Gonzalez has an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Prize in Fiction. She was the winner of the 2019 Disquiet Literary Prize and her work has been published in Bustle, Vogue, and The Cut. She is a contributor to The Atlantic, where her weekly newsletter Brooklyn, Everywhere explores gentrification of people and places. Prior to beginning her MFA, Xochitl was an entrepreneur and strategic consultant for nearly 15 years. She serves on the Board of the Lower East Side Girls Club. A native Brooklynite and proud public school graduate, she received her BA in Fine Art from Brown University. She lives in her hometown of Brooklyn with her dog, Hectah Lavoe.
Rebecca Speas of One More Page Books in Arlington, VA served on the panel that selected Gonzalez’s book for Indies Introduce. “Set in 2017 New York City in the months leading up to Hurricane Maria, Olga Dies Dreaming is a dazzling debut from a powerful writer that weaves a vivid family story into a rich tapestry of wealth, class, race, and diaspora," said Speas. "It is wise and warm and witty, observing its characters’ failures and triumphs without sentimentality, bitterness, or cynicism, and it shifts from the personal to the political and back again with ease. Xochitl Gonzalez writes exquisitely about the immigrant experience, the American Dream, and community action, and she has crafted a story that celebrates hope, healing, accountability, and the everyday revolutions we must continually fight for our own self-worth. Olga Dies Dreaming is a stunning debut, one that will linger long after the book is closed, and — hopefully — throughout the years. Pa’lante. Siempre pa’lante.”
Here, Speas and Gonzalez discuss crafting Olga Dies Dreaming.
Rebecca Speas: You have worn many different hats before you turned to writing — wedding and event planner, entrepreneur, tarot card reader, to name a few — and I’m curious to hear how any of these experiences shaped the writing of Olga Dies Dreaming?
Xochitl Gonzalez: Oh, I think they all are absolutely woven in there, even some things that didn’t make it into the bio. First, I would say that I really have spent my adult life as a bit of a hustler. I was self-employed for the better part of my career. So, while independently owned and operated single women’s households require some juggling — we are, after all, still paid 16% less than men — it’s even more heightened for women entrepreneurs. So, I knew that that hustle was a part of what I wanted to capture in this character. I also had the really interesting experience of being a luxury wedding planner, which required tons of social and practical skills, but which was still, ultimately, a service job. And I think service jobs are wonderful vantage points to consider class and money from, which I also knew were themes I wanted to explore. So in those senses, my past lives very much informed the areas of fascination — and the areas of detail — explored in this book.
RS: New York City and Puerto Rico are described and intertwined so skillfully in this book; it feels as though they are both characters in their own right. Can you talk a little bit about what these places mean to you, and to the characters?
XG: Yes. Absolutely, the places feeling like characters was of utmost importance to them. First, in showing them in a nuanced way — Brooklyn, especially — that I haven’t seen in a while, because so much of fiction set in Brooklyn is set in “New Brooklyn” and it was important to show the version of the place that exists to natives of the boro.
Then, too, in both places, one of the things that I wanted to show was that even though Puerto Rico and Brooklyn are locations, they engender very specific and nuanced feelings, in the same way that human characters do. Growing up here there was a larger Nuyorican community in New York City, but internally, the world felt divided by those people who “went to the island” (Puerto Rico) and those of us whose families, by choice or resources, never went. In some ways, it created a weird insecurity, because you felt a tie to this island you didn’t know, but couldn’t explain why. Of your identity feeling so tied to this island even when you yourself feel part of another island all together. So, there was a part of me that wanted to write about that sort of almost mystic pull to our motherlands, even when they are physically strange places to us. (In many ways, Olga’s relationship with the island of Puerto Rico mirrors that to her mother, Blanca.) And a big part of me also wanted to show the diversity of the diasporic experience, and what different relationships with the island all the various characters have and how that is a part of our story as well.
Conversely, Olga and her brother feel so firmly rooted in their identity as Brooklynites, and yet that is an identity that, in the form that they’ve known it, is fading away quickly. So, in many ways, Brooklyn and Puerto Rico are both signifiers of identities that have unfixed meanings, really.
RS: One of my favorite things about Olga is how easily it shifts from the personal to the political, and how often the two are inextricable from each other. This is most obvious with Prieto, Olga’s brother, and Olga being brown people in predominantly white spaces. Was this something that you set out to write about, or did it come later as you were crafting the story?
XG: No, I definitely set out to write about a woman who “almost” fits into spaces and yet always feels and is made to feel othered. Actually, her brother came to me after I had begun the book. But originally, when she was just a character who kept showing up in different things all the stories were about this upwardly mobile Latina trying, but not quite succeeding, in “cracking” these spaces. Ultimately, her journey and her feelings about and questioning why she wants to get into these universes, became a major part of the novel. That I was not expecting. But I always knew I wanted to examine the effort to try.
RS: Okay, but my actual favorite thing about Olga is that even though the protagonists aren’t perfect — they endure hardships, make questionable decisions, receive and cause pain, and do all sorts of messy, complicated, human things — it is not a bitter or cynical book. The characters we care about mess up, but ultimately take steps to grow and heal and hold themselves accountable. How did you maintain that balance?
XG: I love this question. To be honest, the greatest gift getting into my 40s has given me is the knowledge that we can love and be loved despite being flawed human beings. So much energy was spent trying to be perfect to win, keep, or earn love in my youth, and I realized sometime in my late 30s that just isn’t how it works. So, it was a conscious joy to write about characters who are imperfect and still work to be accountable to those they love and who need to offer forgiveness and be forgiven. So, I think I maintained the balance by trying to stay honest to the character. There are many moments with Matteo when I would think “But this is a real man, not a pushover, so what would he really say or do?” And that interrogation might still lead to loving the flawed character, but it also forces them to hold the character to task. Which is what we can and should do in our lives in the best iterations of love.
RS: Without giving too much away, can you talk a little bit about the title Olga Dies Dreaming, and what it means to you?
XG: A major question for me embarking on this project was what happened from my parents’ generation — the boomers who became Black and Brown Power Activists to my generation — the X’ers who were more concerned with getting into Puffy’s White Party in the Hamptons and accumulating designer goods. I wasn’t sure, when I started writing this, if it was some sort of reaction to those rigid values of right and wrong or if it was a form of assimilation or just beguilement by the “American Dream,” but I felt more than a little implicated. My parents, and many activists, often made mistakes in their personal lives, but they had a strong sense of wanting equity and I felt, certainly in my 20s and 30s, less that than a sense of wanting to “win.” And that felt very “American,” in a sad way, to me.
Anyway, when researching my history for the book, I was looking for old Pa’lante papers from the Young Lords and I ended up on the Hurray for the Riff Raff song, Pa’Lante, which samples the Nuyorican spoken word poet Pedro Prieti’s poem, "Puerto Rican Obituary." In it he laments the dying of values from Puerto Rico in exchange for chasing American “successes” and he does so through these fictitious characters who moved to NY from Puerto Rico. They are Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Manuel and, of course, Olga. And all of them die dreaming of some ephemeral success: winning the lotto, getting a house in the suburbs. And it felt the perfect title, not only to convey the themes of the book, but to connect the lineage of our activist history in the United States and the lineage of writing by Puerto Ricans concerned with our role in America. I feel so proud of this title and even more delighted that of the many nuances I had to advocate for, no one ever asked me to change it.
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez (Flatiron Books, 9781250786173, Hardcover Fiction, $27.99) On Sale: 1/4/2022.
Find out more about the author at xochitlgonzalez.com.
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