The Author of “When the de la Cruz Family Danced”

Book cover

I first met Donna Miscolta in July 2009, when we were both in Chris Abani’s workshop at the Centrum Writers Conference at Port Townsend, Washington. I was impressed with her submission, a short story called “The Last Canasta,” which was later revised and then appeared in the Spring, 2010 issue of The Connecticut Review. Through the Squaw Valley Community of Writers alumni group, I learned of the publication of her first novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced (2011 by Signal8Press), which deals with the immigration from the Philippines. I read the novel and immediately loved the style and the interaction of the characters.

Dance is the dominant metaphor, and great attention is paid to nonverbal and verbal communication as a part of that dance. The narrative shifts with ease from the Philippines to Southern California and from 1971 to 1990 and to flashbacks of World War II. The point-of-view is always third-person limited, that is, restricted to the perspective of one person, but it shifts from one person to another. All shifts in location, time and perspective are clearly marked. At the beginning of the novel, the reader sees the world through the eyes of the two main characters, Johnny and Winston. After the other family members have been properly introduced to the reader, we see Johnny and Winston through their eyes as well. This gives the characters and their actions a rounded, three-dimensional quality because they are observed from several different angles.

Donna has a blog. (Link) Donna and I talked in December, 2011

Donna’s story

The genesis of When the de la Cruz Family Danced was a class assignment: write the first chapter of your novel. I hadn’t anticipated writing a novel. After all, we were beginning students. I think the assignment was meant to make us consider the differences between short stories and novels and think about which story ideas were big enough to become novels. I started the assignment while waiting for a flight from Seattle to San Diego for my father’s funeral. I thought about my father’s life, about how little I really knew about him. I wondered what kinds of dreams he’d had and whether he felt he had achieved them. I thought about what it was like for someone to leave his home country to start a new life. What things got lost along the way? What things were sacrificed? Though the book isn’t about my father, I got the idea for it by thinking about him and the circumstances that led him to leave the Philippines. From there, I created the character Johnny de la Cruz and imagined his life.

Johnny’s aloofness and his reticence to touch–a simple hand on the shoulder, a playful slap on the back, an impromptu hug–comes, I think, from his sense of loss, of leaving something behind or perhaps never having it in the first place. For instance, the relationship he has with his daughters suffers because he was absent, away at sea in the U.S. Navy, during the early years of their childhood. He doesn’t know how to relate to his daughters because he feels removed from their experiences and emotions. Then there’s also the cultural preference for sons. Johnny think she might have had more of a connection to a son, but the appearance of young Winston Piña in his life challenges that belief. Leaving the Philippines as a young man and coming to a new country, making the transition from one culture to another, causes a gap in Johnny’s psyche, his soul. That gap can be hard to close, particularly for someone as introverted as Johnny.

In the novel, dancing is how people connect to one another. Dancing is important in many cultures, including Filipino culture. But Johnny doesn’t dance–something I can relate to in my own life. I’ve taken some dance lessons, and I’m a passable partner, but I don’t really have the confidence to go beyond basic steps. I love to watch people dance, which is why I had so much fun making a book trailer. Dancing is such a beautiful way to connect with music and with one another, and when you’re not good at it, I think you do have a sense of missing out.

You noted, Carol, in our email exchange that Filipinos tend to be warm and demonstrative. That’s absolutely true. But it’s not universal. It wasn’t my experience growing up in my particular Filipino (and Mexican on my mother’s side) household. I don’t know whether my father’s personality just didn’t fit this cultural pattern or whether something in his experience affected how he behaved in his interpersonal relationships. The story I gleaned was that my father’s rebellious adolescence coincided with World War II and the Japanese occupation of the islands, during which my father engaged in some guerrilla activities. Post-war, my father’s rebellion hadn’t subsided and my grandfather dealt with that situation by helping to engineer my father’s exit from the islands. My understanding is that there was some manipulation of my father’s birth year on the enlistment papers for the U.S. Navy. So my father left his home in Las Piñas because my grandfather wanted his son to have some direction in his life, not to mention opportunities that could accrue from eventual U.S. citizenship. It seems that my father left the Philippines not necessarily of his own accord. And I don’t think he ever liked the Navy. I think he just made the best of the situation and put everything behind him—the Philippines, his language, his customs—and made a concerted effort to become an American and to adopt American behaviors.

In our Southern California neighborhood there were quite a few Filipino families. My father rarely spoke Tagalog, preferring to speak English with the neighbors. I think it was also important to him to sound like an American. You could barely detect his Tagalog accent. He wanted us to be an American family. We ate American food, though on occasion he did cook pancit for us. The friends I hung out within high school were from households where both parents were Filipino. They knew the language, the food and the culture. So I did experience this sense of not quite fitting in—of being more of an observer of Filipino-American culture. Quiet and shy, I spent a lot of time observing inside and outside my family, comparing how we interacted with how other families communicated, both verbally and non-verbally. I became practiced at the “unsaid,” which I think plays a big part in my writing.

My father never shared much information about himself. When I was growing up, it never occurred to me to ask my father about his past. He never volunteered information, so it was easy to believe there was nothing to tell. Of course, anyone who lived in the Philippines during the war had some experience it. In the novel, there’s a flashback to the war when the teenage Johnny encounters a Japanese soldier in the rice field. That scene was based on an event my father shared when asked by my husband about his role in the war. It was really a revelation to me–my father as a teenager in real peril. You don’t imagine your parents being in such situations. That bit of information my father shared made me realize that there was so much about him that I didn’t know—and that I’ll never know.

Writing this book might have been an attempt to connect in some way with the Philippines and with my father. My knowledge of the Philippines has come through books, movies, photographs, articles, and talking to people about their experiences there. I felt very relieved that the two Filipino-American writers who read my book and wrote blurbs for it seemed to think that my scenes set in the Philippines felt authentic.

I think you can say that my fiction is a way of connecting with my roots. I have a short story collection that I’m hoping to have published. Three of the stories have been published in literary journals– “Rosa in America” in New Millennium Writings, “Strong Girls” in Calyx, and “The Last Canasta” in Connecticut Review.  The collection has three sections. The first is about four women—one named Lupita—who emigrate from Mexico. The next two sections are about Lupita’s children and grandchildren.  For these stories, I mined my family for a lot of material—things I observed or heard. I sort of appropriated them and made them my own. Again, the themes center on how one goes about making a life in a new country, how things are lost, how belonging can be an elusive thing and how the hopes of immigrants are often invested in subsequent generations.

My grandparents and parents did not go to college, but my circumstances were different. I have an undergraduate degree in zoology, and I have master’s degrees in education and public administration. I didn’t have much of a background in literature or writing, but I’ve been a lifelong reader, which served me when I decided at the age of thirty-nine that I wanted to be a writer. I think I’d always wanted to be a writer. I just never allowed myself to believe I could be. Maybe it was from reading so many books by long-dead authors. When I was in junior high school, I read a lot of William Faulkner and in high school it was Thomas Hardy and Henry James. After college I had my D.H. Lawrence phase. But I also had my Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen phases. Eventually I came around to writers like Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, and Gish Jen, writers of color who made it easier for me to believe that I could become a writer.

I do think those writers I read early on influenced me in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In 1998, when I was at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, I had a one-on-one consultation with DeWitt Henry. He remarked on the stream-of-consciousness quality in my story and asked me if I’d read much Virginia Woolf. I wondered if he was suggesting that I was imitating her. I wasn’t aware of consciously having a style. I think at some level, we’re influenced by everyone we read. Like Henry James with his long, long sentences and pages of description. I’m sure I was influenced by him to some extent.

When I first started writing, all I did was exposition. Writing exposition is easy for me. It took me a while to really figure out story. I’ve attended a lot of writer’s conferences, I’ve taken classes, I’ve read how-to books, but still it took a lot of practice to figure out how to write the story. I wrote a complete draft of this first novel and was fortunate enough to have had an editor look at it and give me feedback. She was encouraging, but in the end, I saw that the novel wasn’t really working, so I tossed out all but thirty pages and started over.

The first chapter was published in an online journal called Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. That led to the book being published by Signal 8 Press, a new press based in Hong Kong. The press released four books last year, most recently a short story collection by Xu Xi called Access. Also released was a story collection by Bay Area writer Philip Huang and a non-fiction book by Chris Tharp on his experiences living and traveling in South Korea.

With my story collection completed, I’m working on a new novel. I came relatively late to writing, not starting until I was nearly forty. I’m fifty-eight now, and I have a sense of urgency about getting work done and out into the world. That’s what we want to do when we write something. We want to share it.

Reader feedback:

Excellent!  I liked it very much; felt like I was right there, listening to her talk.