An Interview with Novelist Donna Miscolta
November 20, 2020
Interviewed by Sarah Neilson, TSW staff
Seattle-based fiction writer Donna Miscolta has an impressive roster of publications and awards under her belt. Her debut novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press), was published in 2011, and her 2016 collection of linked stories, Hola and Goodbye (Carolina Wren Press), received a large amount national attention and won three awards, including the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman. Her writing also appears in such heavy-hitting lit mags as McSweeney’s — and, this year, in the anthology Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of Covid-19 (Central Avenue Publishing), which was edited by another Seattle literary mainstay, Jennifer Haupt, and includes several writing luminaries from the Cascadia region and far beyond. Often exploring themes of diaspora, woman- and motherhood, and family, Miscolta’s work always includes strong, engrossing voices from fully-developed characters.
Her newest story collection, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories (Jaded Ibis Press) follows Angie Rubio, a Mexican American girl growing up in 1960s California, through every year of her life from Kindergarten to the end of high school, with one story corresponding to each year. This framework makes for a fascinating and extremely moving portrait of a girl as she learns her way through the joy and pain of America. Artist Daniel Ramirez created illustrations for the book, some of which are included below.
Sarah Neilson spoke with Miscolta about education, American girlhood, and memory.
Sarah Neilson: I’m really interested in the choice to tell such a chronological story in Angie Rubio, especially in the context of this Seventh Wave issue’s theme of Before After. Can you talk about what appealed to you about chronology for this story collection, and do you have any thoughts about how chronology interacts with the before/after moments of a life?
Donna Miscolta: In terms of chronology and the structure of this book, I think sometimes the structure emerges on its own and sometimes you have to actively wrestle with the material and force it to emerge. But with this set of stories, because I was writing them piecemeal, with long intervals between each story, I wasn’t looking ahead to see how they would make a book. I figured that they would be a book. Early on, I became attached to this idea of the education of this character, what she learned about life, and about herself and her place in the world, in each grade in school. Even though the lessons are not part of the classroom curriculum, they’re lessons that she learns in school. So the structure became apparent on its own.
Each of these stories looks at a particular incident in the life of this character. And I think, in terms of before and after, that after each incident, there is a certain growth in the character overall, and even within each story, so that there’s this accumulation of a self-knowledge, self awareness, and awareness of how the world works for this character. There’s a series of before and afters in the book. In the early stories, the way Angie responds to the situations she finds herself in is reactionary. She’s not intentional about how she wants to respond to the situation because she doesn’t really know how. In a lot of the situations, she doesn’t even know how to articulate the problem very well. She just knows that something is not right. In the later stories, she can articulate the problem, she can identify the racism that is present in a situation, and she does try to become more intentional about her responses to it even though a lot of the things are still out of her control. She’s one person in a situation that is a result of systemic societal and institutional issues. She can only respond in a way that’s within her sphere of control, which is not a lot.
Early on, I became attached to this idea of the education of this character, what she learned about life, and about herself and her place in the world, in each grade in school.
Sarah: Can you talk about the choice to write Angie’s story in the time period of the 1960s and ‘70s, and the decision to set the book in California? How do time and place ground you in a story, how do you choose them when you’re writing fiction?
Donna: That’s easy, and it’s revealing about how I write when I write a book. A lot of the incidents in this book are based on things that have happened to me. That first story, that first incident, I tried writing as an essay and it didn’t really satisfy, I think because I was hampered by what actually happened. Writing it as fiction freed me. It’s not that I was trying to illustrate in any specific theme, because I think the themes arise out of the scene, out of the conflict. But I really wanted to create a situation where this young girl was, made aware of things.
She’s in a situation that she didn’t quite understand. But she knew that it was not good for her. In the first story, the first thing that she’s aware of is that she is one of the few brown faces in the classroom. And soon after that, she experiences this humiliation by her teacher who calls out a deficit that she sees in Angie. Whether those two are related or not, they happen very quickly, one after the other. In her mind they are probably related. It just seemed easier for me to develop these things in fiction. And the answer to your question of why they were set in the ‘60s and ‘70s is because that was my own coming of age. I will say that a lot of my fiction, I borrow from things that happened to me or things that happened to members of my family or things that I heard about that happened to members of my family. That’s been where my sources of fiction come from.
I tried writing as an essay and it didn’t really satisfy, I think because I was hampered by what actually happened. Writing it as fiction freed me.
Sarah: In what ways did you feel you examined girlhood in America that you hadn’t thought deeply about before, or that you had? How does whiteness shape the experience of American girlhood for everyone who experiences it?
Donna: Early on, I recognized that girls did not have the advantage in this world. There are things that you grow up with and you live with, because you’re constantly told that girls are like this or girls are that. And girls can’t do this or that.
I remember when I was 10. We had just moved into the neighborhood in National City where we would spend the rest of our growing-up lives. I remember telling my sister that I never wanted to get married, and I also said that I would never change my name. I think at 10 years old, that was a pretty big thing to think about and say, because it was such a given. I just realized that meant that if I got married that would be giving up something of myself, even though it still reflects a patriarchal tradition, because it’s your father’s name. But still, it was a name I grew up with. It was a name that I identified with, and I was just not ever going to give it up. Girlhood was just a series of recognitions that you’re a second class citizen, that you are not recognized for anything. You were defined. You were defined a certain way and you were confined within that definition of who you were.
As for whiteness, well, it defines what girlhood is, right? I remember as a preteen and a teenager starting to read magazines like Tiger Beat, Teen magazine, and also just looking at the Sears catalog, which was a big thing back then. And looking at the models who were wearing the clothes that you thought you should be wearing, because those were the cool things to wear. We wanted to wear those clothes, but we couldn’t always get them because we couldn’t afford to buy those clothes. But I sewed, so I would buy the patterns and I would make clothes. And of course, they still did look like them. Back then, all the girls had to take Home Ec classes. Boys had to take Shop and we girls were not allowed to take Shop. I think in high school, they allowed a couple of boys in the Home Ec classes and that was a cutesy thing, but they still didn’t let girls in the Shop classes or the auto mechanic classes. I learned how to sew because I had to be at Home Ec class. I was good at it. And I tried very hard to look like the other girls in school. But I didn’t quite make it.
But the whole thing about whiteness. I grew up in National City, which was, at the time I was growing up, over 50% Latino. I had this idea — this wrong idea — that I had attended a mostly white school, and it really wasn’t the case. But what was the case was that the white kids were much more visible in the school, at least to me, because they ran the student government, they ran the dance committee, they were in the school newspaper, they were the cheerleaders. They were the ones who ran the school, basically. They were the ones who defined what was cool to wear and what was not.
At a certain point you recognize that they’re the ones who are setting the standards and setting the rules. And that you’re still not quite meeting those standards, you are still not quite belonging because you’re not white. That was my experience.
Girlhood was just a series of recognitions that you’re a second class citizen, that you are not recognized for anything. You were defined. You were defined a certain way and you were confined within that definition of who you were.
Sarah: I think one of the most important pillars of Angie’s story, and of coming of age in general, is voice — developing a voice, using a voice, taking up space with voice and body, especially as someone inhabiting identities that are marginalized or targeted by white supremacist cis-hetero patriarchy. What does voice mean to you, how does it relate to power, and even to assimilation?
Donna: Thinking about developing voice as an author, that’s a question that always scares me. Because I didn’t get any formal training as a writer, I shy away from those questions about craft. I think in terms of creating Angie, I use a lot of incidents from my own life, and I have a good memory. I just tried to imagine what it was like to be five, or to be seven, or to be thirteen.
I think that in terms of her agency, she doesn’t have much early on. She’s a pretty timid child. I think she’s also someone who observes because she’s more comfortable observing than doing. She tends to accept things. I think as she gets older, she gains agency, and she starts to exercise it more, but still in a subdued manner. And I think in the last story where, in her effort to have a voice, she goes a little bit overboard. I think the fact that she has discovered that she can make herself heard — have an opinion through words — I think that’s something that is a revelation to her that she can have an impact this way. That’s where she has more agency.
Sarah: Where are you finding hope or joy or inspiration right now?
Donna: One thing is, I’m a grandmother now. Becoming a grandmother was something that I hadn’t really thought about. We have two daughters, and I always felt like, it’s their lives, they decide. But then last year, our younger daughter who was living in Ecuador at the time, told us that she was having a baby. I had recently retired from my job, I was able to go to Ecuador for the birth of the baby. That was just an amazing thing. After the baby was born, I was able to spend some time with this newborn. There were already plans for my daughter, her partner, and the baby to come here in the spring but then the pandemic happened. It turned out my daughter and my grandson came in March, because my daughter was supposed to start a job. And having the baby in our apartment for six months was a total gift, it was totally unexpected. It was just an amazing thing to wake up each day. When the baby woke up, he was in my arms always.
Just walking the other day in the neighborhood I was thinking how satisfied I feel with my life. And part of it is having this new being, this new human being in my life, but also part of it is being at this stage in my life where I don’t have to go to a job every day, that I have this time now to read and write and to reflect. And just to think about what’s ahead.