Hypertext Interview With Donna Miscolta

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By Christine Rice

In today’s bizarro world–with knee-jerk nonsense stoking a roaring misunderstanding of the immigrant experience–reading Donna Miscolta’s When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press) feels especially necessary. Miscolta’s debut novel not only examines the journey from immigrant to American but also dissects the bonds of family in all its messy glory.

I first heard Donna Miscolta’s voice one perfect fall evening when we were both residents at Ragdale. I remember thinking: this woman is a natural storyteller–which is to say that what she does on the page is as natural as breathing yet incredibly complex. Her stories and characters are so engaging, her voice so lyrical, her sense of internal conflict so subtle, that I immediately wanted to read every word she had ever written.

Miscolta’s short story collection, Hola and Goodbye, will be published this year by Carolina Wren Press as the winner of the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman (Hola and Goodbye was previously a finalist for the AWP 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award). She has also published dozens of short stories, interviews, and essays.

Since Donna lives in Seattle, we connected via email to discuss When the de la Cruz Family Danced.

Christine Rice:  How have your life experiences (parent, spouse, working full-time for a not-for-profit agency) fed and influenced your writing?

Donna Miscolta: Being a mother and a spouse has given me a perspective on family that I might not have had otherwise, or at least not at such a close angle. Those roles expanded my awareness of myself in relation to others beyond what I knew in my roles as daughter and sister. Being a mother and a spouse tested me in so many ways. I didn’t always respond as my best self in times of stress or conflict. Those roles pointed out more than any others my weaknesses and failings, made me think how we as humans fail in general even with the best intentions, when we stubbornly pursue an action or behavior even when we know it’s contrary and unconstructive. I suppose all that was good training for my writer self, for considering the internal and external needs and wants of a character, the text and subtext of a scene, the epiphanic moment.

Working a full-time job has mainly influenced my writing by lending an urgency to it. It’s made me learn to write in short segments and to expect interruption. I might write twenty minutes or so at lunchtime sometimes on the bus ride home, usually an hour or two in the evening. The topics I deal with at work – waste reduction, resource conservation, environmental protection – have been scarce in my fiction. I think I’ve written only two stories, both unpublished, in which the protagonists are tree-huggers. Both stories end in tragedy – one in an arson and the other in a traffic fatality. I don’t know what that says about my hope for the planet.

CR: This book resonated with me on so many levels. First, it deals with a first-generation Filipino family, a family that reminded me very much of the circumstances faced by my first-generation Lebanese family. Johnny de la Cruz grew up in Manila, served in the United States Navy, settled in the San Diego area, and made it a point to assimilate.

In Chapter I  you write,

It surprised him even now, the flood of Filipinos. He lived in America surrounded by Filipinos, and yet lived apart from them. He had practically rid himself of his accent. His children spoke like Americans, their vowels flat and wide, their consonants hard, and their grammar correct. They did not confuse learn and teach. He had heard one of Hector Cabrera’s children say to eight-year-old Laura, “My father learned me to play checkers.” “You mean taught,” Laura had responded. Johnny had been smug that Laura knew the difference. Ashamed, too. Not that Laura would correct their neighbor’s child, but that the need existed for her to.

I was so taken by that paragraph, that last line in particular. You so simply but so profoundly summed up the tension that exists for people new to America. In my family, it was a point of pride to shed any sense of otherness and yet we very much kept so many old-country traditions, too. Can you talk about this in regards to your own family’s experience?

DM: Despite living in a neighborhood with a lot of other Filipino families in a city that was over 50 percent people of color (mostly Mexican-American), the world was white to me. My siblings and I were completely Americanized kids in terms of our language, the toys we played with, the music we listened to, the TV we watched, and the movie heroes we worshipped. What other way was there to be, given that the world that mattered was white?

Food was the primary cultural element that our family held onto, and even then it was reserved mostly for special occasions: menudo on Sundays, tamales on New Year’s Eve, pancit for family gatherings. The rest of the time is was meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, or pork chops and potatoes. Plus rice. Everyday there was rice. It was quite literally the staple of our lives that clearly kept us tied to our otherness.

It was a strange mindset being aware of my brownness and otherness, but at the same time believing that the world of Father Knows Best and the Donna Reed Show was one I could occupy, that the lives depicted in Teen Magazine were like my own, that I had things in common with movies starring Hayley Mills with her English accent or Annette Funicello with her barely passable singing but immensely likeable speaking voice.

My only language was English so I never questioned my father’s avoidance of Tagalog and my mother’s aversion to speaking Spanish. It just seemed something people did to be Americans. But otherness can only be shed up to the point of skin color. You can pretend that your brownness is less an issue than that of that other person whose English is more accented than yours. You can even dismiss that person as not as American as you. You can believe that you’re not at war with yourself for those feelings. My parents had internalized racism and so had I. We were Americans, we insisted. And yet, we weren’t quite convinced that we belonged. And still, we hoped.

CR: At one point, Winston, a young man who has sought out Johnny de la Cruz based on a curious letter written to Johnny by Winston’s late mother, takes cancer-ridden Johnny and his brother-in-law Rey to the casino.

They were men on a mission, keeping a slow but steady pace down the long corridor bright with chandeliers and mirrors. Finally, they reached the gaming hall, where the ambiance abruptly changed. The room was dim, lit mostly by the flashing lights of the slot machines. Music seemed to come from everywhere—Motown hits piped in overhead and tinny tunes emanating from the different banks of machines, each with its own theme of has-been TV sit-coms: I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters, Bewitched.

To Winston’s surprise, Rey and Johnny settled themselves at the slot machines rather than head to the poker and blackjack tables in the middle of the room. They hoisted their pastel bottoms onto the deeply padded stools meant to invite long periods of sitting. They spaced themselves apart, with an empty machine between them, and that’s where Winston seated himself to watch. Rey and Johnny immediately went to work, playing twenty dollars’ worth of quarters at a time. At first he tried to pay careful attention to their results, hoping to track their losses, so that he might cover them if he could. But this required him to lean quite a bit — first one way and then the other. The back-and-forth crane of his neck made a conspicuous seesaw.

Rey stopped his lever-pulling to look at him. “It’s not a spectator sport, you know.”

There’s a tenderness between these men that is really touching.

This moment comes just before Winston realizes that he has finally ‘won them over.’  Johnny has been a spectator—watching his family like an outsider for so long. And Winston has been watching too. What’s my question here…I guess I’m wondering about how illness clarifies relationships, how it forces everyone’s hand?

DM: That was something I wanted to explore in fiction because in real life I was separated geographically from my father when he was ill, and I was also separated from my family’s response to his illness. I don’t think I was really clued in to the seriousness of his condition or of his prognosis. I was also preoccupied with my own family. We were two states away in Washington. Our daughters were young. We were balancing work and family and a fragile financial situation. This was 1993. I was sending letters by postal mail and making weekly phone calls on a land line. My youngest sister was living in Texas. But my brother and two other sisters were near my parents. They were the ones who were most intimately affected by the day-to-day anxieties of tending to the aches, pains, fears, and anger of someone who is ill and for whom the outlook is uncertain. They were the ones who I think had the time and opportunity to reflect on their past and existing relationship with our dad and to as much as possible come to some semblance of peace and acceptance. On what turned out to be his last night, my father called out my name and the name of my sister in Texas. We were nowhere near enough to hear.

I had always known my father as a shy, aloof man, one not given to confidences. As an adult I didn’t see my father often enough to re-see him. That is, to get to know him as someone other than the aloof, often gruff parent of my childhood and adolescence. After my father died, and I flew to San Diego for the funeral, I was talking to one of my sisters who mentioned how she used to confide in our dad and go to him for advice, how they would have long talks. I was astonished at this depiction of the father I knew–or rather didn’t know and never would. Maybe that’s why I wrote the novel–to clarify my own relationship to a man I should’ve known better. To answer his call for me that went unanswered all those years ago.

CR: I’m going to virtually stop right here to take that in and breath a little bit…


Johnny ends up in the hospital after breaking his arm killing a snake. Sitting bedside, Tessie asks Johnny if he’d seen Winston’s mother on his trip “back home” to Manila.

He couldn’t recall ever having lied to Tessie—except for small things, like telling her no, the meatloaf wasn’t too dry, or that he liked her new hairdo, when in fact he hated the stiffness and overly sweet odor of it.
“Briefly,” Johnny said. “At Nora’s house. With her husband.”
“What was he like.”?
“Quiet,” Johnny said. “Polite.”
“Like Winston,” Tessie remarked, as if such a thing were hereditary, coiled neatly in one’s genes.
Tessie hummed again. It made Johnny edgy — even edgier when she broke off.
“It would’ve been nice,” she said.
“What?” He wished she hadn’t stopped humming.
“To have had a son.”
They hadn’t said such a thing out loud in years. He felt as if she’d crossed a boundary, broken a pact, invited heartbreak. He groaned softly.

Johnny has three daughters, no sons. In my family, in the first generation of my family, boys were very much prized. And this plays out on the page time and again in When the de la Cruz Family Danced.

How did this family dynamic evolve on the page? Was it something you set out to write about, to explore? Or did the force of it surprise you on the page?

DM: I don’t know if I set out to do this. I do know that it’s something that has occupied me for much of my life – not obsessively. It’s just something that’s been part of my consciousness, something that I think has helped shape my worldview and my view of myself. So I’m not surprised that it came out in the novel.

In my extended family, female children outnumber the males. But in the two cultures I have roots in–Filipino and Mexican–the male is prized. The scarceness of boys in the family made them all the more important. I always felt I was valued less because I was a girl. It wasn’t just the men who wanted sons. The women did, too. In my novel, I made Winston (the surrogate son) beautiful, talented, and almost magical – too good to be true.

CR: You write about illness, aging, and how families deal with these issues with such an unflinching, honest, and direct gaze. And you infuse everything with a wry (but never mocking) humor. Because the details you include about caring for an aging and ill parent are so spot on, I’m curious if you ever cared for an aging parent (besides your father) or grandparent?

DM: I’ve never had the experience of caring for an aging or ill parent, so I appreciate your observation that I got it right in the novel. As I mentioned earlier, I was not geographically near my father when he was ill. Now that my mother’s health is poor, my older sister is again the one who is tending to her. My sister lives with my mother. The constant contact is mutually taxing. But I’m guessing that at some level it’s a very intimate connection that doesn’t happen often in families where we can often be strangers to one another.

My mother doesn’t really trust anyone else to do the things that my sister does for her. Once I stayed four or five days with my mother while my sister took a much needed vacation. Because I haven’t lived near my mother for forty years, she has no sense of what I do in my life on a daily basis. It escapes her that having raised two children, I do have experience and the capacity to tend to the needs of others and that I have practical skills like cooking and vacuuming (though these days I do little of either). My mother doubted my ability to be useful to her. She was afraid to ask me for anything, and I was afraid to do much beyond what was listed on the instructions my sister left for me. I felt my mother was judging me the whole time, comparing my actions to my sister’s, and counting the hours until my sister returned.

The closest I ever came to caring for an aged or ill person was when I was a candy-striper in high school. One of our duties was feeding the patients at the old folks’ home. It was a sad, depressing place. It didn’t matter that the rooms and corridors were regular cleaned. The smell of pee, apple juice, and strained vegetables always filled the air. The first time I was sent to the home, I gagged and hid in the stairwell. But I was sent back a second time and eventually I got used to the smell, which I decided was the smell of deterioration which made me sad. I began to be critical of how quickly the nurses shoved the mashed and pureed food into the mouths of the residents whose necks quivered with rapid swallows. The nurses scraped food off the patient’s chin and jowls and pushed it past teeth and tongue. It was quick and efficient. There were other patients to feed. The nurses wanted me to hurry, but I couldn’t. Couldn’t spoon heaping spoonfuls at such a fast and furious pace.

Part of getting old and acquiescing to someone else’s care and oversight is learning to accept that your caregiver will see you in the most vulnerable situations – in bed, in the shower, at meal times, or the easy chair where you slump in sleep and drool on the upholstery. And part of being a caregiver for an old or infirm person is pretending you don’t see them so exposed even when you are so up close to them they are almost part of you.

CR: When the de la Cruz Family Danced seems like the ultimate American story.

There is this really interesting piece in the New York Times Sunday Book Review where Pankaj Mishra and Francine Prose talk about categorizing fiction.

Francine Prose writes:

When categories get less interesting is when the category becomes the whole point — the substance and the basis of how a book is read. There are many things to be said about Dinaw Mengestu, María Luisa Bombal, Chinua Achebe and Anita Desai apart from the fact of their having come from former colonies; there is much to note about Harry Crews’s “A Childhood” besides the fact that it is a Southern coming-of-age memoir. What’s even worse is when a category is used to suggest inferiority. Being called “a Russian writer” or “an American writer” is fine, though perhaps not ideal compared with just plain “writer.” But being called “a woman writer” is often not fine. I sympathize with the impulse to focus on writers whose work has been neglected, yet I’m not sure it helps to suggest that the reason we might want to read them — and rescue them from obscurity — is because they come from a particular part of the world

I assume there are as many different feelings about being identified as a member of a racial or ethnic group as there are individual writers from every racial and ethnic group. Yet I imagine that most writers would rather their work not be defined by gender, or race or country of origin, but rather by what they write. For don’t all writers (and, for that matter, all human beings) secretly, or not so secretly, believe that they are unique, that each of us exists in, belongs in and defines a category of our own?

I’m curious about your thoughts about categorization as, thankfully, more and more stories from all Americans are being published.

DLCfrontcoverFINALDM: I identify as both an Asian-American writer and as a Latina writer. I claim the categories because someone will always be asking me what I am. I save the guesswork. And still, I might confuse people. My novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced is about a Filipino-American family. My story collection Hola and Goodbye, coming in November, is about a Mexican-American family. “Which is it?” people might ask. “What are you really?” Such is the need to categorize.

I do think that most writers would prefer to be considered just as writers and not as a category of writer. I think the publishing world works against that. Book marketers might have you believe that there is not a market for a book like When the de la Cruz Family Danced. They assume that only Filipino-Americans would be interested in reading about Filipino-Americans, and they have no idea where or how to reach this audience. That’s where the problem of categorizing an author comes in–the assumption that only a certain narrow category of reader will be interested in a piece of writing. There’s a separation or division of writers that implies one category is less than another–less accomplished, less important, less appealing to a wider audience.

I think it’s important that we believe in our particular voice and style. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that we each think we’re unique and belong in a category of our own. We do want to be read on our own terms. But again, marketing works against that. When you query an agent, you’re encouraged to pitch it as similar to this or that already published and successful book. Or as some fascinating marriage of two distinctive, well-known works or authors: Jane Austen meets Neil Gaiman. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Gone Girl. They’re forced and artificial couplings. Even so, if you’re a writer of color, you can’t say your book is like House on Mango Street or like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, because there’s no room for another book or author like those. While it’s true there’s a push for diversity in publishing, there’s still resistance in the industry. It’s the small publishers that are making and following through on the commitment to publish writers of color. I’m grateful to Signal 8 Press for putting When the de la Cruz Family Danced out in the world. And I’m thrilled that Hola and Goodbye is joining the lineup from Carolina Wren Press, of which I count among my recent favorites two novels – Mulberry by Paulette Boudreaux and A Falling Star by Chantel Acevedo.

I read a lot of writers of color. I also read a lot of white writers. I want a good story well told. That’s a category I aspire to. I think we all do.

CR: Is Johnny’s character a composite of people you knew growing up or know now? Or is he based on one person in particular? Or wholly imagined…or somewhere in between?

DM: My father was the inspiration for Johnny. I started writing the book as an exercise for an assignment for one of my first writing classes. The assignment coincided with the death of my father and my travel to Southern California for his funeral. I realized how little I knew of my father and that I would never know him except through other people’s relationship to him and my own imagination.

CR: We met at Ragdale. It seems like such a long time ago now! What does a writers residency do for you as a writer? What was your favorite thing about Ragdale?

DM: A residency means big blocks of time to write. I don’t have to think about my day job. I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to have for dinner. A residency means time to really focus on my writing project and to make progress in a few weeks what would normally take months to accomplish. A residency connects me with other writers and artists. Learning about the work of others nourishes me and expands my experience as a reader and a writer.

My favorite thing about Ragdale, aside from the great company of the other residents, was Ragdale House and the prairie. The paths in the tall, swishing grass of the prairie were the loops and zigzags for my morning run and often my afternoon walk. You could lose yourself and clear your head, be energized in the morning and replenished later in the day for the work you came to do. The house was so beautiful and comfortable and inviting. The house is a work of art and I wanted to honor the intention of the builders and caretakers of the place with my own commitment to creating art. It’s a commitment I make at any residency, but I felt a particular resonance in that house as I slowly but steadily tapped out words on my laptop. Maybe it was the ghosts. Or the memories the walls held of its past inhabitants–the original family members as well as the writers before me–who had occupied those spaces, including that lovely room at the top of the stairs that was mine for eighteen days.

CR: Of all of the characters in the novel, which one (or ones) did you most identify with? Which character surprised you the most?

DM: Because this was Johnny’s story, I think I had to identify with him most in order to write him. I never really got to know my own father, so this was a chance for me to know him or my idea of him through a fictional character.

I think Tessie surprised me the most. I like that she took secret dance lessons. I expected that of her. Her need to have something just for her, but afraid to have anything enjoyable in her life given Johnny’s illness. But there was a resoluteness about her that pleased me. And also a sense of herself as her own person, apart from her family. A recognition of her own needs.

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