At eighteen, writer Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones moved from Puerto Rico to New York after turbulent years split between complicated parental figures. In her debut autobiography, The Hurricane Book, she hunts for a deeper understanding of her family—and her home—in the historical record by surveying six hurricanes that have shaped the island.
The first section of the book, named for the deadly Hurricane San Felipe II of 1928, traces Acevedo-Quiñones’s maternal line from her grandfather, born in the wake of the hurricane’s destruction, back through her Spanish ancestors, who migrated to the island two decades earlier. Other sections detail her parents’ lives and separation, familial struggles with mental illness and abuse, and her life abroad. Family portraits are rendered by poetry (“You plant aloe and grapefruit and mango / to feed your wife / with the same macheted hand / you were dealt.”) and prose (“She was the kind of woman who would drench herself in Chantilly and wear coral lipstick to go to Woolworth’s, regardless of her financial situation.”), while subsections entitled “Historical Notes” offer us the facts: San Felipe II was named for Phillip the martyr, it killed 300 people, destroyed over 20,000 homes, damaged almost 200,000 others, and caused $50 million in losses on the island alone. Nimbly shifting form, Acevedo-Quiñones reexamines intimate moments between vulnerable people through layers of historical, economic, and scientific facts, including folktales, biblical stories, maps, letters, and news reports.
I met with Acevedo-Quiñones on a balmy Brooklyn day in June to talk about stories of leaving home, confusion in the archives, and breaking free of narrative loops.
Alana Mohamed: When did you start writing The Hurricane Book?
Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones: This was originally part of my college thesis from 2009. It was supposed to be a fictionalized version of the story of my maternal family emigrating from Northern Spain to Puerto Rico in the 1600s. I wrote about thirty pages on that. And then I didn’t revisit it until 2017 when Hurricane Maria hit. That was my first semester of grad school and my leaving the island was on my mind because it was such an intense, catastrophic event and I wasn’t there for it. I started thinking about why I left and why my family had left Spain originally.
Why was it important to expand beyond just your mother’s side of the family and talk about your father’s side?
In the beginning, I didn’t set out to write about my father’s side because I’m estranged from him, even though I am still in contact with one of his brothers and a few cousins. I was asked by my thesis advisor to add material about my father’s family to balance it out. He was curious about why I wasn’t writing about them.
I had been setting boundaries with my father in the years leading up to cutting off contact. Boundaries around certain behaviors that were causing me considerable pain. It got to a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. We never had a “normal” relationship, and I had made my peace with that, but this went beyond what I considered fair or healthy. I think it’s difficult for some people to understand, especially when I haven’t gone over specifics with them outside of my writing. And even in writing, I’ve kept things to myself.
There are hints of the abuse you faced throughout the book, but you move on pretty quickly from those instances. Why was that?
I don’t want this book to be immersion therapy—I don’t want to relive the worst things that have happened to me. I’m also not trying to vilify anybody either. And I can’t trust a lot of my memories sometimes because there was a lot of substance abuse. Trauma makes one kind of black out certain details that I know in my body happened, details that I was in denial about for a long time and only recently remembered. But I don’t want to explore that further on the page because I don’t think it’s relevant to the story I’m trying to tell. The fact that it happens is enough, but the details are another story.
What is this story to you?
For a long time I thought it was a story I was using to justify my leaving. And now, it kind of still feels that way. But what the story is and why I wrote it are two different questions. I see the story as an exploration of the history of Puerto Rico itself because I spent so much time disassociating from it that I kind of forgot where I came from. I was trying to explore the reasons why I left. I wanted to see if my leaving was related to my family dynamics and the history of where I come from. So to me, it’s a story about how it’s all related.
And how did the hurricanes become an important part of this story?
I started thinking about how hurricanes were a measure of time in our lives. I have such vivid memories of hurricanes that passed through the island in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Those were also times in which there was no power, no water, no school, no work. People who don’t usually just sit down and talk openly to one another end up doing so because there’s literally nothing else to do. So, I kind of treasure those times a bit because my mom would tell stories, other family members would stop by and tell stories. We shared a lot more than we usually did, we played board games together. Those are things a lot of families do already and you don’t need a catastrophe to make that happen, but in the case of my family, it just became a time of communion.
You switch between extremely personal accounts of your family in poetry and prose and then broader histories of hurricanes, of system neglect in reportage. Why was it important to switch between topics and forms?
With the hurricanes, I needed facts and numbers—percentages and dates—to give myself the permission to talk about my family’s experiences and my own. As I was researching these hurricanes for the poems, I started seeing how recovery was affected by the economic status of the island, which is linked to its colonial status. So I thought it would be important to add all of that context, but switching between them gave me and the reader some breathing room. I didn’t want to have a thirty or forty–page block of trauma porn. I didn’t want the message to be, “Oh look at all the horrible things that have happened to us,” and I didn’t want the story to be a justification for our actions. It’s all connected, and it’s all kind of messy. I wanted the experience of reading it to feel that way.
I do feel like, throughout, there’s this kind of play between fact and fiction sometimes in that you are mining your family’s history and putting yourself in their shoes. How do you navigate myth-making in your story?
I think my way of telling my story is borne out of anxiety. My family is very blended. Because there was a separation from the very beginning of my existence, I find that there were always two sides to the same story. There was my mother’s side, and my father’s side. And then there was a third one later—my own, which I didn’t really start thinking about until I left because I was so hypervigilant and anxious in trying to figure out what was true that I didn’t have the time to consider my own version of events.
Your book talks about cycles of abuse, self-harm, and neglect. Can you talk about the process of writing that and deciding what stories are yours to tell?
I talked to my mother before I started sending this book out to publishers because it has a lot to do with my mother’s mental illness and her—and my—relationship to alcohol. She basically said, just go ahead. I think a part of her knows that because I was there and because I was her only child, I was deeply affected by it, and that was enough for her. I’m sure some people will be hurt, but I made sure that anything that could hurt someone, I was there for and affected me directly. If there was something in the book that didn’t affect me or that I wasn’t a part of, I made sure to say that.
I was thinking a lot about Mary Karr because that was the first memoirist I read in English and she wrote a lot about alcoholism. Her disclaimer in the beginning of her book Lit is a blueprint for me. She always talks about changing peoples’ names, admitting her own faults, admitting to her own faulty memory, and just having a good sense of humor about it. I wasn’t as hard on people as I was on myself. I’m not letting myself off the hook either.
That quote from Anne Lamott, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I don’t necessarily think that way specifically, but it does help to have that perspective as well.
You also talk about your own self-destructive patterns.
Drinking, drug misuse, and the pursuit of chaotic relationships were the main self-destructive behaviors, I think. I was a prude in every sense until around sixteen—think Winona Ryder’s character in Mermaids: collared up, platonically romantic, a little nun. Things started to change when my mother was in the hospital and dealing with her own mental health. I was in a new, emotionally tense environment with a different parental figure. My behavior then came from a wanting to disappear. I couldn’t just go up in smoke, so I had to disappear into something. I already made myself small. I didn’t want to be touched or perceived, even in times where there was no actual danger. When I couldn’t make myself any smaller, I tried to not be there at all. It could be said that I was just being a teenager and testing stuff. But I tested them with impunity because I was rarely, if ever, caught. I’m great at secrets. I still have to stop myself from reaching for those coping mechanisms when I feel unsafe or overwhelmed and would rather just obliterate myself.
How did you see the cycles of abuse your family experienced as connected to the larger forces of colonization, military occupation, and natural disaster you talk about?
I think lack of opportunity creates and perpetuates cycles of abuse. Lack of access to basic things like electricity, education, healthcare, those create problems in the home and unhappy people are going to take it out on the people closest to them. My parents were never hungry, but my family came from a place where food could be a source of anxiety. My maternal grandparents went to bed hungry a lot. Some of my father’s ancestors also did. We all inherit these things in our DNA.
It’s also easier to stay in a place that’s known to you even if it’s hurting you. So there’s a question of loyalty, whether to your country or your family, that is complicated by being a colony. In Puerto Rico’s case especially, you are a citizen of the colonizing country, you could go away if you wanted and are able to. But when you’re not starting from a firm base, when you don’t know who you are or who you belong to—I’m only speaking for myself here, of course—it’s harder to be healthy.
And Puerto Rico’s status as a colony makes it easier for the federal US government to make unfair decisions about how they distribute money. There is a part in the book where I mention that Puerto Rico gets fifty-five cents for every dollar the US government spends on Medicaid, while Mississippi received almost seventy-six cents per dollar in 2021, even though the poverty rate in Puerto Rico is higher than in Mississippi. We don’t have voting representatives in Congress. If you’re on the island, you can’t vote for the president. It gives them permission to do a lot of harm, like a loophole.
You also mention the US military presence in Puerto Rico.
I think that the US Navy presence in Puerto Rico was such a visible, tangible symbol of the hold the US has on the island. Even after they left, they left their tanks there, they left their trash there. Fertility rates on those islands are lower, there’s a lot of cancer there, sonic booms do something to the body. Those tanks have been there since the 1900s. People have been graffitiing them and growing things out of them, so they’ve assimilated into the ecosystem at this point.
This book is written in English, it’s being published by a press in Chicago—how do you choose what elements of the culture or the language to translate for an English-speaking US audience?
I chose to further explain or translate things that maybe a US audience wouldn’t already know. If you’re a Puerto Rican child and you go to a birthday party, chances are sandwichitos de Mezcla are going to be there and a certain kind of meat-filled pastry with sugar on top is going to be there, for example. That’s the kind of thing that makes me happy when I think about it, so that’s why I decided to add it. But I tried to not explain or translate things that I trust readers will find out themselves. I don’t think my job is to explain the entire culture to another person.
When you were writing this book, did you find anything that surprised you or was totally off from what your family had told you about their history?
It happened a lot. In the book, I mention this: My dad had told me that his grandpa owned a movie theater. I was so sure that it had happened and when I looked at the census documents, I realized that hadn’t happened at all. So I had this whole idea of things that were happening in this movie theater and they never happened. I had to have all these conversations again with members of my family because I completely warped details of their lives—and my life. It was all very surprising and exhausting for some reason. [Laughs] I will never attempt an autobiography again.
Could you talk more about doing archival research about Puerto Rico?
I was hoping to find more marriage records, I was hoping to find more death certificates. Also, there are members of my family that I know couldn’t read or write, but were listed in Census documents as having a certain profession, being a certain age, having certain members of their family. Oftentimes, because there were lots of generations living in one house, the members of the family were reported as being different people than they actually were and I don’t think the people taking this info down necessarily took the time to figure out everyone’s relationship to one another. Some of the ages were off. Nothing about the process of looking into these people’s lives felt accurate.
In the sections about my father’s grandmother, I say that I have no idea how or when she died. I found out after the book was edited that my mom knew her and loved her very much. I thought she had died this tragic death because I knew there was a woman with the same name who had died in childbirth. I thought for the longest time that she had left my great-grandfather and she ended up having this totally different life. Now I realize I have no idea! I’m going off of these names I know, but there are many people with the same name who lived in the same neighborhood. Nothing about the research was clean.
In this case, you talk about not being able to trust your own memories and it seems like you’re not able to trust these historical records, so where are you able to place your trust?
[Laughs] I trust nothing. That’s why I want to have all of these different sources. That’s why I want to try to tell every possible story from lots of different angles—because maybe a way into the truth is somewhere in there. But I can’t claim to know what the truth is and that’s part of my anxiety. I don’t want people to think this is the definitive history because it isn’t.
When you were researching the hurricanes, did you find that to be more reliable in the historical record?
That was the easiest part. I only had to call two government agencies. I imagine that’s because weather and any ecological thing that could affect US territories would be very important to them. It makes sense that a weather map from 1928 is easier to find than a record of people who lived on the island. People are very complicated.
But it can be hard to measure the impacts of the hurricanes, too. It was a huge issue with Maria. The US was giving us one number for mortality, the Puerto Rican government was giving us another number, and then a long time after that, they realized how many people had actually died.
You talk about leaving Puerto Rico when you were eighteen. How did you feel when you left?
I was really scared, but I moved here with someone I knew from PR, so we had each other for support. I was still really afraid, obviously. I wasn’t used to having all this mobility. I wasn’t equipped to be by myself. I think I mentioned it in the book, too, that I didn’t know about credit, I didn’t know you had to get a pap smear, I didn’t know all these things that all these other kids knew how to do. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know until I got here—which is not a comment on the country I’m from, but my own life.
Something that does seem to interest you is that the population of Puerto Rico keeps dwindling. It seems like you feel some guilt for being part of that statistic. In writing this book, how did you negotiate that guilt?
I always beat myself up about not doing more, being aware, especially now, of all the work that is being done and that can be done in my home country. I went back to Puerto Rico for the first time in three years recently and there is so much art and literature being made back home that I just wasn’t aware of because when I’m here in the US, it’s easy to get stuck in this narrative loop of leaving and the diaspora, and the guilt, and the longing.
I spend so much time feeling guilty about leaving that I don’t immerse myself in the things that actually matter and that move us forward. It took this book for me to realize, “You need to stop with the same story that you’re telling yourself all the time.”
This book also helped me see the pattern of self-harm more clearly. I realized how stagnant and boring that is. I wasn’t doing the actually difficult thing of trying to move past it to do something different.
I think, similarly, we are stuck in a loop and when we in the US think of Puerto Rico, we think of disaster and trauma, but that is not the only story at all.
Are there any specific people or efforts you want to shout out?
Art organizations such as Beta-Local are helping to ease some of the financial burdens on artists and also giving them a physical space to work. Indie presses like La Impresora and La Secta de los Perros are putting out beautiful books. Filmmakers like Sofia Gallisa Muriente and Natalia Lassalle-Morillo are doing necessary work towards writing diaspora, ecopolitics, and memory. Independent bookstores like La Esquina are hosting readings and dedicated to Puerto Rican lit and works in translation. Young writers like Sergio Gutierrez Negron, Rosaura Rodriguez, Amanda Hernandez, and Juanluis Ramos put out really exciting stuff: comics, sci-fi, noir, “literary” fiction, poetry, surrealism. There’s so much great new music: Buscabulla, Pachyman, for example. There’s avant-garde theater and performance art: Pelé, Marina Barsy (who I went to high school with and is performing all over) are two that come to mind.
Departamento de la Comida offers direct support to local farms and food programs on the island, in addition to a place to experiment with food grown and harvested locally. There are friends delivering books around town in mobile libraries.
There is a lot I don’t know about, but those are the things that come to mind now. It’s important to remember that there are people actively making things new and beautiful and accessible when so much attention is given (especially in the US) to the obviously disastrous.
Alana Mohamed is a writer and librarian from Queens, NY. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Lit Hub, Longreads, and many other now defunct publications. She edits Anxiety Dream Zine, a quadrennial publication timed with US presidential elections.
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