Author Interview: Donna Miscolta on “Living Color”

Book cover

Donna Miscolta’s two previous books each reflect one side of her ethnic background, a Filipino-American family in When the Dela Cruz Family Danced (Link) and a Mexican American family in Hola and Goodbye (LINK). Her latest book is Living Color (Link), a collection of stories tracing the life of a Mexican American girl, Angie Rubio, from kindergarten through high school. This book trailer provides a peak at the book’s protagonist and themes. (Link)

Donna and I spoke on Skype when she was at home in Seattle and I was at home in the Philippines.

Donna’s story

Donna Miscolta

Why don’t we start out by your introducing your book?

Living Color is a collection of stories about the life lessons the protagonist, Angie Rubio, learns as she moves from kindergarten through high school. These are lessons not taught in the classroom as part of the curriculum, but what she learns about being a brown girl. They’re about belonging and about power, who has it and who doesn’t, and they give Angie a sense of who she is and how to survive.

Did you intend your target audience to be adult or for young adults, YA?

While the book has a young protagonist, I think the YA genre involves more than that. Because I don’t know enough about that genre, I can’t claim to have written in it. While writing these stories, I wasn’t thinking of a target audience other than myself. Frankly, I just write stories that I want to tell and I want to read and hear. I was writing for people like me, hoping that they would find something to identify with from their own childhood. I was also writing for people unlike me, hoping they also would find empathy with the characters and resonance in the themes.

I was reminded a lot of my childhood, like with Angie’s experience with Brownie Scouts, wearing her uniform and then rejecting it. I was in the scouts from grade school through high school. It was an important part of my social life, and it taught me a lot about being resourceful and independent. So I felt bad for Angie that she couldn’t have a similar experience.

I think that Angie hopes for an experience similar to yours, the kind that’s advertised in the shiny brochure that she brings home from school. But because of her circumstances, most notably, her skin color and the fact that she attends a mostly white school, the dynamics of race come into play. It’s made clear to her that her classmates see her as different and this difference matters to them. When she puts on the Brownies uniform, which is a color similar to her skin, their pointing out this apparent congruity is ironically a way to let her know that she doesn’t belong among them.

It’s pretty cruel. Most of my early education was in a town which was the first in the South to integrate, only a few months after Brown vs. Board of Education, with no fuss or resistance. In our high school there were a few black boys who were good at sports and got to be close with the popular white kids. The black girls seemed very shy and hesitant to mix in or be approached. I tried, but they seemed very defensive, so I backed off.

I think when you’re in a situation where you’re in a small minority, it’s very difficult to get past those barriers that have been institutionalized and accepted as part of society. So much is deeply embedded. I’m sure there were well-intentioned efforts by whites to extend a welcome. But a long history of hatred and injustice against you makes you wary and distrustful.

Now, since your ethnicity is both Mexican and Filipino, and you’ve maintained connections with both communities, how do you think Angie’s s experience might have been different if she’d been Filipino rather than Mexican?

I don’t think it would have been too different. I was more interested in showing Angie as someone growing up brown in a world that favored white skin, rather than showing someone of a specific ethnic or racial identity. As someone who is of both Filipino and Mexican heritage who feels connected to both sides, I’m also aware of the complexities and nuances of being mixed. Creating a character who is Filipino and Mexican could just add another layer of complication for me the author, but also for the reader. Readers seem to feel more comfortable when the non-white character is more simply identified, which seems to have to do with their expectations of how the character will appear and behave. My characters are either Filipino or Mexican, not both. The mixed heritage aspect of existing in a world that prefers simpler explanations is something I am still trying to figure out for myself in real life as well as in fiction. Having grown up with a foot in both cultures, I often felt that I was not quite this and not quite the other. I’m trying to explore this ambiguity in non-fiction— through personal essays about identity, heritage, and history. Maybe after I have worked out these issues in non-fiction, it will lead to different kinds of fictional work from me.

When you get them done, why don’t we do another interview?

Sure. I’m grateful for the interest you’ve shown for each of my books.

Hey, I’m a fan!

Your mentioning the complexity of different ethnicities reminds me of a very early writing project where I had some American characters who went to China and another who went to South Korea. That was my life, so I had the setting fairly well sorted out in my head. But then someone in the industry told me that for readers it was already demanding enough to deal with one foreign country, let alone two.

That’s an interesting take. I think if you have the elements of setting, story, and character working well together, having multiple settings could enhance the story overall. Maybe we underestimate readers. But you bring up an issue that figures to a large extent in my writing, which is borrowing incidents from life to incorporate into fiction.

Each of the Angie Rubio stories contains some element of my real-life experience. Sometimes it’s at the core of the fictional story; other times it’s a lesser detail. Finding the fictional story from the lived experience is important to be able to let go of what actually happened and allow something new to emerge from it. If the character is based on me or something that happened to me, I have to see her as someone else. Once she has become someone other than myself, with her own defining characteristics, I can see how she responds to the world I have put her in.

Angie’s first story was set in the late fifties, at a time when teachers could do just about anything they wanted without consequence. First, the teacher tells Angie she isn’t skipping correctly. Then, when one of Angie’s kindergarten classmates has an accident in their pants, she has them all line up so she can look in their pants and find the culprit. These were two events that happened to me, but I made them Angie’s. For the story to emerge, I had to put the two characters in opposition to each other.

Yeah, why?

I think back to a lecture on character and plot where the speaker said one well-developed character interacting with another well-developed character gets the story going and plot ensues. You get the characters together, each with their own needs or agenda, and things start to happen. It helps me to have some insight into my protagonist before introducing the second character, but its also fun to learn more about them as you set them against each other in a scene.

The way you describe the process, it does seem like you’re talking about short stories and not a novel. So what’s the structure of in Living Color? Is it this apparently new form of a novel in short stories or is it a story collection?

I started writing the Angie Rubio stories as individual pieces over a fairly long period of time. There were long intervals between stories because I was working on other projects. When I had about half a dozen stories, it was apparent that I had this grade-by-grade pattern of Angie’s experiences in school. This chronology and the accompanying natural progression of growth and change in the character made for an inherent character arc.

So then I asked myself whether to consider this a novel and, if so, what changes I should make. I decided I didn’t want to change it. My mind had fixed on this as a group of discreet stories, because that’s how they came into being, and that’s what I ultimately wanted them to be. The problem is agents don’t like story collections. They see them as hard to sell unless the author is famous. For a short while when I queried agents, I called the book a novel, and was titling it The Education of Angie Rubio, but maybe I was just testing the waters. At the same time, I was also querying small presses, thinking my chances were better there.  Jaded Ibis Press didn’t seem to question its existence as a story collection, but they did ask for a title change which is why we ended up with Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories. That seemed to fit. It refers to the daily experience of living as a person of color, names Angie in the subtitle, and identifies the book as a story collection. Some people do refer to it as a novel, and I’m fine with that. I’m just glad that the book is out in the world for people to read and form opinions about.

With maybe one exception, Angie’s teachers didn’t strike me as sympathetic characters. That led me to think back on my own grade school, junior high and high school teachers—with a few exceptions—as neutral figures in my life whose names were easily forgotten. Do you have any thoughts about that?

I think Angie’s teachers are sympathetic to a certain degree. Except for the kindergarten teacher, they are not mean or terrible, but they don’t see Angie in a way that she wants or needs to be seen. In the story when Angie is in the fourth grade, where she excels in her class, one of her classmates tells her they ‘re in the dumb class. Angie has never heard of kids being categorized this way by some measure that she doesn’t understand, and she wonders who makes the decisions. It’s a situation that she has no power to change, only to question and act somewhat ineffectually against.

Children and adolescents have little power when it comes to societal or institutional authority. There’s a gap on the part of our educational institutions when it comes to understanding students’ needs, especially when it comes to students of color and their cultural backgrounds and histories. In Living Color, Angie is stymied trying to figure out where to fit, how to be seen, and how to be recognized for who she is.

I, myself, had several teachers who were positive influences on me. My eleventh grade English teacher was a very earnest man who wanted us to learn about and appreciate books and literature, but many of his students found his earnestness comical. He in turn was befuddled by the cheekiness of adolescents. His desire to communicate and transfer his love of literature fell short – this failing was something that in Living Color stirred both empathy and impatience in Angie for her own teacher.

I think you hit him right on the head. I was surprised at the English teacher who decides her class is going to do a production of scenes from Romeo and Juliet and puts Angie in charge of the costumes. That seems like a big burden to dump on a kid.  

Yes, Angie was in charge. It’s the teacher’s way of recognizing Angie’s skill, and she probably thinks it’s affirming for her, never considering that she might want to be in the cast—which she does. I think it’s something adults do regarding children, making assumptions and decisions based on those assumptions without thinking about what the child might want or need. That’s part of the misuse or misdirected use of power that adults exercise.

In connection with Angie’s sewing skill, there’s the matter that none of her clothes fit, and yet she doesn’t alter them by taking up the shoulders, for example. At first, I just assumed they didn’t fit because they were hand-me-downs, but apparently, they weren’t. Her mother was buying her clothes for her without taking her along. What’s going on there?

Well, Angie is a skinny girl whose body isn’t keeping up with her age or her peers. Her clothes don’t fit, and it’s funny that it doesn’t occur to her to alter them. She can create a new piece of clothing for herself, but when it comes to ready-made, standard-sized clothes off the rack, they sag and slump on her. She appears and feels insufficient in the clothes. They reflect her fit in the world. The mismeasure of her clothes is a summation of the mismeasure of her life to this point.

There seems to be quite a lot of ambivalence and complexity in Angie’s relationships with her family.

Yes, part of it is the difference between their life goals. Her parents are in service jobs, her father a postal carrier, and her mother in retail. Neither has more than a high school education. Their focus is on survival—getting a job and earning a paycheck to pay the bills and the mortgage and buy food. In that reality, there’s no room for being creative or experiencing education in the way Angie wants to. For her parents, there’s no sense in going to college if you don’t even know what you want to study, while Angie wants to go in order to find out what she wants to study as a way to find out who she is and what her place in the world could be. Angie wants to get out of Kimball Park and somehow, she’s going to make it happen. She knows that she has to separate from her family and from their way of thinking. I think this kind of generational split occurs in a lot of immigrant families.

Yeah, I wondered whether you were connecting that with the generation of immigrants or whether you were also thinking a family in that particular socioeconomic group would have seen life as Angie’s parents do.  

It’s both because of their immigrant history and because of their economic class that they don’t want to take risks like putting money into something if they’re not guaranteed to get something out of it.

What are the life lessons that Angie has to learn?

I think in almost every story there’s a lesson about what it means to be a brown girl, though maybe not so directly in the first story, which is partly about Angie’s confusion about being in Hawaii and not understanding who the Hawaiians are and where to find them. At a certain implied level, there is the understory of America’s oppression of people of color and the overthrow of Hawaii’s government and the subsequent colonization and annexation of the land. Angie knows nothing about that, she only wonders who gets to be called Hawaiian, is confused by the sight of little blonde girls in hula skirts, and wonders why when her brother is born, her father refers to him as “our little Hawaiian.” She doesn’t have colonization or appropriation in her vocabulary, but she has the context for such terms. She is starting to recognize who has importance and power and who does not.

In the second story, called “Monsters,” the little blond girl next door has tons of toys, and Angie is eager to play with them, but her only access to them is through the girl who has dominion over them. That little girl decides what games they play and their roles in the games. She assigns herself the role of “prettiest girl in the world” and designates their playmate as the handsome prince who rescues her. Angie, the little brown girl, is given the role of monster.  Even if these children aren’t consciously thinking about race, its implications are present in their thinking of who is more important and who is less, who makes the decisions and who doesn’t. Later, in another story, Angie learns she’s in the dumb class, and she wants to know why, who decided this, what did they know about her, what did they assume about her.

Your book reminded me of the hierarchy of students in my high school, when I could have drawn a chart of all the groups and cliques of my graduating class, about two hundred students. I was also an outsider, a university faculty brat who didn’t fit with the other faculty brats and didn’t really want to. Belonging to a group was much more limiting than relating to friends as individuals. In college I felt much less constrained.

Cliques form in every school. Hierarchies seem inevitable and they vary in their rigidness. Some allow those below to move up, based on some unspoken criteria. I also see it among adults in the workplace. Some stand out as the leaders, and others gravitate to them and fall into tiers beneath them. Certain elements come into play when determining hierarchy – wealth, skin color, looks, external things easily determined and judged. In Living Color, the hierarchy is most often determined by skin color.

Of course, we see Angie evolve to the point where she rebels against her situation. I had the sense toward the end that her rebellion was not so much a matter of choice as a matter of desperation.

In the early stories, I think she wants to rebel in a bigger way, but she doesn’t know how. In one of those situations, she ponders and frets about her situation until the rebellion bursts out unplanned in a way that maybe is not effective in the long term but for the moment offers some sense of relief. In many of the stories, she is unable to assert herself satisfactorily until she starts writing an opinion column in high school when she is more able to think things through, articulate her thoughts, and understand her goal. For instance, while writing, she is aware of her discomfort and she understands she might be ignored or ridiculed. It’s almost as if she wants that reaction because she’s desperate for a way to first announce herself as a person to be counted, and then to leave the place where she is not quite seen or heard as another kind of statement. I think her actions at the end are driven both by desperation and by active choice.

In my own writing I found myself surprisingly close to my inner teenager. My young protagonist tries unsuccessfully to push her parents into seeing her for who she is or to consider a very difficult ordeal from her perspective. Do you think this is part of the adolescent experience in general?

Yes, but I think it is also modified by culture and background. It’s natural for adolescents to want to express their own thoughts and feelings and needs. Your teenager’s action rings true, but someone like Angie, who was raised not to question but to accept, is less likely to “push” her parents into doing something. Angie is more likely to squirm and wriggle and fidget around and past her parents than push against them.

My character rebels a lot more than I would have in the same situation. Her behavior reminds me of what’s sometimes said about millennials’ assertiveness and sense of entitlement.

Likewise, Angie behaved more assertively than I ever did as a child and adolescent. Maybe with each generation, kids become more outspoken, more self-assured, more certain of what they want and less fearful about asking for or even demanding it. So much depends on the economic and other resources available to them while they are growing up. When they lack for little, kids will definitely acquire a sense of entitlement. This was not the case with Angie.

I am out of questions. What would you like to say that we have not talked about?

It was interesting to create Angie’s home life and her relationship with her siblings, and also her relationship with her parents, particularly her mother. Her mother finds issues of identity and liberation a little scary and maybe off-putting, but at the same time she really wants what the Women’s Liberation Movement was demanding: women in the workplace, more autonomy, a division of labor in the home. It’s what a lot of women wanted, although they’d been trained to think of themselves in terms of their service to spouse and family.

I wanted to create that ambivalence in the Rubio family and to show the tension between Angie and her mother as well as between Angie and Eva, her older sister. Eva is smart, but she loses interest in school because she doesn’t fit in and her needs are not served by the institution. Not fitting in is hard at that age. She is more susceptible to her parents’ urging her to find a job rather than go to college and her mother’s wishes that she learn to type and acquire other secretarial skills to fall back on in case she finds herself without other options. It’s a strategy that Angie rejects for herself.

Well, for her mother having those skills would have meant a step up.

For her mother, right. But Angie feels that having those secretarial skills herself would have been a concession to her parents, her school counselor, and anyone else who doubted her ability to pursue some other path.

Anything else that we have not talked about and maybe should?

Just one other thing. Like a lot of people, I started writing stories as a way of processing things that happened to me when I was younger. With Living Color and the character of Angie Rubio, I at first wanted to focus on the humor of trying to fit in while making all the wrong choices. But I soon discovered that, although I could make something funny, underlying Angie’s seemingly comical situations, were the sober matters of race and class. For me, it was interesting to see how humor can be used to highlight those underlying issues. I hope readers enjoy both the light and serious aspects of the events in Angie’s education. I certainly found them fun and illuminating to write.