New Creative Nonfiction by Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones
How do we mark the passage of time? How do we reconcile what we remember of our life and those we love – and have loved – against the mutability of memory? Like author Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu), Ms. Acevedo-Quiñones grapples with her life growing up in Puerto Rico and her identity as a writer in Brooklyn, marking the journey with the island’s six great hurricanes of the 20th century.
With our deep gratitude to Rose Metal Press for publishing this book, we herewith present excerpts from Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones’ remarkable work. These excerpts do not do full justice to her innovative narrative, so please read the book. Meet the author live tomorrow (Wednesday, November 8, 2023) evening, in conversation with poet Paolo Javier at the Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton Street, Brooklyn. See other upcoming readings here.
While much of The Hurricane Book is autobiographical, I can’t and don’t claim to fully know what is true or false about real people’s private histories, thoughts, or intentions—much less those of people I’ve only ever heard about or imagined. (I also imagine and misremember people I know!)
Throughout the book, I point out where something may not have actually happened, or may not have happened in the way described, or could be considered fiction, depending on whom you ask.
The above does not apply to the “Historical Notes,” or to the hurricane essays directly following those, which deal with hurricane-related statistics. Nor does it apply to anything occurring solely to me. Yet even then, there is always room for error. I have a difficult time trusting myself, which is part of the reason why I write.
This lack of trust led me to experiment with hybrid forms in recent years. I need to consider all potential outcomes and employ every approach and perspective at my disposal before I feel confident enough to make a statement.
In 2017, I recommitted to writing seriously. I quit my job in publishing and enrolled in an MFA program. There, I attended workshops in all genres, but joined as a poet. My goal was to leave Stony Brook University with 20 to 30 poems I could turn into a publishable collection.
Then, during my first month of grad school, Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico. Even though I’d left the island more than a decade prior, I hadn’t felt the weight of my choice to leave quite as soberly as when the island was going through that particular catastrophe, one of many happening concurrently. I decided to go back to the original draft of this book, to the story of the ancestors who, like me, had left their place of birth.
Estrangement and distance warp memory. They influence one’s treatment of a place. There was no way I could’ve gone back to the draft without acknowledging that I was a white member of the Puerto Rican diaspora who had been assimilating and in the land of the colonizer for 17 years, and that I was trying to piece together a multi-pronged story with many missing pieces. I realized that I couldn’t write the story in a strictly narrative way and started to conceptualize a hybrid way to tell it.
As the book took shape, I built it around seven major hurricanes, beginning each section with historical facts about that era in Puerto Rico and factual details about the hurricane. I then tied my family and personal history to the same eras and hurricanes.
Hurricane San Felipe II, September 13, 1928
When it hit the Caribbean, on September 12, San Felipe was already a Category 3, and only strengthened after crossing Guadeloupe that day. When it made landfall in southeastern Puerto Rico, it was as a Category 5 storm, carrying winds of up to 160 mph. The mountains in the Cordillera Central got up to 30 inches of rain. The death toll was over 300. Over 20,000 homes were completely destroyed, and almost 200,000 suffered damages. Tobacco, citrus, coffee, and sugar crops were destroyed. It is estimated that the hurricane cost the island $50 million in crop and property losses. This is in 1928 USD, roughly $855 million in 2022.
Sica, my mother’s paternal grandmother, came from a long line of farmers who had never left the valley of Caguax.
She woke up at 5:00 a.m. every day. She washed her face, braided her hair, and went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. Hard bread, a couple of melon wedges, and goat’s milk. No one in the house ever complained, even though they knew that their lunch and dinner would look exactly like breakfast.
She took pleasure in small things. She was proud of her long, black hair. She enjoyed smoking cigars she rolled herself. She drank cognac, which she kept in the trunk by her bed.
My mother says Sica was the softest, gentlest person alive. She had gone through so much loss, letting things slide was probably the best approach to dealing with children and bad times.
My grandfather’s enabling of their mother’s smoking seemed to be the only point of contention between Jacobo and him. In 1978, Sica died at 97 in her kitchen. She collapsed by the stove.
Hurricane San Ciprián, September 27, 1932
On September 26, 1932, four years after Hurricane San Felipe II, San Ciprián hit Puerto Rico after crossing St. Maarten, Anguilla, and the Virgin Islands as a Category 3. It took seven hours for the storm, with winds of up to 120 mph at landfall, to cross the island, after which it headed on westward until it dissipated on October 3rd. Its east-to-west path, a trajectory that wouldn’t repeat itself until Hurricane Georges in 1998, guaranteed destruction across most of the 78 municipalities.
Around 250 people died, as well as more than 400,000 livestock. More than 70,000 families saw their houses destroyed or partially destroyed. Hundreds of houses were blown away in the town of Río Piedras alone. Most of the citrus crops were destroyed. The total cost of the damage was around 30 million dollars (close to $655 million by today’s standards), in a time when the island was still recovering from losses suffered during San Felipe II in 1928.
Like in an epic poem, the arbitrary nature of the gods reigned in my father’s house. He’d have me sit in front of a plate of pink beans for hours to prove a point I didn’t understand. There were social experiments. There were games designed to make my siblings and me lose. Now I picture his mother’s downturned mouth, her strong knobby hands, her small, fragile frame, his father’s suggestive jokes, the crosses hanging in every room, my father as a boy, in church, the answer “because,” and who he might have been before the weight of his history fell on him. I was raised to be on the defense. Always with an emergency backpack under my bed, always holding on to comebacks in case of a surprise attack, always expecting a sort of violence from every man. I was spared from his belt, but I wasn’t sure why.
Vendepatria. Pitiyanqui. Bocabajo. Homelandseller. Little Yankee lover. Little oligarch. If I removed my headphones in the car, I could hear my father say these words from time to time. Directed at a politician on a billboard. Directed at a fast-food franchise. Directed, sometimes, at my stepbrother and me.
To my father, however, speaking English well was just as important as knowing the revolutionary version of our national anthem: “Wake up from that dream, for it’s time to fight.” To defeat the enemy, you have to speak their language. Pedro Albizu Campos and Derek Walcott knew this. When Pedro was alive, though, there were no Wendy’s drive-thrus in Guaynabo, or LiveJournals. So you can see how things got murky.
Hurricane Hugo, September 18, 1989
Hurricane Hugo formed in Cape Verde, off the western coast of Africa, on September 13, 1989. Five days later, it made landfall in Vieques as a Category 3—almost 4—storm, with winds averaging at 130 mph. At its strongest, there were wind gusts of up to 170 mph, according to the anemometer on a ship in the harbor at Culebra.
While the western and southern parts of the island suffered minimal to no damage, the eastern part of Puerto Rico, including Culebra and Vieques, were deeply affected. Around 80 percent of houses were either damaged or destroyed.
“There were boats buried in the mountains. They flew across the streets, and the wind threw them at the mountains. The pressure of the wind and the tide dragged a great amount of boats, and the ones that weren’t taken out of the bay, sank. There were dozens and dozens. We would share food, have potlucks, shared the food we had, and whoever had a generator would share with a neighbor, despite it being risky…people sitting in their patios, cooling off […]” —Former Secretary of Justice, Hector Rivera Cruz . . ..
Things My Father Has Been
Things my father has been: altar boy, seminarian, history teacher, consultant, talent scout, ad man, goji berries salesman, weight loss pills salesman, graphic designer, entrepreneur, producer, cinematographer, filmmaker, headhunter.
The Man You Don’t Understand Sings Himself to Sleep
The moon is sweet and silver,
keeps my worries in a crater,
deep in dust and glitter,
when the heels go, clack-clack-clack,
and the swishing tulle goes, hush,
and the clock strikes twelve, then one.
She goes, sleep, my honey bear,
and beats my nightmares soft,
casts a shadow on the girl
hanging from the roof.
She goes, does it swell your chest,
my littlest of lambs,
when I make her disappear
and it’s just us nightingales
singing songs like wounds.
Carve all your hopes and fears
into my downturned cheek.
Only I can understand
my baby’s fever dreams.
The moon is fair and sexy:
When the heels go,
and the swishing tulle goes, hush,
and the clock strikes twelve, then one,
and I’m sweating through my sheets,
she fits my fist inside her mouth,
a cave made out of bones,
meant for no one else
Over my last week in the womb, I got into a sitting position and wrapped the umbilical cord around my neck, making it impossible for my mother to push me out without killing us both. She would relay this to people with great pride, reminding them that babies who are difficult to birth are smarter.
The day of the hurricane, my father filled the tub with water, brought in the ficus trees we had in our semi-exposed garage, and raided the supermarket at the last minute for cans of Vienna sausages, corned beef, soup, soursop juice, and corn.
Early in the morning my mother and I lay down in the hallway as he moved his books away from the windows. When the wind picked up, he had us hide in his office, and we all sat on the floor, under his big metal desk, for three hours. The next day he went out and bought what he said was the last generator in Guaynabo.
My ear infection started the night before the hurricane. I was one year old. I was often sick. I cried through the storm and the days after that. A doctor said that I’d need a myringotomy, to have these tiny tubes inserted in my eardrums, to prevent hearing loss. The infection was almost too advanced. My mother didn’t like the idea of anyone putting tubes in me, so she opted for a month-long course of antibiotics, which worked.
Hurricane Georges, September 21, 1998
Hurricane Georges, the first to cross the entirety of Puerto Rico since San Ciprián in 1932, formed on September 15, 1998, 300 miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. It strengthened to a Category 3 at landfall in Puerto Rico, on September 21. It caused 10- to 20-ft storm surges and dumped up to 30 inches of water. Tornadoes were reported. Initially carrying sustained winds of 115 mph while it was over Puerto Rico, it weakened to a Category 2 as it crossed the western part of the island and left around 1:00 am the following morning.
Out of the 72,605 houses affected by the storm, 28,005 were completely destroyed. Ninety-five percent of the banana crop and 75 percent of the coffee crop were destroyed. Sixty-five percent of all poultry was gone. The entire electric system was shut down and 8 percent of the island lost telephone service. Roads were impassable due to the flooding and mudslides. The total damage was estimated at $3 billon, roughly $5.5 billion in 2023.
I learned from you
that Operation is a game best played
by the light of the Virgin Mary candle
from the dollar store
while sharing the last cold can
of soursop juice.
You were never more my mother
than during a blackout,
when you let me win at a musty board game
and sleep on the right side of your bed,
half anchored sailboat
in high tide.
That night in September you asked me
to name the types of clouds
as we drifted:
and I heard you smile in the dark.
I fell asleep
to the whir of your breath
half scared of
I’ve had some version of these since I was a child, either under my bed or in a closet. I don’t feel safe unless I know that at any point, I could pick up and leave my house. That I could run if I had to. A good emergency backpack contains enough to keep you alive for up to three days.
I’ve only had to actually run for my life once before, in my early twenties, from an electrical fire in the house I was renting.
Being acutely aware that everything can change in a second has mostly paid off in other ways. I can, for example, pack for a vacation in five minutes. I can move to a new city with two suitcases and a box. I can identify what is essential and put whatever that is in a neat, portable container.
This practice started around the time I was able to fully grasp the severity of natural disasters, between the ages of 10 and 14, which coincided with the time my mother got sick.
Socks in the Mail
I was one of the 525,769 Puerto Ricans who moved to the United States between 2006 (when I graduated from high school) and 2016. I was part of the reason the island lost 14 percent of its population during that time. I had done fairly well in school and assumed I’d get a scholarship to some liberal arts college in the northeastern United States, like people who liked the things I liked did in the movies. NYC was where romantics went, and I had been romantic about the city since I watched a VH1 documentary on the year 1977. My English was good enough.
My mother, who went back to work at the hospital halfway through my senior year of high school, would mail me a check for a hundred dollars every month, for food and books. She would also mail socks and pens.
Look Who It Is
When the excitement of moving away wore off, I became hyperaware of my inadequacy. There was the constant fear of the floor giving into the weight of who I wasn’t. I had seen terrible things before I turned 18, but I didn’t know about credit, or sexual health, or how to be part of a group or form healthy bonds. It took me six months to get on the subway. I was afraid of public transportation, of being seen by thousands of people, of showing strangers how ill-equipped I was to ride the train and live my life. I walked around with MapQuest printouts and drank 40s to feel like I could join in whatever fun people were having around me.
For the first couple years, I couldn’t wait to go home again to the people and things that felt normal to me, but memories from my childhood and destructive coping mechanisms took over, and my grasp on the island and my family slipped. I don’t remember much of my early twenties, other than most of those years were spent acting out scenes I’d seen before, over and over again. I know I put myself in dangerous situations. I know my English lost its slight accent. There were a couple of pregnancy scares, some health issues. Some sexual violence. There was too much alcohol. There was disciplinary probation (after I got caught smoking in the tub; they didn’t see the coke). Parties in lofts. The calls home trickled to weekly check-ins filled with lies.
I got it together enough to intern at a journal and graduate a semester early. I wrote for the college newspaper and had a lovely boyfriend who didn’t know what he had signed up for. News about where the island was headed was grim. And it wasn’t uncommon for my father or mother to tell me that I did good by leaving. I became synonymous with leaving. My mother got sick again, but it was easy for Beba to hide the worst parts when we talked. My father was as financially unstable as ever.
Hurricane Sandy, October 27-29, 2012
On its way to the U.S. from the Bahamas, Hurricane Sandy downgraded to a Category 1, with winds of up to 80 mph. On October 27, it downgraded to tropical storm, only to regain power and upgrade to a Category 1 again. By the time it made landfall in the U.S., on October 29, it was a Category 2 with hurricane force winds that extended 175 miles from the eye of the storm.
According to the National Hurricane Center, Sandy caused at least 147 deaths in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. Forty-eight of them were in New York, where coastal neighborhoods like Breezy Point in the Rockaways are still recovering over 10 years later. Fifty-four deaths were reported in Haiti.
The storm caused $70 billion worth of damage. 8.5 million people lost power. The East and Hudson rivers overflowed into Manhattan, flooding subway platforms and tunnels. Coastal New Jersey was badly hit—a huge section of the Atlantic City boardwalk was destroyed, as well as businesses and homes. There was a full moon on October 29, which strengthened the storm surge.
The one time I was truly lucky was like a lot of other times I was lucky, so the details don’t really matter. The miracle was always waking up from a blackout, whether or not I wanted to. A hangover meant I was still alive. A floor meant I was under a roof. Being in possession of my wallet meant I could use the insurance card if I was hurt. Wandering blacked out, strangers at bars, flinging myself into hard surfaces if I felt especially bold—I brought most of these accidents on. It was like holding the door wide open for a deranged sister to come around and wreck my house. My mother had always driven us to church wacked out of her mind, so we had to keep things familiar. I only want to know the kind of luck that keeps you from being run over when you’re not doing anything wrong, not the kind that catches you when you throw yourself off a cliff.
By 2012, my mother and I were more like acquaintances who happened to talk to each other almost every day. Even now, 10 years later, we go through the same phone routine. If I don’t answer the phone, she won’t text. She’ll just keep calling and leaving voicemails. They’re all between seven and 10 seconds long and have the same content. The greeting is always, Pelúa de mami, llámame cuando puedas. The direct translation from the Spanish is something like, “Mom’s little hairy one, call me when you can.” The reason for the call is never spelled out.
The word “pelúa” is an informal version of “peluda,” meaning “hairy.” While I am, indeed, a hairy woman, and this comes with its own set of socially imposed hang-ups; calling someone “pelúa” in Puerto Rico is most likely a sweet, if teasing, gesture. A bad situation can be deemed “pelúa,” too, however.
Hurricane María, September 20, 2017
Hurricane María originated as a tropical wave on the western coast of Africa, making its way across the Atlantic Ocean between September 10 and September 16, 2017. On September 16, 700 miles southeast of the Lesser Antilles, it intensified into a tropical depression. Within hours, it was a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph. By September 17, it had become the eighth hurricane of the season, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph. By the time it made landfall in Dominica on September 19, it was a Category 5 hurricane. The following morning, on September 20, Hurricane María made landfall in Yabucoa, southeastern Puerto Rico, as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 155 mph.
In Puerto Rico, entire coastal neighborhoods like La Perla in Old San Juan were destroyed. People in some areas saw six feet of water, some up to 15, flood their homes. Eighteen million coffee trees were pulled out of the ground. Nearly all residents lost power. Some didn’t have power again for an entire year. In the weeks following the storm, families in the mountains buried their dead in backyards, people raided corner stores for any canned foods they could find, shared generators, parked their cars on the highway and prayed for service so they could tell anyone they could reach that they were alive and safe for now.
María is the feminine variant of the Roman name Marius. It also derives from the Latin word mare, meaning “sea.”
Southampton I, II
Two months after the storm
a PR doctor spoke to the Times
about the new definition
“It’s I survived.
do I have?
I ask myself
from the “mainland”
from the light shining
on a workshop table,
from a tank full of gas,
a working kitchen.
So I call you, Mom,
at your house,
my old house,
into the ground
(volcanic rock is
I want to know if
“What we have lost
is the foundation
that holds a society together,”
like the doctor said.
But you’re not there,
but neither am I,
and there is no cord or line
to get through,
no way of knowing anything
which is what I’d wanted
before there was more to leave,
before there was more to say than,
and my family didn’t die,”
Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones is a writer from Puerto Rico whose poems and short fiction have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, wildness, Ambit Magazine, Radar Poetry, and other publications. In 2019, she received an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Stony Brook University, where she also taught poetry to undergraduate students. Her chapbook, Bedroom Pop, was published by dancing girl press in 2021. In 2022, she was awarded a Letras Boricuas Fellowship by the Flamboyán Arts Fund and the Mellon Foundation. Claudia lives in Brooklyn, New York. Visit her website here.