“Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories” is Seattle writer Donna Miscolta’s new book. It’s a novel told in stories about the coming-of-age of a young brown girl and her family. Taken together, it forms a vivid portrait of a working class ethnic family in 1960s and 70s Hawaii and California as they face issues of race, class and gender.
IE writer Robert Flor had a chance to visit with the author and talk about the book and the issues it raises. Donna Miscolta’s first novel “When the de la Cruz Family Danced” came out in 2011 and received high praise from poet Rick Barot. Her short story collection “Hola And Goodbye” came out in 2016 and won an International Latino Book Award.
Miscolta is mixed race Latinx/Filipinx American writer. She participates in a virtual discussion around a new anthology entitled “Alone Together — Love, Grief And Comfort in the Time of Covid 19”, edited by Jennifer Haupt with others on Wednesday, December 2, 2020, at 6:30 PM sponsored by King County Library System’s author series. She also appears with fellow writer Rachel Swearing on December 8, 2020 at 7:00 PM as part of the Elliott Bay Book Company’s virtual events calendar on ZOOM via eventbrite. Go to elliottbaybook.com or call (206) 624-6600.
International Examiner: You’ve managed to outdo yourself with “Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories” which should be recommended reading in schools. I was immediately drawn to her journey through the educational and social system. Did you intend your novel as an examination of life in America?
Donna Miscolta: Thank you, Bob, for the compliment, which I deeply appreciate. I would love Living Color to be read in schools. While Angie’s journey is through the educational and social systems of the 60s and 70s, it has relevancy now because the systems in place today are little changed. There are no institutionalized efforts to teach the histories of Native, Black, Brown, and other non-white peoples as part of the development of this country. When kids like Angie grow up brown in America, they are taught a history in which they have no part. They’re already marked as different by their skin color. They find themselves rendered insignificant or invisible when it comes to learning their place in this country.
When I wrote the first couple of stories, before I knew that I was going to make a book of them, my concern at the time was to look at what it was like to be a skinny, awkward girl trying to fit in with her peers, to fit in even as a member of her own family. I thought I could make a funny story because we all have incidents from childhood or adolescence that despite being mortifying at the time can seem comical in retrospect. That’s part of the humor in these stories. But Angie isn’t just a skinny, awkward girl. She’s a brown skinny, awkward girl in a society that favors neither her gender nor color. The element of skin color especially and its implications can’t be ignored because everything in Angie’s orbit is a response to or a reflection of her brownness, and that response is at its core racist. They are not physically violent acts, but the often subtle or subliminal actions and attitudes that undermine one’s belief in oneself, in one’s right to exist as an equal among others.
As far as my intention when writing the book, I don’t think our intentions as writers are always clear when we start a project. They become clear in the process. As I realized that I was writing about the education of Angie and the life lessons she learns as she progresses through school, I became aware at some level that I was examining life in America. It was just from a perspective other than the dominant white one the rest of us are often required to make ourselves smaller in.
IE: Your novel captures the struggles of a Mexican American family through American society. The father served in the Navy, accepting civilian work to support the family and the mother also takes one. They don’t speak Spanish often to the children because they want them to be accepted. Would you say more about the family’s behavior and how you wove it into your work?
DM: The behavior of Angie’s parents reflects that of my own parents. I think it was and maybe still is a common attitude among immigrants and first-generation families that the way to be American is to blend in as much as your differently colored skin will allow. One way was to speak English without trace of any accent, which meant for someone like me without working knowledge of the languages (Tagalog and Spanish) of my parents. Angie understands very little of the Spanish her mother and aunt use in conversation with each other like some subversive secret. She feels deficient and shies away from joining the Latino Club at school when she’s seeking a place to belong. She’s left in a limbo, being neither this nor that.
The other thing that I borrowed from my parents’ survival strategy for the book was their economic mindset that it was more important to secure a job after high school that could provide long-term security than it was to go to college, which cost money. My father was a postal clerk and my mother a salesclerk. Their whole lives had been about trying to achieve economic security, which meant a regular paycheck as soon as possible for as long as possible. When Angie wants to go to college, she doesn’t have a clue how to get there. Her school counselor is no help, pointing her toward the local community college rather than giving Angie advice on how to apply to her dream college. Her parents think it makes no sense for her to go to college unless it will guarantee an immediate job. Angie’s desire to go to college just to study and learn for the sake of that experience is a luxury, a pie-in-the-sky indulgence.
In our family, there was also a concern about not rocking the boat and staying in our place, another attitude that I incorporated into the book. In one of the stories, fourth-grade Angie finds out she has been placed in the “dumb class” and mentions to her mother that she thinks she needs to be in a smarter class. Her mother warns her not to act as if she’s better than everyone else.
These are all attitudes born of colonialism and racism which has taught is to believe we are not good enough or smart enough. Jasmine Pulido recently wrote a perceptive article describing the effects of assimilation, colonization, and imperialism on her own personal and cultural history and how reading work by me and other Seattle writers Ebo Barton, Jen Soriano and Allison Masangkay has helped her undo her own invisibility. It’s huge praise to have someone view your work in that way. I hope that Living Color will resonate similarly with other readers.
IE: I laughed through several stories and especially loved the cheerleader turnout and the “Romeo and Juliet” play. It spoke to crushes on a Filipino boy in Angie’s high school and the schoolgirl cliques of middle school. Humor is often difficult to write. How did you develop this talent and ability? What advice would you give young women considering a writing career?
DM: I’m so happy the stories made you laugh. I think humor is an essential part of almost any story because it’s part of almost any real-life situation, though sometimes it may bend toward the absurd rather than the ha-ha kind of funny. Humor is often how we contend with some of our most difficult topics, like love and death. And racism. Such as when Angie and her friends attend cheerleader tryouts despite the unspoken social policy that only white and white-passing girls make the squad, or when there’s a to-do about a Filipino boy playing Romeo to a white girl’s Juliet.
Humor arises from the details that you write into a scene. I remember when I first began to read my work aloud to an audience, I was taken aback by the laughter that erupted when I read a scene that had what I believed were sad details about the relationship between an elderly couple. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was also funny, but the reaction I got made me realize that yes, it was funny. It was funny because of the details that revealed our tragicomic vulnerabilities as human beings. It was something that the audience could relate to because they had experienced it, or they could imagine experiencing it in their own lives. Finding those moments, those situations that teeter on the edge of sad and comic, or better, having those moments find you as you write, is what can add depth to a scene and make it succeed.
Having been an observer all my life due to being shy, I notice and remember moments that are funny or absurd that I tuck away for later use. Also, I think many of us have relatives who blurt non sequiturs or mispronounce or misuse words, often as result of second language acquisition. These are earnest and natural mistakes. I think it’s possible to use them in a humorous way that is also compassionate and serves to reveal something about the obstacles to assimilation, the connections and misconnections between generations, and our constant efforts to communicate with each other and the world.
Advice I would give young women considering a writing career is understand there are obstacles but write through them and around them. I think most people make a living doing something other than writing such as teaching writing or literature, or doing something totally removed from writing like I did for thirty years, which was working in the public sector as a project manager. Know that you’ll fight for time to write. Also know that it’s a long-term endeavor and a constant process of learning and evolving. Read widely. Even if you’re not actively analyzing a text for clues on structure and craft, some things will enter your subconscious as you read and later when you’re writing.
Expect rejection. It’s part of the process. Find a community. Make every book you read, every lecture you attend, every workshop you participate in an opportunity to learn something about writing and about you as a writer. Write first to find the story. The other stuff, the bigger stuff like theme, will emerge.
Sometimes you will be crushed by rejection or criticism. Retreat if you must, grieve when it’s necessary, but always come back to the work. It’s the writing that matters, the discovery and revelations that come from writing. The satisfaction of writing well-crafted sentence after sentence will sustain you through the rejections.
IE: As you dissect life in schools, you touch deeply on the experience of brown and black girls. I thought these Angie Rubio as a literary counterpart to Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield. What was your process and inspiration for constructing your intricate characters?
DM: Its been a long time since I’ve read either of those characters, but I appreciate having Angie categorized with the likes of such iconic fictional heroes or anti-heroes. I had fun creating her and I feel deeply connected to her and her story as well as to the other characters in the book.
Every character, no matter how minor, has a story, a want or need that they are striving to meet. That story doesn’t necessarily have to unfold explicitly on the page, but there should be an implicit sense of movement or change, an evolution or devolution. Something that can be detected through interaction with another character. As Angie progresses through school, all the other characters are progressing through their own particular messes. These can be glimpsed at various moments in the story to add to and complicate the tension of Angie’s situations.
I once took a class from Tom Jenks and he talked about the three-line summary to state the conflict, action, and resolution. In this way, you can keep in mind what each character is hankering for. For instance in Living Color, for Angie the three-line summary would be something like this: A young girl confronts microaggressions in school. She struggles to find her voice. Eventually, she is able to assert her claim to space.
While Angie is the focus of the stories in the book, she doesn’t exist in a vacuum. She is constantly reacting to her environment which includes family and friends and teachers and classmates. The interaction of these stories is what gives dimensionality to the characters. Everyone is walking around with a story. Each one deepens that of the protagonist.
IE: Through the novel we experience Angie’s “coming of age” and what her parents, teachers and friends believed she should become. Has behavior in today’s society changed since Angie’s time in the 60’s? And, if it has, in what ways?
DM: With Angie’s coming of age is the realization that despite the confines erected around her existence, she can claim some power of her own. She was influenced by the examples and actions of individuals and groups she saw on the nightly news and read about in the headlines. While racism is still as entrenched as ever in our systems, I think there is much more awareness of and resistance to the structures and attitudes that prevailed when I was growing up, which is the period in which Angie’s story set. Despite the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, despite the rise of Black and Chicano Power, awakening was slow to these concepts of the inherent worth and humanity of non-white people by the mere fact of their existence. Never mind that they had ideas and art and intellect to contribute to society.
Those movements did change things significantly to a point. Then the power structure thought things were all better, and in fact began accommodating the white backlash to affirmative action and other measures meant to address hundreds of years of discrimination. Still, I think subsequent generations have been smarter, more outspoken, and more determined to claim a space for themselves. But the resistance to change remains. Some of it due to complacency, some to active denial. Both as the recent election made clear are based in racism. Young voters of color were a huge force in this election to deny a racist president another term. If Angie Rubio had children or grandchildren, they would be in this fight.