In 'Olga Dies Dreaming,' A Latina Wedding Planner Is Pitted Against the Wishes of Her Absent Mother
With a heroine caught between a freedom-fighting mother and her own entrepreneurial ambitions, Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut novel asks, "Are we defined by the expectations of others?"
January 4, 2022
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
Edwin De La Cruz: Hi, I'm Audible Editor Edwin, and today I have the pleasure to sit down with Xochitl Gonzalez, author of the new novel Olga Dies Dreaming. It is a dazzling debut that weaves a vivid family story with a rich tapestry of topics such as Puerto Rican culture, class, wealth, race, and, of course, diaspora. Welcome Xochitl. How are you?
Xochitl Gonzalez: I'm good. Thank you so much, Edwin, for having me.
EDLC: You're welcome. So let's start at the beginning. What was the inspiration behind Olga Dies Dreaming?
XG: Oh gosh, I knew I wanted to work on a novel. I was going to start my MFA and I just knew that I wanted to leave with a full novel. I love novels. I enjoy short stories, but I love novels. I discovered this character that became Olga in starting a bunch of tiny, short stories. I just wanted it to be a slightly broader, bigger book than that.
One day I was on my way to my day job at the time, and I was listening to Hurray for the Riff Raff, the Navigator album, which is all about gentrification in New York, and then I was reading Naomi Klein, The Battle for Paradise, which is all about disaster capitalism in Puerto Rico after Maria. And it just very much clicked.
I'd worked on some nonfiction pieces prior to all of this, about growing up raised by my grandparents. My mom was an activist in the Brown Power Movement and was wandering the world, working with a socialist worker party during most of my childhood, and so everything clicked. I had this idea, and the first iteration was a wedding planner who robs from the rich to give money to a mother who's trying to rebuild in Puerto Rico after Maria.
And then it kept getting crazier and crazier in my mind as I finally sat down to work on it. But it was literally a moment of Q train inspiration is what I would call it. Divine Q train inspiration.
EDLC: Xochitl, I immediately fell in love with the main character, Olga. The first few chapters, her meeting Mateo—I had a smile from ear to ear because of her strength and Latina sassiness that comes across. I feel like I really know her. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you thought about shaping her character?
XG: Yeah, it was very important to me. I was thinking about working on something that was in the contemporary literary sphere to have a character who was Latina but quite accomplished and had sort of forged the path for herself that maybe had not been laid out for her. I had the experience growing up in Brooklyn, transitioning from public school to elite New England college, and I knew a lot of women like me, but I had just not seen them in books. It was very important to me that she be both where she grew up, but also walking the world with which she sort of found herself as an adult and sometimes alone. She's a real Brooklyn girl, but she's super smart. She's book smart and kind of street smart, and she is very guarded.
I think she's had to live in a couple of places at the same time. And that's in some ways made her more guarded than she becomes later. I was like, "I'm gonna write a character who's a bit of an avatar for me had I never gone to therapy." We share some autobiographical details. And I was like, "Well, what if you just handled that really unhealthily." And literally 10 years of therapy later, you're like, "Oh, if I was still doing things the way I did when I was 30, I'd make a very bad decision here."
"I was like, 'I'm gonna write a character who's a bit of an avatar for me had I never gone to therapy.'"
She does get in her own way, but I think a lot of people can probably relate to some of her lizard brain instincts when she encounters some situations.
EDLC: So we know that the profession is sort of semiautobiographical, which, once we listen to the novel, we know that this profession is very much at odds with her mother's hopes and dreams for her. Can you talk a little bit about that?
XG: Oh, completely. So her mom and her dad were part of the Young Lords Party, which has its tenets rooted... It's very inspired by the Black Panther Party, but the tenets are also very rooted in socialism, and it's very much issues having to deal with money or upper-class trappings. Like, her mother disavows makeup and anything cosmetic and glamorous, and here is Olga literally one point trying to get a spot on TV. She's got a little segment on a morning show. She has sacrificed most of her personal time to servicing these very well off clients, and that was something that I found interesting about my own self. I'm like, "Oh, this is so weird. I lived with my grandparents, but my parents would send me all of these pre-Columbian mythology books. And then I was like, how did you end up doing this?
In general it was part of a larger generational question though, like, there were so many activists boomers who then had kids that came of age in my era, Gen X kids, that we were very much huffy and white parties and, like, how do we get to the Hamptons? Success was measured by the value of our shoes and our clothes and what parties we could get into.
I was curious about that question, not just as an individual, but generationally: How did we lose sight of the soul of the work that had given us access to some of these places in the first place?
EDLC: I completely agree. And I think growing up Latino in New York City you often think when you see wealth, like, how can I get there and will I be accepted? These things come up in the novel as well.
Xochitl, one thing I really like about Olga is that she's very much a modern woman, especially in her approach to sex and relationships. On one hand we have Richard, a wealthy businessman who wants to kind of own her in a way and show her off as an exotic beauty, versus Mateo, who is dealing with his own grief about his mother's death and is someone who encourages and supports Olga in ways that no one else seems to do. What inspired you to write Olga's relationships on these angles?
XG: I would definitely say there was a personal relationship that I'd had that definitely had moments where I was like, "You're being shown off." When it was over, I had to do some self-examination and realize that it's just a super-unhealthy relationship where they both stand as symbols of something.
For Dick, I think she is this exotic symbol that differentiates him as he's falling into the malaise of white male, middle aged. Everybody's getting by and looking the same and going to the same clubs and the same parties and having the same life. She is this thrilling differentiation point, and I think for her, he is a revenge against all of the times that she didn't feel seen by exactly this type of person. I think that that experience of going from home to being dropped into this other universe of her university setting was really traumatic for her because she's torn from home and immersed in a culture that she doesn't completely understand. I think that somehow Dick is an effort to balm that wound, you know? And then Mateo, he's such a straight shooter and kind of speaks the same language as her, in terms of them both being from the same place, and having been strangers and outsiders coming to that same kind of universe and then choosing to come back home. And he just refuses to allow her to talk her way around things. That pressure is bizarrely refreshing for her.
I think it's interesting in the sense that she decided that that wasn't gonna work for her. In a weird way, her only real friend is her brother. She's not exactly a personally popular person.
EDLC: Olga's brother, Prieto, struggles with his sexuality, his ability to make a difference and his career visions. Why do you think he felt he couldn't be true to himself for so long?
XG: You know, he was inspired by a lot of men of color that I have just known in my life, more specifically Latino Caribbean men, Afro Caribbean men just generally. There's such a machismo, but also just a bias that it almost chokes things off.
And even though society is changing, a part in the book where he says that nobody ever told him that being gay was wrong, but it was clear that liking women was right. Even now it's 2021 and we'll be like to my friend's son, "Oh, the girls must love you." Stop saying that. You heard your mother say it, you heard your grandmother say it. It takes a resolute amount of support and courage to fight that instinct that's unspoken. I think family and family dynamics can be really interesting, because it's almost like a fence that can't be breached. We've come such a long way in terms of our discourse about sexuality and gender, but we also need to make space for the fact that for some individuals that isn't the experience that they're having.
"What ultimately I think the book is about is resilience and self-acceptance, self-love, and all the things that can come to us if we can get to that place."
EDLC: I agree. And also then add another layer of being Latino, which adds another complexity for Prieto. One pivotal moment for me was the infamous Hamptons party. There's a moment of self-loathing. I don't want to give too much away, but, you know, that moment when he says the word pato [derogatory term in Caribbean Spanish for "gay"]. To me, I felt very different for him at that point.
EDLC: Up to the point I knew that he was in a struggle with his sexuality, but when they had the conversation and the word comes up I was like, "Oh, there's something else going on with Prieto.”
XG: Yep. You know, self-loathing. The first draft of this novel came to me pretty quickly. But the revisions took a lot of time to excavate because I needed to really dig into that stuff. What ultimately I think the book is about is resilience and self-acceptance, self-love, and all the things that can come to us if we can get to that place. So, yeah, that's his pivotal moment.
EDLC: So let's switch topics to Blanca. The first letter we hear from Blanca, Olga's mother, is very moving. And it sets the stage for their relationship. But as they continue through the book, I myself felt anger at her character. She tries to control Olga and her brother from afar. In my experience, Latino parents tend to be very pro-education with their children. What was it like to write a central character like Blanca who was so different from the norm?
XG: Yeah. I think that she is pro-education, that pro-material success, like, yes, expand your mind, but don't get brainwashed. I think that she is controversial in the sense of her notion of what they should be aspiring to do is slightly different.
She's a little bit more patriarchal than matriarchal in the sense that there's this sense of familial lineal obligation. She's a complicated character because she isn't typical. Motherhood didn't suit her. That was also something of her generation. She kind of rebelled to it from a situation that the only way to move forward with life is you go get married. I think she's challenging because she gets you really mad sometimes, and then at the same time, in all of her letters, there's this underpinning of things that are true. She's always a little right, and so you can't throw it all away. And I think that what we see with her kids is that because she is at once very familiar and yet very foreign, they don't know how to parse what to dispose of and what to pick up on.
And so they just internalize all of it. She also operates in this other way where symbolically, they have these different views of her much as they have different views of their relationships with Puerto Rico, where they are both attached to it, but then don't really know it. So, she's complicated. I found that older readers really love her, and younger readers are infuriated by her.
EDLC: Well, I admire Blanca's passion for the freedom of Puerto Rico on many levels. Questioning Olga’s success comes a point in one of the letters where she says the word made, but Dick says the same word, and it's very triggering for Olga.
XG: One of the things that I do think is true of Olga is that her brain is just so overactive. I think her mother steered her on a path of self-investigation, but I think she probably would've been questioning everything anyway. It just doesn't stop, like, what do you really mean by that?
EDLC: So why did you choose for us to learn about Blanca through letters rather than seeing her as a pivotal character?
XG: I was really intrigued by the idea. In doing research for the book, I had been reading a lot more about Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, who exists as a character somewhat in the book that we don't really meet but we hear about. And he was a real freedom fighter slash considered a terrorist by the FBI and the CIA in the United States. But he escaped to the mountainside, and for 15 years hid out from the FBI and only communicated to his kids through cassettes. He would record these messages and then send them down the mountains via an intermediary. And his kids… There's a documentary on Amazon now and they just are so proud of him.
And yet at the same time, nobody asks you how you feel about him as a dad. And then I had seen this Nina Simone documentary and they talked to her daughter, and her daughter is really clear: not the best mom. Amazing activist musician, but not exactly warm and fuzzy. I was intrigued by this idea of a one-way street of communication and also what would happen if a woman did that.
How would people feel about that? About this woman as a mom? These letters are kind of symbolic of the fact that she wants to have an influence on her kids, but she is not changing anything.
EDLC: One thing that Olga says that really moved me was that her mother, she's like a soldier we lost to war.
XG: One thing that was pulled from my own life story was understanding oppression and racial dynamics and colonization. And so you do sort of look at the world a slightly different way, but you've gotta keep participating in it. So I think a lot of what we see with Olga is like, all right, "You're being exploited."
Like she took a pill and sees the world as it really is, but still has to keep moving through it. Initially I wasn't going to have her be a wedding planner because it felt biographically lazy maybe, like, make things different. But then, I felt it was really important that she be an entrepreneur, because so many Latinas are entrepreneurs and small business owners. For so many women of color, that's just a great way to have some agency and not have a feeling placed over you.
And at the same time, it also puts you in this annoying cul-de-sac, where you're constantly chasing after money. I wanted to show somebody that has grappled with fiscal challenges. Not knowing how you're going to pay your bills triggers a fight-or-flight mechanism in your brain.
EDLC: What you just said earlier about colonization is pretty interesting because it's a great segue for my next question, which is that I consider myself a bit knowledgeable about Puerto Rico. The thing that gives away Mateo's true ethnic background is that he knows a little too much about Puerto Rico and the history. But at the same time, it emphasizes that many Latinos do not know a lot of our own history, and this comes up again with Olga's meeting with Reggie in the Hamptons. How do you think we can correct this lack of awareness about our own history?
XG: We're in the midst of a really beautiful movement in the arts. Like, there's one artist, Miguel Luciano, who has been excavating our history and our culture so much for his art. And I think we're starting to see that just on social media accounts—people mining archives and pulling out our history and documenting them.
"It was really important that she be an entrepreneur, because so many Latinas are entrepreneurs and small business owners."
It's raising an awareness that this history had been slightly buried. So we have to do our best to discover it for ourselves. There is a movement through the arts to bring some of this stuff out in the public. My hope is for Latinos to read this, that are not of this particular background, where the light bulb goes on, like, what do I not know? Not just about Puerto Rico. On my dad's side, I'm Mexican American and from the border of Texas, and there were zero immigrants in a technical standpoint in my family. It was like a border was dropped, and then a place was taken as a colony. The way that the Latino story has been told throughout history is everybody came here.
I think it's interesting to see, what was your family's journey or what was the root cause? I think with contemporary immigrant communities they know that, but for a longer period of time. We've not investigated how we were treated when we got here, what things were happening.
In working on the book, I stumbled upon sterilization efforts amongst Mexican American women in California in the '60s and '70s, and I had no idea. So I think some of it is just to speak the question of, what did they not tell you? And what can we find for ourselves, and how can we amplify that to decolonize our history in some way? Because a lot of American history is unfortunately myth-based. From the first iterations of the dollar bill we built our story on a lie.
I hope this book is part of a movement. Let's ask specific questions. I think that is how we start to unearth some of that.
EDLC: That is great. Blanca serves as a catalyst to question the motives behind the US. But the US is not alone.
XG: I think we also have to look at what roles do corporations play in our motherland cultures? There's many, many culprits.
EDLC: Back to Blanca. What do you think is the message that you would like listeners to take away from her letters?
XG: That's such a great question. All of us are complicated people. No one is 100% right and no one is 100% wrong. We should never let anybody's opinion of what we are doing or what we're saying affect our own ability to love ourselves.
Another thing that was an inspiration for Blanca was this great line in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the Sidney Poitier movie. His father is like, you are my son and blah, blah, blah, blah. And Sidney Poitier says, I didn't ask you to have me. At the end of the day, where Blanca is wrong is that these children owe her anything in life. They are their own beings that deserve to make life on their own terms. All she can do is kind of offer knowledge and education, but the judgment can be crippling. When judgment starts to feel more hindering than helpful, that's probably bad judgment.
EDLC: So word on the street is that there's a Hulu adaptation coming of the novel. What's your involvement with the adaptation?
XG: Fingers crossed. We just handed in the pilot, so we will probably find out in the new year. I had an extremely heavy hand in the adaptation. I wrote the pilot and I'm co-executive producing with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who did Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and most people probably know him for American Horror Story. He's done a few other films, but he's so talented and amazing, and we did everything together. We did all the site locations together. We did casting together. We did everything together, and it's been a beautiful process. We are so proud of it. We are so proud of this pilot, and I'm desperate to see this get on TV.
The show is so New York. I'm so proud of it. Hopefully we move forward. The life goal for this story was to make the broadest audience possible see a different side, not only of Latinos, but to think about the fact that we have a colony and that there is this very inequitable relationship with Puerto Rico. And luckily the people at Hulu have never tried to shy away from that part of the story. And Blanca is such a badass in the adaptation. People are gonna have their feelings, they're gonna be in their feelings about it. Wanda De Jesús, she's intense, and it's awesome in the best way.
EDLC: And is Aubrey Plaza playing—
XG: Yes. Aubrey is playing Olga, and she is unbelievable. I've watched a lot of her independent films. I knew that she was a tremendous actress. Her film work, it's so nuanced and heartbreaking at times, and Ramón Rodríguez plays Prieto, and it's the role he was born to play.
We had a great time working on this pilot. We were shooting it in my old neighborhood where I grew up, and it was my birthday. I turned 44, and we were across the street from the school where my grandfather was a janitor and my grandmother was a lunch lady, and it was just the most beautiful experience.
EDLC: I'm wondering now about the adaptation, if we'll see the struggle of Olga and her wanting to become a full Catholic.
XG: It was a really hard part to write to be honest. Actually, I have a hard time listening to that part in the audiobook because it gets me very emotional. I love this audiobook. I think it's beautiful. The readers are just so wonderful.
EDLC: One of the things that I loved about this novel, Olga Dies Dreaming, is that the audio is a true own voices experience. The Spanish bits are really authentic, and I think listeners, especially from Puerto Rico, are going to be very satisfied with the end result. We have one narrator that speaks in Olga's voice and one for Prieto and another for Blanca. How did you find that balance and what was the audio production like?
XG: It was funny because we were so in the midst of casting at the time that we were looking for readers for the audiobook that were people that had come in for the show. I had a lot of opinions, and then sometimes what made for great acting on-screen isn't the best thing for a reader. It's such a particular thing. I was very attuned to what I wanted the readers to bring to the different voices. Pronunciations are slightly different. Slang is slightly different. But at the same time, it needed to feel organic coming from the readers. I loved it, and I think they had a good time doing it. People seem to be really enjoying the audiobook and I'm glad that we went in that direction because it's such a part of the book that each character has their own voice.
EDLC: Anything else that you can tell us about the cast? Are they in the adaptation at all?
XG: Of the audiobook, no. But the way that it's spooling out, should we get an order, I know what characters are coming up. I'm desperate to get this show on the air. I shouldn't say that out loud, but I'm so eager to get it on the air. 100% of the principal characters are Black or Latinos. It's one of the few shows that I can think of where there is an integrated world, but the white characters are not main characters. And everybody has a career and a job. Jessica Pimentel had been on Orange Is the New Black for years, and we were shooting this scene and she was like, "I haven't had a character with a job. And the last time I was in a cast with this many Latinas, we were all in jail." That is sad, but unfortunately true.
So it's kind of exciting for me to show that, honestly, to show the world South Brooklyn as this very nurturing place that is still a home to so many working-class families that are doing their very best in this crazy city. It's a big part of the character. It's a big character in the show, as it is in the book.
EDLC: Well, Xochitl, I want to congratulate you on this fantastic novel, and thank you so much for spending time with us today.
XG: Thank you so much. This was so fun.
EDLC: For everyone out there listening, Olga Dies Dreaming is available on Audible. Thank you so much, Xochitl. And pa'lante.