Olga Dies Dreaming

My best friend is from Puerto Rico. We met in a computer algorithms class in graduate school and, among other things, bonded over our shared love of sweet fried plantains (dodo in Yoruba, maduros in Spanish). I visited her and her family in San Juan many times over the years and came to love so many things about Puerto Rico: the clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea; El Yunque, the natural rainforest with its abundance of coqui, singing tree frogs that delighted my ears; and pastelon, Puerto Rican plantain lasagna (I’m drooling just thinking about that dish).

I knew that Puerto Rico had Independentistas, who seek complete liberation from the United States and are sometimes labeled as terrorists by people who don’t share their views, people who are pro- Puerto Rican statehood, and others who would like to maintain the current status quo. I was therefore intrigued when I first heard about Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming, with main characters of Puerto Rican descent from New York whose militant political mother abandons them to advance her own goals for the island.

I picked up a copy at Village Well Books, my new favorite independent bookstore in Culver City, California, which opened during the COVID-19 pandemic and is amazingly still going strong.

On the surface of it, Olga Dies Dreaming is a story about love, discovery, and self-growth, featuring Olga, an Ivy league-educated high-end wedding planner and her older brother, Prieto, a congressman representing a Puerto Rican enclave of Brooklyn. On another level, it is a pointed interrogation of the meaning of citizenship and the impact of colonization, heavily featuring the devastations of Hurricane Maria, PROMESA, and laws such as the Jones Act, which decree that goods shipped between two US ports must be built in America, owned by American citizens or permanent residents, and crewed and flagged by Americans. Unfortunately for Puerto Rico (and Hawaii, Alaska, etc.), in a crisis, this means help sent by international allies must first find their way to the mainland and then be transferred to US ships, introducing delays even in the midst of a catastrophe.

Olga and Prieto are children of former Young Lord revolutionaries, haunted by their mother’s abandonment for the cause and their father’s descent into drug addiction, but the story beautifully depicts their evolution towards self-acceptance, self-love, and romantic love, with empathy and humor. No spoilers here, I’ll just say that the book is well worth the read!

Cover Reveal: Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions

Excited to share the stunning cover for my novel-in-stories, Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions, out 9/13/2022. Amazing design by the AmistadBooks/HarperCollins team, inspired by a Yinka Shonibare sculpture.

Earlier this year, my editor asked me to pick artwork by a few artists that I like, as potential design starting points for the cover of the book. I selected (in no particular order): Njideka Akunyili-Crosby – The Beautyful Ones Series #7, 2018; Chris Ofili – Untitled, 2001; Yinka Shonibare – Magic Ladder Kid IV, 2014; and Kehinde Wiley – The Two Sisters, 2012 (An Economy of Grace).

I had no idea which work (if any) the HarperCollins book cover design team would use as a starting point. I am beyond thrilled at the resulting cover.

Longthroat Memoirs

I like to visit independent bookstores when I’m traveling. Pre-pandemic, I used to be in the Washington, DC area a lot for conferences and review committee meetings.  My favorite bookstores there are Kramerbooks and Afterwords (now just called Kramers) in Dupont Circle and Busboys and Poets on 14th and V. 

A few years ago, I was in DC for a relative’s wedding and my husband and I hung out with my brother in the Dupont Circle area. We went in to Kramerbooks and Afterwords and my brother bought me a book that I have come to cherish.

That book is Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds by Yemisi Aribisala. It’s an award-winning book about Nigerian fare by a talented and imaginative food writer, but that characterization doesn’t properly do it justice.

I think the best way to describe Longthroat Memoirs is as a series of essays on Nigerian culture through its wide variety of cuisines. Aribisala spends quite a bit of time in the Calabar area, famed for dishes like edikang ikong and afang soup.

I loved “Okro Soup, Gorgeous Mucilage,” in which she defends draw soups from their detractors worldwide, and her essay “A Beautiful Girl Named Ogbono” had me laughing out loud as she describes taking advantage of her mother’s absence on a visit to a friend’s house to ask her host for a third helping of delicious ogbono soup (when I was growing up, Nigerian moms often instructed kids not to accept food outside their home, no matter how tempting). “Dead Man’s Helmet” is a particularly haunting essay on eating and survival while in motion, during the Biafran War.

The rich collection of essays made me laugh, cry, and also very hungry. I savored each page, even putting off reading the last essay for a while, because I didn’t want the book to end.