Perhaps it is a benevolent mechanism of the mind, the amnesia we develop in adulthood that spares us detailed memories of our school days. Sure, we have a highlights reel, a few unsuspecting moments that form our overall impression of our childhood. But Donna Miscolta hasn’t forgotten. In fact, based on these thirteen stories, it seems she is still very much in touch with those first impressions children make of their world, and the convictions that follow.
Living Color unfolds as a coming-of-age tale, told through a mostly close-third perspective of a Mexican-American girl growing up in the late 1950s and ‘60s. We follow Angie Rubio from her first day of kindergarten to prom night, each narrative movement a snapshot of small yet cumulative moments along her intellectual, emotional, and sexual development. Shaped by the energy of her times, Angie navigates the complex and messy structures of childhood friendships, alliances, and rivalries, with a laser perception of injustice in all forms. She learns to see the difference between herself and her peers, not just because of her brown skin, but also because she is an intelligent and keen observer of the world around her.
Each story in Living Color is rich in the kind of details it would seem only a child would remember. In the first story, Angie describes her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Pai, “whose skin was neither brown nor white, but the beige of cake batter.” Her hair is “construction paper black,” and she “looked like she lived in a comic book.” It is as if Miscolta unearthed a box of her earliest diaries to probe for this level of specificity, choosing age-appropriate similes which brought me right back to the proverbial carpet square. These endearing impressions come from the perspective of a kindergartener, yet they appear within sophisticated, writerly sentences. For instance: “Even though Angie knew she had not made an accident in her pants, she feared that somehow Mrs. Pai’s very act of looking would produce a smudge.”
Angie’s experiences in these stories highlight the reality that entering school is often the first time children become race-conscious. She notices that while her kindergarten class is in Hawaii, there are no Hawaiians in her class. Her teacher is from China, a fact that a classmate illustrates by pulling on the corners of her eyes. Angie even finds that she is more likely to be cast as the wrongdoer. She always has to be the “monster” in play time with Susie Wren, the wealthier, white girl next door, who is always the princess. And was she placed in the “dumb class” automatically because she’s brown?
Angie reflects in the autobiography she writes as a high schooler:
Phonics lessons and storybooks reminded everyone that brown
is an animal.
How now, brown cow.
The quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
The little brown monkey––the story of a monkey and
his jungle friends.
Miscolta weaves her depiction of high school in the 1960s, steeped in the intensity of racial tensions and social upheaval, with the usual humiliations and hormonal fumblings universal to the teenage experience. The chapter “Class Play” is truly unforgettable, in which a Filipino boy plays Romeo to a white Juliet. Angie recalls the rehearsal in which the teacher, overcome with the awkwardness of the kiss in the stage directions, waves her arms, saying, “Kiss over.” This prompts a wave of people calling out couples making out in the hallways. I laughed out loud.
Throughout these stories, Miscolta excels at balancing the humor and socio-cultural phenomena in Angie’s world. In depicting a crowded scene like the high school cafeteria, she uses a plot-advancing combination of indirect discourse and dialogue:
The consensus of Angie’s group, vocalized loudly by Wanda, was that interracial unions were a sign of social progress and that everyone should just be cool with it. She held up peace fingers with one hand and a radical fist with the other. Others around their group glared, declaring that the issue wasn’t race. “Notice,” Wanda said, instructively, “only the white people say it’s not about race.”
Angie’s world is rich with voices and perspectives other than her own; she is always listening. She is intelligent and highly perceptive, spending weekends staying in and studying, but she is no square. That is to say, she is still a child. When adults respond poorly (or not at all) to her various needs, it highlights the ways in which children are so often lost in the shuffle, and unfulfilled needs lead them to develop adverse behavioral patterns in response. When no adult will respond to Angie’s complaints that she is stuck in the remedial class, she resorts to apathy, allowing her classmates to cheat off her work. Later, she skips class and takes a tour through the lives of chronic detention-attendees. And to help her teacher save face on a field trip, she creates a distraction involving a shelf full of snow globes.
As her independence grows, so does her impatience with her life:
Change––to put it mildly––was the name of the game. It was all around her. Yet she seemed to be spinning slowly like a Ferris wheel, stalling occasionally, rocking in the breeze and watching life go on in the distance.
To pull out of this stagnancy, Angie decides over the summer before senior year to be “bold and provocative.” She is in touch with the reality that her desire to create chaos is born out of her frustration with injustice and stagnancy––a fact that is often baffling to teachers, politicians, and anyone who is privileged or complacent enough to be untouched by it. So she begins writing an opinion column in her school paper in which she calls out hypocrisies and injustices within the school. I was especially excited to see this instinct in her, having done precisely the same thing at that age, even suffering the same social consequences Angie does: alienating her peers and not getting invited to parties. But it’s worth it to her, to be able to use her voice and claim her own power. After all, this is how she finds a way out of her limited sphere of existence, the escape for so many young writers.
I truly loved and rapidly devoured Living Color. Miscolta strikes a perfect balance between historical events and the timeless dramas of the schoolyard that will resonate with readers of any generation. The humor and insight make it a deliciously swift read, though you’ll want to linger over particularly lovely passages. In short, it is a book to get lost in, and Angie is a character who stays with you.
Juliana Converse‘s writing has appeared or will be published in Heavy Feather Review, Tupelo Quarterly, The Compulsive Reader, Technoculture, Witch Craft Magazine, and BlazeVOX. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, and lives in Baltimore City, Maryland.