We get to know Angie — her silence and awkwardness, her strength and sensibility — in the linked stories that comprise Living Color, written by Seattle author Donna Miscolta and published Sept. 21. We watch Angie make her way through elementary school, grade by grade, and we feel one empathetic cringe after another. The character is partly based on Miscolta’s own experiences growing up as a Mexican and Filipino American girl during the 1960s and ’70s in Southern California, near the Mexican border, and the “little demons of the past” she still thinks about to this day.
Living Color is Miscolta’s third book of fiction, after coming to writing later in life. With bachelor's degree in zoology and a master’s in education and public administration, she worked for 30 years as a project manager with King County. But at age 39, after attending a reading by local writer Kathleen Alcalá, Miscolta was inspired to begin her own writing practice. She continued to write in her free time, and in 2011, published her first novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced.
Calling in to a Zoom interview from Sacramento, California, where she’s helping her daughter with a newborn son, the 67-year-old writer says Living Color is a way for her to reflect on her past and the racist interactions she faced as a young girl.
“People are surprised at some of the things I remember from my childhood,” Miscolta says. “But for a shy kid who is really self-conscious about how she's appearing to other people, and also hypersensitive of the things that she says, those things are really deeply embedded in her and, well, me.”
Crosscut spoke with Miscolta about growing up brown in the U.S., coming late to a writing career and what American identity means.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did your decades-long career in public administration turn into a writing career?
I did not really acknowledge this desire or this want, this need to write, until I was 39. I was already established in my career with [King] County, and four years into that 30-year career, I realized that there was something very urgent that was missing from my life. One of the impetuses was attending Kathleen Alcalá’s reading for her first published book in 1992. It made [writing] seem more of a possibility for me because I never really thought that that was something that I could do. It was a fantasy.
Why did writing seem like a fantasy?
I didn't know how to go about being a writer. I didn't have any role models when I was growing up. The books I was reading were books we had to do book reports on for school. Books by Henry James and William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy — old white men that were dead. You get this idea that being a writer is something that doesn't happen anymore. Later in college, when I was reading books by contemporary writers and especially women, it still seemed out of the realm of possibility. This is something that I attribute to growing up in a family and an atmosphere where the most important thing was to get a job after high school and start saving your money because that was what was going to provide you with security.
Your first book was about a Filipino family, and your two most recent are about Latinx families. I’m curious what your heritage is? And how do you “identify”?
My dad is Filipino. My grandmother on my mother's side is Mexican. Because we lived so close to the [Mexican] border and saw my grandmother frequently, I developed a stronger affinity toward that side. Being in such close proximity with my grandmother, hearing her music and eating the food that she cooked made me more connected to that side of the family. Later I was able to travel to Mexico and meet some relatives. I didn't get to the Philippines until three years ago. I feel connected to both, but in terms of writing characters, it's hard for me to write a character that represents this blend that I am.
Did you grow up during the 1960s and 1970s like your character Angie?
Yes. A lot of times when I write I borrow things from my own life and fictionalize them. There was something that happened to me in kindergarten that is seared into my memory. I tried to write that in an essay several times, it never was quite satisfactory. One day I decided to write it as fiction, and I realized I was writing the character Angie Rubio, this particular character whose life parallels what I went through. I started going through grade by grade, thinking about particular things that happened to me and how I could take Angie through that process and watch how she puzzled through these circumstances, how she reacts to them. I was using Angie to walk through my own insecurities that I grew up with, and understand these microaggressions that I experienced. We weren't calling them microaggressions back then — we weren't even calling them anything — but they were a natural part of our existence.
Do you have an example of feeling different as a kid that inspired a story in Living Color?
There’s a story called “Social Studies,” when Angie is in fourth grade and her family is new to the school. She settles into her classroom very easily, gets good grades and is elected president of her classroom. Everything is going great until one day at recess one of the girls in her class says, “You know this is the dumb class, don’t you?” That's Angie's first awareness that people are categorized in certain groups by measures that she doesn't understand. That happened to me. I was in the “dumb class,” which really surprised and offended me. What also was interesting was the other kids in the class seemed to know that ours was the dumb class. The idea that kids would know this astounded me and astounds me now. Why are we accepting this category? I wanted to give Angie a chance to try to react to that situation. She tries to take some action, but as a girl, as a kid, she really has no control. The only thing she can do is act out, which doesn't resolve anything.
How else was your childhood similar to Angie’s?
She is terribly shy, very insecure about who she is, very awkward both socially and physically. In terms of how she responds to her situations, I think she's a little bit braver [than I], she's less willing to accept situations.
Have you known a lot of Angies in your life?
There are a lot of common experiences for kids. Most of us go through some awkward period, and all of us at times have some really mortifying experience with classmates. But for people of color — and especially people of color who are quiet and shy — those experiences probably are more consistent. People form opinions of who you are, and you're aware of the expectations, or the lack of expectations, people may have of you, and you live within those boundaries.
Why not just write a book about yourself and your own life experiences?
I would have to write it in a very different way — I couldn't use a lot of the fictional elements that make the story more interesting. Because I'm a fiction writer, my inclination is to imagine and create. I wanted to have the freedom to create Angie and expand on the situations that I put her in.
How does Angie’s experience relate to that of brown girls growing up in the U.S. today?
Unfortunately, things haven't changed. You still have the microaggressions happening in schools, but I also think there's a greater awareness. There's also a greater willingness to deal with those and not just accept them as part of this world that we live in. It's OK to push back. And in fact, it's the right thing to do.
Living Color has come out amid all the drama of the presidential election. How does the book relate to the current state of political affairs?
There is some relevance to what’s in the book and what’s happening. We can't just let these microaggressions that Angie experienced slide. We have to be aware of them because they lead to things that are happening today. It just gets worse, it gets normalized and that’s what has happened with this administration. I think it's a reminder of what we still have to do, what we still have to work on.
Any thoughts about the outcome of the election? Predictions? Hopes?
It's scary because [in 2016] most of us thought that Trump would not win because of what he represented. How could he? I think now more people understand it's important to vote for the candidate who is not the racist. I think that Trump's following, while still significant, is not enough to get him the presidency again. The only way he can be president again is if there is cheating or interference. If we don’t change now, I don’t know what’s going to happen to this country, and it scares me because I have children and I have a new grandson and I have an immigrant son-in-law. I don’t want their lives to be destroyed by this.
How do you define American identity?
I remember when I was growing up it was so important for [my father] to say, ‘I'm an American,’ even though all of our neighbors were Filipino or Mexican. The [neighbors] were very ensconced in their traditions, their language and their culture, whereas my father felt that it was important for him to claim Americanness. For him that meant not speaking Tagalog and not maintaining his cultural traditions. Growing up American meant discarding and disengaging yourself from your past. [Being] American has to mean educating yourself and your children about your heritage and history. Especially the history of this country that is racist and [has] wanted to annihilate traces of things that weren't white, or weren't part of this colonizing mentality. So for me, American means claiming yourself, claiming your past and claiming your place in this country.
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