Xochitl Gonzalez | Photo: Mayra Castillo

As a Latina woman on the bestseller list, not to mention being recognized as a Pulitzer Prize finalist (for her commentary columns in The Atlantic), and even getting the Reese Witherspoon bump for her latest book, Xochitl Gonzalez is admittedly breathing some pretty rarified air. Asked if she feels pressure to be a role model, in a phone conversation last week from her home in Brooklyn, she said, “I don’t want to say pressure, I feel it is part of my job … I feel it is part of my responsibility to when possible, help other Latino writers and other bipoc writers who are not set up with the same things that I was set up with.”

Credit: Courtesy

In the story of Olga Dies Dreaming, two Brooklyn born siblings of Puerto Rican descent (one a wedding planner and one a politician) vie for the American dream until Hurricane Maria drags their estranged political activist mother back into their lives.

The story of Anita de Monte Laughs Last involves two Latina women a generation apart — one an artist from Cuba and one a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican art history student at Brown University — in two separate timelines that twist together to paint a complex portrait of power and privilege that goes far beyond the art world settings.

And the story of Xochitl Gonzalez, the author of both novels — who is not coincidentally a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican who once studied art history at Brown University and was also a wedding planner — has its own entertaining plot twists and turns, including publishing her first book at age 40 after a successful career as an entrepreneur that parlayed into one as a journalist for publications like The Cut, Real Simple, and of course, The Atlantic, which earned her the aforementioned Pulitzer props, and where she still contributes regularly.

My conversation with Gonzalez, like the stories in both Olga and Anita, had its own nice balance of style and substance. She’s quick with her responses and quick to laugh in a way that does nothing to undermine herself and her many accomplishments.

Excelling in that sweet spot of creating commercial fiction with something substantial to say about the world we live in is something that Gonzalez is always aware of in her work.

Credit: Courtesy

“I think that I come firmly from the perspective that reading is a leisure activity. And it’s probably, I think many would say, an increasingly competitive activity amongst other leisure activities. To me, it’s entertainment. And I never lose sight of that. And so, I feel like I want it to be something that is challenging to the reader in terms of content and concepts and emotions. But that is enjoyable and pleasurable in terms of story and offers some diversion. I think I try to think about it, you know, as providing a form of entertainment in some way.”

Indeed, I plowed through both novels in less than a week, was sad when they finished, and can’t wait to hear her speak at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Friday, May 17.

“The talk that I’m giving (titled Latinx Voices Are American Voices) is to sort of reframe the context of the American story,” said Gonzalez.

“Mainly, I feel so lucky to be getting to do this. And I think that there was a long mythology that our stories wouldn’t sell or there wouldn’t be crossover for our perspectives. You know, I think one of the things that’s intriguing about my career at The Atlantic is that my pieces do really well. I write with a Latina perspective on things, but I don’t just write about Latina things, which so often, we get ghetto-ized. You know what I mean? So, I think, if anything, it’s like, I just want to keep cracking open that for other people — we can bring our identity to lots of things. And it can have appeal.”

She continued, “Part of why I’m giving the talk that I’m giving, that Latino voices are American voices, is to sort of reframe the way we are considered within the context of an American story.” Not to digress, she continued, “but I do always say l my grandfather’s family, like my dad’s family, was from a border town in Texas. And one day, you know, it’s Mexico. And the next day, it’s America. And my grandfather’s family on my mom’s side became Americans because Puerto Rico was annexed by the United States. So nobody emigrated anywhere. And we’ve been in this country for a really long time now. We’ve been Americans for generations. So I think that is not every Latino’s experience, but to keep presenting us as always sort of new to this culture, at this point is sort of, you know, incorrect. … I write Latino literature, obviously, but I write American literature as well. It’s also American literature. So that kind of distinction feels important to me, in a larger sense.”

UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Xochitl Gonzalez speaking about Latinx Voices Are American Voices on Friday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Campbell Hall. See artsandlectures.ucsb.edu for info.

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