Donna Miscolta, Author of “Hola and Goodbye”

Donna Miscolta (Photo byMeryl  Schenker)

Donna Miscolta and I did an interview after the publication of her first book (Signal 8 Press, 2011), a novel dealing with a Filipino’s immigration to the United Sates and his subsequent family life in Southern California. The interview is available on this website, The Author of When the de la Cruz Family Danced. There’s also an accompanying video.

The opening story in her newly released story collection, Hola and Goodbye (Carolina Wren Press, November 2016), recently appeared online in Kweli Journal.“Lupita and the Lone Ranger” depicts a telling event in the life of a Mexican immigrant to California. Click on the link to read and enjoy. 

Donna and I Skyped recently about Hola and Goodbye when she was in Seattle and I was in Tagaytay, Philippines.

Donna’s story

The book is divided into three sections. The first, “Four Women,” deals with concerns of survival—language, employment, friendships, and family ties – and the issues that threaten them, sexual exploitation, for example. There is also one character longing for a gringo husband, and other characters placing themselves on this or that side of a cultural divide. I asked about the dates and location of these stories.

As the title suggests, this section is about four women, each having arrived from Mexico in the 1920s. Each has her own story of assimilation and coming to terms with the realities of life in America. Lupita’s mind and tongue are resistant to the sounds of English, and she clings to the poetry of her Spanish. Her best friend Rosa is intent on becoming American and considers a gringo husband the path to doing so. Ana is young, a gullible romantic determined to find happiness. Irma is her older cousin, cynical of love and friendship, but loyal in the end. It’s Lupita’s family that the subsequent stories in the book focus on, with her bilingual children leading lives in lower-middle class neighborhoods, and her grandchildren learning that, even as English-only speakers, their American identity doesn’t guarantee an easier life than their parents’.

I like this passage:

If Lupita wasn’t so picky about the size of the onions or the firmness of the tomatoes she wanted, she could send one of her girls to do the shopping. Instead, she always had to rehearse her English ahead of time, scripting what she’d say to the talkative shop lady. But Mrs. Dawson asked different questions each time. Not easy ones about the weather. No, she wanted to know what Lupita thought about this or that complicated, inexplicable thing. Sometimes Lupita could do no more than smile politely.

Her tongue seemed incapable of forming the sounds of English, her mind confused by its structure, her heart despairing of the effort. Besides, what use did she have for English, sorting fish in a cannery that employed so many Chinese workers? Better to learn Chinese.

I know the frustrations of trying to learn a second language. I’ve studied Spanish at various times of my life and though I can stumble my way through a Spanish-speaking country, I’m far from fluent. I find myself rehearsing what I’m going to say before I walk into a store or restaurant, always fearful that I’ll mangle a pronunciation or botch a conjugation. My grandmother never learned English, maybe for those reasons, but also because she was busy raising seven kids and working in a factory where conversation wasn’t required and maybe even discouraged.

In the second set of stories, called “Ambition,” characters battle disappointed dreams and manipulate their families to get what they want. So, who are these people?

They are the first American-born generation of this family, born in the 1930s and coming of age during and after World War II. They’re from a working-class family, but in the post-war boom there is a sense of promise. But that promise never quite delivers. Their hopes and expectations are never quite realized. They find opportunities available to them are limited. They themselves are uncertain of their place in the world. They’ve grown up bilingual, with a push-pull identity, feeling very much a part of American culture – its music, movies, and fashions –but still aware of what makes them different: their immigrant parents. They decide their own children will speak only English.

There were a number of details which rang true for me, like consulting the Ladies’ Home Journal on how to be American and the longing for an avocado-colored refrigerator.

The details came from memories of my mother’s house and the homes of my aunts. They read the same magazines, even though their tastes differed slightly, I think they got many of their home decorating ideas from the latest fads featured in those magazines. Movies and television were another source of inspiration as they sought to be relevant. The characters in these stories are striving for a place to fit. To be American. To be seen as American.

Millie is the character who wants an avocado refrigerator. She’s a stay-at-home mom, as many women were in the 1960s. She’s not the most nurturing mother. This is a woman whose skills and temperament would allow her to flourish in a job outside the home but who lacked the opportunity, but also perhaps the consciousness, that this is what she in fact desired. Millie does her best by trying to improve both her home and her kids, but in a very twisted way. Her sense of self is askew because she isn’t making the most of her talents. When I was growing up, I sensed that often among the women around me.

In the dominant culture of the 1950s, there was also a desperate desire to belong, to be properly domesticated, followed in the early 60s by housewives stereotypically out in the suburbs, feeling unfulfilled. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out in 1963.

I think feeling unfulfilled might’ve been true of women across America, wherever they lived, and regardless of class or color. There was the expectation that women should stay home, which meant a lot of talent was going unused in society. In that particular story, “Ambition,” Millie wants to escape the restraints of her life by moving to a white neighborhood because she thinks that’s where success is. Her husband doesn’t want to move out of their neighborhood of mostly brown families—where he fits—to somewhere he’d feel out of place. So Millie becomes determined to change where she’s in charge: with her house and her children. Which doesn’t prove to be enough.

In the last section, “Leaving Kimball Park,” individuals in the third generation find themselves being exploited by a wrestling coach, looking for friendship in a mental institution, attending a high school reunion, taking off for an unknown destination or wandering the grandmother’s place of origin in Mexico. The final story shows the extended family humoring Lupita with a recreation of the old tradition of Sunday dinner, as Lupita communicates with her dead friend Rosa about loss and neglect.

The third generation in these stories was born in the 50s and 60s and speaks only English. Yet they have feelings of inadequacy, ironically stemming in part from their inability to speak Spanish, and a sense of removal from the culture and traditions of their grandmother. Julia travels to Mexico to the place her grandmother came from. She’s hoping to find a definitive answer about who she is and where she belongs, but such things are not so straightforward. She’s in an in-between place, between where her grandmother came from and where she is now, an English-speaking American who doesn’t quite fit in. That last story brings the whole family together, though there have been many changes over the years, most significantly aging and death, with the elderly Lupita feeling as if she’s on the fringes of the family as the younger members are occupied with the daily demands of raising children – as Lupita once was.

I’ve encountered quite a few Asian-Americans, who didn’t feel they fit in the US and who went back to Asia to discover their heritage, only to discover how American they really were.

Yes, it’s a familiar story. As you know, I’m part Filipino too. For a long time because of this mixed heritage, it felt as if I belonged nowhere, but I eventually decided that feeling originated within me, in my insecurities. Now I claim my multiple spaces. I belong to and participate in cultural, political, and artistic groups that are Latino and groups that are Filipino. My daughters are further mixed: Filipino-Mexican from my side, white from my husband’s side. Both have traveled in Spanish-speaking countries and are fluent in Spanish. My older daughter Natalie recently visited the Philippines. She had been in contact with the Las Piñas Heritage Guiding Association, which helped her locate my father’s sister and other family members. She was able to meet them and interview my aunt. Even though Natalie spent many days on the beaches of Palawan, she said the best part of her trip was meeting family in Manila. She’s trying to figure out where she fits in this world. I think this is a natural journey that people of color go on. Honoring and understanding the source of their otherness, while claiming space in the land of their birth—America.

One of your characters is a trans-woman who goes to her high school reunion. She’s now a woman after having been a boy in high school.

Twenty years ago at my twenty-five-year high school reunion, word passed from table to table that a classmate, a boy in high school, was now a woman. I didn’t seek her out. I hadn’t known her in high school, hadn’t had any classes with the boy she’d been. I didn’t want to be a gawker. But I thought what a courageous thing to do, to come to your high school reunion as your true self. It seemed a wonderful thing to be able to find yourself that way. So I wrote the story “Lovely Evelina.”

I didn’t do a lot of research for the story. I think I wanted to rely on my instincts and imagination in creating Evelina –  someone unlike me, yet similar to me and to all of us, in fact, in her need to find her place in the world. It was the same for my story “Strong Girls” about the twin wrestlers. They’re large people. I’ve always been skinny, and I used to be called names because of it. I know what it’s like to be shamed for your body, so I felt I could imagine the girls’ feelings and what was it like for them to be so conspicuous because of their size. The fact that they’re twins is important because they have each other; they aren’t alone in their circumstances. But when they are pitted against each other, they realize that their relationship as sisters is in trouble. So again, it is about discovering who they are and being okay with it, even happy, despite the opinions of others.

In “When Danny Got Married,” the second generation appears through the eyes of Julia, who comes from the third generation.

Yes, Julia’s a young teenager waiting to grow up so that she can escape her family and find herself. She feels kind of lost in her large family, or rather left outside of it. She discovers she’s lost the connection she once had with her uncle, and she wonders whether it ever really existed. She does make a connection to his new wife, who is also an outsider—she’s Spanish, although the family, in their penchant for gossip and tendency to jump to conclusions, at first assumes she’s German. It’s all part of the miscommunication Julia thinks characterizes her family and the reason for her misunderstood self.

Let’s include a passage:

But with the news of Danny’s marriage, my sighs were lost in the collective moan. Danny was ours no longer. Lupita lamented the loss of her youngest, Connie and my aunts shook their perms at the intrusion of Teutonic stock into our family. He should marry his own kind, they grumbled of their only brother, their fingers twanging the telephone cord as they called each other over morning coffee. None of the sisters, though, had married her own kind, having introduced Filipino, Polish, Irish, and Caribbean genotypes into Lupita and Sergio’s Yaqui-dominated Mexican bloodline. Lupita liked to emphasize the fierceness of the Yaquis, their resistance to enslavement by other tribes, even their murderous attacks on trains when they sliced the wrists and ears of passengers for speedy acquisition of a silver bracelet or pearl earring. Then they were crushed like the rest, Sergio always added as epilogue, the heel of one hand grinding into the palm of the other. Let’s face it, even at thirteen I knew we, as a family, were a hodgepodge of conquered peoples.

And there you have an American family.

When I was reading the collection, I became interested in the relationship of these characters with each other. The book reminded me of being at a gathering of a large extended family, meeting people and wondering exactly what their connection was to the others, particularly as the family branched out with the third generation. 

With Lupita’s children – Petra, Millie, Connie, Frannie, Lyla, and Danny – I focused only on three children. Millie had three children and they appear with her in the story “Ambition,” and later Bonita has her own self-titled story. Connie’s three children appear with her in the story “Fleeing Fat Allen,” and later Julia is featured in “Cursos de Verano,” in which she travels to Mexico in search of her roots. Lyla is the mother of the oversized twins in “Strong Girls.” That leaves Tony, the protagonist in “Señor Wonderful.” To be honest, I didn’t assign him a parent. He was just one of the crowd of cousins we see in “When Danny Got Married.” There’s another cousin in that story named Leonard and the collection originally contained a story about him, whose mother is Petra. But I took that story out. It was long and maybe not quite cooked. I put Tony in as Señor Wonderful, and I guess I overlooked his parentage. We can for convenience sake make him Petra’s son as well.

It seems really close to a novel in short stories because of the connections of the people with each other and because you seem to have a story arc that encompasses the whole thing.

When I was writing the stories, I was seeing the characters connected to each other, even while they had their separate stories. I didn’t expect the book to have a novelistic flavor, but I did see there was some sort of arc. For the most part, I wrote the stories in sections, the way they’re grouped in the book by generation. The stories in the first section are built around something I’d observed of my grandmother or some bit of family gossip or anecdote I’d heard about her, so that’s what ties those stories together for me. For the reader, I hope it’s the relationships among the women that links the stories. Taken together, they give a sense of family. And yet, I feel that each story can stand alone. There are recurring characters throughout the book, but the reader isn’t following one particular character from A to B. But Lupita begins and ends the collection and she’s inserted here and there among the other stories. She’s the anchoring point. I didn’t have a novel in mind although one editor suggested that it should be rewritten as a novel. I resisted. I liked the individual stories.

Do you think of Lupita as a matriarch?

I do. Though I don’t think I made it explicit in the book. I think of her that way because her story gives rise to almost all of the others. In the first story, we find her dutiful and nurturing, if at times in a self-serving way. In the final story, she feels relegated to the margins. The fact that she speaks only Spanish makes her both special and remote to the grandchildren. Her inability to fully interact with the world at large has made her children and grandchildren underestimate her capabilities, especially in her old age. Even so, they’ll miss her when she’s gone.

The story I identified with the most was the one of the foreigner in Mexico, although I hope I haven’t followed somebody around who speaks the language quite like Julia follows Margie, who is putting up all kinds of little signals that she’s not going to be nurse-maiding her.

Yes, in that story Julia takes summer classes in Mexico to learn Spanish and to find some connection to the land of her grandmother’s birth. While Julia and her friends are struggling with their rudimentary Spanish, Margie is dizzying them with her fluent Spanish and outdoing everyone in the cultural immersion experience. Julia feels she has a personal claim to Mexico because of her grandmother and she’s desperate to feel at home there. She seems to blunder about with her insufficient Spanish and inadequate self. Margie’s a bit of an outcast too, due to her odd looks and poor social skills. The two of them end up sharing a bus seat to Mexico City and a hotel room. Then a weird cat-and-mouse game commences, which finally ends with a confrontation on top of a pyramid.

What similarities do you see between extended Filipino families and extended Mexican families?

For me the main ones are the closeness of the families and the large family gatherings with lots of food on the table. There’s the shared history of Spanish colonization and the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco from the sixteenth century to the Mexican War of Independence, with food and fabric and styles passed back and forth. Look at the guayabera in Mexico and the barong in the Philippines and the similarities between them. And Tagalog contains a lot of words borrowed from Spanish. I’m proud to claim both heritages.

So one last and unfortunately in these times rather predictable question: If you were putting this together now in the current political climate, how would you write it differently? Or would it be the same?

It’s sort of an impossible question to answer since these stories were written over a period of twenty years. Even now with what’s happening now in the United States with Donald Trump having campaigned and won on rhetoric bashing immigrants, women, Muslims, and the disabled, I don’t know how it will affect the projects I’m working on now. I tend to write about things and events after I’ve lived through them and not while they’re happening. But because the stories in Hola and Goodbye begin with an immigrant generation, I think that they are in a way a response to Donald Trump. The book is saying that immigrants are part of this country’s history and future. Immigrants are part of America.