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A really great Trojan Horse

My World's on Fire
A really great Trojan Horse
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #79 • View online
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The second I finished reading Olga Dies Dreaming, I started Googling. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the characters yet, and I was incredibly curious to learn more about the author, Xochitl Gonzalez. I came across this great Q&A with Gonzalez, tweeted about it, and the rest is history—which is to say I was lucky enough to snag a free window in Gonzalez’s busy schedule to chat about the disaster themes in her debut novel. 
Olga Dies Dreaming takes place in 2017 during the weeks leading up to and following Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico. While the real-life storm is a key plot point, the fictional characters placed in this timeline also face an array of personal challenges as they navigate a gentrifying New York City, romantic and family relationships, and successful but flawed careers.
“I’ve seen things online where people are like, ‘Oh, so much is happening in this book,’ but that’s sort of the experience of the person of color in the United States, because you are of a couple of places often,” Gonzalez told me. Her characters, for example, are of New York but also of Puerto Rico, and those identities factor into their perspectives and choices.
I wanted to share a bit of our conversation today ahead of next week’s inaugural disaster fiction book club meeting about the novel. If this sparks your interest, it’s not too late to join—we can liberally utilize the Zoom mute function to avoid spoilers for anyone who hasn’t finished. And if you already signed up, expect a separate email from me soon with more details about the February 24th chat.
A quick programming note: there won’t be free newsletter next week since I’ll be focused on the event, but paid members will get a new edition. 
Now, let’s talk about Olga. (As always, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Still working on my bookfluencer pose...
Still working on my bookfluencer pose...
Colleen Hagerty: You’ve previously talked about the real-life inspiration for Olga and how you’ve drawn from bits of your life, like your career as a wedding planner and your experience growing up in New York City. But I’d love to hear a more about why you wanted to ground the novel in 2017 around the landfall of Hurricane Maria.
Xochitl Gonzalez: I turned 40 in 2017, and 12 of my friends and I had a very elaborate trip planned to go down to Puerto Rico and spend a week there for my birthday. My birthday happened to land between [Hurricane] Irma and Maria, and so we canceled the trip because the hotel that we were supposed to stay at called us and they were like, ‘We have no power.’
And then, obviously, when Maria hit…
When I was watching Maria, I was sort of watching with an intense eye. It’s obviously part of my heritage, my cultural background, and so I always keep a close eye on what’s happening, but I was even more pulled because, you know, we were supposed to have been there. 
But I also felt like the setup was done over administrations upon administrations, like, hundreds of years that made that infrastructure even more vulnerable to what was happening. And it wasn’t like an earthquake where you have no idea that it’s going to come, right? Or I had been in Iowa during the derecho, you don’t even know a derecho’s coming, it just comes out of nowhere. [Maria] was this thing where we could see that it was forming, there was time to sort of prepare.
A lot of that stuff [in the book] is absolutely factual about the National Guard, that they had only four Blackhawk helicopters, they hadn’t called the USS Comfort until well after the hurricane hit, you know, just so many things that could have been happening and that didn’t happen. Trump is garish, so he does stuff like throwing paper towels, but the metaphorical throwing paper towels had kind of already been happening in Puerto Rico, you know what I mean? Like, Democrats and Republicans alike. 
I had been a volunteer on the Clinton campaign, and I’d worked on the Mujeres for Hillary initiative. I was at the Javits Center the night of the 2016 election, which is the year that PROMESA [The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act] had passed. So Puerto Rico had been very much on my mind, and I kind of couldn’t get over how ignorant this very liberal group of politically-engaged people were to the fact that we had a colony. And I think I felt like I was tweeting into the wind—I would tweet an op-ed about PROMESA and nobody shared it except other Puerto Ricans, and even then, we’re so busy in the diaspora, we’re not necessarily spending as much attention on that as we should or being as aware of the intricacies of it as maybe we should. 
So, I was really angry, and I felt like I had this cool backstory of having a mom who was a liberation activist and a socialist activist, which kind of caused me not to grow up with her, and I also had this career as a wedding planner. And I was like, you know what, this wedding planning thing could be a really great Trojan Horse to talk about what happened with Maria. 
CH: What was it like writing fictional characters into a real-world event like Maria? I’m just imagining the research and considerations that must have gone into it.
XG: I wanted, even in a tiny way, for environment and environmental causes to be part of the characters’ journeys, and so that was something that I thought about. Like, for Prieto, I did live in Sunset Park for a good portion of my life, my grandparents worked there, so I was pretty cognizant of some of the urban environmental racism that was happening in that area. Obviously, there’s the social justice issues of, like, where we put prisons, but then it’s also, like, where do we put waste plants? So that kind of became a concern of his. And then we were building off of him being a congressman in New York in an area that was hit by Superstorm Sandy, and that enabled his cognition of what he would notice when he goes down to Puerto Rico.
I think in the same way, Olga’s own detachment from her identity—she’s much more passive about her Boricuaness—her own surprise at the hurt and pain she felt watching the island go through this, it mimics something that I felt more of, you know? I did not grow up getting to go back and forth to the island—a lot of Brooklyn Puerto Rican girls, we didn’t have the money to do that. It was just sort of like you are Puerto Rican, but you don’t have that same experience, and, like, your Spanish might not be great. But I was in tears watching those videos [from Hurricane Maria], and I was like, I’m going to give that experience to her, I’m going to make that part of her character. I mean, she’s generally like an avatar for me if I’d never had therapy.
And that was a time that I know for me and many other Diasporicans, that was a time of real pain because it was like there’s nothing we can really do, and you feel like they are disenfranchised and you are disenfranchised along with them in some funny way, and I wanted to humanize that experience. I was very careful in the sense that it was always the observation of Olga seeing the hurricane. I did not want to write what it felt like to be there, because I didn’t, I wasn’t there. That distance is important.
I think, really, what I tried to do was build their worldview and write that from their worldview. Prieto, he’s a person who has gone [to Puerto Rico] a million times, and so when he goes down and when he’s flying back after, what does he notice? He notices that this area was always so blue and green and lush, and suddenly, it’s all brown and scarred.
Olga, she wouldn’t even remember the last time she went. And in the same way, if Prieto would be watching those videos, he’d be like, ‘Oh, we need to call this person, we need to call that person'—he would be not emotional about it, he’d be in this pragmatic mode. Only Olga could have a purely emotional response to seeing them. So, a lot of it is how do you stay in character and have them engage in it. 
CH: You definitely engage with the concept of disaster capitalism in a few ways.
XG: Yes, oh yes.
CH: And I thought that was really interesting in particular because it plays out through these different characters that we’d been introduced to as, for example, a love interest. Why did you wanted to bring that layer into it and engage with this facet of recovery?
XG: First I will say, I was very inspired by Naomi Klein’s Battle for Paradise. That was part of the genesis of the book, to be honest, and I was very engaged with the ideas of opportunism and gentrification and pushing people out when moments of opportunity come in. Nuyoricans are a part of a diaspora caused by colonialism in Puerto Rico, and now you’re seeing a second wave of diasporic Puerto Ricans being forced out by neo-capitalism. And so what I see is the eradication of an identity, really.
It sounds very fictitious, but when they aren’t funding schools, there is no power, only private citizens have been able to afford access to private solar grids, and all these other things, who’s going to stay? And then who is that land left for? And there has been a massive, massive spike—I mean, I think it’s been in the news recently…
CH: Right, it was just in The New York Times
XG: There’s been a mix of a spike in Americans and internationals coming to take advantage of this tax break since Maria as there’s been a massive exodus because there’s been no infrastructure. They call them ’Puertopians,‘ because they’re coming in and they’re taking advantage of not paying taxes, they’re doing cryptocurrency mining, and they are taking over the best parts of the island.
What I designed it as was Dick kind of represents the United States, Olga represents Puerto Rico, Prieto represents the diaspora, and Blanca really represents the land—she’s the hurricane, she’s the water, she’s the trees. And when I thought about the Selbys and I thought about Matteo operating within this world, Matteo sort of represents compassionate capitalism, and the Selbys are sort of this neo-libertarianism that’s very Steve Bannon-esque. 
And to your point about the news stories, that was part of it, too. Like, you can see a person crying—‘I haven’t had water or power and there’s water all over my floor and mother’s diabetic and we can’t keep her insulin refrigerated’—and that feels sad for a moment, you have an emotional response, but you don’t stay with them to see how that impacts their lives. And I think what I wanted to do was to humanize, if not even being the victim of the disaster in that particular way, but how the disaster actually is happening to real humans.
CH: In an interview with Refinery29 you said, ‘When done right, fiction is such a beautiful opportunity to help us engage with larger issues and societal issues that sometimes can get flattened.’
And I feel like we’ve talked about that a bit in this interview, but I would just love to hear if there was anything around these larger themes of structural racism, disaster capitalism, anything that maybe you felt like had been flattened after Maria that you wanted to engage with in the book.
XG: I wrote this book really for my community, so in that sense, it’s engaging with people that had already been thinking about this conversation. But it’s been very cool to have people suddenly very cognizant of Puerto Rico, and I hope that this—I think it’s already becoming part of a larger conversation that’s starting to happen. I can’t wait until the book gets published in Spanish, because I really want to see how the conversation expands. 
One thing in terms of the problem with fiction is I did an interview a couple of weeks ago, and they thought that I had made up PROMESA. I hadn’t thought about that double-edged sword that people are so unfamiliar with Puerto Rico and the circumstances there that some of it might seem like I’m making up sensational fiction.  
A huge thanks again to Xochitl Gonzalez for her time. She has a fantastic newsletter you can subscribe to here.
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