Like many of us, Seattle writer Donna Miscolta hasn’t been able to read many books during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I had a hard time focusing on reading for many months,” Miscolta said in an online interview recently, “though that’s changed in the last couple months.” Having an end in sight to both the pandemic and the current administration no doubt helped.
On top of that is the publication of her third book, “Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories,” a collection of linked short stories about a young girl growing up in Southern California during the ’60s and ’70s amid a culture of systemic racism.
It’s a project 15 years in the making, Miscolta said. “I was invited to do a reading — it was on a theme, and I wrote a story for that purpose. And it was this story about a slumber party and the character Angie. I remember reading it at that event, and there was a really favorable response. And so I thought: I want to write more about her.”
After transforming an essay about her own childhood into another story about Angie — a precocious student who’s the child of Filipino and Mexican parents — Miscolta began periodically writing stories about this character in between work on other projects.
This vision of linked stories is in keeping with her previous books. Miscolta published her first work of fiction, “When the de la Cruz Family Danced,” when she was 58 years old, and followed it up with “Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories,” another collection of connected stories that explores her childhood in Filipino and Mexican culture.
Miscolta likes short fiction, she said, because “it doesn’t take so long to write. Even when I was writing my first novel, I would think of each chapter almost as a story.”
Having worked a day job as a project manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources for 30 years, short stories provided a way for Miscolta to craft fiction in the time she had available. But now, at age 67, she’s retired from her straight job and continues to work in short fiction rooted in her childhood.
“Every one of these stories has something that happened to me in my childhood,” Miscolta explained. “And it could be something quite small. ... I still have really strong memories of that part of my life. ... I think it’s because it’s a part of life where you’re discovering things. You’re discovering the world and you’re discovering yourself and your place in the world. And if you don’t fit, then you really feel it.”
Angie Rubio is an outsider not only because she’s smart and curious, but because she’s a brown girl in a culture that suppresses the achievement of students of color. Each of the stories is rich in details of life in Kimball Park, a stand-in for National City — the San Diego suburb Miscolta grew up in during the 1960s. Each piece highlights small acts of racism that Angie doesn’t have a vocabulary yet to describe, but clearly are meant to hold her back. Miscolta described an example:
“When she’s pretty young and a little blonde girl moves in next door who has lots of toys, Angie is really interested in seeing if she’ll be able to play with those toys. So there’s this dynamic of power, because this little girl has these possessions, and possessions equal power. Along with this is that this girl is white and Angie is brown, and the little girl with the possessions has the power to make decisions about what they’re going to play. And the little girl gives herself the role of the prettiest girl in the world, and Angie is the monster. You know, there’s something there.”
Angie eventually becomes more aware of how these microaggressions are stacked against her and begins to find a voice and push back, whether by scribbling in her notebook or fighting to get into classes that recognize her talents. “Angie does take some actions that are within her power,” Miscolta noted. “Although sometimes those actions fall short ... because there’s only so much she can do.”
Girls of color still face huge challenges in the classroom and in life, Miscolta said. “Angie’s situation, it’s not violent — it’s not tragic, to a certain extent. I mean, it’s tragic whenever anybody’s potential is not recognized and there’s this waste of human talent or it’s dismissed. ... What I want it to show is that racism exists, even at this seemingly innocuous level.”
Finding a publisher has been tricky, though Miscolta is happy to be with a small press, which she says are “life savers” for writers of color. But she notes her experience trying to get past the gatekeepers in the world of big publishing has been a frustration.
“[Talking to agents and publishers] it was like ‘oh I love it, but it’s not for me’ or ‘I don’t know how to market it.’ I’m sure white writers get that too, but when they say it to someone like me — what do they mean? Because when they say ‘I don’t know who the audience is’ or ‘I don’t know who to market it to’ — and my first book was about a Filipino American family and you don’t think people are going to be interested in it: Do you think only Filipino American families are going to be interested in it? ... It’s hard not to think it’s because it’s about a brown family and from their perspective they don’t really see the significance of that.”
Even so, Miscolta is making the most of her book launch during the pandemic. She says the staff at Jaded Ibis, her publisher, has been working hard to get Miscolta interviews, book reviews and online discussions and readings.
Miscolta said that though “Living Color” is technically historical fiction, it’s extremely relevant in the current moment. “What happened in the 60s and 70s: Change occurred because of that. We did get ethnic studies classes in colleges and universities and public high schools. But then things dropped off; things have been pushed back against and eliminated. There has to be a more concerted push. We’ll have to keep pushing forward these stories into the mainstream.”
Andrew Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Seattle.
Read more in the Feb. 3-9, 2021 issue.