The novel “Velorio” tells a story of reconstruction after the destruction of Hurricane Maria: NPR
NPR’s Eyder Peralta talks with Xavier Navarro Aquino about his first novel, âVelorio,â which centers on the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
EYDER PERALTA, HTE:
In 2017, Hurricane Maria became one of the deadliest hurricanes in American history. Nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans have been killed. The destruction of the island and the question of how Puerto Ricans would rebuild themselves is the backdrop to Xavier Navarro Aquino’s first novel, “Velorio”. He’s here with us now to talk about it.
Xavier, welcome to the program.
XAVIER NAVARRO AQUINO: Thank you, Eyder. Glad to be here.
PERALTA: âVelorioâ begins as Hurricane Maria hits the island. Death and destruction follow, and as people seek to rebuild or just process what just happened, they are called into a new city called Memoria, memory. Tell us what happens next.
NAVARRO AQUINO: Well, the idealistic cult leader Urayoan is assembling a group of what he considers to be orphans or children wandering the streets after the hurricane and trying to create an independent society, which is trying to rebuild in his own vision, a world that does not bear some of the scars and similar historical legacies of colonization or those legacies of government mismanagement. And so, he finally brings together a group of interested individuals who seem to think this might be the right way to deal with the aftermath of a hurricane.
PERALTA: You’re sort of talking about this cult leader, Urayoan. Can you tell us a little more about the other people who meet in his town?
NAVARRO AQUINO: Yes. There are two characters that I can see as very close and best friends. One is Banto and the other is Bayfish. And they kind of feel compelled to follow Urayoan because of their history together. Like, they circled the same circles of friends. There are a few other protagonists. Camila, in fact, is a 12 or 13 year old girl who opens the book rather sharply by showing that her sister, Marisol, is caught in a mudslide and dies as they try to weather the hurricane. Her take is also a very complicated conversation about what it means to grieve and what it means to process. I would also, I suppose, point out that the novel is kind of like this dystopian present from Puerto Rico, so sort of leans into this idea of ââmagical realism. But I say this with a lot of caution, because I also don’t think it fits the traditional Marquez-style magical realism.
PERALTA: I wonder where were you when, when Hurricane Maria hit and when did you decide that it would become the kind of central part of your first novel?
NAVARRO AQUINO: Yes, I was in Lincoln, Neb., To pursue my doctorate. When the hurricane hit, I kept track of it like most people who had family, friends or loved ones on the island. But after the hurricane passed, I managed to buy a ticket to Puerto Rico, and that was the first impact that hit me with the hurricane. And I think these images stayed with me. At first, I was really reluctant to write about the hurricane. I didn’t write the novel until I came across a few press clippings immediately afterwards from a group of sisters who wanted to take one of them from the nursing home to bring them near their home. to overcome the hurricane. And in doing so, a landslide had occurred that inadvertently killed one of the older sisters. And I took this with me. I think that was the creation and the inspiration for Camila.
PERALTA: So let’s talk a little more about Camila. There’s a graphic scene where she returns home to find her mom is gone, her sister is gone, her town is gone. And she uses a knife to cut herself. Would you mind reading some of this? And before you do, we must warn our listeners that this is a disturbing scene.
NAVARRO AQUINO: (reading) I went back to the kitchen and rummaged in the drawers and pulled out a small knife. It wasn’t too sharp. Mom hardly sharpened the knives because she never sharpened them. Every time she cooked, she slammed them violently into the cutting board. The bruised board. I wanted to see myself angry, open, breathing air. I took the knife and crushed my thick skin. Not deep or mean, but something small and just enough to let our blood flow. I made marks on my arm, each burning like a bee sting and bleeding gently. I did, and I felt it again. I went back to the sofa and fell. My bloody arm staining the fabric. I thought nothing would change no matter how much time passed.
PERALTA: So what struck me about that scene was that it took a physical pain for her to remind her of what things looked like, like what normal was. How did you come to write this special moment?
NAVARRO AQUINO: It was very difficult. Camila, like most of these characters, came to me in a very, very feverish type moment. When I started writing the novel I felt a lot of anger and pain from Camila. I found myself several times throughout this book as I wrote it crying, crying. There’s this interesting stereotype of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, and how resilient and happy we are. And all of these things are true to some extent. I think we – one of the things that I love about coming home and being with my family or my in-laws is that we can laugh about so many things than others. people, perhaps in the United States, would feel very embarrassed by this. But we laugh about it. And I think that’s an aspect, but it’s an incomplete picture. I wanted to be very clear and direct about how people were feeling, even though they might not have presented those feelings to the outside. It was really that kind of pain in them.
PERALTA: Yes. It is the author Xavier Navarro Aquino who talks about his first novel, “Velorio”. Xavier, thank you very much for being with us.
NAVARRE D’AQUINO: Thank you, Eyder.
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