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from the January 2022 issue

Breaking Language Open: Xavier Navarro Aquino on Writing Hurricane Maria in His Debut Novel

Writer Xavier Navarro Aquino. Photo © Jayleen Santiago Díaz.

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


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: That collectivity is so felt in the novel. It sounds like Camila is the voice that came to you the strongest and first. Do you feel like the other five narrators were harder to find, or were they all just there?

XNA: Truly they all came together so quickly for me, and that was a very strange experience.

I wanted to have pairs throughout the book, Camila and her sister, Banto and Bayfish, and Moriviví and her friend Damaris. Cheo and Urayoán serve as a pair, too, but in drastically different ways. It's hard for me to pinpoint one specific protagonist, but Camila is the heart. Not only because she opens the novel but because her story is essential, it's essential for imagining how you can process grief and trauma, immediate grief and trauma, but also historical grief and trauma. She embodies a lot of that pain and anger and frustration, and it felt very rewarding to see her take agency by the end.

“I hope the novel can create a path for other possible narratives from people on the island.”

JC: She enacts her agency in an embodied way, through her actions, whereas many of the other characters express their grief more explicitly through language. It’s a beautiful counterpoint to have that embodied illustration of the kinds of traumas that you're talking about, both historical and in the present. Having those layers gives depth and richness to the interlaced voices.

Speaking of voice, there's so much lyricism in the novel, and not just in Cheo's sections, where there actually is poetry on the page. So I'm curious what your relationship to poetry is.

XNA: Oh, it's deep. In fact, it was the reason I started writing. I wrote poetry, I wrote really, really bad poetry growing up. Reading Miguel Piñero, Julia de Burgos, and others was the beginning for me. In the Caribbean, and in Puerto Rico specifically, poetry is kind of the ruler of many things. You can't throw a rock in the air and not hit a poet. Most Puerto Ricans back home live their life in a very poetic way—they just perform poetry. It's not only in writing or even in an oral tradition, but it's how we engage with each other, how we tell stories off the cuff. Poetry is essential to me.


JC: Who are some of your influences who experiment at that crossroads of poetry, narrative, and lived experience?

XNA: I just finished Mara Pastor's Deuda Natal, which came out in a bilingual edition through the University of Arizona Press (translated by María José Giménez and Anna Rosenwong). Surprisingly, Djuna Barnes is coming to mind, Nightwood. I would argue Toni Morrison is probably the greatest poetic novelist ever.

Edwidge Danticat is another important writer for me, as is M. NourbeSe Philip, whose She Tries Her Tongue–Her Silence Softly Breaks opened up so much for me. She reinforces my desire to attempt experimentation with fiction, because sometimes I get bored of conventional fiction. There's nothing wrong with it. I wish I could do it, and maybe I would have a bigger advance, but I just love the play that comes with poetry.


JC: I want to ask you about the translation process.

XNA: People asked me, didn't you translate it? No way. Translation is so hard. There are so many variables that go into it, and that's why I didn't attempt doing it myself. The translation is so beautifully done because we had a team, an entire team of Puerto Ricans who came together. The editor of the translated version, Ariana Rosado Fernández, oversaw and collaborated with me in reading Aurora Lauzardo Ugarte’s translation. It was a very collective effort and I feel very fortunate for that. I could have done it. I could translate. It'd be a terrible translation, though.


JC: When asked to self-translate, a lot of people say they would just want to write another book. Because you are writing the book again, so you would be tempted to start over or resee it. I've heard that a lot. It's great to hear that you had a team. I've read some of the Spanish version and it’s wonderful. I can see how the bilinguality of your version presented challenges for bringing it into Spanish.

XNA: At the end of the day, as long as the translator is invested and has as much collaboration with all parties as possible, you can create these bridges. But I'm very wary about being so Anglophone, about the fact that the culture and that writing itself, specifically in the United States, is so invested in English. It has to be written in English, but it's not even just English—it's very American. It has to be the United States. It has to fall into some specific narrative, and I think that's limiting. The world is vast and there are so many people creating in different languages! And if we have access to it and we can translate that work, we should read it, we should assign it.

“We need a more purposeful effort to translate our literature into English.”

JC: I think about that myopic American perspective a lot as a translator and discuss it often with other translators. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it "the danger of a single story." A lot of times American or Anglophone publishers expect a very specific kind of narrative. They say, ok so we'll translate your book from Spanish if it's about xyz or we'll translate your Chinese novel if it's about the perils of communism. I'm just curious if that's something you've thought about with this story.

XNA: I've thought about it extensively with regard to Puerto Rican literature, especially literature written in Spanish, from the island. If the books don't mention the United States or Uncle Sam explicitly, the US is like, well how do we get this to the larger masses of the US, even though Puerto Rico is the US technically, right?

I worry that we need a more purposeful effort to translate our literature into English. We have publishing houses that do their best to create access at home, whether it's in Spanish or English, but I hope there is more acquisition of works from the island that can be translated into English. That can also be treated as important works, not just we-translate-and-we-forget-it, but that receive the same production efforts they put into whatever book gets published with the "big five" mainstream publishing houses. And these stories don't have to be centered always on diaspora. I'm not disregarding diaspora, but there's a long history of conflict between Puerto Ricans in the diaspora and on the island, and it's always good to have these continued conversations. I want our literature to be spread out in the US because we have had this relationship with the US for the last hundred years or so. We could be here for a while if we really unpack all that.


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: I love that. You know, we're doing this interview for WWB, and it's important to contextualize that when we talk about translation, when we talk about a multiplicity of voices and languages, we're also talking about English. We're also talking about the multiplicity of Englishes.

XNA: Absolutely, yes.


JC: Acknowledging, especially to our students, that grammar is imposed as a colonial structure.

XNA: Yeah, I kind of gave up on trying to feel burdened by grammar and just allowed myself to write.


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.

© 2022 Jacqui Cornetta. All rights reserved.

Related Reading:

The Translator Relay: Urayoán Noel

The City and the Writer: In San Juan with Ricardo Alberto Maldonado

Kettly Mars on the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti and the Novels It Inspired

Read more from the January 2022 issue
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