Poet and writer Melissa Lozada-Oliva is an unstoppable force within the poetry world. Throughout her career, her poetry has captured intimate, yet relatable experiences centered around her Latina identity, most notably her poetry chapbook, peluda. The Guatelombian (Guatemalan-Colombian) poet went viral with her 2015 National Poetry Slam performance of “Like Totally Whatever”, a powerful response to the criticism of the way women speak. Now, she brings to us her first novel Dreaming of You, an eerie story of identity and Latinidad through the lens of a resurrection of Tejano icon, Selena Quintanilla-Perez.
The power in poetry stems from its flexibility in form and shape to convey meaning, Dreaming Of You is exemplary of this. This novel revolves around a 4-act structure and its “cast of characters” at the beginning is reminiscent of plays, complementing it’s nature as a “rock opera” as Melissa refers to it. Notably, Abraham Quintanilla and Yolanda Saldivar play key roles in the novel as two of the most important figures in Selena’s life. The consistent changes in the form or, the visual appearance of these poems, makes for a captivating read. “These forms let me have characters talk to each other through constraint, which is really important in poetry. The rules of it make you say less, which in some ways make you say more,” she tells HipLatina.
The way form works in the novel is through the freedom taken to play with the way stanzas and words are “shaped.” For instance, in “Yolanda and Selena Don’t Talk Anymore” two poems are placed side by side but read together. As Melissa notes, these poems exist in conversation with one another, they are meant to be read together.
Another example of changes in form comes from “Dear Ms. Melissa Lozada-Oliva,” an imagined rant fictionally penned by Abraham as he rambles about Selena’s resurrection and his own frustrations with Melissa. Unlike other poems in the novel, this piece is formatted as a letter, signed off with a “Sincerely, Abraham Quintanilla.”
The poems that make up this novel foster an environment of creativity and imagination while reading wherein poetry takes on distinct appearances. Variations in the form are evident just by flipping through the pages and even more so, give a preview to the complexity of the story since it has the ability to morph into what it needs to be to convey its meaning.
This novel in verse brings back to life the beloved Queen of Tejano and intertwines this moment as Melissa—the protagonist—grapples with her own identity. Something important to note is the prevalence of Latinidad and conversations surrounding language within our community. One of the most striking lines of the novel comes in the piece, “The Future is Lodged Inside of the Female,” when Melissa states “in the future, i am not Spanish or Latina or Latinx instead i am: HIS(PANIC)ed?”
“Language is everything and it’s nothing at all, cherry old pal. Later I say ‘past tense because my identity is something that happened for me and PANIC because of my crippling anxiety.’ I thought that was a very good … joke I guess? I love to laugh! Identity is partly something we were born into and partly a story we tell at a party and partly something that we should set free, finally, in the wind.”
The novel centers on Melissa’s story in relation to Selena, who plays a prominent role in the book and whose words and influence are evident throughout. The acts are named after Selena’s music including her signature song “Como La Flor”. The song used for the acts as well as the title of the novel drive meaning within the narrative showcasing how Selena plays a role in that particular act. Dreaming of You is a commentary on the worship and evident idolization of celebrities we hold close, but do not really know at all. In contrast, the use of lyrics from “Como La Flor” speaks on the protagonist’s journey and even that of fans who long for their idol.
“That song is one of the most intricate and saddest love songs I’ve ever heard. Translated to English they’re even sadder: “Like a flower, you gave me so much love, but it withered, and I wither today. Oh, how it hurts me!” I wither today?’ Melissa explains. “I felt that the song was the best way to show the descent of the main character of the book: in part one [como la flor] there is an infatuation, in part two [me marcho hoy], shit starts to unravel, in part three [yo se perder] everything really falls apart, in part four, aka the epilogue [como me duele] the character is left picking up the pieces.”
As Melissa describes, this song is the soundtrack to the main character’s journey of love and loss which speaks to the closeness fans may feel toward Selena or any celebrity they adore. What emerges is a sense of familiarity to someone who we, upon reflection, is a complete stranger to and vice versa.
“Because I miss her even though I’ve never met her”.
This line, in particular, encompasses the feeling of celebrity worship, where we engage so much with the content, music, and life of any singular celebrity that it creates a “relationship” between the fan and the celebrity. They take up so much time and space, we are able to “miss” them as if they formed a part of our lives. Many Selena fans share this sentiment, associating the singer with pivotal moments in their lives and relating their attachment to her like a tight bond.
There are important figures from Selena’s life featured, most prominently Saldivar and Abraham. Melissa comments on why she chose to make them such central figures:
“To me, they seemed like two opposite forces who both wanted to covet a person so deeply and unhealthily that that person stopped being real.”
Their presence is interesting in that—as Melissa points out—they are both fueled by similar worship of Selena but on opposite sides of the spectrum. Abraham from the perspective of a father pushing for his daughter’s success and Saldivar from a place of jealousy and envy. Whereas the idolization coming from fans stems from a connection built with the star, these two characters are meant to represent an uglier side and the extremes that celebrity obsession can reach.
Just as this novel tells Melissa’s story, the narrative is also a testament to the cultural and personal impact that Selena has had on generations of Latinxs. Her music, fashion, and legacy continue to have an impact, more than twenty years after her untimely death, and she remains a relevant and crucial figure for Latinxs, especially Latinas. Mentions of Selena as part of the formative years of one’s life and beyond, mirror the feeling of fans who’ve experienced the life and death of the beloved singer further binding Selena and fans’ coming of age as one. Melissa notes:
“As Jenny Lewis once said, ‘You are what you love and not what loves you back.’ My relationship to Selena is forever entangled with my relationship to my family, with love, heartbreak, the way that I grieve. It’s this way because I don’t know her, because I never knew her and I never will. That’s the beauty and horror of stars: we throw everything we are at them, the good and the bad and the disgusting and the beautiful and then they keep shining, without us.”