Yarimar Bonilla and Marisol LeBrón, editors
Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm
Haymarket Books, 2019
Reviewed by Pedro J. Rolón Machado
In her 1988 masterpiece, A Small Place, the Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid meditates on the role of silence in the histories of colonized peoples, believing that the people in a small place can have no interest in the exact, or in completeness, for that would demand a careful weighing, careful consideration, careful judging, careful questioning. It would demand the invention of a silence, inside of which these things could be done. It would demand a reconsideration, an adjustment, in the way they understand the existence of Time.
In other words, the epistemic ruptures we deem decolonial can only arise amidst this most terrifying but ultimately generative quietude. From this silence, a voice is finally able to give something close to account of its countless fractures, revolts, and rebirths, interrupting thus the drudgery of colonial time. In their careful selection of texts for Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm, co-editors Yarimar Bonilla and Marisol LeBrón allow the jarring silence in the wake of María to generate precisely this kind of consideration, judgment, and questioning by showcasing voices that insist on disrupting the colonial continuum. This selection permits pain, reflection, remembrance, and critique to coexist in polyphony, without employing the hierarchical divides that would only reproduce the coloniality of knowledge. Gathering scholars, activists, and artists across disciplines and territories, in Puerto Rico and abroad, the book furthermore practices an ethics that María underscored for Puerto Rico: reorienting our concepts of thinking, living, and feeling in common. Over the course of more than thirty pieces, Aftershocks of Disaster enacts a transversal cut across registers of intellectual and aesthetic reflection, honoring the conviction that to speak and to think María requires multiple senses of the word disaster. From photographic mediation to journalistic testimony, from poetic creation to ethnographic work in the field, this edited volume insists that a single discipline does not suffice when witnessing the afterlives of an event that demolishes the available grammar of analysis. In doing so, Aftershocks bespeaks an intellectual practice whose integrity stems from its capacity to honor and heal all the fragments, before and after María, through shared listening and voicing.
The introduction charts a roadmap that foregrounds one of the central arguments of the anthology: namely that to fully grasp María’s weight as a disaster, we must reckon with María’s wreckage itself as a continuation of a catastrophe more than five centuries in the making. To borrow from the language of the editors, María is absolutely not a “singular event.” Bonilla and LeBrón frame the natural phenomenon of the cyclone as the culmination of an arc of dispossession, exploitation, and necro-colonial profiteering, where the years 1493, 1898, 1952, and 2017 resonate as instances in a history of traumatic repetition that underscores the role of the human hand in orchestrating cataclysm. María thus becomes a trope, more than merely a disaster to write about; it is an analytical and aesthetic paradigm from which to unearth and reconceptualize the aftershocks of all of Puerto Rico’s disasters. From the outset, Aftershocks of María distinguishes its theoretical framework through an emphasis on a more variegated and complicated treatment of the hurricane. It urges us to consider María as an assemblage of senses, practices, and critiques that orient the reader towards María as a decolonial episteme capable of helping us question the current juncture, its past, and its future.
The anthology, however, does not merely offer a series of abstractions for the sake of exporting knowledge from what was and is a traumatic event. It goes further by striking a balance between thought and feeling, between the cathartic release of an experience irreducible to language and the theoretical speculation that works to invent new terms and modes of understanding it. Each of the five sections in the anthology operate as clusters of decolonial theory and praxis, each tackling a different layer of the problem by deploying both the academic discourse and the more fluid forms the field note, the diary entry, and the poem. The first section, titled “Openings,” includes “The Trauma Doctrine,” a conversation between editor Yarimar Bonilla and Naomi Klein, preeminent scholar of disaster capitalism, alongside the play “¡Ay María!,” written and performed around the whole archipelago by a committed ensemble of thespians shortly after the storm hit. The play interrogates the many meanings of ¡ay!: as a communal act of voicing pain, as the sound of ancestral fatigue, as historical rage, and as truth to power. Bonilla and Klein’s conversation harmonizes with this collective ¡ay! by asking a central question: what does it mean to be sovereign now? Their discussion opens up the reader’s field to the ways in which other essays in the collection theorize, dream, and practice a fluid, deep sense of sovereignty grounded in collective aid. They imagine a porous sovereignty that does not reject the transitive pact of living with each other and with an ever shifting and unpredictable natural environment from which we take our means of life and subsistence.
And yet, as mentioned earlier, for all its thorough speculative work on what is to come after María, the works compiled here never stray from the truth of trauma, from its unspeakability in the here and now. Where the anthology could’ve veered into the descriptive or the prescriptive, it boldly chooses instead to make space for the silence of the unnamable. Sections two and three, “Narrating the Trauma” and “Representing the Disaster,” respectively, linger on the ruptures to language and image that María produced. Eduardo Lalo’s meditation on the unnamable begins with a paradox: “To narrate something, you have to see it, and one of the things that happened to us after September 20, 2017, is that for many weeks we could see very little.” This is, in short, the crisis of narrating disaster. More than ever, the disaster asks us to keep our eyes open, our bodies ready, our senses alert. But it is precisely this that cannot be done, because pain and shock place a veil before that which would allow us to speak. The poems and chronicles in this section remind us that to give an account of María is also to meditate on impossibility, to insist that even within that silent, terrible, boundless void of death, there is an elusive but pulsating will to speak, build, and heal.
Getting up to collect potable water urges the pen to leave the paper and the feet out to the street where survival claims another day. Fragmentary sketches and field notes of entanglement with everyday life amidst chaos such as Beatriz Llenín Figueroa’s “This Was Meant to Be a Hurricane Diary” and Sofía Gallizá Muriente’s “Another Haphazard Gesture,” recuperate the truth of the fragmentary. Could this be the way into a theory of the aftershocks of disaster? A way of telling the tale without needing a beginning or an end? Would this be truer than meeting history’s or the media’s requirements for logic? Before we can begin representing the unrepresentable of María, Frances Negrón Muntaner’s contribution to the anthology reminds us that the Puerto Rican condition posits an a priori crisis of representation that acquires a more urgent hue once we consider that, for some, what she calls “rhetorical incorporation” of Puerto Ricans into the category of the “U.S citizen” is a precondition to the administration of aid, to empathy, or to the grievability of death. For many, Puerto Rican being is illegible, and we must be wary of sweeping gestures that attempt to make María easily readable. Erika P. Rodriguez augments this discussion in her essay “Accountability and Representation,” where a critique of this desire for readability is channeled through a deeply personal meditation on the ethics of photography, challenging the pornographic demand for an immiserated, helpless, and docile subject. I believe this cluster of critique offers a decolonial analysis of mass media representation that readers in the field of media studies or photojournalism would benefit tremendously from.
These reflections on representation and narration pave the way for the discussions in the fourth section of the anthology, aptly titled “Capitalizing on the Crisis.” Neocolonial capitalism always finds profit in disaster. Essays in this section foreground and contextualize the historical violence of not just post-María disaster capitalism, but also of the previous and ongoing neocolonial technologies embodied in vulture funds, triple-exempt tax havens, and neoliberal austerity. They are lucid tools for anyone hoping to arrive at a fuller sense for the transhistorical and ever-mutating creature of colonial exploitation, a precondition to any and all serious analysis of the archipelago’s conditions of life after María. Rima Brusi and Isar Godreau’s essay on the dismantling of Puerto Rico’s education system provides a visceral account of the insidiousness of financial capital in the wake of the hurricane, detailing with heartbreaking precision the profitable corrosion of an already wounded public infrastructure. As they mention in their essay, the turn from education’s nature as a “public good” into a “private profit” betrays the winds of a larger, “man-made storm” aimed at the collapse of any possibility of an outside, of dissidence, and of community.
And without the possibility of this community and of collective learning and resistance, we become not unlike the defenseless crop, easily flattened out by any given gust of hegemonic power’s wind. In his generous afterword in the final section of the text, “Transforming Puerto Rico,” Nelson Maldonado Torres writes that María, as a paradigm-shifting catastrophe, allows a pause “for sharing accounts, taking stock, and standing as witnesses.” I return to the opening remarks of this review to emphasize that Aftershocks of Disaster stands as a testament to healing and thought in community. It is a work by and for those for whom Puerto Rico is more than mere geography or case study, a work of healing and reckoning first and foremost, and an academic text after. Though this might give the impression of a limited audience, it is anything but. Any scholar, classroom, or artist hoping to witness decolonial thought in action owes it to themselves to sit with the silence of this book. It certainly fulfills its promise of making available a wealth of knowledge pertaining to the modalities of life in Puerto Rico before and after María. But it shines when it takes its cue from the ground-level responses to catastrophe, from the communal creative tactics arising from real need. It imagines an intellectual practice coextensive with this, an exercise in thinking horizontally and generously in common. Therein lies its transformative energy.