Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 8, 2022

Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s Dreaming of You reimagines the ghost story

By SOPHIA PASALIS | November 19, 2021

book-review

ROSIE JANG/CARTOONS EDITOR

Poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s new book Dreaming of You is a meditation on celebrity in modern times.

Published by Astra Publishing House in late October, Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s new book Dreaming of You elevates the novel, demanding it be fun and grounded in pop culture. Named after the pop star Selena Quintanilla’s last album, the book follows the author (“Melissa”) as she resurrects the celebrity who died in 1995 into the present day. The book deals with issues such as Latinx identity, love, sex and loneliness, and she brings a nuanced perspective, delivered through unique, poetic verse.

I first heard about Melissa Lozada-Oliva through an old friend. She co-hosts a podcast called SAY MORE with her fellow millennial poet Olivia Gatwood. They both received recognition in the slam poetry sphere and have since continued their careers as writers. Inspired by my friend’s recommendation, I began to follow their podcast religiously, though their episodes have dwindled in frequency. They have intelligent conversations about a broad range of topics, and they often get personal. As an avid listener of the podcast, I made sure to preorder Lozada-Oliva’s book.

The form of the novel mirrors the imaginative nature of the premise. The poems converse with each other, like old friends catching up after months apart. There is an excitement between pages as Lozada-Oliva leaps from form to form. Even within a single poem, she sometimes hides two more, daring the reader to think more deeply about seemingly trivial matters like karaoke. 

Toward the end of the book, she writes poems in the form of interviews of people who saw Selena out and about in New York. Her creative style adds to the shimmering vitality of the novel; the text feels almost alive.

The words unfold in their multiplicity, like the many selves the author examines. She imagines herself as Yolanda Saldívar, Selena’s murderer, exploring the catastrophic nature of parasitic jealousy. With the resurrected Selena as her counterpart, Lozada-Oliva also examines the parts of herself that want to understand the celebrity and the ones that want to take her place.

The book deals with the idea of chisme, or gossip. Writing in a time of social media, Lozada-Oliva understands that consumer interest manifests in the form of secrets and obsession with other people’s lives. Her characters desire to understand one another, to tell stories and to be loved. She suggests that the most pervasive form of gossip is that between one’s fractured selves. Reading the book mirrored the experience of listening to all the little voices in one’s head, a psychological chorus.

On the other hand, the gossipy nature of the book reflects the negative effects of the societal push for oversharing. There is a lack of mystery – or incentive for the reader to figure out more about the content for themselves. Of course, I, too, am a culprit in this cycle. I ordered her book because I listen to her podcast, which could be considered a form of consumerist surveillance.

Fundamentally, this book is a ghost story. It attempts to bring a long-dead celebrity back to life and imagine the consequences of the supernatural in our daily routines. It is spooky and disturbing at times, employing gory imagery to convey complex emotional matters. In the epilogue, Lozada-Oliva leaves the reader with a statement that encompasses the heart of the novel: “How to tell / the end of / a ghost story / when everything / is haunted anyway?” she asks.

The pop culture references place a definitive time stamp on the novel, though that is part of its magic. She includes references to popular songs, celebrities and colloquialisms. She refuses to deny these aspects of existence for the sake of higher “art,” which grounds her reader and equalizes them with the very nature of art itself. Her book is unabashedly a part of the modern age and reflects the aesthetics of contemporary life, which some reject in an attempt to avoid being labeled as postmodern.

Late capitalism forces creatives into corners, defined by identity, and urges them to commodify precious aspects of themselves. Capital is obtained through the exploration of the self and by inflicting certain lenses on a full person. Despite the possibility of relegation to a certain corner of the literary world, Lozada-Oliva’s feat cannot be reduced to its marketability. Dreaming of You goes beyond the specific corner of the market it occupies. Lozada-Oliva expands vastly, bringing a sense of wholeness to her work. I recommend this book to curious readers who seek to examine the intersection of art, gossip, identity and celebrity.

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