Seattle author’s fiction blends her Filipino and Latino family influences

Author Donna Miscolta. (Photo by Meryl Schenker, courtesy Donna Miscolta)
Author Donna Miscolta. (Photo by Meryl Schenker, courtesy Donna Miscolta)

How does one begin to write a book? For Filipina/Latina fiction writer Donna Miscolta, the start came while she sat at an airport, numb with grief, traveling to her father’s funeral in San Diego in 1993.

“I didn’t know much about his past; he left the Philippines by joining up as a cook for the U.S. Navy,” she said. “We lived in a Filipino neighborhood where Tagalog was spoken, but he didn’t especially celebrate his Filipino-ness.”

Her father’s immigrant story became the basis for the Seattle author’s first book, the novel “When the de la Cruz Family Danced,” published in 2011.

Miscolta, whose second book “Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories” was published by Carolina Wren Press last month, writes fiction influenced by the experiences of her multicultural family — her immigrant father and her mother, who was Filipina and Mexican American.

“Donna is a master of beautiful sentences and compelling voices. And she is an empathetic writer – she doesn’t shy from human foibles but is generous with her characters, too,” said Kathleen Flenniken, former Washington State Poet Laureate. Flenniken published Miscolta’s work in Raven Chronicles.

Miscolta grew up in the San Diego area. Both her parents wanted their five children to be “American,” so they only spoke English at home.

“We had dinner with my Mexican grandmother every Sunday night, with aunts, uncles, and cousins. She spoke only Spanish but we never were encouraged to learn it,” Miscolta explained. “I didn’t visit Mexico until I graduated from college.”

Miscolta didn’t follow a direct path to fiction writing. She studied zoology at San Diego State University. She worked at a natural history museum before moving to Salem, Oregon, on a whim. She left Oregon after five months because she “needed a bigger city” and followed a boyfriend to Seattle in 1977.

In Seattle, Miscolta worked as a phlebotomist for two years before following her heart and studied Spanish literature and linguistics at the University of Washington. She got a Master’s in Education, and taught English as a Second Language to foreign students at Seattle Pacific University. Taking yet another direction, Miscolta studied graphic arts for two years at Shoreline College.

But by then she was married and a parent, and she searched for a long-term career. After getting a Master’s of Public Affairs at the UW, she got a full-time job working in recycling and waste reduction in King County’s Solid Waste Division, where she still works.

“It goes along with my interest in the environment and the natural world — reaching out to kids and adults to encourage them to take care of our environment through recycling,” she said.

It was this point that she got into creative writing.

“We were so busy both working and then having two kids and having an old house near Green Lake to keep fixing up,” she explained. “It doesn’t seem like I needed another thing to do, but I knew something was missing.”

Taking up creative writing with enthusiasm in the early 1990s, Miscolta started to meet people in the literary business, such as Elliott Bay Book Company senior book buyer Rick Simonson and Kathleen Alcalá, author of “Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist.”

“I attended Kathleen’s reading and decided to enroll in the UW’s Continuing Education fiction writing program and studied with Jack Remick and Rebecca Brown,” Miscolta said. Brown assigned the class to write the first chapter a book — and Miscolta based it on her father’s story.

“Losing my father made me think about his journey from the Philippines and the stories of immigrants in general: why they came here, why they stayed, what did they lose by leaving the old country, and what did they settle for when their dreams didn’t quite match the reality?” she said.

Taking a cue from more experienced writers, Miscolta started attending writers’ conferences, pitching to editors and querying dozens of agents.

“Finally I had a handful of agents interested in my Filipino American story. But frustratingly, their responses often fell into two categories: ‘We don’t know who we would market this to,’ or ‘We just did an ethnic book,'” she said.

But Miscolta caught a break when Hong Kong publisher, Signal8Press, noticed an excerpt of the book in a magazine and published “When the de la Cruz Family Danced” in 2011.

The publisher of Miscolta’s new short story book, “Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories,” is Carolina Wren Press, a North Carolina small press with a mission “to publish diverse books.” The manuscript was chosen in a national competition in May 2015, and the book came out last month.”

“Hola and Goodbye” mines her large Mexican American family’s wealth of tales and also imagines poignant scenes from her observations of life, providing readers with images both sad and funny.

Readers get to know Latina factory workers, mothers who imagine themselves beauty queens, heavy-set twin sister wrestlers, a handsome singing bartender, and the brave transsexual sibling.

The book is getting some national notice. Poet and critic Rigoberto Gonzales selected the new collection in his recent article for NBC Latino, “Amid Uncertain Times, 11 New and Necessary Latino Books to Read.” Gonzales also included  Alcalá’s just-published “The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island.”

Miscolta also joined noted Seattle author Sherman Alexie for his “Indies First” bus tour, along with other outstanding local writers, which made stops at three Seattle independent bookstores to promote book sales.

Alcalá admires Miscolta’s effort as a fiction writer representing a coming trend among diverse and younger writers of color: the need to focus on cross-cultural traditions and situations.

“Donna’s career is zooming along and yet she tackles tough intergenerational material,” Alcalá said.

See Donna Miscolta

Donna Miscolta will appear at the Seattle Fiction Federation reading at Richard Hugo House at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 13.

She also will give a solo reading at Third Place Books at Seward Park, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 15.