Thursday, January 4, 2018

A History of Family, Creativity, and Sisterhood: A Conversation with Author Donna Miscolta

An Interview with Northwest Writer Donna Miscolta

Hola and Goddbye by Donna Miscolta
published by Carolina Wren Press
Donna Miscolta,
photograph by Meryl Shenker

I had just begun reading Hola and Goodbye when I met Donna Miscolta in Missoula, on a panel at the Montana Book Festival this past autumn. The audience, we, and our panel talked about unhappy endings, reality, to be or not be a woman writer, death, words, fairy tales, folk tales, and more. I continued to read Hola and Goodbye, which is a blend between novel and story collection--a narrative, then, that follows a family from the 1930s to the present-day, after they first move to the United States. Each chapter is a story of a family member's life on the advancing generational timeline.

My reading experience of Hola and Goodbye was one of reveling in the unwinding history and the constant, yet fleeting, connection such a narrative provides, as characters age, live, have their own children, and then are seen through the eyes of their grandchildren--generation after generation. Such books provide a perspective on the world that reminds us of our simultaneous connections to each other, mortality, and the fading of those connections.

I enjoyed knowing a story that promised another story, and the constellation of lives that every one character's story contained. And when I had finished the book, I did what I've always longed to as a reader, begged the writer to let me interview her. Thankfully, she agreed.

What follows is my interview with author Donna Miscolta.

About Donna Miscolta: Her 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. It won the Independent Publishers gold medal for Best Regional Fiction and an International Latino Book Award silver medal for Best Latino Focused Fiction in English. She is also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in a variety of journals, most recently in Moss and Blood Orange Review.


Q: Your book Hola and Goodbye is a deep examination of a family whose story begins with Lupita and her husband beginning their adult lives in the United States. I understand that you wrote these stories over a long period of time, over a decade, which seems to account for the depth and complexity of the work. How did you achieve the patience that such a project seems it would require?
DM: I was writing these stories while I was working on my first novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, so it was more like two decades spent drafting and redrafting these stories. Whenever I needed a break from the novel or when an idea for a story occurred to me, I would turn my focus away from the novel to these shorter works that offered a more immediate sense of completion and accomplishment. As for patience, I always knew it would take a long time to complete a manuscript, and though I would sometimes wish I was done already, I think I was accepting of the protracted and seemingly endless process. A lot had to do with working a full-time job, and at the time I started writing, my two daughters were very young. The moments I squeezed in for writing each day amounted to a half-hour or even an hour after the kids were in bed. 
I’m a slow writer. I’ve never experienced that zone of mad and furious creative frenzy. I’m very much a plodder, but a disciplined one. So, I think that was the key for me. Just going at it every day, knowing that eventually I’d come to the end. Thank you for your comment about the depth and complexity of the work. I think that came over time. I was learning more about craft, taking workshops each summer from writers I admired and continuing to read as much as possible to see how others constructed their stories and novels. This allowed me to both think deliberately about the elements of fiction and to learn to trust my instincts as well as my experiences as a reader.
When the de la Cruz Family Danced
by Donna Miscolta
Q: Do you find families themselves interesting or was this family interesting to you in a unique way?
DM: I find all families interesting. I like hearing about and reading about other people’s families. Writers, I think, are necessarily voyeuristic. The family I wrote about intrigued me for a number of reasons. The circumstances were similar to those of my own family – the immigration from Mexico, the loss of Spanish over generations, issues of identity and belonging. In fact, several of the stories arose from an anecdote or event I’d heard or observed in the lives of my family members. 
Of course, once that seed of truth made it onto the page, it bloomed into fiction. That was the fun and fascinating part – seeing how my own underlying emotions about family merged with how the characters and conflicts arose on the page. I felt both a loving and questioning eye on them, at their bonds with each other, at their betrayals of themselves or their dreams, at their intentions and the outcomes that fell just short or failed altogether.
Q. One of the assumptions, or perhaps myths, about families is that they provide connection, comfort, and safety. Many of the members of this family seem to experience their family as the tension and conflict in their lives, whether it's the immediate or extended family. The mothers don't always love their children, or maybe they do, but they don't find their children interesting--to the extent that one mother is repulsed by her daughters because they are so far from the "ideal" female. The women seem in sort of a damned-if-they-marry-for-love and damned-if-they-marry-for-stability. Family seems to be a myth they followed as fact, and now that they see the myth of it, use the idea of family in order to maintain their lives as they simultaneously wish to flee. Even Lupita, the matriarch, by the end of the book is used as a prop for the myth as her grandchildren set their babies on her lap and take pictures. Would you say your book is a rebellion against the myth of family, or confirmation of the myth, or how would you characterize the book's relationship to family?
DM: I think it’s a reflection of the messiness of family, due I think, to the mismatch between expectations (or myth) and reality. And, also, the expectations that culture and society place on social roles, particularly for women. I don’t think it’s a myth that families provide connection, comfort and safety. They can do that and at the same time cause embarrassment, discomfort, and pain. There are some families so dysfunctional that they are a menace to the well-being of some of the members and that’s sad and horrifying, and the only answer for survival is escape. 
But the family in Hola and Goodbye doesn’t reach that level of dysfunction. Theirs is more a normal dysfunction, if that makes sense. Love can be confounded and muddied by thwarted dreams, lost opportunities, and confining social roles. All of this can be exacerbated by underlying values from an immigrant culture that may not fit easily in the adopted culture. When the mothers in these stories don’t appear to love their children, it’s often an issue of them trying to love themselves in a world in which they feel undervalued and even unloved.
Q. I think your book reveals that family becomes more difficult to experience, whether that's being a member of one or rejecting one's place in one, when the family shares a cultural identity not shared with the majority of families whose values and myths shape what everyone's supposed to want. This seems to be one of the tensions in the book that every character is dealing with directly or indirectly. Could you speak to this, maybe in terms of your own childhood experiences or your observations of your own mother or as a mother yourself? It just seems like such a complex situation, being part of a family and then becoming the mother of one, too, when there are so many tensions and identities at play.
DM: Yes, that’s a very good observation, and I alluded above to that a bit – the complexities that culture and tradition bring to the already fraught family relationships. I think we often are very deliberate about making choices that differ from our parents and I think we can be a bit unforgiving or at least critical of the decisions they make on our behalf.  For instance, the Spanish language didn’t make it past my mother’s generation. My mother and her siblings saw no need to speak Spanish to us. They saw it only as a means to communicate with their mother. For a while I think we too considered it as a relic of some other time and generation, but eventually we saw it as something denied us. 
On the other hand, I think my generation was intent on having lives different from our mothers – college and independence, things that were not available to them because of economics and attitudes. With my own daughters, I made it clear early on that college, travel, and independence were givens. I think my mother was a little disapproving, or at least questioning, of my parenting. Our differences were generational but also reflected our respective distances from the immigrant experience of my grandmother. Families are organic things, always transforming and adjusting and sometimes it’s hard for some members to understand the others. We’re all moving at different speeds and in different directions.
Q. Rosa resonated deeply with me and is probably the character I will remember most because it seems like she had one shot at the life she wanted, and when her white boss uses the power dynamic against her, and shames her, she turns back to the cultural and gender expectations she'd been trying to avoid or surpass--and that, in turn, seem to crush her. By the end of the book, she returns to the narrative in such a surprising and sorrowful way. I guess I feel compelled by her story because no one seems to understand her. What drew you to creating Rosa? 
DM: I think Rosa’s story is the story of so many women – women who want more from life than it’s willing to give. Life can be a bully. Or rather poverty, racism, and sexism are the bullies in life. And so many victims are denied opportunity and accomplishment because even friends and family participate in that bullying. Some make peace with it, some seek revenge, some are destroyed by it. For Rosa, it was a little bit of all these things. I was happy to bring her back in that final story, “Sunday Dinner.”
Q. Which character did you feel a deep affinity with, and in what way?
DM: It’s hard to say. As I was writing each story, I felt deeply engaged with and attached to the main character of that story. A character who appears in several of the stories is Lyla, so I think that must indicate maybe not an affinity I have with her, but a fascination. 
In fact, since I’m now writing a novel about the twins from “Strong Girls,” Lyla as their mother is necessarily a part of the novel, and I’m really having fun further exploring her character, her relationship with her daughters, and her sense of self. She’s a woman whose dreams of success were dashed early, as were her attempts at living those dreams through her daughters. There’s a lot of pain and ambivalence in her, but also at her core is a love for her daughters that she really is incapable of expressing.
Q. The last two stories of the book seem masterfully placed. Did you write these for the purpose of ending the book? I have a difficult time deciding what order to put my stories in, and find myself searching for tips, reflecting on other books, albums, and so forth. So, I'm always interested in how other writers decide how to organize their stories. What was your method with this book?
DM: After I wrote the first few stories, I realized the collection would be a generational thing. I wanted to contrast the lives of the immigrant generation with the lives of the first and second generations born in the U.S. I wanted to look at what was sacrificed, what was lost, what gets taken for granted. Given the generational structure, it wasn’t too hard to order the stories. However, within each section I did have to give some thought as to which stories should come before others. 
I did write “Cursos de Verano” with the intention that it would end the book. My idea was to begin the book with Lupita having crossed the border from Mexico into the United States and end with her granddaughter, Julia, crossing the border into Mexico. The story “Sunday Dinner” was originally a quite different story, and I had placed it in the first section of the book and then later took it out because it wasn’t quite fitting. It focused on the long friendship between Lupita and Rosa. 
Eventually, I realized I wanted to close with a story like “Sunday Dinner,” but I knew it had to go beyond the friendship of these two women and focus on Lupita’s role in the family. I wanted to show how it had changed over the generations, to show how someone in our midst can be made to disappear because we are consumed with our own needs and wants.
Q. I'm always interested in a person's reading history. I remember my grandmother getting ready for bed by slicing an apple or orange, then taking the bowl and a book to bed. What memories from your childhood do you have of others reading?
DM: Though they made books available to us kids, my parents never read much, or at least, I seldom observed them reading. I think they just didn’t have time. My older sister and I read all the time. We went to the library every Saturday and when we could, we bought books through the Scholastic book orders at school. I remember my sister and me, lying on our twin beds, reading and reading and reading. Almost like a competition, something like a communing.
Q. Hola and Goodbye has been published for a year now, and you've been doing a lot of publicity events, from readings to panels to signings. Of these events, which one did you find most fulfilling, or was there a particular moment that resonated the most with you over the year?
DM: I found them all to be really fun and each rewarding for different reasons, but two were especially delightful. Once was being part of an artist series at the library in the city where I grew up. National City, just south of San Diego, is the inspiration for Kimball Park, the setting for much of my fiction. 
The National City Library was a vital part of my childhood and I have a particular affection for it, so going back there to read from and talk about books I had written was a special pleasure. The other event that really resonated with me was a panel I participated on at the Los Angeles Latino Book and Family Festival. There were three of us on the panel: me of mixed Mexican and Filipino heritage who had grown up hearing Spanish but didn’t speak it, a writer who had recently arrived from Mexico and was not quite fluent in English, and a bilingual Salvadoran/American. The audience was largely bilingual. It was fun how the discussion slid back and forth between languages. Also, the make-up of the panel reminded me of the level of Spanish vs. English fluency of each of the generations of the family in Hola and Goodbye.
National City Library
Q. Do you have another writing project in the works?
DM: I have two novel manuscripts in progress. The one nearest completion is called The Education of Angie Rubio, but I may change the title since several published works with similar titles already exist. The novel depicts the lessons about life, race, and identity a Mexican-American girl learns while growing up in the sixties and seventies. Two of the chapters have been published as short stories in lit journals – “Help” in The Adirondack Review and “First Confession” in the Santa Ana River Review.  
The other novel project is based on one of the stories on Hola and Goodbye. I mentioned earlier that I’m taking the twin girl wrestlers in “Strong Girls” into adulthood. The novel will explore such issues as body image, self-hood, and sisterhood.

Q. Who are three writers everyone needs to read?
Virginia Woolf, writing
DM: I think I’ll answer that by talking about three (or more) writers that have been important to me in terms of my development as a writer and a reader.  In my early twenties, a good fifteen years before I decided I wanted to be a writer, I read quite a bit of Virginia Woolf. What struck me was the emotions she could evoke in her writing by detailing, through the poetry of her language and the shape of her sentences, the seemingly small moments that were in fact substantial, weighty things.  
Several years after I began writing, I happened upon Nobody’s Girl, an early novel by Antonya Nelson. Her flawed, quirky, often unsympathetic characters appealed to me because they seemed so thoroughly human. Also, the humor that infused the scenes underscored the complexity of the characters and their relationships with one another. I’ve read many of Nelson’s books since Nobody’s Girl. 
I’m a fan of humor in stories – the subtle, organically educed kind more so than the overt hijinks kind – which is why one of my favorite books is So Far from God by Ana Castillo. It’s also a story steeped in Chicano culture and history, magic realism, and feminism – all of them integrated into and in the service of the story. 
Her Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado
One other book I’ll mention is one that is recently out and which I reviewed for the Seattle Review of Books. It’s Carmen Maria Machado’s story collection Her Body and Other Parties. It’s innovative, inventive, lush with beautiful language, and daring. It inspires me to look at my own work and consider new ways of approaching subjects that interest me.

Recently in response to a question posed by someone on Twitter regarding craft advice, Machado had this response:
Read. Read read read read read read read. Read outside of your comfort zone. Read your favorites over and over. Read genres that are new to you. Read the classics. Then, imitate what you read until you're not imitating anymore.
It’s advice worth heeding from someone worth reading.


Donna Miscolta,
photograph by Natalie Miscolta-Cameron
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