Breaking Language Open: Xavier Navarro Aquino on Writing Hurricane Maria

The full title of this interview of Puerto Rican writer Xavier Navarro Aquino by Jacqui Cornetta (Words without Borders) is “Breaking Language Open: Xavier Navarro Aquino on Writing Hurricane Maria in His Debut Novel.” Cornetta writes that the author did not set out to write about Hurricane Maria, “but what he witnessed in the wake of the 2017 natural disaster stayed with him. Soon, his polyvocal debut novel, Velorio, poured out of him.” In the conversation below, Navarro talks with Cornetta about post-Maria Puerto Rico, translation, the pervasiveness of colonialism, and more.

Writer Xavier Navarro Aquino arrived at the MacDowell residency in 2019 intending to finish a book he’d been working on for years. Instead, the novel that would become Velorio poured out of him in just five weeks. In early January, I interviewed Navarro Aquino over Zoom about his debut, a polyvocal altar to the charged resilience of Puerto Rico post-Maria.

The title of the novel comes from El Velorio, Francisco Oller’s iconic painting, which depicts the wake of a child. Grief saturates Navarro Aquino’s dystopian tale, but it’s grief’s twin—communion—that presides over his reflection on the ongoing disasters of nature, capitalism, and empire in Puerto Rico. Harper Via published Navarro Aquino’s English version of the novel and Aurora Lauzardo Ugarte’s Spanish translation this month.

Jacqui Cornetta (JC): At what point after Hurricane Maria did you realize you needed to write Velorio?

Xavier Navarro Aquino (XNA): 2019. I didn’t want to write about Maria at first. I was able to go home about five days after to try to find out if everyone was okay, my in-laws and my mother. I realized that when we landed there was just a whole crowd of people trying to leave, albeit almost all tourists, white people, which was a very interesting juxtaposition. The airplane was full of Puerto Ricans coming back, trying to find people and help, and the ones trying to leave were the usual suspects.

The plane takes you over the island as you’re landing, and a lot of people started crying. Everything was just gone, everything. That was a very strong image to see and carry with you, especially if you were from there and raised there. You know everything is so green and so wild and so vibrant, and it was gone. But I didn’t want to write about it then. I stayed with it and it wasn’t until the residency in MacDowell in 2019 that I realized that the story of Camila, the first narrator in the novel, was still with me. She essentially said, you’re actually doing this at MacDowell.

JC: This book is so full of voices. It feels almost spiritual, the way you inhabit the novel’s many characters. How were you thinking about voice when you were writing?

XNA: That’s the best way of saying it, actually. It really felt like a spiritual experience, mostly with Camila as the opener of the book. The story of Camila and her sister, Marisol, was inspired by a real-life event that occurred after the hurricane. There were two elderly sisters, one of whom was in a nursing home, and her sister wanted to take her out before the hurricane and bring her to her house to ride out the storm with her. The sister in the nursing home didn’t want to leave, and a mudslide came in and killed her. That image and the emotion of reading about that was in many ways the catalyst for the novel. It felt like an embodiment of a spirituality that these characters wanted to use me to write out each of their experiences. Their histories just lined up as the voices appeared and I knew that a multivoiced narrative was essential for the telling of the storm. It wasn’t going to be one individual experience. It was going to be a community of people that experienced this same grief as a collective. [. . .]

JC: Definitely. Are there any particular Puerto Rican writers that come to mind, either past or present, that you think most need to be read right now, or translated?

XNA: Manuel Ramos Otero. A lot of Puerto Rican readers and writers have often and always read Manuel Ramos Otero, but I would like to see him more broadly read in the United States, in similar ways as Luis Negrón. Mayra Santos-Febres has had one or two of her books translated, but her entire body of work should be more accessible and should be pushed more broadly. Those are the two that come to mind, not to mention all the poets.

JC: Speaking of diasporic writers and writers on the island, the recent bilingual poetry collection Puerto Rico en mi corazón, edited by Carina del Valle Schorske, Ricardo Maldonado, Erica Mena, and Raquel Salas Rivera, addresses that long-standing conflict you referred to and calls for more exchange between poets on the island and in the diaspora. In the introduction, they write that many of the poems “are already bilingual before the task of translation officially begins.” Do you feel that way about your work?

XNA: I think in English more than in Spanish, so I think it differs between people, but I would suspect that the majority of Puerto Ricans have to consider these adoptions of bilingualism and that things are inherently complicated and inherently bilingual. Yes, the quote is very well put. One of the things that happens without me knowing or noticing is that I want to carry rhythms of Spanish, and the way I write often falls into those structures. That’s mostly because I’m terrible at grammar because I don’t understand grammar. I was never bound by it. For me grammar is like math. When someone starts talking grammar to me, I zone out the same way as when someone starts talking math to me. My writing will break traditional grammar rules. It breaks those traditions because I don’t feel bound by them. On the page these things are a bit more fluid. That’s not to say grammatical structures are not very rigid in Spanish, but when I think about language, I try to break it open. [. . .] 

JC: Back to the novel, the devastation after Maria is incredibly present. What was it like inhabiting that dystopic version of Puerto Rico while you wrote? You wrote it quickly, right?

XNA: I’m struck by the initial impressions that some people are getting from the book, whether it’s people from the island or people who don’t know anything about Puerto Rico. Some people have said oh, this feels so real and that’s because it was real. The inspirations all came from a real sentiment and a real experience, from seeing what was a very dangerous situation.

The novel is very grim in many ways. If there’s a failing in the book, it falls in there being less humor in it than maybe some people would expect. That’s the spirit of what it means to be Puerto Rican, that humor is embodied in a lot of things, including in how we process pain or trauma or histories in community, by laughing and by sharing and by trying to help each other. But I wanted to lean into the dangers and the violence of colonialism and the violence of natural disaster and what the larger implications of that are for the island as a whole. I hope the novel can create a path for other possible narratives from people on the island. They can say ok well I had this other experience that immediately counters this rendition or version. And that’s a success, I think, that you can create a path for other possibilities and other stories to come out. That’s the hope.

Xavier Navarro Aquino was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Named a “Writer to Watch” by Publishers Weekly for Fall 2021, his fiction has appeared in GuernicaTin House magazine, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. His poetry has appeared in The Caribbean Writer and is anthologized in Thicker Than Water: New Writing from the Caribbean by Peekash Press. He has been awarded scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a MacDowell Fellowship, and an American Council of Learned Societies Emerging Voices Fellowship at Dartmouth College.

He holds an MA in English Caribbean Studies from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, and a PhD in English from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Currently, Navarro Aquino is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, where he teaches in the MFA program and in Notre Dame’s Initiative on Race and Resilience.

For full interview, see

[Writer Xavier Navarro Aquino. Photo by Jayleen Santiago Díaz.]

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