novel. How did you go about imagining the lives of your characters and the plot beyond the original story?
A: Thank you! When my editor first asked if I’d considered expanding the story, I said no pretty swiftly. I was working on stories. But about two years after “The Five Wounds” was published, I was looking at some half-formed stories-in-progress, and I saw with a shock of recognition that I was exploring essentially the same constellation of characters.
I really enjoyed getting to spend time in the perspectives of Angel, who was a secondary character in the short story, and Yolanda and Brianna, who just had passing mentions. Almost as soon as I started writing in their points of view, they sprang into life. Angel was especially fun to be on the page with, because she is funny and observant and gives the adults around her a hard time.
The story ends with Amadeo asking to be actually crucified. I wondered, what happens the next day? What do his daughter and mother think about this choice? Has Amadeo really changed? My curiosity about how these characters navigate a really challenging year is largely what fueled the novel.
Q: All of the characters evolve significantly throughout The Five Wounds. Amadeo, for example, sees his daughter Angel’s growth, as the narrator tells us, “Amadeo understands that her forgiveness won’t come easily, that for all her sweetness, she holds something back, and he recognizes that this is a sign of her maturity. He’s proud of Angel for her anger, proud she sees that his behavior is something to be angry about.” It feels bittersweet that closing off part of herself is a sign of growth. This reflection also shows Amadeo’s newfound maturity and responsibility for his mistakes. What was it like seeing these characters develop significantly as the novel progressed?
A: Amadeo’s revelation—first, that Angel was still angry at her father, and, second, that it was a good thing that’s she’s angry, a sign of her growing sense that she deserves to be treated better—was a revelation for me. I thought I was writing toward a complete reconciliation, but when I got to that part of the story, it was clear that any reconciliation was going to be complicated and a work in progress. I think that’s true in life; reconciliation isn’t a place we arrive at, but a journey.
A big part of Angel’s emotional arc is learning to listen to herself and to understand that she is deserving of the care of the people around her. Her anger will be really useful to her in the years ahead, as she continues to learn to advocate for herself and her infant son and her community.
Q: Yolanda might be my favorite character with the way that she dramatically ignores her cancer diagnosis for a time, dyes her hair, and rents a convertible to drive back to New Mexico from a vacation in Las Vegas with a boyfriend that she ditches, only to return home to more chaos. It makes me think of the meme of the burning house with the dog saying, “This is fine.” Still, I wished that I could take her to the oncologist myself. Eventually, she cannot hide her disintegrating health from her coworkers and family. Was it hard to write about her denial?
A: It was really hard to write about Yolanda’s denial. I’ve known people who have kept their diagnoses from their loved ones, and it’s a really complicated choice, one that I wanted to understand more. In Yolanda’s case, she both wants to protect her children from this terrible news, and also wants to keep it to herself, as a kind of terrible treasure. The second they find out, she knows, they will grieve and worry, and she will have to take care of them. She also thinks, on some level, that by not addressing it, she can forestall the inevitable, or at least hold onto her old sense of self longer.
Q: At one point, we see Amadeo questioning, “Escape, adventure: Why hasn’t he done more of that in his life? Why has he stuck close to home like a decrepit house pet that no longer brings anyone joy?” Yet, Las Penas is his home and where his family lives. This novel takes place in your home state of New Mexico. Why did you want to write about that setting?
A: So much of my fiction is set in New Mexico. My family has a long history there, and it’s the one place that feels like home to me. It’s also an incredibly complicated place, with a complicated and violent history. It’s a really romanticized region, frequently represented in art and literature, often by outsiders, and has a long history of drawing tourists and artists and wealthy retirees. There’s also extreme poverty. This all makes it really fertile terrain for fiction.
Q: What’s on your stack of books to read and recommend right now?
A: I just read Raven Leilani’s Luster and was blown away by the beautiful precision of her prose. She also has one of the best descriptions of a preteen I’ve read. I can’t stop thinking about Natasha Trethewey’s gorgeous and painful Memorial Drive. This spring has been a crazily wonderful season for fiction releases, and my coffee table is covered in books I can’t wait to dig into! Also, it’s still a year out, but everyone should be looking forward to Lydia Conklin’s Rainbow, Rainbow, an astonishing and hilarious and moving collection. Lydia will also be joining the faculty of U-M’s Creative Writing Program this fall!
Q: What are you working on next?
A: Right now I’m working on a series of short stories that feel like a departure from what I’ve done before. I don’t know where they’ll go, but I’m having a lot of fun. I’m also beginning to circle a new project, which feels scary and exciting!
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.