Becoming Alive in Death, as Examined in “Life of the Party” and “Dreaming of You” – Chicago Review of Books


In the acknowledgments of the novel Dreaming of You, author Melissa Lozada-Oliva includes the following credit: “Thank you Olivia Gatwood, for being so obsessed with dead girls & dying with me.” At this point in her career, such an expression of gratitude is no surprise; poets Lozada-Oliva and Gatwood’s work have been integrally intertwined since their emergence onto the slam poetry scene of the mid-2010s. However, while they had remained friends throughout the years, their first collaborative effort emerged in 2019, when, spurned by a desire to avoid the same tired interview questions, the two poets created the podcast Say More

Second to reading their published work, Say More is arguably the best way to gauge the two poets’ literary styles. The show is true to its word in providing sparsely-edited, thought-provoking conversations that are left to sprawl, and are frequently much funnier as a result. Yet upon repeated listens, the two women’s conversational dynamic mirrors their contrasting writing styles: Lozada-Oliva is eager and rambling, whereas Gatwood is more quietly composed in her delivery.

The year 2019 held large developments for Gatwood in particular. A few months after the inception of Say More, Gatwood’s debut poetry collection Life of the Party was published, itself in conversation with the podcasting market into which she and Lozada-Oliva broke that year. In the book’s introduction, Gatwood confesses that, while writing the book, she had endured an entire week without sleeping. This occurred as a result of her almost compulsive absorption of true crime media, which, despite not providing enjoyment, did spur some catharsis, having confirmed that her fears of experiencing violence as a young woman weren’t unfounded. 

Life of the Party is divided into three sections that each follow a different period in Gatwood’s life as she comes to terms with the violence of a hostile world, unifying different thematic throughlines representative of each of these eras. Part one deals in girlhood, but one that, even in Gatwood’s supposed innocence, is subtly contorted by the wants of men with the upper hand who view her as disposable, before she even has the language to articulate this.

Life of the Party
By Olivia Gatwood
Dial Press
Published August 20, 2019

As Gatwood comes of age in her native Albuquerque, the men who acquire authority positions recognize means by which they can assert their dominance over her while playing a game of quarters: her small stature and status as “not one of the boys but the next best thing,” the “next best thing” being a drunk girl. She does not narrate any assaultive sexual encounters, but she does reminisce on a childhood incident during which she blisters the backs of her legs on a playground slide, and a neighboring man, who claims he can heal wounds with the touch of his hand, hovers over her in a way that makes her panic, limping through the pain to escape him. In a subsequent addendum, she reveals with measured unfurling that she knows that for a story such as this to gain validity in the eyes of her prospective audience, she must be certain in her memories, which she confesses are foggy from not wanting to reflect on the incident anymore.

In this segment, scenes of bodily harm are splayed out before a young Gatwood before she even knows how to internalize their reality. In “First Grade, 1998,” Gatwood frantically narrates several stories in which boys in her class experience bloody, potentially fatal wounds, the penultimate of which occurs when one boy splits his wrist with his forearm bone, and all Gatwood can think to say in response to the injury is to exclaim, “It’s fractured!” Even before such events are processed in her mind, a young Gatwood has internalized their gruesome spectacle, understanding boys as the perpetrators of danger before they are even in real control. 

This gendered understanding of a patriarchal coming of age is most devastating in how it affects Gatwood’s relationships with other girls. She sees her childhood female peers less as friends and more as ideals to which she aspires, even when those around her can plainly see that her intentions amount to little more than a pale facsimile of the girls she idolizes. Even in the triumphant “When I Say That We Are All Teen Girls,” she recognizes the similarities between her loved ones and the titular teenage girls by reclaiming the disparaged aspects of the girls’ identities, everything barred as too shrill, too desperate, and too emotional in the simple gratifications and disappointments of everyday life.

Yet these refracted initiations also provide a fleeting sense of intimacy that blurs the lines between platonic and romantic, as the young women with whom she grows up compare their bodies in hushed, fleeting exchanges. Beyond romance, however, Gatwood reveals that many of the older girls of her life were also shaped by unfortunate circumstances. Namely, Gatwood’s childhood babysitter plays a deliberately nameless role in her understanding of how she places her role models on pedestals, slowly splintering her image of a young woman she had thought to be angelic, only to discover throughout parts two and three that she was a heroin addict whose father likely had an exploitative relationship with her prior to her fatal overdose. 

It is in these subsequent sections that Gatwood reckons with these impressions of changing aspects of her personality to suit male desire. The predominant mood of part two is fear, as she contemplates the possibility of her life ending to an isolated incidence of violence among more common vignettes of her surrendering to male perception. She compares her lovers to cults, tapeworms, and corn syrup, slowly addictive things that wreak havoc on the body, as she defines herself based on her partners’ visions of her. She finds herself increasingly cognizant of the justifications she makes to other women when asking to be accompanied in public, realizing that, even among those who are most likely to be hurt by violent expressions of patriarchal id, these crimes are viewed as outliers to be tucked away, if only to rid themselves of the anxiety that follows Gatwood as she becomes aware of the stakes of ordinary interactions. 

It is in these pensive moods that Gatwood reflects on the lives led by the women in the very cases that prompt her worry. She admits in her author’s note that the content the oversaturated true crime market pedals deliberately portrays these crimes as fluke incidents, so as to obscure the reality that the majority of these cases occur when women are murdered or taken for missing by those closest to them. In the poem “Murder of a Little Beauty,” Gatwood emphasizes the racially-coded language of prosperity and purity that is applied to young white women who are the victims of these crimes, always affording them promises of a virtuous life ahead—a sharp contrast to the subsequent “Body Count: 13,” in which she covers an Albuquerque case of the murders of a group of women of color, many of whom were sex workers, whose bodies were identified once they were found buried by the side of the road.

Even in spite of her awareness of how many of the outlets from which she finds these cases selectively choose the material that affirms her fears, Gatwood still ponders what it means to become famous after having a life cut short by a violent, misogynistic crime. That so many of these women’s lives have ended prematurely is a site of grieving for Gatwood, the promise of a better life having gone unfulfilled being almost as tragic as the means that brought them to that end. Still, Gatwood is wise enough to recognize that even this way of mourning involves projection, a way of determining whose life is worth living when the victims have no say in the matter.

In part three of Life of the Party, the predominant mode of expression is one that is colored through the lens of self-repair. She pens odes to subjects who continuously reinvent themselves to become more protective of their interiority, even when those who surround them suspect them of having run out of ways to defy expectations. The queerness that was implied in the book’s first section is allowed to fully coalesce here: in “Ode to My Lover’s Left Hand,” Gatwood describes a breathtaking sexual experience, comparing her partner’s touch to the opening of a bird’s wing—a metaphor that is decidedly feminine, but all the more majestic for it.

Gatwood ends the book with two poems that honor the legacies of the deceased women that have so heavily influenced the collection. In “All the Missing Girls are Hanging Out Without Us,” Gatwood imagines a utopian afterlife in which the girls whose lives were taken early are given room to thrive in a blissful agrarian setting. In this space, all the girls whose lives were previously violated are free to be themselves, not how men dictate they place themselves in competition for violent affirmation. After this, Gatwood concludes the collection with “In the Future, I Love the Nighttime,” in which all her artifacts of self-defense are made into tools of pleasure, mere remnants of the violence of the past. The poem’s title may imply a vision that is not yet present, but by envisioning it, Gatwood is taking the steps to dictate her life on her own terms. The lives of the women she has known in mourning are honored through giving her guidance to care for herself and others, creating the compassion she hopes can become the only necessary prevention method for the violence she wishes to leave in the past.

In Life of the Party, the perception of being most alive in death is one of many themes incorporated into the tender web Gatwood weaves when crafting her poetry. By contrast, Dreaming of You, Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s 2021 novel-in-verse, is much more literal in its reconciliation of becoming a celebrity in death. Dreaming of You follows a fictionalized version of Lozada-Oliva, in the midst of an identity crisis spurred by her unlucky love life. Melissa, who has previously been all too willing to give herself away at the prospect of a connection, feels more anonymous than ever, stagnant in a poetry career that is eager to commodify her Latina identity but doesn’t see her as a full person. Her artistry is an integral part of how she sees herself, but with no one to see her, she struggles to know who she really is.

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Dreaming of You
By Melissa Lozada-Oliva
Astra House
Published October 26, 2021

In a fit of boredom, Melissa decides to cast a spell that could supposedly conjure Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. Because Selena represented an integral part of her coming-of-age, Melissa is eager to tether herself back to a time period during which she felt more whole. In a bizarre ritual, Melissa, much to her surprise, manages to actually bring Selena back to life. However, when Selena emerges from what Lozada-Oliva describes as a “girl-shaped door,” she is embodied not as a full woman, but more of a hologram, with Melissa’s narration likening her hair to spaghetti and octopus tentacles. When Selena arrives in Melissa’s apartment, she is a literal blank slate, whose first words are to ask what her “script” is. Melissa responds as anyone would, showing Selena a Netflix special that condenses every major pop cultural event that has occurred in the last thirty years.

Selena only repeats what other people say and expresses emotion through computerized sound effects, but her naïveté begins to charm her New York spectators. Melissa has to accompany Selena everywhere she goes, and at a poetry reading, Melissa’s fans immediately recognize Selena as the genuine article. Eventually, Selena gets a new recording contract and begins to overshadow Melissa in fame, prompting even her father, Abraham Quintanilla, to write letters to Melissa protesting what he is convinced is an exploitative impersonation.

In Selena’s new 2021 world, everyone’s impression of her is characterized by how she has impacted their lives. She hardly even has to perform to be recognized as an idol. Her existence as a vessel for nostalgia means that she doesn’t even have to be active in her “life” to garner attention. Fans describe stray glances of her for sensationalized news stories, and her legend spreads through videos posted on social media. Lozada-Oliva herself has commonly mentioned in interviews that a key factor in the creation of this novel was an enduring wonder how fans might treat Selena’s legacy if she were alive and were to post something “problematic” on social media—would her artistry be overlooked in favor of a narrative that reduces her personhood to one unflattering trait?

For Melissa the character, however, Selena’s role is different. The novel alternates through several different perspectives, one of which uses the second person in deliberately vague terms, an ever-changing “You” that represents Melissa’s idealized conception of interpersonal connection. Negotiating between Selena and her alleged murderer, Yolanda Saldívar, illuminates to Melissa the consequences of falling in love with a mere impression of someone, as Yolanda becomes fatally enraptured by Selena’s perfection. In one of a few alternate endings the book provides, Selena lives a relatively normal life, fading out of popularity as she grows older and has a daughter. By the end of Melissa’s tale, too, little changes in her daily life, but in her journey, she realizes the value of that mundanity, of the connections she already has rather than the imagined ones for which she yearns.

What Gatwood and Lozada-Oliva both demonstrate in Life of the Party and Dreaming of You is an understanding of the fact that the narrative surrounding those they mourn is always mutable, controlled by whoever extracts it. While Life of the Party deals in considerably more grim subject matter, the stakes of careful consideration are fully displayed in both books. Gatwood strives to create a future in which the lives of women lost to gendered violence are not understood as outliers from which women must protect themselves. In this vision, the women lucky enough to still be alive are finally given the space to fully breathe outside of the fear that death, in its many forms, could be waiting just outside their doors. Though Lozada-Oliva’s novel is much smaller in scope, even Dreaming of You recognizes how disposable the legacies of those that have passed away really are when adjusted for convenience in the Internet age. 

These matters are personal for both Gatwood and Lozada-Oliva, though. In both books, each narrator surrounds herself with a fascination for “dead girls” that provides a guideline for how to come to terms with an identity not yet fully found when subject to the gaze of others—in the words of Dreaming of You, “When you are denied yourself, you must insert yourself.” For Gatwood, it’s searching for a psyche that has not been numbed by violence; for Lozada-Oliva, it’s a way to find an appreciation of herself beyond the designated checklists she fills for others. For both authors, what has been laid out by factors outside of their control becomes a way to self-actualize and illuminate what they truly value in life—a process mirroring the very literature they create.


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