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What is Lost and What is Gained: Q & A with Donna Miscolta

By Ericka Taylor

Donna Miscolta’s second book, Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories, begins with the story of recent immigrants to the U.S., Lupita and Rosa, attempting to find their way in their new home. No cartoonish bad hombres here, Miscolta’s characters are complex, imperfect beings who, over three generations, negotiate acclimation and assimilation.

With its three-part structure, the progression of Miscolta’s linked stories deftly mirrors the gradual distancing of each generation from the familial homeland; meanwhile connections between characters “slacken… as the family grows outward.” The matriarch of the family, Lupita Camacho, and her immigrant friends are the focal point for the first section in the collection, with two subsequent sections following successive generations.

Miscolta is masterful at capturing the frustrations and delights of all her characters. Lupita recognizes that the mutual respect she shared with Maxine, a coworker at the fish cannery, would never become friendship because of Maxine’s assumption “that Lupita’s inability to speak English also was a failure to comprehend it.” Lupita’s daughter, Lyla, “feels a long-held regret thump in her chest” for the dance career that never was when she hears Natalie Wood’s fake Puerto Rican accent in West Side Story. On a trip to Mexico, Lupita’s granddaughter “wanted to take the hand of every small, gray-haired old woman with a black mantilla who looked like [her] grandmother and say, Look at me! I’m here to find you. To find me.”

Hola and Goodbye is a warm and engaging collection, and I’m not the only one impressed by it. Randall Kenan selected it for the 2015 Doris Bawkin Prize for Writing by a Woman, and “Ana’s Dance,” which appears in the book’s first section, won the Lascaux Award for Short Fiction. Miscolta was kind enough to share her thoughts about writing in general, and Hola and Goodbye in particular, with Bloom.

Ericka Taylor: You’ve said that your novel, When the de La Cruz Family Danced, was partly inspired by your father’s death and the fact that you didn’t know much about his life in the Philippines before he immigrated to the US and married your Filipina and Mexican-American mother. Your subsequent story collection, Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories, begins with the story of a Mexican immigrant and follows the successive generations of her family. Did delving into the story of a Filipino immigrant inspire you to explore an immigration story that originates in Mexico?

Donna Miscolta: When I first started writing, one of the early stories I wrote was a version of “Ana’s Dance,” which appears in the collection. During the time that I was writing the novel, I would take time out to write a story, so I was really working on both projects in parallel – one having to do with a Filipino-American family and the other having to do with multiple generations of a Mexican-American family. I wrote the stories of the four women that form the first section of the story collection in succession. Eventually, I realized, it was Lupita’s life I wanted to follow – not her life per se, but her line, that is, the lives of her children and grandchildren. But I wanted the stories of the other three women to form a context for her life and to show that while immigrants face similar challenges, their responses to them may vary based on their unique selves. My grandmother’s immigrant story seemed more evident to me than my father’s because she didn’t speak English, her TV and radio were habitually tuned to the Tijuana stations, and beans always simmered on her stove. Our proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border emphasized for me her immigrant status. My father, on the other hand, had worked hard to lose his Tagalog accent, and the Philippines and his connection to it seemed to me rather remote while I was growing up. But delving into both immigration stories through fiction did provide a means for me to understand and convey something about what is lost and what is gained in making a new home in America.

ET: The stories in Hola and Goodbye progress from the immigrant experience to first-generation children and their offspring. Could you tell us about how you arrived at the collection’s structure? Did you initially conceive of the book as linked stories, as a novel, or as something else altogether?

DM: I did think of the stories as linked stories from the beginning. I didn’t have one clear story line I wanted to follow or one character I wanted to focus on. I wanted to assemble this family together in one place, in one book, but not in a single narrative. I think in a way, I wanted to recall the family gatherings of my childhood, all these personalities jammed together in a small house, the air heavy with the smell of cooking, the aunts gossiping, the uncles studying their poker cards, the cousins in the yard playing Red Rover or dropping 45s onto a record player to lip synch and dance. Amid the noise and chaos, there were single stories to be told. But was one more prominent than the others? To me they were all part of this stew, though Lupita was the base ingredient. Even when she became old and seemingly invisible or overlooked, she was still the emotional essence.

ET: The links between stories are immediately clear in some stories while others, at least for me, were more subtle and invited me to return to earlier stories to further explore the connection. In both cases, the reader is treated to a nice layering of experiences and relationships. How do you decide (or discover) how the stories connect to each other?

DM: I think I was more deliberate about the connections in the first section of the book where I establish that Lupita and Rosa are close friends, and Ana and Irma are cousins, though not necessarily close and loving ones. There’s a story called “Four Women” that ends that section which signals the dissolution of their quartet. I think from there I gave myself permission to be more loose with the connections among the characters of the various stories. The bonds slacken with each generation and within a generation as the family grows outward, a sort of natural history of family dynamics.

ET: Knowing a little about your background, such as the fact that you first visited Mexico as an adult and that your Mexican grandmother hosted large Sunday dinners for the family, Julia struck me as a possible stand-in for you. How much, if any, of yourself do you see in her? How present are your family members in the other characters?

Author Donna Miscolta, Seattle

DM: Yes! Busted! Julia is a stand-in for me, but of course a very fictionalized version. I invested Julia with my insecurities, my embarrassment about not speaking Spanish, my confusion about identity, my enchantment with Mexico and desire to claim it somehow amid the disorientation of my outsider, non-belonging status.

A number of the other characters were inspired by a family member. More accurately, by a family member’s experience of an event or situation. There is no exact correlation between a family member and a character in the book. For instance, the story “When Danny Got Married,” is narrated by Julia whose uncle married a Spanish woman. Well, I have an uncle who married a Spanish woman. But it’s the scenario that inspired the story, not the real-life people. I created fictional characters from a situation I had seen occur in real life and I spun conflicts from that situation. That’s the fun of writing fiction. You get to make things up.

ET: Almost all of the book’s stories are in the third person, but the handful that have first-person points of view are all from the perspective of a third-generation family member. All of those are told from Julia’s perspective except one. Could you tell us about that decision?

DM: For many years, I never wrote in the first person. It didn’t feel right to me, or maybe it didn’t feel right for the character or the story. I think I was afraid that if I wrote in the first person I would get in the way of the character I was trying to create. Later as I got more experienced at writing stories, I began to trust my instincts and my craft regarding point of view. There were some stories that seemed to insist on first person and those stories in Julia’s POV were among them. It was the same for the story “Strong Girls.” The story demanded that intimacy and self-reflection.

ET: You’re working on a couple of new projects, including a new look at “Strong Girls,” one of the titles from Hola and Goodbye. Can you tell us anything about that and other projects in the works?

DM: I’ve finished a very rough first draft of a novel that takes the twins in “Strong Girls” into adulthood. I confess it hadn’t occurred to me to do so until an editor who was considering the collection for publication suggested it. I immediately saw the possibilities. After a crisis, the original story ends on a positive note. But what happens to these characters beyond that story? What sustains them as they venture farther out into the world, sometimes without each other, sometimes with each other, but always subjected to cultural pressures about who they should be and what they should look like? These are the questions I want to answer in the novel.

The other project I’m working on is at a more advanced stage of completion, but it needs to be pushed a little further, a little deeper. It deals with lessons about life, race, and identity that a young-Mexican-American girl learns as she advances from kindergarten through high school. There’s humor in the writing, but I want to take that humor to the edge of calamity and heartbreak to show the impacts of growing up brown.

ET: Do you anticipate any of the other characters from either book showing up in the future?

DM: I’m not sure. I’d really like to try something new, go in a completely different direction for the next project, though I’m not sure what that would look like. All of my work has been set in the fictional place of Kimball Park, a small Southern California city. Maybe it’s time I set a story elsewhere – Seattle, where I’ve lived for the last four decades. Or Las Vegas, a place I’ll visit for the first time in March. Or some non-existent place.

But if I were to bring a character back from one of my two published books, I think I could get some mileage out of Tony Camacho – the karaoke singer/ bartender in “Señor Wonderful.” He’s someone whose macho behavior is almost involuntary, reflexive really. He knows he shouldn’t be comfortable with it and tries to do better, but keeps failing. There’s this bewilderment about him that I’d like to explore.

The other character that I might be tempted to explore further is Bonita, the young woman who suffers a mental breakdown. Whatever genetic predisposition she might have had toward mental instability, the trigger was a confusion about her worth. When she discovered that her physical attractiveness wasn’t enough to sustain the interest of others in her, she was at a loss as to her own identity. I would like to see her find her way out of this.

ET: Our readers are especially interested in writers who publish their first books after the age of 40. What would you say are the benefits of publishing later in life?

DM: When I was nearly 40 – the age I started writing – I already knew what it was like to juggle family and a full-time job. Throwing writing and seeking publication into the mix meant that I didn’t have a lot of time to worry about failure and feel despondent about rejection. I did do both those things. But I couldn’t linger on them for long. My time and energy had to be focused on the work, whether that was my day job, my parenting responsibilities, or my writing. I think taking up writing later in life made me more disciplined. Being published later in life has been a sweet reward. It has also allowed me to keep a certain perspective – writing was one thing among several that I was striving for positive outcomes in. While you sometimes feel divided and pulled in different directions, you also have a sense of fullness in a very affirming and satisfying way.

ET: You’ve mentioned that one of the things that inspired you to write was attending a friend’s reading. Could you tell us a bit about the arc of your engagement with writing once that seed was planted? Did you end up diving right in and immersing yourself in writing or did your blooming take a more leisurely pace?

DM: First, I think the seed was planted well before that. Attending my friend’s reading allowed that seed to finally germinate. I remember as a fourth grader I wrote a story that delighted me – not necessarily because of the content, though at the time I did think it was pretty good – but just for the very act of creating it. That seed lay dormant for decades because having no role models to follow and steeped in school in the works of Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, and Henry James, I had no reason to think that a brown girl could grow up to be a writer. Actually knowing someone –a Latina, in fact – who had had a book published really allowed me to see that such a thing might be possible for me.

I immediately signed up for extension classes to learn how to write a story. I began a practice of writing every evening after my kids were in bed. I was very disciplined about it the way I was about flossing my teeth or exercising daily. It became a habit. It was not leisurely, but neither was it frantic. It was just steady – like the slow movement of ants on the march.

ET: Is there any difference in the advice you’d give beginning writers under 40 and the advice you’d give beginning writers over 40?

DM: Well, to borrow a current catch word – persist. Even though we’re writing because we feel compelled to write, most of us are hoping for an audience through publication. And for many of us, it can be a long road littered with rejections. Be patient, don’t give up, don’t despair. Keep writing. Before I started having stories published and especially before my first book was accepted, I did despair, but then I would keep going because that’s all we can do, whether you’re under or over 40. I do think writers over 40 might feel more urgency about getting work published. While we have to take the long view when it comes to publishing success, if you’re over 40, the long view can find you in your late fifties when your first book comes out. I was 58 when my novel was published and 63 when Hola and Goodbye came out. I’m persisting at a slightly accelerated pace these days because time is suddenly rushing past me.

Bloom Post End

Ericka Taylor has served as the Assistant Fiction Editor and Assistant Managing Editor for the literary journal, Willow Springs, and is currently working on a novel.

homepage photo credit: TMNYNY La Ofrenda via photopin (license)

One thought on “What is Lost and What is Gained: Q & A with Donna Miscolta

  1. I so enjoy reading about authors who started writing late in life. And I enjoy reading their works even more. Thanks for this blog and double thanks for choosing all kinds of writers.

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