“Melissa knows the story,
but she’s changing the story.”
So explains the narrative chorus in Dreaming of You, poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s debut novel in verse. The novel follows Melissa — a fictionalized version of the author — on a supernatural, and at times absurd, journey: she magically resurrects singer and cultural icon Selena Quintanilla to serve as a sidekick and spiritual guide on her last-ditch quest to make sense of her own identity as a woman, a Latina, and an artist. In the process, Lozada-Oliva poses compelling questions about identity and the nature of celebrity. Because our collective memory of Selena has existed longer than she was ever a person, is that memory really of Selena, or rather of a fiction molded to fit each fan’s projection? Does her legacy leave room for her humanity?
On one hand, Dreaming of You is a deeply intimate narrative. Within many of the novel’s more than 65 poems, Lozada-Oliva’s verse feels both deeply personal and universal. There is no denying that she beautifully articulates complex reflections on writing, the self, and her own Latinidad as the American child of Guatemalan and Colombian immigrants. On the other hand, unfortunately, Lozada-Oliva seems to believe she must claim ownership of another woman’s life and story in order to tell her own.
Many of the novel’s most poignant moments come when Lozada-Oliva seems to rip open the fictional Melissa, exposing her most vulnerable truths and giving readers a dramatic display of the hyper-self-aware, often isolated, and ever-evolving woman inside. “I’m Not A Virgin But,” which appears early in the collection, peels back Melissa’s layers through the lens of clever, hyperspecific cultural metaphors surrounding the Virgin Mary to reveal a fundamental, driving loneliness. Beyond this isolation, Melissa’s self-awareness and her deep-held concern with how she is perceived by others emerge as recurring themes throughout Dreaming of You, often leading to some of her most remarkable moments of introspection. In “I Try to Go On with My Life,” Lozada-Oliva writes, “My biggest fear is getting raped and murdered / and then getting ripped to shreds on the internet,” revealing at once an obsession with public image and a profound awareness of the messiness lying underneath her confession. Indeed, Lozada-Oliva does not shy away from writing a messy protagonist.
Lozada-Oliva also makes the striking choice to disrupt the main narrative structure of Melissa’s internal monologue with interludes from an expert, albeit hypercritical chorus. This form guides the reader as they attempt to navigate the story of a sometimes unreliable and often morally-gray protagonist. Reminiscent of the titular “Mothers” in Brit Bennett’s debut novel, these collective narrators in Dreaming of You anchor the story with chisme (or gossip), making us as constantly aware of Melissa’s image as she is. It’s one of several inventive structural choices that gives the novel the potential to stand in a category of its own.
Dreaming of You adds Lozada-Oliva’s voice to an interesting established artistic conversation, one about the humanity we deny to public figures, particularly dead, tormented celebrity women. Certainly, there are moments throughout the novel where Lozada-Oliva approaches a compelling thesis, interrogating our collective sense of entitlement to the lives and legacies of celebrities we’ll never meet. The poem “Will We Ever Stop Crying About the Dead Star” is as much cultural criticism as poetry, a self-aware acknowledgment that, as Lozada writes, “We say we miss them but we don’t mean them / We mean the autumn we discovered them.” The famous dead, no longer around to speak for themselves, cease to be remembered for the people they actually were, remembered only for the service they provided in facilitating our own story.
In this regard, one of Dreaming of You’s strongest moments comes in “The Future is Lodged in the Female.” Lozada-Oliva’s tongue-in-cheek ode to celebrity worship blends satire with reflections on womanhood; she jokes, “honestly so sad that she’s dead but like, what if she lived long enough to like a tweet from a pro-life organization idk?” In short, Lozada-Oliva knows the nature of celebrity is fucked.
To some extent, Dreaming of You is in on the joke — Lozada-Oliva seems to know that based on premise alone, she has set herself and the novel up for an impossible task. Often, she winks at the ridiculous expectation for deeply personal stories of marginalized authors to serve as larger reflections on their identities or communities as a whole. She knows Dreaming of You does not have to offer any profound answers to questions about gender, sexuality, Latinidad, or even writing, as long as it tells Melissa’s story authentically.
It comes as a disappointing surprise, then, when Dreaming of You ultimately falls into the very pattern it critiques: allowing Mellisa to claim ownership of Selena’s story in order to tell her own. Most distressing, it stops short of allowing this fictionalized version of Selena the full extent of her humanity. Instead, Lozada-Oliva spends the length of the novel not quite sure whether her “Selena” is real or imagined. She dances around Quintanilla’s status as a cultural icon without extending a hand to the woman behind the curtain. Lozada-Oliva urges her readers to recognize Selena as a young woman — openhearted, exploited, and human — but spends most of the book treating her like a commodity, valuable only in terms of how she can facilitate Melissa’s own journey. Melissa walks up to Kim Kardashian in Marilyn Monroe’s dress and looks her right in the eye, then cuts off a lock of hair to keep in a museum of her own.
One could certainly argue that Dreaming of You does effectively critique the practice of simultaneously deifying and dehumanizing our celebrities — that the use of the trope is meant to highlight the harm it causes; perhaps, even that the novel’s final act subverts the trope by effectively setting Selena free from this cycle. This optimism, however, grates against Lozada-Oliva’s self-insert protagonist, Melissa. If forcefully resurrecting Selena, who spent her life and death in the public eye, in order to serve one’s own interests ultimately serves only to replicate Selena’s exploitation, Lozada-Oliva seems uninterested in confronting that notion. Instead, Melissa gradually begins to adopt the violence of the author’s gaze, carrying out increasingly abusive acts against Selena as she becomes the focus of attention that Melissa believes should belong to her. For most of Dreaming of You, Lozada-Oliva — as Melissa, but perhaps more jarringly as the author — struggles to see anything beyond what’s going on in her own head, even when Selena herself is right under her nose.
At some points, Lozada-Oliva seems to treat the resurrected “Selena” as no more than a figment of Melissa’s imagination. Early on, her physical appearance is described as seeming closer to a hologram than a human being, and her voice at first comes out only in previously-recorded lines. However, Dreaming of You ensures we know this “Selena” is not actually imaginary, but a living, semi-autonomous being. She’s (almost) the same human who left this Earth in 1995, seen by her family and then by the rest of the world, and as a result, her resurrection makes her an even more explosive sensation than her original career. In a bizarre choice, Lozada-Oliva even concludes the novel by stepping away from Melissa’s narrative and into a number of alternate endings in which she imagines this Selena continuing her life, growing older, even raising children — albeit, often ineptly. She cheats on her (real-life) husband with Johnny Depp, her (imagined) daughter struggles with addiction under the paparazzi’s watchful eye, she dies slowly and painfully of breast cancer, not necessarily old, but older. Perhaps an attempt on Lozada-Oliva’s part to humanize the woman she has treated as a commodity, this epilogue instead blurs the line between critical fabulation and self-insert fan-fiction and winds up in a muddy in-between. In that sense, perhaps it’s a fitting end to a novel that so brazenly lays claim to another woman’s life and story.
I’m reminded of Abraham Quintanilla, Selena’s father, and his recent decision to allow her teenage voice to be digitally aged to produce an album of new releases under the illusion that she is still alive to have recorded them. I wonder if Dreaming of You really accomplishes anything different. The novel’s “Selena” is no more real than the artificial voice on the record. She is not allowed her own feelings about her nonconsensual resurrection, nor her immediate return to the public eye. She seems to be alive and individual, but is so intimately linked to Melissa’s personal journey that the attention she attracts quite literally strips Melissa of her body; the two women cannot exist at once. This “Selena,” who belongs entirely to Melissa, is the product of the muddled thesis at the heart of Dreaming of You, a novel not quite sure if it wants to offer up the singer’s legacy in a new light or exploit it all over again. Dreaming of You wants us to see that there are more sides to the woman everyone thinks they know — just as long as our eyes never leave Melissa.