Interview with Donna Miscolta, Author of Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories

Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, a “portrait of the artist as a shy, awkward Mexican-American girl,” follows its indomitable protagonist from kindergarten to 12th grade. Angie defines resilience, yet Donna Miscolta manages to empower her heroine without downplaying the violence done by an educational system drenched in racism – casual, structural, and cultural. From her search for Hawaiians in her Hawaii kindergarten class, to her current events report on Sam Cooke’s Shreveport arrest, to her triumph at senior prom, Angie approaches a confusing world with clear eyed curiosity and – for all her shy awkwardness – with confidence in her abilities, a firm sense of self-worth, and an internal compass that points to justice. Set in the 1960s and 70s, the book brings time and place vividly to life without ever feeling like a period piece.

It was such a pleasure to read this collection – and now I have a new book in my high school English curriculum!

The stories, organized chronologically by school year from kindergarten to 12th grade, are all stand-alone vignettes, but together they create a cohesive arc. Was it a hard fight to maintain that tight focus? What aspects of Angie’s life did you have to leave out?

Many things in Angie’s life parallel mine to some extent so I was deep inside her head or maybe she was deep inside mine, or maybe omnipresent is the word. Even when there were long periods between writing these stories while I was working on other writing projects, I could still come back to them and Angie would be there to pick up where we had left off. For each of these stories, I gave Angie a situation that I had experienced or observed when I was her age. This allowed me to more closely identify with her thoughts and actions as I recalled what it was like to be in fourth grade or seventh grade or eleventh. It felt natural to move into that tight focus and to stay there.

Because the stories are focused on school and the lessons learned there, we don’t see Angie and her family celebrating holidays or taking family outings, which would have provided a more amplified presence for the other members of the family. Such scenes are great opportunities for exploring the family dynamic. But I really wanted this book to be Angie’s world or, rather, the world seen through Angie’s eyes, since the term “Angie’s world” implies ownership, which implies control or power, something Angie finds is not easily within her reach.

I read your book partly as a writer, but also as a teacher. Angie experiences a brutal (though not unusual) amount of “spirit murdering,” as Dr. Bettina Love calls it – yet she’s indomitable. She has the presence of mind to destroy Mrs. Pai’s notes, the creativity to stage a participation boycott in 4th grade over being placed in the “dumb class,” the determination and righteousness to write editorials in the high school paper… What would you say is the source of her resilience? How does she manage to know – and she does seem always to know it at some level – that she’s right and they’re all wrong?

Gosh, that term “spirit murdering” is so dead-on, so to speak. I’m glad to know that Angie comes across as indomitable. I so often thought of her as baffled about the world and the way people in it behaved. I think her actions were often driven by desperation more than bravery or presence of mind. But then maybe bravery is born of desperation. In the case of Mrs. Pai’s notes, Angie senses the injustice of them, and her little acts of rebellion, I think, are in part related to that awareness of being wronged. And while this other reason for Angie’s actions may have just lived in my head and not on the page, I think Angie destroyed the notes also out of fear of what her mother might do or say. Angie’s mother is an authority Angie as a young child both loves and fears, whereas Mrs. Pai is an authority Angie only fears. Advantage Angie’s mother.

Regarding Angie’s response to being placed in in the “dumb class,” that was also a rebellion born of the moment after the frustration of being powerless to change things. The younger Angie is a reactor and often an accommodator. Even though she knows something might be wrong, she hopes the situation will right itself or at least that others will step in and make the right thing happen and save her. A member of my writing group often expressed a desire to see Angie have more agency. I remember thinking but that’s not who she is right now. I did keep her comment in mind though as I wrote the later stories.

It’s in the later stories that her little acts of rebellion are intentional and tactical. I would attribute this to her growth and, yes, her resilience. I think of that resilience as something that’s alive in all of us: the desire to survive and beyond that, an I’ll-show-them kind of hopeful promise to ourselves.” Because that’s a motivator, isn’t it? One way of getting back is getting the better of the situation, if not at that moment, then in the future. And the future always beckons with the possibility that things will be better at some other time in some other place.

I’m interested in your choice to write in close third. Since an overarching theme is Angie finding her voice, it might have been an obvious (if maybe too literal?) choice to have her narrate them. But you capture the world through her eyes so vividly in 3rd person, the narrative voice seamlessly growing up along with her. Was that hard to do? And did you consider other approaches?

The default for me has always been third person. It’s where I’m comfortable. Of the fifteen stories in my last collection, only three were in first person. I recall that in each instance it was an instinctual choice and I never questioned or second-guessed it. However, I often consider whether I should switch from third to first when I’m doing revisions. And I did think about that with this group of stories. It was in that dithering, I-hate-everything-I-write stage of each project where I think something drastic has to be done to the manuscript. But in the end, because I connected so closely to the material I was writing, I thought that first-person would not allow me to separate myself from the character. I think there are times when it’s necessary to inhabit your characters momentarily to understand their actions, but in general I need to be observing them, up close if necessary. Close third-person allowed me to do that. From where I sat, I could still know Angie pretty thoroughly and show the world through her eyes, her thoughts. And as I mentioned earlier, in each story I put Angie in situations I had known myself, so it was easy to relate to her reactions – the bewilderment, the frustration, the anger – at each stage of her life and have the narrative voice reflect that.

If I were to write about the 60s and 70s I would have to supplement my childhood and teenage memories with a lot of research. What kind of research did you have to do to bring that time period back to life? Did you learn anything that surprised you, or put your own recollections in a new light?

The 60s and 70s is a time period I’m seem to be stuck in for much of my fiction. I don’t know how true this is for others, but for me those formative years were the ones that are among the most indelible of my past. They were both momentous (with a small m) and vacuous. The boredom of those days, when I waited for real life to happen to me and daydreamed a more exciting existence, was balanced by the anticipation of certain milestones that, of course, always fell short of expectations once they happened. I was lucky not to have experienced any personal trauma or disaster. Mine was a very ordinary life. But it was a time of rebellion and change in the world, evident on the nightly news, the newspaper headlines, and the radio stations that played the newest tunes. We listened to Motown, the Beach Boys, Elvis, and of course the bands of the British Invasion on our transistor radios. While I could recall that certain songs were popular at a particular time or were associated with specific events, I often had to verify chronology through research. Also, there were events I can recall happening, but I didn’t entirely understand their significance at the time. What I realized not for the first time was how much of life I had missed, how much of history in the making I skipped because I was a self-absorbed and also taciturn pre-teen and adolescent.

I’m interested in one of the quietest characters in the book – Angie’s father. He seems terribly sad. As the children grow up and the mother builds a work/social life of her own, he shrinks into himself. His children literally don’t speak his language, and there’s a hint that the marriage is on the rocks. He reminds me of many first and second generation parents who devote themselves to creating opportunity for their children then feel lost or empty when their children leave home. There’s also a really sweet intimacy at the end when he and Angie watch High Chaparral together. Can you talk about how you see him functioning, both in the book and in Angie’s life?

I do agree about your observation about first and second-generation parents whose focus is to create opportunities for their children. It was true of my experience growing up with an immigrant father and a mother whose parents had been immigrants. I think it’s fair to attribute this situation to Angie’s father as well. His primary purpose was to be the breadwinner. His routine was to go to work, come home and watch the evening news, and, in his spare time, do minor repairs around the house. His realm was the house, that is, paying for it and keeping it in working order. This was the traditional mindset that began to be challenged in the 60s during the Second Wave of Feminism. And while Angie’s mother would eschew feminism, many of her actions speak otherwise.

The females in the stories – Angie’s sister, mother, and aunt – are the ones that most influence Angie’s behaviors and attitudes, even if their effect is to cause her to act in a manner counter to their warnings, advice, and example. In the book, Angie’s father functions to provide ballast to the more vocal presence of the females in Angie’s life. He is often baffled about the emotional needs of his children and avoids situations and decisions he thinks should be the domain of the mother. When he’s aware of them, he’s baffled at the tiny tragedies that transpire in Angie’s life. He gives silent assent to many things because he doesn’t know what else to do and anyway would rather not be bothered. He wants to stay in his lane where he’s most comfortable and would like others to stay in theirs. His escape is through TV, which is where Angie often meets him for quiet moments of what passes for communication between them – a passive, often wordless, often inadvertent transmission of love which Angie knows enough to settle for.

Since this is a writers’ blog, can you tell us a little about your writing practice – rituals, routines, etc? Do you write for a certain number of hours a day, or in spurts? Do you prefer retreats and residencies, or your desk at home? Pantsing vs plotting? Also, has quarantine affected your practice? 

Nearly two years ago I retired from a thirty-year career as a project manager in local government. During the time that I was working, my practice was to write in the evenings. When my daughters were young, that meant writing after they were in bed and supplementing that time during the short bus commute to work and during lunch hours. When they were older, I was able to start writing soon after dinner. It was important for me to make writing an everyday thing, like other daily things I do for my health and well-being like flossing my teeth, reading, and exercising.

I love retreats and residences. It’s there that I’ll set word count goals for myself. And because I’ve never had a dedicated space solely for writing, I value the residency where all that’s expected of you is to write. Even now that I’m retired, it’s still important for me to go away to a place that allows me to focus and be more productive. As for pantsing vs, plotting, I guess I’m a bit of both, a pantsing plotter maybe. I’ll pants in the early stages, just asking myself what happens next with each scene until at a certain point I feel the need to outline what I have and what might come next. But I never start out with an outline. I’m sure I would veer off immediately, feeling too confined by my own words.

Speaking of confined, the quarantine hasn’t affected my writing practice. I’m still making room for it, but the writing I’ve been doing has been related to the promotion of my book rather than actual writing of a book. The quarantine has affected my daily practice of reading. It’s been hard for me to focus and maybe that’s also related to pre- and post-publication tasks and stresses. But maybe it’s also related to the state of the country and where we could be headed. I’m waiting for a post-pandemic time where Black lives matter, people of color matter, corporations are not people, and health care is a right, for starters.

Are we going to see more of Angie? Grown up? (Please say yes!) 

That’s an interesting spark of a question. When I was writing these stories, I did wonder who this character would be as an adult, thinking I would add one to the collection. But I never pursued it beyond the thinking stage. Now the possibility of a whole new project based on an adult Angie is kind of appealing. I’m filing that away for the time being because I have two other projects in the works – one is a collection of essays, the other a novel that grew out of story because an editor once said it’d be interesting to see more of the two protagonists. I guess I’m very suggestible in that way. So, thanks for this idea!