Anika Fajardo’s mother and grandparents nurtured her love of literature and unwittingly provided the impetus for her writing career. “I wanted to be a writer from the time I was little and my mom read me Little Women and Anne of Green Gables,” she explains. But when Fajardo expressed a desire to become a professional writer, her family said, “That’s not really a job.” They encouraged her to pursue an education degree instead. Fajardo did so at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, and then transferred to UW–Madison to finish her degree.
While at the UW, Fajardo received a call from another side of her family: her estranged father in Colombia. Her book Magical Realism for Non-believers: A Memoir of Finding Family, published in 2019, tells the story of what followed. It also gently proved her family wrong. Fajardo is now very busy teaching creative writing at Augsburg University and writing for both adults and middle-grade readers. Throughout the production of Disney’s Encanto, a 2021 movie about a magical Colombian community, she had the opportunity to write the tie-in novel, Encanto: A Tale of Three Sisters. Fajardo released her latest middle-grade book, Meet Me Halfway, in September 2022. Read more from Fajardo about how she translated her life story into a writing career.
What inspired you to write about visiting Colombia and meeting your father?
I actually didn’t set out to write my own story. I really wanted to write fiction, but I would start writing, and I would end up writing a personal story. My personal stories are the ones that got a lot more traction — a lot more interest from readers. So, I finally started thinking, "This is kind of an unusual story, and maybe it’s worth telling." That’s how I got into writing that [book].
You focus a lot on place, identity, and family. Why are these such rich themes in your writing?
I grew up in Minnesota with my maternal family. My mom was a single mom. I was an only child, and I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents. They had a cabin in northern Minnesota — very remote — and we spent a lot of time there. So the physical location became really important — and everything that location included, like the nature there, the weather there, everything about it. I always loved it. But when I went to Colombia, I felt like this sort of homecoming. Everything is really different, but at the same time, it feels like, "Oh, this is where I feel like the other part of myself." There’s almost a physical back-and-forth being from two different backgrounds.
Do you find it difficult addressing those themes for middle-grade readers?
I feel like I can access my middle-school self pretty easily. And I don’t know if that’s an unusual thing. I mean, I was an education major. I was a teacher for a short time, and so I kind of have a sense. And I read a lot of books for children, both as a kid and when my daughter was growing up. I read to her a lot. Basically, you simplify sentences, but you can still say as much. I think kids have a sense of the bigger world. And I think they have a lot of questions about their existence and the world in general. So I think that they are capable of those thoughts. It’s just a matter of writing it a little bit more simply and also finding some metaphors to work off of. But I think kids are able to understand more than a lot of us adults think they can.
What is your approach to teaching creative writing?
I love teaching writing. I mostly teach creative nonfiction and memoir and personal essay. The genre is so interesting — you use all this creativity in terms of how you write. You can help people [with questions like,] "How do you make your language more interesting? How do you bring out the details in a scene?" Even though you’re trying to be creative, you still have to work within the constraints of what actually happened. I think that creative nonfiction is a good warm-up for writing fiction because you don’t have to make up characters. You don’t have to make up a plot. You focus on scene and details, dialogue, and fitting everything together. I enjoy helping people bring out their stories and looking for themes and metaphors and looking for what they’re really saying with a story. And of course, teaching writing is also getting people to read a lot. A lot of early writers forget that they need to be reading.
What do you find most fulfilling about writing?
Being done with it. No, I really love being in the revision phase of a project — [when] it’s like 50 percent done, and now it’s time to really figure out what I’m saying and how I want to say it. That is just the best feeling in the world to be in the middle of a project like that. It’s also fulfilling, of course, to have readers respond. And the best part of my memoir [was] to have my family members respond positively and feel good about it. I know my mom has been excited. Pre-pandemic, when we did in-person events, she would come with me, and people would say, "Oh, that’s your mom. We love you." They just love the character of my mom, and she’s been proud of that.