Authors / Features / Fiction / Interviews

“My Imaginary Audience Was Me”: Q&A with Donna Miscolta

by Shoba Viswanathan

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgDonna Miscolta’s third book, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories (Jaded Ibis Press), tells the story of Angie Rubio through linked short stories, with each story centered around a specific event in each grade in school. Through her protagonist, Miscolta allows us to share the experiences of this awkward Mexican-American girl growing up in California in the 1960s and 1970s. Miscolta won the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, an Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction, and an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction for her  previous short story collection, Hola and Goodbye, Una Familia in Stories (Blair). Her first novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press), about a Filipino American family in Southern California, won high praise for  Miscolta’s “clarifying vision of post-immigration America” and her writing style.

It was great to connect with the author and talk about her new book, her coming to terms with writing impulses, the years she spent balancing multiple commitments, the subtle nature of systemic racism, the way humor actualizes a character, and much more.

Shoba Viswanathan: I was intrigued to read your acknowledgments and get a sense of how your new novel, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, came to be through various writing residencies and grants. It spoke of focus and persistence, and it’ll be great if you can share your path to becoming a published writer. 

Donna Miscolta: Well, it was a long path, as it is for many of us, and I had a belated start. While books and words enamored me from an early age, I had squelched any inclination to write, or perhaps the squelching came from an external source that was internalized and thus made to seem as if I was the source of the squelching. At any rate, it skewed my perception of myself. I thought, first, that maybe I really wasn’t that good at writing, and second, if I was good at something, then it couldn’t possibly have value.

So in college, I pursued a subject that interested me but for which I had no natural talent. Once I received my degree in zoology, I had no clue what to do next. Over the next ten years, I worked various jobs—phlebotomist, administrative aide in a cytogenetics lab, project assistant in a pain research clinic, ESL instructor—while earning first a master’s degree in education and later a master’s degree in public administration as I tried to find my way to a career. All this time I was avoiding or ignoring or squelching at a subconscious level the thing that I really wanted to do—write fiction. I was 39, which is not old, but a bit delayed, when that suppressed desire wormed its way to the surface.

Though I finally realized that I wanted to write, I had no idea how to begin. I was four years into what would be a 30-year career in local government. I had to figure out how I would integrate learning to write with my day job and my parenting and household responsibilities. I think in these circumstances, we learn quickly to compartmentalize our time. Over the years I took classes in the evening, attended conferences and workshops when I could, and kept up a daily routine of writing. Even when I could manage only 20 minutes or a half hour to write, even if I wrote only a sentence or two, the daily act of writing was important to me. The sentences accumulate and soon you have a story or chapter and eventually a book. My first book, a novel called When the de la Cruz Family Danced, was published when I was 58, nearly 20 years after I signed up for my first fiction writing class. During those 20 years, I not only worked on my first novel, but I was writing stories that would result in the publication of my second book, Hola and Goodbye, at the age of 63. I had also written in those first 20 years a few of the Angie Rubio stories that appear in Living Color.

Living Color came together by pieces and over a long period of time, as you can tell by the various residencies whose writing studios served as incubators for the Angie Rubio stories. I put the finishing touches on the manuscript in August 2018 at the Mineral School residency in the little town of Mineral, WA, in the foothills of Mount Rainier. The residency is housed in an old elementary school. Each studio is an old classroom complete with chalkboards, which was the perfect setting in which to complete the stories of Angie Rubio’s education.

SV: It was fascinating to see the way you positioned Angie Rubio and her brown identity. While brownness defines her identity among her friends and in school, you also make it a point to note that she’s not really defined by it. She does not speak Spanish and does not refer to links to other cultural contexts or realities. Why did you choose this framing?

DM: From the first story, Angie’s skin color is a physical characteristic of which she is made acutely aware. She carries this consciousness of color with her everywhere. She lives it. And yet she is still baffled by how it affects people’s perceptions and expectations of her. She’s aware at some level that her own self-image is vulnerable to this skewed perspective. But she is still trying to fit in, trying to mold and fold and elasticize herself to fit into spaces defined for whites and the white-appearing and white-acting.

The fact that she doesn’t speak Spanish is something that sets her apart as “more American,” but it also serves to isolate her. It makes her feel left out of the conversations she hears between her mother and her aunt. It also makes her feel disqualified to join the Latino Club in high school, fearing her deficiency in the language translates to an inauthenticity of who she is.  

Links to other cultural contexts are scarce, though they exist in the references to the Mexican food that Delia and Nelda prepare together. Other realities are mentioned but not dwelt upon. For instance, there is Angie’s father’s disappointment that after attending night school to train for a job, he doesn’t get the desk job he wanted but instead is assigned to be a meter reader. There is no reference to discriminatory job practices and the possibility may not occur to the reader. But to me, it exists in the story, it’s a reality in the lives of this family because of who they are and what they look like.

We’re not always aware of the inequities that are practiced in everyday life because they’re not necessarily blatant or overt. They’re part of the fabric of the culture and unless they’re especially egregious, we become inured or at least accustomed to them. I think this is part of the framing that you refer to. In the book, this is what contributes to Angie’s bafflement as to her place among her peers and in the world at large. She is awaiting a moment of clarity, which happens when she understands that she can define herself.

SV: This centering of the coming-of-age experience of a young girl on the fringes of her school community felt familiar, and yet stretched the boundaries of what the margins can include. It was wonderful seeing Angie not get crushed by the social assumption of what her place should be. Can you share a little of how you arrived at this version of Angie Rubio? 

DM: That’s an interesting observation about the boundaries of the margins. At my most naïve, I wonder if the margins, or rather our existence in the margins, are sometimes in our imagination? But then I think, no, it’s that others don’t acknowledge the existence of the margins, or don’t consider them an issue, or don’t see our isolation.

It makes me recall a realization I had after talking to a former high school classmate a few years ago. I was visiting my hometown where I grew up and attended high school, where I had felt very much in the margins. I was invited to a small gathering of classmates who were in touch with each on a semi-regular basis. As I listened to them reminisce about the social hijinks and shenanigans of high school, I realized how different my experience had been from theirs. My high school existence: I went to school, came home, did my homework, ate dinner, watched TV, and went to bed. That’s it. No social life whatsoever. Later, when I confided to one of my classmates how left out I had felt, they were surprised. Had my marginalized existence been a figment of my own self-consciousness?

I hadn’t thought of any of this while writing the stories. What I was conscious of was that Angie exists in the margins of every story—when her kindergarten teacher intentionally or not continually assigns her to play in the farm animal rather than the doll corner where Angie makes it clear she wants to be; when she is placed in the “dumb class” in fourth grade; when her lagging physical and social development mark her as someone beneath notice in junior high. And, yet, as you point out, Angie is not crushed—flattened a bit, but not crushed. At her core, there is a belief in her value that comes from a survival instinct that I believe exists in us all. She has observed enough of her small world to understand the inequities related to power, recognition, and authority. She must at least believe in her own right to exist.

SV: Who was your imaginary audience as you were working on these stories? Why did you decide on the ‘60s-’70s as the time period for this book? I see the questions as related.

DM: My imaginary audience was me. I put Angie in situations similar to ones I experienced while growing up. It was a way for me to process those memories of feeling discomfort, embarrassment, and offense. Watching (while writing) Angie’s bafflement at the world and how people behaved in it was a way for me to unload some old umbrages that had embedded themselves in me at the molecular level. Though I was writing for me, I knew that Angie’s experiences weren’t unique, so I also imagined that audience of readers who would recognize their own childhood and adolescence in Angie’s. It was gratifying to read writer Ivelisse Rodriguez’s words in this regard:

 “We have all been Angie Rubio, voiceless, rejected, but always on the precipice of being more. Throughout this endearing collection, you will become more than a reader, you will become Angie’s champion until the world she inhabits catches up. Miscolta writes with heart for all the brown girls who feel invisible. These stories say with love and sincerity: I see you.”

Because Angie’s experiences reflect mine, it made sense to place her in the timeline in which I grew up. It was a time of the liberation movements—Black Power, El Movimiento Chicano, Women’s Liberation. While Angie was too young for and much removed from the action, ideas and different ways of thinking trickled to her through television, magazines, and music. And in the microcosm of the classroom, its small dramas involving popularity, power, and authority often manifest the disquiet of the larger world outside. 

SV: In your short pieces and your longer work there is a strong sense of lived experience. How much of your life comes into your work? 

DM: A lot of my stories arise from things I see, experience, or hear about in mySupport Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org own life, things that provide a glimpse into how humans respond to a given situation or that make me curious about a decision someone made, or a problem they’re trying to resolve. For instance, my first book, When the de la Cruz Family Danced, came about as a result of what I knew of my father’s immigration story, which wasn’t much, but enough to imagine it into a novel.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgMy second book, Hola and Goodbye, was a collection of stories about three generations of a family. Most of those stories had as their inspiration a family anecdote or some bit of information about a family member that served as a catalyst for a character or conflict. For instance, I had an aunt who took dance lessons and who competed in dance contests as a teenager. That situation was full of possibilities and the character I developed from it is one of my favorites in the collection.

For my latest book, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, the inspiration was my own awkwardness and sense of dislocation growing up. I was extremely shy and terribly self-conscious. It made me an observer rather than a doer; a daydreamer rather than a participant in real life. I created Angie Rubio and invested her with all my insecurities. I gave her situations that were often based on my own experiences or observations and watched her puzzle through them. I wanted to look at how Angie reacted and responded to the lessons about race, class, and gender that are not taught but are learned nonetheless in and out of the classroom. Every story in the collection explores a particular age or grade and how her own seemingly minor struggles in the face of racial microaggressions or gender bias reflect the issues of the larger society.

SV: Identity and family are dominant themes in your work. I also see a repeated thematic concern of finding and using a voice. What else do you find yourself gravitating toward when you sit down to write?

DM: It’s not a thematic concern, but humor is an element that I try to be sure is part of almost every story I write. Humor gives depth to the scene and reveals something about character, allowing us to see the incongruities or absurdities inherent in a situation. It allows us to see the foibles of a character, the humanness in the actions that are driven by emotions that we all know and feel and make us uncomfortable, the actions we might know are inappropriate and yet can’t help ourselves. I think gravitating toward the incongruous or absurd becomes a natural or subconscious act the more you understand your characters, their desires, and the fraught path of attaining them.

SV: Your book trailer is lovely and it is a reminder of how much of the author’s work these days is getting the word out about their writing. How do you balance being a writer and letting the world know you are a writer?

DM: Being a writer is by far the easier and more comfortable of the two. It can be tiring and dispiriting to keep saying, Look at me. I wrote a book. Please pay attention. Please. 

I made the book trailer because, especially now during the pandemic when so much is online in terms of book promotion and events, I thought it would be a fun way to do the Look at me. I wrote a book thing. Collaborating with an illustrator (who happens to be my daughter’s partner) and a video artist gave me insight into the creative processes outside of putting words to paper. Combining my words, Daniel Ramirez’s drawings, and Flore Bauer’s video skills produced a book trailer I find absolutely charming. Let’s say, as charming as my book.

But the challenges are the same for the book and the video. Will anyone read my book? Will anyone watch the video and be enticed to read my book? At any rate, I’m glad they both exist. Each was a labor of love. So, I make the effort on social media to get the word out and hope that it will have a ripple effect. On Twitter, I make it a point to like and retweet posts by other writers mentioning writing news because we’re all in the same situation. A few do the same for me. I think I’ve accepted a certain level of invisibility. I think all I can do is do the work, shout into the Twitter void every so often that I exist as a writer, and then go back to work.

SV: The book has this tangible sense of time and place that make it feel visual in some ways. What would you say if Hollywood comes knocking to make a movie of Angie Rubio?

DM: When I saw the movie Boyhood, my reaction was “That’s what I’m doing with Angie Rubio.” But that movie took years to complete because the same actor was used throughout the different phases of the boy’s life. I don’t see Living Color as a movie with a continuous narrative structure. I see it as a Netflix series of separate but related stories about Angie in these different phases of her life. She could be played by a different girl in each episode to illustrate the idea that was in the Rodriguez quote that “We have all been Angie Rubio.” Think of how many young Latinx actors could be hired to play Angie. What say you, Hollywood Latinx powerhouses, Eva Longoria, Salma Hayak, America Ferrara?

SV: I’d certainly watch this Netflix series! Your essay about going gray and the way your mom engaged with it was thought-provoking. And age is a bit of what we focus on here at Bloom. What are your insights on growing into your creative identity as you grow older?  Do you feel that we can influence the conversation around this to support such endeavours?

DM: I think one reason I’ve never dyed my hair is that change fascinates me. Change can also be scary. Aging is change that is scary because it involves loss—of supple skin, good hair, limber joints. Memory.

Nothing lasts forever. Certainly, none of us do. And if we’re lucky enough to grow old, we are witnesses to our own fragmentation and disintegration.

When I was pregnant while in my thirties, I was fascinated by the changes in my body. It was all a delightful wonder—the distended belly, the colostrum-swollen breasts, the fuller face.

There’s a different fascination with the changes in growing older. There’s very little to delight in. Instead, there is a melancholic curiosity about the slightly arthritic hip that put an end to over 30 years of running, the dark mottling on my hands, the crumpling of skin at my neck when I move my head a certain way, and of course the graying of my hair. These are for the most part superficial changes, but I know they signal the breakdown of things I can’t see.

This is what I think about when I consider the creative potential left in me: How to engage with the things I can’t see. How to deepen my understanding of what I have seen so far. What can I accomplish in the next  years, however many they may be? How will I stay engaged with my community when even now my instincts are tending toward solitude?

We hear that we must stay relevant to be read. I think that as long as we explore our humanness in our work, we can’t help but be relevant.

Shoba Viswanathan is a writer, editor and book critic based in New York.  She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.

Photo credit Meryl Schenker

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