Donna Miscolta in conversation with Kailee HaongSpring 2021 · Digital Exchange
I was one of the few people of color in my high school, much like the protagonist of Donna Miscolta’s new collection, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories. For me, reading this book was a personal, intimate experience, a peek inside the life of another brown teenager trying to figure out what it all means. I found myself quickly forming a connection with Angie, feeling in her contrasting shyness and boldness a reflection of my own courage and vulnerability. What Miscolta is doing in Living Color is painting a closely-observed portrait of life—of growing up, of being a teenager, of moving, of discovering and exploring one’s identity, of race relations and familial relations and the cultural significance of both. In our conversation, Miscolta felt like a mentor, a voice I needed to hear when I was younger. We spoke about Living Color but also about life, about writing, about brown-ness and “other-ness.” It is a conversation I will carry with me for a long time.
Published September 2020 by Jaded Ibis Press, Living Color is Miscolta’s third work of fiction, and was named by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club as one of the 2020 Latino Books of the Year. Her story collection Hola and Goodbye was published by Carolina Wren Press in 2016, and was the recipient of several awards and honors, including the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, the Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction, and the International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction.
In your first story collection, Hola and Goodbye, you take readers back to the 1920s on the border of California and Mexico. In Living Color, you take us to the 60s and 70s in California. I’m interested in the way you establish time and place in your writing, using political and cultural world events to shape the narrative. How was it for you, shifting from writing about a booming time of rebirth like the 20s to the sort of heaviness associated with everything going on in the 60s and 70s?
For me, everything starts with character and imagining that character in a particular space that is defined by a specific time and certain events—for
instance, Angie growing up in the 60s and seeing an article in the newspaper about how Sam Cooke and his band were turned away from a hotel in Louisiana, or Angie seeing reports of the Lennon-Ono bed-in on TV. These incidents establish the social and political atmosphere of the time, and while Angie takes note of them, she’s also removed from them in the sense that they occur for her on the news and not directly to her. Because the focus of the story is on the relationships among the characters whose
conflicts and dramas take place against the backdrop of the larger world but may not directly bump up against or collide with it, I’m also somewhat removed from any emotional burden inherent in the state of the world in which my characters are existing. So shifting among time periods is not an obstacle and can be a diversionary change. And to make it more fun and to find more affinity with the character, I try to connect with a time period by thinking, for instance, of my grandmother as a young woman in the 20s and 30s or my mother in the 40s and 50s for the stories in Hola and Goodbye or myself growing up in the 60s and 70s for the stories in Living Color. While the two books are distinct, what connects them, I think, is the focus on character, on people living these ordinary lives in pursuit of ordinary dreams but in their own particular set of circumstances.
Do you see bits and pieces of your grandmother or your mother present in your characters? Do you ever find yourself enmeshing your characters with people in your life?
I do draw on characteristics from people I know to create fictional
characters. In Living Color, I did draw on some aspects of my mother, which is not to say that my mother is Angie Rubio’s mother. What I’m trying to do is create a certain dynamic for the characters, and it’s based on relationships. I think it’s a common dynamic between adult and child, which is that each is seeing a situation from their particular perspective. Because the adult has the power, their perspective dominates, and the child often feels unheard or invisible. for instance, when Angie is in fourth grade and is informed by one of her classmates that she’s in the “dumb class.” Angie asks her mother to talk to the principal about moving her to another class. Her mother not only brushes off Angie’s request, but she reprimands Angie for getting smart with her. So what you have are two characters, each with their own concern, and the child’s concern is missed. When I’m borrowing traits from a person I know, it’s to this end, to think about the relationship between the two characters. I always try to think of each character as someone who has his or her own story, whether that story is the main story or not.
In thinking more about motherhood and how it is discussed and dealt with in Living Color, I was especially intrigued by Angie’s relationship Nelda, as it feels so different than her relationship with her mother. Nelda refers to Angie as “mija,” and this sort of shines through as we see a strong bond being forged between the two of them as the book progresses.
Nelda’s a different personality than Angie, and also anyone else in their family as they tend to be more quiet, but Nelda is this brassy character, louder—she teases a lot and is sassy. She believes in herself, even when she doesn’t know how to do something. I think this is what draws Angie to her, although Angie is also afraid of her. Angie likes Nelda’s frankness, but is also embarrassed by it. When Nelda calls her “mija,” it’s a term of endearment. It’s a way that Angie understands that there is this connection. A lot of times girls growing up will have an adversarial relationship with their mother and it’s always nice to have this “other” female figure to look to, where it’s not so fraught and there’s not the same kind of emotional tension. For me, it was important to have another older female in the story.
In what ways do you feel a connection or disconnection between your two books?
Alberto Rios, who has authored seventeen books, has said that all his books speak to each other. I like that idea and I think my books are in conversation with each other as well. They deal with similar themes – identity, displacement, belonging, and family relationships. While the stories in Hola and Goodbye provided a picture of what is lost and gained culturally and psychologically over three generations of an immigrant family, Living Color focuses on one family that represents two of those generations and looks closely at the effects of race, class, and assimilation on a young girl and how she responds to and counters them.
Tell me a little more about California. Angie moves from Hawaii to California at the beginning of the novel when she is very young. What is California to you?
California is where my family from Mexico and my family from the
Philippines—two countries colonized by Spain—came together on land that also had once been occupied by Spain. My siblings still live in
Southern California and I like going there to visit. It’s not really home anymore for me, but it’s where my roots in this land begin.
I spent most of my growing-up years in the very southern part of Southern California. We lived in National City, which is just south of San Diego. Except for the two years we lived in Hawaii, San Diego and, more specific-ally, National City was my world. We never ventured much beyond those boundaries. We were a family of seven and vacations weren’t within our means. But I knew a world awaited out there. My frames of reference were the ocean to the west which we visited only on special occasions, Disneyland to the north in Anaheim which we drove to for the day for several summers, the mountains and desert to the east which was like a foreign country to us, and Tijuana to the south which we were given to understand was off limits even though my grandmother shopped there and my grandfather was a regular at the famed Caliente racetrack. And even though there was much of California to see, as a girl, I had somehow become fixed on Oregon because it suggested ruggedness to me and I wanted to be rugged, physically and in spirit, even though I’ve always been a reedy, shy sort. It turns out I only spent a few months in Oregon after college before heading to Seattle, where, without meaning to, I stayed permanently.
What truly makes California “home” for Angie?
For Angie, home is a place she has yet to find. In the last pages of the book we know that she is headed away from Kimball Park, but we don’t know where. But I think that wherever she ends up, Kimball Park, California will always be a part of who she is. There is no escaping where you’re from.
Were you reading anything at the time of writing Living Color that influenced anything about the story or the characters?
I wrote the stories in Living Color over a long period of time. Since I’m always reading something it’s safe to say that I was probably influenced at some point by somebody. As I read, I like to be immersed in the story so that the craft is invisible to me, but at some level my brain is probably taking note of language and structure, though maybe not in any precise, easily explicable way, but something more nebulous, akin to osmosis.
I will say that I had some time ago read several of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books, which I found hilarious and touching. These are written in diary form, so the structure is different from Living Color. When I was writing Living Color, I can’t say whether I was thinking of Adrian Mole, but I also can’t see how its influence would have eluded me. I think everything I read sticks with me in some raw, unprocessed way that gets stored and blended with a bunch of stuff that filters out onto the page at opportune moments.
Film can also inspire or confirm my artistic choices. I had written much of Living Color when the film Boyhood came out in 2014. When I saw the film, I thought that this is what I was trying to do with Angie Rubio’s life—view her at various points of her girlhood. If anything, it validated for me that this form of storytelling was an effective vehicle for examining a life.
I’m always enthralled by an author’s choice in perspective. It’s perhaps the first thing you notice when you begin reading a book—and what sets the stage for the tone. Tell me about your decision process in making Living Color a close third narration. There were moments where we get so close to Angie, it almost feels like we could slip into first person and get right inside her head, but then we are drawn back into the entire scene and made to look at the bigger picture again. I’d love to hear a little bit about your process behind establishing the book’s point-of-view.
Third person has always felt the most natural point-of-view for me to write in. It’s usually what appears on the page when I begin writing a story, though I have written first-person POV characters when the story seems to demand it. In several of the stories in Hola and Goodbye, the “I” fell onto the page. For the Angie stories, I needed to inhabit her but still separate myself from her character since many of the incidents and events in Angie’s life were things that I had experienced or witnessed. I wanted to be sure that I was writing about Angie and not me. Close third-person gave me the flexibility to move inside Angie’s head for her thoughts and look through her eyes to observe the world. I could inhabit her, viewing her surroundings with a close, subjective lens, but also with a longer, wider lens that gave a broader, more encompassing, and almost objective perspective. The truth is, for me, often craft choices such as point of view are not deliberative. I tend to feel my way through the writing. If I’m lucky, what results truly serves the story.
We follow Angie through childhood and into adolescence, and witness in each chapter as she “grows up” in some way or another. Was your writing process as linear as the book presents? Did you write the stories chronologically, or did you find yourself jumping around in Angie’s life story a bit while writing? Tell me a little bit about your writing process.
The first half dozen or so stories were not written in chronological order. Early on I was just having fun writing about this character at different stages of her life, though I was consciously picking educational grade levels as my reference points. After the first six stories it was clear what I was wanting to do, which was to look at how a young brown girl fares at each of the stages of her education. I was examining my own years as I wrote about Angie’s. For each story I thought back to a moment that was notable in some way for me and used it either as the seed from which to grow the story or as a jumping off point to discover a different story. For instance, when I was in the fourth grade, I was told by a classmate that we were in the dumb class. That’s a
situation that Angie finds herself in and the story “Social Studies” opens with the words, “You know this is the dumb class, don’t you?”
In the story “First Confession,” Angie finds herself in an embarrassing dilemma because she has promised a big surprise for one of the nuns who is sick. I did something similar when I was that age. But that didn’t feel like the story to me, it felt like part of what was leading to the story which was all about lying and truth and faith. That incident that I had taken from real life was not the story, but it helped to shape it.
I’m also curious as to the specific ages you’ve chosen to focus on for each chapter. What prompted these particular ages? How did you decide what age was worthy of its own chapter? To me, the choice of age felt calculated—the perfect moments to dip in and out of Angie’s life.
The structure of the book is grade by grade. It’s a grade by grade look at Angie’s education, not necessarily what you learn in class, but what you learn from your peers and how to behave. Each grade deals with a particular year and age of Angie’s life. In choosing the events I wanted to write about for Angie, I looked back at the things that I experienced while growing up and use those as inspiration for Angie’s situation, for instance, the slumber party. I used that experience as a way to make Angie feel both invisible and singled out. The events at my slumber party were not the events at Angie’s slumber party, but the feelings were the same. That sense of not belonging but also a moment of humiliation and scorn. I think those “perfect moments,” as you referred to them are moments of specific emotions. Everything is layered and interconnecting.
Angie not only faces a lot of physical displacement throughout the novel, but also experiences social displacement, such as not being able to speak the language her parents speak. I know this to be a common experience amongst immigrants and refugees, as my family came to the United States from
Cambodia in the 70s and I was never taught to speak Khmer.
The term “generation gap,” referring to the difference in outlook between two generations, first came into use when I was growing up in the 60s. Layered upon this gap was, for many immigrant families, another gap—one over which a language did not cross because parents decided that it was better for children to only learn English, that learning two languages would be confusing, that it was unnecessary to have more than English to be in America. But language is connection not only to one another, but to a past, and when only some members of a family have access to it, there’s a disparity and disequilibrium that happens that goes beyond the parent/child and elder/younger differences.
What do you think is the benefit of estranging Angie from her family in this way? In cutting off an entire way of communicating? I’ve thought a lot about how important non-verbal communication is in these instances.
From a storytelling perspective, I wanted to include this because it’s such a common occurrence in immigrant families. Angie’s lack of Spanish contributes
to her sense of loss and dislocation. It’s one more thing that heightens her sense of not belonging. In Angie’s family, only her mother and her aunt speak Spanish, which they use to converse with each other, excluding the other members of the family who are often the topic of their conversation. Angie’s non-verbal responses are foot-stomping, sighing, and feigned indifference, the rejoinders of any young person to parental offenses.
Your title, “Living Color,” feels exactly right. We see color in the very beginning, as Angie’s self-awareness for the color of her skin and the color of her classmates’ skin permeates her thoughts. This is a ringing motif throughout.
Yes, Angie is immediately aware of what sets her apart from her classmates in her kindergarten classroom. Skin color is forever after a factor in how she sees herself in the context of others because it’s how others define her, and their definitions are often negative. To her six-year-old playmates, brown equals monster. In the third grade, she is a brownie in a Brownie uniform, which more than amuses her troop members. In the fourth grade, brown equals the dumb class.
Nearing the end, we get deep into Angie’s interiority as she completes her high school project that is essentially writing diary entries that correspond with certain colors. Tell me about what you hope readers might gain from reading Angie’s color assignment.
Colors have definitions and this is what Angie decides to explore as she sits down to write the dreaded assignment of writing her autobiography. She gets the idea of associating events in her life with a particular color from one of the paintings she studies in an art gallery as part of the assignment on her class cultural trip to Los Angeles. She observes Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and the characteristics and mood the color blue imbues its subject. She feels inadequate to the assigned task of writing her autobiography in a straightforward way, so she chooses to see her life’s events and her feelings about them as colors. A life and a person are more than the color of her skin. For Angie, learning to ride a bike evoked the color blue, often seen as a tranquil color or one of sadness. But it could also be flight and freedom. Green could mean verdant hills, but it could also be associated with the truth of one’s self. These are the sorts of things Angie reckons with and discovers as she views her life in living color.
I like to look for turning points with regard to character development when I’m reading. Something that really stuck out to me was how pivotal Angie’s high school trip to Los Angeles was for her. In the first half of the book, or three-quarters, really, Angie is a bit of a loner. She has friends here and there but focuses so much on how un-alike she is from everyone, even her family members. When we follow Angie on this trip, there comes a moment where she simply decides she does not care if she is alone or not. What is this breaking point? Is it simply maturity, growing up? How do we move from little timid wants-to-fit-in Angie to this fully formed teenager who can sit with her loneliness and make something of it?
The assignment she and her classmates are given in eleventh grade to write their autobiography seems ridiculous to Angie, since she feels she has yet to live her life, to do interesting things, to see things and to be seen in a way that fully acknowledges her as a person. It’s the trip to Los Angeles and this glimpse of the world outside of Kimball Park where she has lived for much of her life that opens up the world a bit for her and helps her to examine her life, her perceptions of her place within her family, her peers, and in the world as far she knows and understands it. It starts with the Gainsborough painting during the museum visit and with each activity on the trip, there is an accumulation of insight and tiny epiphanies about who she has been, who she is now, and that to get someplace beyond her boundaries, she needs to be a little bit bolder. And that comes with risks, which she accepts.
I loved the line “Someday, she promised herself, she would narrate her own story.” We see the writer’s hand here for just a moment, dipping in to sort of give us a wink, to say, “I told you she’d write her own story.”
Do you envision the completion of this assignment for Angie to be an epiphany? Was this autobiography the beginning of her narrating her own story? I feel this assignment instilled a confidence in her writing she had not yet truly unlocked.
Even though I was looking at each story as standing on its own, of course there is an inherent arc in the stories when taken as a whole. Plus, in the grade by grade telling of Angie’s story, with each year she has a little more self-awareness, a little more courage to act. In the story in which she has to write an autobiography, it’s the first time she takes a trip away from Kimball Park to Los Angeles, and she has a glimpse of a bigger world and the slightest sense of the possibilities that could open up for her. Angie has sort of balked at this task. How does a sixteen-year-old write an autobiography? So she connects things with colors. I think this assignment is the beginning of her recognizing that words are a path to someplace. The feedback she gets from her teacher is that her approach had been different, but it had been provocative and bold, so Angie latches onto those words. She adopts those words as her motto.
At the end of the book, I wanted to envision Angie today, faced with the complications of this world we live in—racial disparity, the struggle for equality, and classism still abound. How do you see Angie fitting into our present-day reality?
At this point in her life, I think Angie would be tired of the fight, not that she would give up. She would be resigned to the ongoing battle. I think she would be heartened by the smart, fierce people, women especially, who are leading the way and by the young people who are so articulate about theissues. Decades after the civil rights movement began, she would understand that while resistance to change is constant, even more constant is change. Change does happen however frustrating and painful and long the fight. Angie’s first foray into writing her opinions for mass consumption (i.e., her high school classmates) today might manifest as mordant morsels on Twitter.
What piece of advice do you have for the little Angies of today—the quiet, the timid, the “different?” In other words, what do you wish someone would have told Angie when she was young?
One of Angie’s problems was that she was too often focused on her lack of something in comparison to her peers. It’s not until the last few stories that she begins to focus on the things she possesses within herself—her own intelligence or her ability with words, for instance, which she has either not recognized or has undervalued or devalued. There are things that interest or matter to her, but she doesn’t trust her own instincts or judgement. There’s a world out there full of things to see and do and learn about. Even if you feel that these things are distant from your life at the moment, keep them in your sights, keep moving toward them until they are within reach, and then make the most of them.
Are you working on any new projects we can be looking forward to?
I’m finishing a novel that is an extension or outgrowth of a story that
appeared in Hola and Goodbye. The story is called “Strong Girls.” It’s about these twins who are oversized girls who are big and strong and they are recruited for the boys’ wrestling team before they had girls’ wrestling teams in schools. I remember when I was trying to sell Hola and Goodbye, an editor of a different small press was looking at it and she said, “you know, this story would make an interesting novel,” and I hadn’t thought of that before, but then I started thinking about how much I liked these characters. These characters are the only characters I created out of my imagination. I didn’t draw from somebody I knew or a situation I knew of; they just came to me. The novel I’m working on takes these characters into adulthood. As sisters, as twins, they have a unique relationship, but then they go out into the world and go their separate ways and they each have to face the world as large brown women without the support of each other. The novel deals with body image and sisterhood and self-actualization.
I’m also in the middle of a nonfiction project that consists of essays about identity, race, family, colonization. It’s interesting to me to write nonfiction on a personal level because you’re writing about people close to you and your family. I’ve written a couple of essays about each of my parents. They’re both dead, which is sort of not fair because they can’t see what I write and tell me “that’s wrong.” I’m also writing essays about immigration and things that are lost, like language. I’m having fun with that because I haven’t done a lot of it before.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.