“Olga Dies Dreaming” is an impressive debut novel by the writer Xochitl Gonzalez. Published in 2022 by Flatiron Books in the United States, this clever novel is bound to leave a mark on readers primarily because of the issues that it deals with. Not to mention the characters and the settings, which set it apart from several other novels published in our time.
The book’s title is inspired by a poem named Puerto Rican Obituary by Pedro Pietri, which deals with the same issues that the novel deals with in a broader way. The protagonist, Olga (also a character in the poem mentioned above), is a wedding planner in New York City in 2017. She is a Latina, and her family is Puerto Rican, having settled in Brooklyn, New York. She plans and organizes the weddings of rich, white Americans and gets paid quite well, though she doesn’t know when and how she landed this job. She was good in academics and was a very talented photographer too.
Having studied at an Ivy League college, she had several people expecting a lot from her. Her brother, Prieto Acevedo, is a popular congressman who is seen by whites as the Latino Obama. He is genuinely interested in politics and wants to do good for his people, but his secret, which he has kept hidden for so long, now threatens to blow everything up. Prieto and Olga’s parents were revolutionaries fighting for the rights of Puerto Ricans. They had often been jailed and had gone into hiding several times.
In fact, Olga still didn’t know where their mother was, who occasionally dropped them mail but never bothered to make an appearance when their father or grandmother passed away. Their father, who was a revolutionary too and had even fought in the Vietnam War, had turned into a junkie towards the end of his life and died a painful death from AIDS. Both the siblings had been brought up by their Abuelita, and with their parents being absent for most of their lives, they had grown dependent on their grandmother. Their abuelita was a very strong woman herself. She bought her own home with her own money, which she earned by working hard in a factory, with the sole purpose that no one in her family should ever have to worry about a roof over their heads. Such was the scenario in the “land of dreams”!
At least, that’s what it was for minorities, and it still is. People talk about America being the land of opportunity for everyone who works hard. It is a country that has so many citizens belonging to so many cultures that it is called the “melting pot.” But the truth is that not everyone’s hard work pays off in America. That’s the case only for the whites. Those who are brown and black still have to struggle for basic amenities. Those who are aware of America’s history of neo-colonialism and imperialism know very well about the kind of misery and oppression that people in unincorporated territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, etc., face. Those from these territories who have migrated to some part of the U.S. for job opportunities have never been given the rights and respect that their white counterparts receive.
Again and again, the nation has reminded them that their skin color and native tongue are what has set them apart from the rest. Their history, misery, and poverty have not found any place in the grand narrative of the nation. This novel tends to focus on these issues. It brings to light the long-ignored truths in a manner that is both light-hearted and sharp. The situation in which Olga is stuck is something that is not unfamiliar to us. Her mother, being an activist, has focused only on liberating the people of her country, all the while forgetting that by criticizing her children’s choices and almost dictating to them, she is putting shackles on their feet. The word “liberation” holds different meanings to different people, and these differences should be respected.
Olga didn’t know if she had made the right career choice or not. For her, money was an important aspect, and her job paid well. Just because she is unsure doesn’t make her mother right. For Olga, freedom means being able to take the decisions that she wants in life. For Prieto, it definitely means getting rid of this double life that he has been living and being completely involved in helping people in his community and fighting for their rights. Things get messed up even further when, after all these years, their mother, Blanca, comes back just after Puerto Rico is hit by one of the worst hurricanes in the island’s history. Both of these siblings were struggling in their own ways, Olga with her confusion regarding her career and her love life, and Prieto with his double identity and the political tension.
The arrival of their mother brought their worst fears to life. What would Olga and Prieto do once they met their almost nonexistent mother? Would they welcome her into their lives or treat her the way they had treated their junkie father—embarrassed to come across him in front of people and worried and scared when they met him alone? How would Blanca, in turn, react when she got to know about Olga’s affair and Prieto’s truth? Would their lives change for good or for worse forever? To know more, get hold of a copy of this brilliant novel which would not only infuriate you with its portrayal of the bitter truth but also make you cry.
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