Interview of Donna Miscolta by Xánath Caraza
Xánath Caraza (XC): Who is Donna Miscolta?
Donna Miscolta(DM): I grew up in National City, CA, previously named Rancho de la Nación by Mexico and before that called El Rancho del Rey by the Spanish, each name reflecting the “owner” of the land. Prior to all that, it was part of the Kumeyaay's ancestral territory. I knew none of this while I was growing up. For one thing, such information was not taught in schools, and even if it had been, my parents were intent on our being American, whatever the origin of the city we lived in. My father was an immigrant from the Philippines. He arrived as a steward in the U.S. Navy after World War II. My mother was born and grew up in San Diego, CA. Her mother was from Mexico, her father from the Philippines.
|Freeway Sign by Raymond Yu|
I occupy multiple spaces because of my mixed heritage. “Occupy” is a rather assertive term for what I did while growing up, which was more like hovering at the fringes or idling on the sidelines, never really claiming a space or taking a seat or standing my ground. For a long time, I felt like I didn’t belong. It’s this desire to claim space that infiltrates a lot of my fiction.
Part of being a writer is trying to understand who you are and your place in the world, which can be a slow and bewildering process. Though I’ve lived in Seattle since moving here in my early twenties, most of my stories are set in a fictional stand-in for the place where I grew up.
I was very shy as a child and I spent a lot of time observing rather than doing. I needed to translate those observations into something but didn’t know what that something was, so I saved things up, stacked them up inside me until I decided to write them down.
James Baldwin said, “The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.” I think that’s what I’ve tried to do both with my first book, the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, and my story collection Hola and Goodbye.
XC: As a child, who first introduced you to reading?
DM: I don’t remember being read to as a child. My parents were too busy. I don’t remember an abundance of books in our lives until I was ten when my parents bought a house and we stopped moving from rental to rental. Before that, I do remember we had stacks of comic books when I was in kindergarten. They were probably my introduction to words and stories, but I never developed a lasting love for comics. I also remember the Dick and Jane books in second grade, when my reading ability was surely impeded by the phonics lessons imposed on us and which completely baffled me. I don’t remember loving books until the third grade. My teacher read to us The Wind in the Willows and Charlotte’s Web. I developed into a fast reader on my own and it became a game to see how many books I could read compared to my older sister. We went to the public library every Saturday after catechism and checked out an armful of books and read until our eyes ached. I think I have to credit my sister for my reading habit. Part of it was competition, but part of it was a shared activity, when we would each sprawl on our beds and read the afternoon away. She read everything. I read mostly fiction.
|HOLA AND GOOD BYE BY DONNA MISCOLTA|
XC: How did you first become a writer?
DM: I remember writing and illustrating a story about a cat when I was in fourth grade. I was very pleased with this story and also with the drawing. I was pretty good at drawing and thought for a very brief time that I might be an artist when I grew up. But what pleased me about the story was that I had created a mood, an action, and what I thought was a surprise ending, though it’s very likely that it was a cliché. But then I didn’t write another story until I took a fiction writing class when I was thirty. I wrote a self-conscious, plotless yawner that strained for the lyrical. It was almost ten years before I tried again when, inspired by the publication of Kathleen Alcalá’s story collection Mrs.Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, I enrolled in a series of writing classes in the University of Washington extension program in 1992. This was the beginning of my writing habit. My first story was published in the Raven Chronicles in Seattle in 1994. It was quite short, but at the time it said what I knew how to say. Many years later, I developed it into a longer story and it won the Lascaux Award for Short Fiction in 2014. It appears in my story collection Hola and Goodbye. Having that first story published made me believe that more of my stories might also eventually be published.
XC: Do you have any favorite short story by other authors? Could you share some lines along with your reflection of what drew you toward that short story?
DM: There are a number of stories that I love for their intelligently drawn and deeply nuanced characters and sharply focused scenes. Among them are Antonya Nelson’s “Three Wishes,” which also uses humor to heart-rending effect; Mia Alvar’s “In the Country,” whose temporal structure heightens the sense of collapse of both a political regime and a marriage; and Luis Urrea’s “Welcome to the Water Museum,” which shows the multiple levels of tragedy wrought by environmental disaster.
In Urrea’s story, a small town has suffered a drought for so long that the children have had no experience of rain, humidity, mist, or bodies of water. They visit a water museum to learn about this virtually extinct resource. On the bus ride over, young Billy daydreams about his classmate Samantha, an object of desire seemingly as remote as an abundance of water.
“Billy rested his head against the glass and felt his mind fly out all the windows and doors. Felt himself move in and out of the alleyways. Like a great sideways yo-yo in a dream. Like he could walk into a thousand life stories. Like he could think up a whole new world. Like he could go out of himself and keep going and find a house on a beach with ten million miles of ocean in front and sweet cold fog and afternoon rainstorms and Sammy there beside him. This thought both comforted and stung him and made him happy and made him want to cry. How did Pops ever tell Mom he wanted to be her boyfriend? How did you do that? And – second base! Bras? How could a guy ever get up the guts to ask? How did a kiss happen, anyway?”
Later, after Billy and the others have been dazed and terrified by the museum displays of rain – its sound, its various strengths and velocities, the accompanying thunder – Billy asks his mother in the car on the way home, “How do you ask a girl for a kiss?”
His mother answers that you just know when the time is right. “How do you know?” Billy persists. His mother answers, “It’s like the rain. You just know when it’s coming.”
A mother who has known both a first kiss and rain, in her nostalgia unthinkingly gives her son no hope for the future. It’s a marvelous story of innocence, hope, and doom.
XC: What is a day of creative writing like for you?
DM: I work full-time for a local government agency. I will often scribble notes on a piece of writing I’m working on during my lunch hour. Sometimes, I’ll do the same on the bus ride home. But I always go to my desk every evening after dinner and write something. I’m a slow, easily distracted writer and I’m tired in the evening so the words come slowly. Taking time off from my job for a writing residency is necessary for me to make good progress on a manuscript. When I’m in residency somewhere, the daily routine is much different, of course. I usually start the day with a run, then breakfast while reading a book, then writing until lunch, more writing with a break in the late afternoon for a walk, dinner and then more writing, and then reading before bed. I don’t necessarily write faster at a residency, but long stretches at the laptop allow the words to accumulate. I owe the completion of a draft of a new novel to three different residencies in the last year, starting with Ragdale. I drafted the first third of the novel there in a beautiful room in a historic house with a bewitching prairie in its backyard. That place felt like magic and I have high hopes for this novel that had it start there.
XC: When do you know when a text is ready to be read?
DM: I try to take a story or chapter to the point where I don’t know what else to do with it. Sometimes that can be an early draft, but more often it’s a more developed one. I give it to my writing group. I rely on them to find the holes, the missteps, the murky. Their feedback usually sparks new ways for me to look at the material. In the editing stages with my publisher of Hola and Goodbye, one of the stories just wasn’t working, so I asked my writing group for an emergency review of the story. Always insightful, their comments helped me find my way to a fix.
XC: Could you comment on your life as a cultural activist?
DM: I’ve spent my non-writing career in a county government agency where I have often been the lone person of color in a meeting, on a work team, or at a conference session. In the last year it’s been energizing and inspiring to work on a project wholly apart from my regular work program of environmental education. The county, recognizing the importance of equity and social justice as part of its work both internally and in its services to the public, funded a number of employee-proposed projects – among them the literary project submitted by the team I’m on. Our proposal was to bring writers of color into the workplace to present their work as a catalyst for discussion about race and racism. We put out a call for artists, selected eight, and organized four events. Though I’ve organized other events, the events at work were especially gratifying because it brought together several things that fill my daily life – writing and writers, equity and social justice, and my job as a project manager.
XC: What project/s are you working on at the moment?
DM: I’ve competed the draft of a new novel about a character named Angie Rubio. Two of the chapters have been published, one in The Adirondack Review and one in Crate. The novel traces the knowledge a young Mexican-American girl acquires as she progresses through school. It’s meant to show that what we learn, how we learn and, consequently, how we behave is shaped by where the power lies within a relationship or situation. As Angie searches for her place both within and outside the family, she learns to claim her own power.
I’m also working on the first draft of a novel based on my short story “Strong Girls,” which appears in Hola and Goodbye, and earlier appeared first in Calyx and then in the anthology Memories Flow In Our Veins: Forty Years of Women’s Writing from CALYX. My novel will take the reader through the travails of two young women who, in a world of eating disorders, plastic surgeries, and gender and racial stereotypes, struggle for and achieve a sense of self, affirm their ties to each other and family, and define their place in the world.
XC: What advice do you have for other writers?
DM: Here are the things that have helped me:
A writing group – Mine has made me a better writer.
Conferences, workshops, and classes –They’ve helped me build both my craft and my community.
Residencies – They’re important to me for the opportunity to focus on writing and get a lot of words down that would otherwise take months to amass.
Writing schedule – I like the habit of sitting at my desk at a given time each day.
Reading – I’m always reading something. I read for story, but I think at some level my brain is processing craft.
XC: What else would you like to share?
DM: I’d like to give a shout-out to small presses. They’re the reason my books are out in the world. My novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced was published by Signal 8 Press in 2011, and Hola and Goodbye is published by Carolina Wren Press. I encourage readers to choose a book or two from these publishers’ lists to read. Here’s a start: Mulberry by Paulette Boudreaux and A Falling Star by Chantel Acevedo. And here are a couple from other small presses: Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, and the In-Between by Sayantani Dasgupta from Two Sylvias Press and Swarm Theory by Christine Rice from University of Hell Press. Really, there are so many out there to choose from.
Donna Miscolta’s short story collection Hola and Goodbye was selected by Randall Kenan for the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman and publication by Carolina Wren Press in 2016. She is also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including the anthology Memories Flow in Our Veins: Forty Years of Women’s Writing from Calyx. Excerpts from her novel-in-progress The Education of Angie Rubio appear in The Adirondack Review and Crate (now the Santa Ana Review). Find her at donnamiscolta.com.