In ‘Dreaming of You,’ Author Melissa Lozada-Oliva Uses Selena’s Ghost to Deconstruct the Myth of Latinidad
The spell to bring Tejana singer Selena Quintanilla back from the dead begins like this: “Grow out my hair, purchase chunky gold hoops, [and] buy some bright red lipstick that will stain. This is mainly for effect, but it can’t hurt.” It ends with Selena, busy like a staticky TV, sitting in a Brooklyn living room as if she never passed away.
This is how poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s debut book Dreaming of You, titled after Selena’s posthumous album, gets its ghost. This novel-in-verse follows a main character, Melissa, as she grapples with the presence of a newly un-dead Selena in her life, a shadow-self threatening to take her place, and a crush. The poems mostly come from Melissa’s point of view, “a girl who dreams a lot,” but have occasional narration from Las Chismosas, a chorus of aunts, sisters, and cousins ready to tell readers how things really went down. She writes about wanting to appear everywhere to her crush like the Virgin Mary, panic attacks on the F train, and a dead celebrity prom with Amy Winehouse and Prince swaying gently under lights.
At its core, the novel explores themes of celebrity, obsession, representation, and Latinidad—specifically, the ways in which cultural icons, like Selena, become symbols of idealized Latinx femininity that aren’t always representative or approachable to everyone. Dreaming of You grapples with the myths we tell ourselves about who we are and what it means to live past these myths.
Here, Lozada-Oliva talks to Refinery29 Somos about the Queen of Tejano, her interrogation of Latinx representation, writing communities, and more. Dreaming of You is available where books are sold.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Selena is a central character in Dreaming of You. Why?
She's been this cultural epicenter for a lot of millennial Latinas. I realized at one point in my early 20s that every time I felt very beautiful was when I looked like Selena, when I donned her aesthetic—red lipstick and hoop earrings—and when my hair was straightened. I also became kind of obsessed with the fact that she didn't get to age. She didn't get to be problematic on Twitter. She's forever stuck in this perfect place as this gorgeous, talented, and angelic 23-year-old who never got to have a family, as much as she wanted one. She was just this young girl in love. That really started to fascinate me, particularly how much she loved love and how much of a romantic she was.
Yes! She's both this aesthetic, almost a brand, but also just a very normal person. You explore this idea in the book, particularly the construction of Latinidad and the concepts of individual identity and group identity. Can you talk more about this?
This book came at a time when I was struggling a lot with the idea of representation. We talk about representation in the media as if it is an end goal. I get it. Yes, I want to see myself on the screen, but that’s not this collective sense of who I am. Dreaming of You is about this person losing herself as she spirals down this hole to bring Selena back to life. At the end, Melissa says, “I'm tired of looking for definition, and I'll maybe let it slip through my fingers because maybe we don't need to define ourselves. Maybe we don't need to hold on so strongly to who we are. Maybe we just ask more questions about what makes us who we are, what makes us the parts of who we are.” I think this idea is reflected throughout the book: Every character is a little unstable. Nothing is certain or static, because nothing ever is.
This question of representation is one we, as a community, have been wrestling with. Can you talk a little bit more about this idea of representation versus what really exists?
Selena is like a myth to me. She's a myth because she died in this really dramatic way, and I grew up after she died. I grew up under this umbrella of her death. In a similar way, conversations about Latinx representation sometimes become this all-encompassing umbrella that casts the sun away from many people who are Latinx but are excluded from this representation of Latinidad.
I wanted to complicate the myth of Latinidad and be like, "OK, why am I so attached to this? What are the things that actually make this myth up?” At the end of the day, it's not about the myth. It's more about the people who were with me in the audience worshipping the myth. It's about my sisters and how we have the same experiences. It's about how I feel when I meet someone who had parents like I did. It’s how I feel when a song comes on at a party and I make eye contact with someone. It's about the community and not about this thing that is going to help you sell ChapStick.
We're seeing a deconstruction of [Latinx] identity, and I've tried to show that in my book. I’m saying, “maybe this isn't important" or "why is this so important?" I still don't know what is important to me. I still don't have the answers. But I feel like that's OK. I want to be uncomfortable. I want to let myself be uncomfortable with these truths.
Throughout the book, there are contrapuntal poems that reflect these conflicts or two selves: self and mirror self as well as self and shadow self. Sometimes it's Melissa and Selena. Sometimes it's Melissa and the love interest. Sometimes it's Selena and Yolanda. Sometimes it's Melissa and Her. There's also a little illustration of a mirror that gets picked up and repeated through the book itself. Can you talk a little bit more about the role that mirrors and doubles play?
I really wanted to deconstruct celebrity and crushes. The way we look at both of them can make them appear less human because we only see them two dimensionally. But everyone has multiple sides to them. This also ties into this larger criticism of representation. There's this Junot Díaz quote where he says vampires can’t see themselves in a mirror because they’re monsters, and when you can’t see your reflection at a cultural level, that’s when you know you’re a monster. So then the question becomes: What happens when we see ourselves finally? What if what we see is ugly and sinister, something that we haven't dealt with, the stuff of nightmares? What happens if you are a monster looking at yourself in the mirror?
Throughout the book, you talk a lot about your friends and give a full page of your acknowledgements to other poets and poems you've borrowed a line, form, or question from. Can you talk a little bit about community and how it functions in your work and in this book?
Writing is seen as such a solitary thing where you're alone in a room with your thoughts, but I couldn't have written this if I wasn't in a program with people at NYU who are in community with me and in community with each other’s poems. I couldn't have done this without my best friend Puloma. We've been talking about writing, character, and form since we were children. I remember we used to have this notebook with prompts that we would pass back and forth. This book is very much an amalgamation of being in conversation with people that I love in my life.
It's also kind of like fan fiction. At first, I was self-conscious about that, but I’m starting to think everything is fan fiction. Every book you read has an ancestor in a book that came before them. I think that's why I talk about karaoke so much throughout the book. In karaoke, you're singing this song that you didn't write, but you're so attached to the feeling that you had when you first heard it, and you're so attached to people who are watching you and singing along. There's just a chorus of people in my life who I want to honor constantly.