Staff Writer Selene Lacayo interviews Xochitl Gonzalez about her New York Times Bestselling novel, Olga Dies Dreaming.
"I think that we're constantly at odds with our own selves. This is our genetic inheritance."
Latina author Xochitl Gonzalez debuted in the literary world with unapologetic words in her novel Olga Dies Dreaming (Flatiron Books, 2022). If Olga reads like your cousin or your best friend, it is because she has a soul. Gonzalez poured her whole self into the pages of her book, paying homage to her grandparents, childhood friends, and neighborhood, in the way the things that live inside us present themselves in everything we do.
When you read Olga Dies Dreaming, Gonzalez takes you by the hand with the comfort of a predictable love story: a wedding planner, with no love interest of her own, ends up falling in love. But once you feel cozy, like you're exchanging gossip over drinks with friends, Gonzalez invites you to dig deep into the issues at your core, mixing talk of belonging and identity with colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, and the perennial pull between wanting to be authentic and wanting to fit in.
The result is a book that will make you laugh, squeeze at your heart, and convince you to let go of some of the useless baggage of the past.
I chatted with Gonzalez a week after Olga Dies Dreaming made it on the New York Times Best Sellers List.
I want to understand things from my perspective as a first-generation American mother and I think that the perfect place to start this conversation is with Blanca’s letters. They read so full of truth, but in a way that feels like a slap on the face from the page. How did you start writing something that read like advice but had so many strings of manipulation going on?
I think Blanca is a heightened version of a lot of moms. When I took acting classes in high school, I learned that no villain thinks that they're a villain. They simply have an objective that to them seems rational. Blanca’s thoughts are that she sacrificed so much and now her children owe it to her to live in the way she envisioned for them. She’s clearly liberal and a radical hippie from the 1970s but she still has her weird hang-ups, like the fact that she’s homophobic. These themes come up in her letters.
I spent a lot of time revising these letters and thinking about them. They sting because there is some truth in them. Like when Olga is getting ready to go to Brown for college and Blanca tells her that she’s not going to fit in. That was actually something said to me at a family party. Every time that I didn’t feel like I was fitting in, it haunted me.
Fitting in is such an important part of being here in the United States and I wonder how can we reconcile the sentiment of wanting to be part of this society and succeed with this idea of ridding yourself or your authenticity or your roots to be accepted?
In the Caribbean, especially in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, we have the mix of Indigenous ancestry mixed with Spanish ancestry. If you think about it, one is so grounded in the spirit of land and home, it believes that all that we need is around us. While the other culture was laden in gold and conquest and acquiring things as a way of showing value and dominance. And I think that we're constantly at odds with our own selves. This is our genetic inheritance. It's a fascinating thing to think about.
I feel that in your novel, Olga finally finds a balance between belonging and self-awareness thanks to Matteo. He brings that side of her that lets things flow.
That's right. It was an interesting love story to write because I really didn't want anybody to save Olga. That was why it was very important to me that Matteo would be from the same place as her. I wanted them to have a few shared experiences but for Matteo to be maybe five years ahead on the journey of self-discovery. He comes to Olga without judgment. Sometimes it's good to have somebody not critically hold a mirror up to you, and that’s how you crack the version of the narrative that maybe isn't servicing you.
Latino people like us want to look good—not necessarily in a capitalistic way. We are taught to be professional, have some success, get a nice house and this is what you were supposed to go after. Then if that doesn't feel like enough, we haven't been given the space to question it. I wrote Olga to give room to these conversations and I’ve been so overwhelmed by the response of women in college who feel so connected to Olga. It’s unbelievable.
Yes! There are many important conversations waiting to happen in your book. One that I’m curious as a mom is that of piecing your identity together. You are basically second generation American with your Mexican and Puerto Rican roots, right? So, how did you find your roots? Or did your roots find you? How did you connect with your ancestry?
This is such a beautiful and important question. What I will say to you is that, ironically, racism is how I found my roots when I was young. I went to school in a very racist neighborhood. My best friend from childhood was a Russian immigrant. Whenever we look at photos of our friends from junior high, we laugh because we were like leftovers. We were ostracized but we made our own group. I felt othered but I don't know that I felt attached to the thing that was making me other.
Then, when I got into Brown there was so much casual racism, so my grandfather told me if people are going to label me as Hispanic, I was going to be proud of it and would wear that label like a badge of honor. And I did just that. All my girlfriends were Latinas and Black girls and Caribbean girls. We just huddled together and then I wanted to know more.
I wasn't clueless, but it was interesting to want to only read Latina writers. I wanted to see myself and I took more agency on my identity. Olga Dies Dreaming is the ultimate middle finger to those racists because I wrote it for my community and not thinking of anyone else.
What an amazing way to create your own narrative. Now let’s switch gears and dive into this idea personified by Jan. You write that he was likable because of his first-generation American work ethic. What do you mean by that? Is it because he couldn't afford to fail? And now the second layer to the question is, how does this type of ethic change for Olga?
What I mean by first-generation work ethic is the knowledge that nothing will be handed to you that Jan and Olga both share. They are from the same neighborhood, both with immigrant families that understand what it means to be an outsider.
I wanted to write about the Brooklyn and the New York that I know and add the service industry because of my background as a wedding planner. I always was fascinated because you need to present one way and then behind closed doors, it's often a different story. I would meet these guys who were elegant, and the Upper East Side ladies would just be obsessed with them. Then, you would get their backstory and realize how they scraped and clawed to get their own apartment or learn about the discrimination as a gay person they had felt in their community.
I wanted to show with Jan, this idea of living two lives professionally and even personally. Jan is successful and theoretically, he’s got a nice life living in Chelsea with his boyfriend, but he has to stay in the closet in his Brooklyn community. Those are the layers that people navigate while finding success. One of the things we need to reconcile in literature/culture is that on one hand, there has been progress in recognizing LGBTQ+ rights, but on the other, there are still people who get left behind. Jan couldn’t come out because of religion, ethnicity, and his generation.
There are people in our communities that didn’t come of age in this time when being queer is normal. Nothing makes me happier than seeing young people being so comfortable knowing who they are.
Jan’s work ethic is the perfect introduction to talk about the American Dream. Does it change for the different generations? Or are the new generations more cynical and don’t totally buy into it?
For Olga the American Dream is her grandmother. She works and buys her house, raises her family. Then, there’s Dick who is a different kind of American Dream. He inherited his wealth but grew it. He’s not incompetent. Olga was far from that kind of life but when she sees it from up close, she thinks: this is BS. He started out rich, now he’s richer.
I do think that the youngest generation is more realistic and I guess, holistic. They think of this dream as calm. They are much more interested in being happy. And I think the pandemic has us all questioning what matters.
I have one more very personal question for you: You have this time to reclaim your Mexican and Puerto Rican roots for yourself, how is it for you to step out of the plane the first time that you go to either Mexico or Puerto Rico?
There is something unbelievable that happens every time that I’m in Mexico or Puerto Rico, and I don’t know what it is. I say spiritual, someone else would say it’s sociological, but every time I’m in Puerto Rico, I could cry. There is something in the smell of the air. It feels like a womb. And every time I’m in Mexico, I just relax, which is something that has made me slightly critical of the American Dream. In the US there’s all this agitation and that feeling of not being enough. Traveling to the motherlands made me realize the energies, to be very spiritual, that are very American. When I’m in Mexico or Puerto Rico I feel very grounded. I feel home.
Do you get rid of this “otherness?"
Yes, but at the same time you are still an “other” there. The thing that's different is that, for example, in Puerto Rico people are generally happy that you have come home.
Xochitl Gonzalez received her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and the recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship for Fiction. Olga Dies Dreaming is her debut novel. Prior to writing, Xochitl wore many hats, including entrepreneur, wedding planner, fundraiser and tarot card reader. She is a proud alumna of the New York City Public School system and holds a B.A. in Art History and Visual Art from Brown University. She lives in her hometown of Brooklyn with her dog, Hectah Lavoe.
Selene Lacayo is a writer and translator living in The Greater Philadelphia Area with her Lebanese husband and three children. When she's not driving her kids around town, she enjoys reading books with deep themes, taking walks in nature with her dog Onyx, and documenting life in photos and her writing. You can find her work at selenelacayo.com or connect with her on Twitter @LacayoSelene and IG @Selene Lacayo.
Photo by Ren Koppel Torres.