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

SC:  Hi Donna, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed by Sinking City! We’re a huge fan of the book, and one of the most distinguishable features is how easily I fell into my own memories of elementary school while listening to Angie’s thoughts, points of view, and her own experiences. What I mean to say more broadly is that you don’t shy away from the embarrassing, and that is I think what makes Angie such a loveable character. My first question is, how did you envision Angie’s character before beginning to write? Did you create an outline beforehand, or was it more of something that come progressively through ideas that would sprout throughout the process?

DM: I’m so glad you found Angie to be a loveable character. She’s certainly dear to me, and I agree with you that it’s due in large part to the mortifying moments she suffers. I think many of us can relate to such moments. Who hasn’t at some time in their life shrunk in excruciating discomfort at some blunder or feeling of rejection or exclusion?

As someone who was herself a shy, awkward girl growing up, I could easily transfer these traits to a fictional character. I could endow her with the bafflement and hurt I felt. I could put her in situations that had been mortifying to me. But I could also give her attributes I didn’t have to allow her to engage more readily with a world that doesn’t seem to notice or accept her. She’s more actively reflective, and she’s more inclined to act, if tentatively so, with the result that her efforts often fall short of the mark.  And yet she does try again and again.

One of the earlier stories I wrote was about the slumber party and at first I focused on Angie’s outsiderliness, her inability to crack the code to acceptance to the group. But
as I developed the story more, the elements of race and racism inserted themselves because they are part of any story when the protagonist is a person of color. As I  wrote the other stories, that element was always present, though I tried to allow it to arise
from the story rather than impose it in the story. Often scenes grew from memories
of incidents from my own girlhood. It was fun and instructive for me to put Angie in circumstances that were similar to mine and to see how she responded to them in
ways I didn’t know how to back then.

I never created an outline of who Angie was as a way to develop her character. She emerged for me in the writing. What I did do as the number of stories grew was to summarize the plot of each in a document to see trends, repetition, and resonances as well as any contradictions or omissions. So maybe it was an outline not to develop the character and story but to analyze what I’d done and still needed to do.

SC: Who was the inspiration for Aunt Nelda? Was it someone from your own family or friend group? She seems to have such a big personality, and her character development towards the end is surprising, a bittersweet one for me.

DM: Nelda was a composite of women in my family, who ranged from the quiet to the loquacious, from the acquiescent to the intermittently assertive. The women in my family, those of my mother’s generation, did not have more than a high school education, married early, and started families when they were in their late teens or early twenties. When they ventured into the workforce, they worked retail or other service industry positions. These jobs gave them a sense of purpose and access to an income. They also gave them an escape from the household, though it didn’t mean an escape from those duties. It gave them a physical space to exist in other than the home.

Both Nelda and Delia, Angie’s mother, share this background of my mother’s generation. Of the two, Nelda was on the louder, sassier side of the spectrum. I wanted to contrast her with Delia who has the more traditional trajectory with a husband and children but who feels more hemmed in by her lack of options. Delia is the kind of woman who would never identify with the women’s liberation movement yet itches for a bigger life outside of her narrowly defined spaces. Nelda is a single parent and the absence of a Big Eddie for whom Little Eddie seems to have been named is a mystery to the Rubio children and an untouchable subject. She, too, has been hemmed in by traditional roles and by society’s view of single parents, but she’s willing to take bigger risks. She’s searching for an outlet for her creativity and finally finds it as a real estate agent. Her success allows her to move herself and Eddie to a different part of town and to indulge Eddie’s esoteric interests. It’s a situation that Angie envies. I, on the other hand, was very pleased with Nelda’s trajectory.

 SC: This may be more of an abstract question, but how did you decide what to include with regards to the information about Angie’s identity? From the beginning, we get mention that she moved from Hawaii, but not a lot about her Mexican identity; more broadly, we get her Hispanic upbringing, some regret over not being able to speak and even, for the most part, understand Spanish. We also get more explicit details about her community (school, neighborhood, etc.), focusing on the white-dominant culture, the lack of people of color in her school, etc.; is this something that Angie doesn’t think about as much, or is it intentionally subtle, almost serving as a background?

DM: This is an interesting question for me. I was mostly interested in how Angie was perceived by the world and how she in turn perceived her place in the world as a brown girl rather than as someone of a particular ethnic background. But it seems important to readers that characters be anchored in a specific identity if they are other than white.

As someone of mixed heritage, mining my own identity is a bit messy because in real life it’s something that seems to require an explanation full of provisos and caveats, so on the page I decided to simplify things as I’ve done in my previous books. Of my Filipino and Mexican background, I gave Angie the latter, which allowed me to specify certain details about her such as her inability to speak Spanish and the irony of her last name, which means blond.

In my own experience, forces of socialization and assimilation resulted in a very Americanized household from its décor to the food on the table. My mother cooked Mexican dishes only once in a while and my father cooked Filipino food for special occasions. Rice was on the table every day. Otherwise, our table looked much the same as the families on TV – meat, potatoes, and vegetable, with Wonder Bread in the bread box. While there was never forgetting that we were brown, it didn’t occur to us constantly that we were Filipino and Mexican. Somehow, we imagined that the TV
shows we watched and magazines we read that reflected white America mirrored our existence as well. I wrote this consciousness to a similar degree into the characters in Living Color.

There are often contradictory expectations at work by the dominant culture that immigrants and children of immigrants adopt mainstream ways but also conform to its perceptions of them as different or other, and I think color is the reason. I don’t think I necessarily convey this in the book, but I think it’s at the root of its emphasis on color over a specific ethnic or racial identity.

SC: When you were in the process of writing each scene, did you have the idea of writing them in chronological order, or did they just come to in more fragmented forms (I’m especially interested in how writing shorter, yet vivid scenes work as a poet myself).

DM: Well, first, let me say that I think poets make great scene writers since they’re so practiced at concision and timing. They understand white space. I tend to have to strip away a lot of writing to get to the essential and to trust the unsaid. In terms of chronology, I at first was writing stories at random points in time, until I realized the obvious structure that was presenting itself. Once I had filled in all the early years of Angie’s grade-by-grade education, I wrote all the subsequent chapters in chronological order. In terms of scenes in each story, those didn’t always flow in order. There were a number of stories where I did quite a bit of rearranging to find the sequence that functioned best dramatically.

Michael Cunningham says that a fully realized character paired with another character will make a story happen. I have to remind myself of that because often when I begin a scene my character will be alone in reflection or doing something by herself. Sometimes I have let such a scene stand as the opening to a story as long as too much time doesn’t elapse before another character enters the scene to make something happen, to get the story moving, to make it vivid.

SC: The dialogue in Living Color is an element that has stayed with me for quite some bit. There is humor, cleverness, and a concise way in which you especially achieve t movement through dialogue, i.e: Where is God? God is everywhere., or when Eva tells Angie, “Being brown is hereditary. Being a Brownie is not”. Were these remarks / jokes ones you took time to craft, or did they come naturally to you / along the lines of things that you had heard of before?

Because I’ve always been shy and therefore quiet, I became a listener and an observer. I paid attention to how things were said and by whom and with what response. And if the exact words didn’t stay with me, the feelings around them did. And that’s what’s important when creating scene and dialog –  capturing and conveying a feeling or sensation.

My ear absorbed the speech and delivery of the people around me. I have an older sister who read a lot and threw around her large vocabulary when we were growing up, some-times sounding like a British pedagogue. On the other hand, my mother and her sisters, who were not educated beyond high school, lacked polish and precision in their speech, often confusing words such as genetic and generic, which could make for some comic phrasing. Cruelly, we distorted our faces with mock frowns or stifled laughter at their nonsequiturs, malapropisms, and mispronunciations.

Sometimes, when I’m writing, immersed in the scene and the characters and what they each are striving for, one of these stored memories will conveniently unlock itself from the vault and find itself on the page. Other times, it’s a more deliberate process and it might occur in the editing as I snip away at the fat to leave intact the most relevant words and phrases, which is when space opens up for some perfect waiting-in-the-wings darling to slide in.

Another thing I find helpful is a lecture on dialogue by Pam Houston I attended several years ago, which you can find on YouTube. Houston describes dialogue as “a game of tennis between two not very good players,” each with her own agenda fighting for control of the scene. I think that when humor is part of the fight, well, all the better.

Donna Miscolta’s most recent book is Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories from Jaded Ibis Press in 2020. Her story collection Hola and Goodbye, winner of the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, was published by Carolina Wren Press in 2016. It won an Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction and an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction. She’s also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, published in 2011 by Signal 8 Press. Recent stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, Atticus Review, Los Angeles Review, and the anthology Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of Covid-19.