the museum of americana

a literary review

Interview with Donna Miscolta

Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Donna Miscolta about her book of linked short stories, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories. Set in California in the 1960s and ’70s, the stories take title character Angie from kindergarten through high school, tracing her formation as a writer and offering a portrait of the artist as a shy, awkward Mexican-American girl.

Talk about “Living Color.” Was that always the title? When and how did that title become “the” title?

I had for a long time called it The Education of Angie Rubio. I liked the sound of it, and it said exactly what the book was about – Angie’s education and the inference that it’s outside of the normal curriculum, outside of book-learning. But at a certain point, I felt the title had been used before and because I wanted to emphasize the fact that these were all stories about the same character, I just started calling the book Angie Rubio Stories. When Jaded Ibis Press took on the book, they wanted a different title and at first, they selected the title from one of the stories in the book which was “Guided Tours in Living Color.” I love that title for that story, but I didn’t think it was representative enough of the entire book, so I suggested just using the Living Color part and adding Angie Rubio Stories as the subtitle. Living Color describes what Angie Rubio does in each of the stories: living as a brown girl in a society that favors neither her race nor gender.

Color plays a huge role in these stories — in art, in people, in action and emotion. How did light and color figure in your life growing up? And now?

Well, skin color definitely figured into my life growing up. I received the message early on from all around me, even within my own family that the lighter your skin, the better. I happened to be the darkest-skinned person in my family. I remember being told by my parents to stay out of the sun in the summer so I wouldn’t get darker. I never heeded their admonishments. It seemed like too much trouble to worry about. I was already dark and getting lighter wasn’t an option. 

Now, I’m still very much aware of skin color because that is what people see when they see me. People who say “I don’t see skin color” are refusing to admit any underlying biases they have, or they are refusing to really see me.

In the story, “Guided Tours in Living Color” Angie looks back on events or periods in her life and associates them with a color. I think it’s a natural, though maybe subconscious thing we do when we recall certain memories. While we tend to connect a blue sky with something cheery and positive, often a blue sky is a deceptive cover for a situation that can be intimidating or even terrifying. 

I remember attending a week of summer camp when I was ten after begging my parents, who really couldn’t afford the extra expense, to send me because the brochures had convinced me I would be tramping through the woods and singing around the campfire in happy companionship with my peers, as if by magic my shyness would disappear and I would belong. The reality was that under the bright blue sky of day, I was lonely, still the shy, awkward, barely noticed girl I was at home. And under the star-studded night sky, I never caught on to the words of the campfire songs and just moved my mouth in pretend singing. 

I still am very conscious of skin color but now it’s without a sense of inferiority or secret shame that I know was externally imposed. I dress in mostly drab colors because I still like to walk in the world unnoticed. I still want to do the noticing.

What makes this the right book for right now?

The things that Angie experienced in the 60s and 70s were just a snapshot of what is happening today. With the changes that came out of that era, we were lulled into a fake kumbaya kind of world. People of color were being admitted to spaces that were once off limits to them. And it became like, see, there’s no more discrimination. But of course, that wasn’t the case, and everything – the inequity and injustice – is magnified now. The good thing is that racism is called out ever more vociferously. The bad thing is that the denial is immense. And the pushback is violent. 

Living Color illustrates the deeply embedded effects of colonialism and racism – the leaving behind of one’s own language, the acceptance of a smaller space to exist in not just physically, but psychologically, the very act of making oneself smaller, quieter. How all of this leads to undeveloped and unrecognized potential. How it thwarts lives and wastes talent.

There are small moments in Living Color when the traditional historical and cultural narratives are questioned. For instance, in the first story, when Angie’s family has moved to Hawaii for a couple of years, Angie is confused about who and where the Hawaiians are because her family is living in Navy housing, she’s attending a school that is populated by white Navy families, and little blonde kids are wearing hula skirts and learning to dance the hula. Angie, as a child, senses something is not right with this picture, but she doesn’t have the ability yet to articulate the problem. When she’s in high school and she’s expected to answer a question about Gainsborough’s Blue Boy painting, she thinks, well, it’s European, so it must be important, but doubt and sarcasm underlie this logic. 

The things that Angie experiences in the book are not physically violent, but they can be damaging to the soul. When normalized and accepted by people and institutions, they lead to overt acts of racism.

The word ‘Americana,’ as in our journal’s title, evokes a sense of nostalgia, but with the word’s Spanish sense, it also encompasses being female in the US. In the context of this book, what does the word ‘Americana’ mean to you? What images does the term conjure?

Americana typically conjures for me Conestoga wagons, calico bonnets, quilts, and farmhouse teacups. Also Burma Shave billboards, diners, and jukeboxes. In other words, things that for the most part are outside the history and culture of my Filipino and Mexican family. It doesn’t mean that my family didn’t develop a vicarious interest in these quaint evocations of a past that paid tribute to pioneers, the American road trip with the expansion of highways and proliferation of motels, and sartorial fads like bobby sox and poodle skirts. My mother had developed an affinity for Early American-style furniture and our house was filled with maple tables and floral-patterned sofas and chairs in autumnal hues. And I was a sucker for Disney’s Pollyanna played by the British Hayley Mills in small town America. Our family never did road trips except for our annual hour-and-a-half drive to Disneyland where Americana is extravagantly celebrated.

I love that you point out that Americana is the Spanish word for female American. I think Americana as it concerns the artifacts related to the history, geography, folklore, and cultural heritage of the United States of America should also include the olla my grandmother used to simmer beans and the comal she used to cook tortillas. And the rancheras, cumbias, and boleros she listened and danced to. Oh, and the telenovelas she watched. Oh, oh, and the Virgen de Guadalupe candles. 

What made you decide on the linked-stories structure?

I think the structure was decided for me. It happened without premeditation and with little post-meditation. The stories were written over a long period of time as a break or a distraction from first one project and then another. I was seeing them as separate and distinct stories, and even though they shared a protagonist, I wasn’t at first intentional about a linked structure. Of course, at a certain point it’s apparent that in the chronological structure, there’s an inherent arc. The question was whether I should rethink the stories into a novel. What I decided in the end was that how they came into being – as separate but linked stories – would be their final form. There’s something to be said for the intuitive approach. Or maybe it’s the accidental approach? At any rate, it seemed right to me.

What was the research like for this book? What was it like going back and fact-checking the details of say, the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens or which TV programs were on when?

I had many years ago visited all those places I placed Angie at and, of course, they had likely changed over the years. I could only rely on memory so much. I had to pick features that I could verify still existed with an Internet search. By just focusing on one specific piece of art in the Huntington, I evaded the problem of having to recreate too many particulars. Same with the Botanical Gardens. I chose a specific part of the gardens to situate the characters so I could limit the characters movements and therefore logistical details. TV programs and music were an easy Google click to verify the years they were released. It was also a fun rabbit hole to go down and wander and remember just how fabulous Motown was in those years. And to remember just why I had a crush on Henry Darrow in The High Chaparral. Sexy, funny, smart, and one of the few Latinos on TV. He and Manolito Montoya, the character he played, are Angie’s crush in the last story of my book. I recently had the sublime honor of signing a copy of Living Color to him, requested by Jan Pippins, who co-wrote with him a biography of his life. My regret is that I forgot to take a picture of the page I inscribed to him to pin to my wall, which I imagine Angie might have done.

Did your coming-of-age years resemble Angie’s?

Angie and I coincidentally have similar experiences. In fact, I transferred my fears and desires to Angie, endowed her with all my insecurities, but also with more resilience and a refusal to completely accept what tradition and society with its underlying racism established as her place.   While neither one of us was particularly assertive, Angie made a better effort at trying to address her problems, though because she’s a child and then an adolescent in these stories, she’s without any real power to change the situations she finds herself in. She tries actions that are within her sphere of control, but they don’t have much of an impact, and aside from a momentary feeling of relief, they only increase her frustration and sense of powerlessness. In the end, when Angie is determined to leave her hometown, it’s because the spaces there can’t or won’t accommodate her. She has to seek space elsewhere. Much like I did.

Was Kimball Park inspired by a real town, or a composite of places?

Kimball Park is a stand-in for National City where I grew up. National City is in south San Diego County, ten miles from the border with Tijuana. Its nickname is Nasty City so that gives you an idea of how outsiders view it. As someone who grew up there and returns at least yearly, it holds nostalgia. It’s part of my history. My own Americana.

Kimball Park is an actual park named after Frank Kimball, one of three brothers who purchased the land called Rancho de la Nación from the brother-in-law of Governor Pio Pico when the land was under Mexican rule after that country’s independence from Spain who had called the land El Rancho del Rey and used it to graze their horses on after expelling the indigenous Kumeyaay. Angie is aware of none of this history. How interesting to speculate how things might have been different if she had been, if we all had been.

Talk about your experiences writing these stories at residencies in the Pacific Northwest. What was it like, as you mention in your Acknowledgements, putting “the finishing touches on the manuscript in an elementary school classroom turned writing studio, also equipped with ghosts?”

Much of my fiction is set in southern California in a city much like National City, even though I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest now for four decades. There’s something about living in a place during your formative years that embeds itself in your cytoplasm. Maybe the distance in time and space makes it so much easier to draw from a much-removed period and place in your life. It’s interesting to me that I wrote about Kimball Park while surrounded by Douglas firs on an island in Puget Sound or gazing at a Madrona tree outside my window in a seaport town or watching logging trucks pass by in a little community in the foothills of Mount Rainier. And writing at a teacher’s desk in an old classroom of a repurposed elementary school that is the Mineral School residency really was the perfect place to think through and refine the sentences that conveyed the mortifications, anxieties and, the occasional delight of a skinny, awkward brown girl as she struggles to understand some of the lessons in and out of the classroom. I like to appear to be sanguine about ghosts but I’m a little bit afraid of them, until I actually caught sight of them one night running down the hallway like the kids they were. Those ghosts of our childhood and youth never quite stop haunting us.

If this book had a soundtrack, what might it be?

That’s easy because nearly every story in the book mentions a song. 

Welcome to Kindergarten – “Skip to My Lou” is the song of Angie’s first humiliation in kindergarten. But I would also add a song that isn’t mentioned. “The Chipmunk Song” with the reference to a hula hoop seems appropriate because the story takes place in Hawaii and what better way to confuse even more a young girl who is already baffled as to who and where the Hawaiians are than with a song sung by chipmunks?

Monster –  This is the only story that doesn’t mention a song so I’m giving it “Wake Up, Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers, whom I remember listening to way back when in the late 50s, and because there’s a little girl in the story named Susie and, well, you should really read the story to find out how apropos that imperative in the song title is.

First Confession – In this story, Angie is in Catholic school and the mention of “Que Será, Será” in a story in which Angie is learning about faith and sin and consequences is kind of an amusing juxtaposition I hadn’t seen before contemplating a response to this question.

Brownie – In this story, “If I Had a Hammer” plays while Angie is riding in a convertible with the top down and her new egregiously bad home perm is becoming egregiously worse by the effects of the wind. Oh, what a job a hammer might do in such a situation.

Social Studies – “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” signals the beginning of the end of Angie’s short-lived experience of having a best friend.

Current Events – Angie’s desire to impress her new classmates with her current event topic about Sam Cooke is blasted to smithereens, and the lonely words “I ain’t got nobody” from Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night” made me, at least, break a little inside.

Help – What else but “Help” by the Beatles?

Disappearing Acts – This story is about Angie’s confusion about friendships, race, and inequities but also her disappointingly slow movement through puberty, which at times resembles “The Impossible Dream.”

School Spirit – Yes, this story is about cheerleaders, the selection of which seems like a beauty pageant. Whose standards of beauty? Well, so often “There She Is, Miss America” if she is white and there she is not, if she is not white.

Class Play – Though the play in this story is Romeo and Juliet, the song “Hair” gets a cameo because it’s the late 60’s and the Age of Aquarius. Peace and love are the order of the day despite the Montagues and the Capulets. 

Extracurricular Activities – Who knew that extracurricular activities meant sex? Certainly not Angie. Neither did she know that “Theme from Valley of the Dolls” would signal her introduction to sex ed.

Guided Tours in Living Color – “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” It’s a catchy tune, one though that speaks of failure to achieve a dream. It’s an inadvertent message Angie hears on her first trip away from Kimball Park.

Most Likely to Succeed – How many proms in 1971 chose “We’ve Only Just Begun” as its theme? The words can be either hopeful (Look how much more we get to do.) or disheartening (Look how far we still have to go.) For Angie, it’s a little bit of both.

What’s next? Projects on the horizon?

I have a complete draft of a new novel. It’s an outgrowth of a short story that appeared in my last book Hola and Goodbye, which featured twin girls who are recruited for their school’s all-boy wrestling team. It’s a story about body image, sisterhood, and self-realization. I carry those same themes into the novel as I take the sisters into the perils of adulthood. I’m also working on a group of essays about family, heritage, race, and place for which I recently received a grant. And on the far horizon, I’m contemplating a novel that takes Angie Rubio into adulthood. Like the twin girls in Hola and Goodbye, Angie is a character that in her own quiet way is clamoring for more attention.

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Donna Miscolta’s previous story collection, Hola and Goodbye, won the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, an Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction, and an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction. She is also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, lauded by Antonya Nelson for its “pitch-perfect prose.”