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The novel 'Velorio' tells one story of rebuilding after Hurricane Maria's destruction


In 2017, Hurricane Maria became one of the deadliest hurricanes in American history. Almost 3,000 Puerto Ricans were killed. The destruction on the island and the question of how Puerto Ricans would rebuild is the backdrop of Xavier Navarro Aquino's debut novel, "Velorio." He's here with us now to talk about it.

Xavier, welcome to the program.

XAVIER NAVARRO AQUINO: Thank you, Eyder. Happy to be here.

PERALTA: So "Velorio" starts as Hurricane Maria slams into the island. Death and destruction follow, and as people look to rebuild or just process what has just happened, they're called to a new town called the Memoria, memory. Tell us what happens next.

NAVARRO AQUINO: Well, the idealistic cult leader, Urayoan, is gathering a group of what he deems as orphans or stray kids from the streets of the aftermath of the hurricane and is trying to create a society that is independent, that is trying to rebuild in its own vision a world that does not carry some of the similar scars and historical legacies of colonization or those legacies of mismanagement of government. And so he ultimately gathers a group of interested individuals that seem to think that might be the proper way of going about the aftermath of a hurricane.

PERALTA: You're sort of talking about this cult leader, Urayoan. Can you tell us a bit more about the other people who find themselves in his city?

NAVARRO AQUINO: Yeah. There are two characters that I can see them as very relatable and best friends. One is Banto, and the other one is Bayfish. And they sort of feel obligated to follow Urayoan because of their history together. Like, they've orbited around the same circles of friends. There are a couple more protagonists. Camila, in fact, is a young, young girl at the age of 12 or 13 that opens the book rather abruptly by showing that her sister, Marisol, is caught in a mudslide and dies as they're trying to ride out the hurricane. Her perspective is also very much a complicated conversation about what it means to grieve and what it means to process. I would also, I guess, emphasize that the novel is sort of like this dystopic present Puerto Rico, so kind of leans into these idea of a magical realism. But I say that very cautiously, because I don't think that it falls in line with, like, traditional Marquez-style magical realism, either.

PERALTA: I wonder, where were you when, when Hurricane Maria hit and when did you decide that it would become the sort of central part of your debut novel?

NAVARRO AQUINO: Yeah, I was in Lincoln, Neb., to pursue my Ph.D. When the hurricane hit, I was keeping track of it as most people who had family and friends or loved ones on the island. But after the hurricane hit, I managed to buy a ticket to Puerto Rico, and that was the first impact that hit me with the hurricane and was just seeing that devastation and that destruction firsthand, everything that you sort of grew up knowing gone overnight. And I think those images stayed with me. Initially I really was resistant to writing about the hurricane. I didn't write the novel until I came across a few news clippings immediately after of a group of sisters that wanted to take one of them from the nursing home to bring them close to their home to ride out the hurricane. And in doing so, a landslide had come in and inadvertently killed one of the older sisters. And I carried that with me. I think that was the inception and the inspiration for Camila.

PERALTA: So let's talk a little more about Camila. There's a graphic scene where she comes back to her house to find that her mom is gone, her sister's gone, her town is gone. And she uses a knife to cut herself. Would you mind reading a little bit of that? And before you do, we should warn our listeners that this is a disturbing scene.

NAVARRO AQUINO: (Reading) I walked back to the kitchen and rummaged through the drawers and took out a short cutting knife. It wasn't too sharp. Mommy hardly sharpened the knives because she never sharpened them. Whenever she cooked, she slammed them down hard into the cutting board. The board bruised. I wanted to see myself in anger, open, breathing air. I took the knife and smashed into my thick skin. Not deep or mean, but something small and just enough to let our blood. I made marks up my arm, each one burning like bee stings and softly bleeding. I did this, and I felt again. I went back to the couch and fell. My bloody arm staining the cloth. I thought about how nothing would change, no matter how much time passed.

PERALTA: So the thing I think that struck me about this scene is that it took physical harm to remind her what things used to be like, like what normal was. How did you come to write this particular moment?

NAVARRO AQUINO: It was very difficult. Camila, as with most of these characters, came to me in a very, very fever-pitch type moment. When I actually set out to write the novel, I felt very much Camila's anger and pain. I found myself many, many times throughout this book as I was writing it crying, crying. There is this interesting stereotype about Puerto Rico and about Puerto Ricans, and how resilient and how joyful we are. And all these things are true to some capacity. I think we - one of the things that I love about going home and being around my family or my in-laws is that we can laugh about so many things that other people, perhaps in the United States, would feel very bothered by it. But we laugh it off. And I think that is an aspect of it, but it's an incomplete picture. I wanted to be very clear and direct about what people were feeling, even though they may have not presented those feelings outwardly. It was very much within them that kind of pain.

PERALTA: Yeah. That's author Xavier Navarro Aquino talking about his debut novel, "Velorio." Xavier, thank you so much for joining us.

NAVARRO AQUINO: Thank you, Eyder. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.