When hurricane Maria smashed into Puerto Rico on September 20th 2017, I couldn’t help but think of the storm as a dragon. The power of the wind like the flapping of enormous wings, the thundering of rain like a breath of fire, the force of nature reducing me to a fragile animal with a mythical beast hovering above. The dragon metaphor gave me a sense of stability in the chaos. Later, when I asked my students at the university about their experience, I found that many of them had thought along similar lines, comparing the hurricane to dragons, giants, monsters, and space aliens who had hit us with an electro-pulse to take away our power. With no electricity, students found themselves picking up a pen to write poems or stories, turning generic concepts like a giant destroying the land into a story about a family losing a house. Trauma invites speculative metaphors into our interior and inexpressible regions.
These science fiction and fantasy metaphors point to extreme situations. The regular old terms can’t adequately express the experience of the events and you need something from another world. In Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the narrator Yunior muses on the reasons that Oscar is so attached to the genres:
"Where this outsized love of genre jumped off from no one quite seems to know. It might have been a consequence of being Antillean (who more sci-fi than us?) or of living in the DR for the first couple of years of his life and then abruptly wrenchingly relocating to New Jersey—a single green card shifting not only worlds (from Third to First) but centuries (from almost no TV or electricity to plenty of both). After a transition like that I’m guessing only the most extreme scenarios could have satisfied." (21-22)
But even if these speculative metaphors are satisfying, and possibly therapeutic, they can be misleading if they are understood to describe the entirety of the situation. Not too long into the hurricane aftermath, I would often hear (sometimes from my own mouth) people call the scene an apocalypse. The environment was crushed, a world had ended. And later, with the wide-spread loss of electricity, the technological breakdown, the military police, the curfews, and the lines so long that you had to park your car overnight to get gas, I wasn’t surprised when the term dystopia began to appear. But Puerto Rico is neither an apocalypse nor a dystopia. If we call Puerto Rico an apocalypse, I think that people will have a vision of total destruction, and that’s the end of the story. But even with its destroyed infrastructure, and massive crushing Wall Street debt that was not washed away by the hurricane, Puerto Rico is still here. It was not the end of the world. Even though the U.S. and P.R. governments failed in many ways (not getting medical supplies out quickly enough, holding donations in port for months, having no real plan for distributing vital information, and so on) the society as a whole remained strong through tight-knit families, neighborhoods, and the activist groups that came together to survive. We need metaphors, especially in cases of trauma, but those metaphors can’t tell us everything, and they don’t always travel well.
At my in-laws’ house, where I was staying during the storm, the dragon pulled down electrical poles and wires (which to this day are still down) and trees were uprooted like weeds, but together we kept the house from flooding, the dragon driven away. My students reported that in the immediate aftermath, they played board games with their families and enjoyed hanging out with neighbors. And when our “Fall” semester began in November after a hurricane break, the school had no electricity and we taught our classes in the dark. Everyone was a bit on edge, but it was also one of the most intimate and powerful experiences I have had in education as we banded together to continue learning. These survival techniques are not covered by the media, and they are not something contained by the concepts of apocalypse or dystopia.
I lived in southwest Philadelphia a number of years ago. I think that many people driving through certain parts of town, when they see the run-down and vacant buildings, the people of color, would be inclined to think of such a place as a dystopian urban environment. The rainy dystopian city in Blade Runner is multi-ethnic, and as has been often pointed out, that is probably what makes it dystopian for many viewers. But this is just the façade. It is true that people in southwest Philly face some big challenges, but it is also a beautiful place to have a family and to be part of a community. I sometimes show this image at conferences and ask where it was taken:
Few people guess southwest Philly (most of course guess somewhere in Latin America). The point is that one person’s dystopia is someone else’s home, and it can have all the warmth and love of a home. It is not a metaphor. Catastrophes, especially ones that are made infinitely worse by racism and disaster capitalism, resist metaphor, even if those metaphors are initially beneficial.
In addition to metaphor, there is another point of contact between speculative fiction and hurricane Maria. Science fiction is often described as the literature of “cognitive estrangement,” using Darko Suvin’s definition. I don’t think of this as a particularly comprehensive definition of science fiction; rather, I think of it as a basic human experience that science fiction has done well to highlight. Cognitive estrangement is not only something that can happen while reading science fiction. It is also something that can happen in the world. The hurricane, which changed so much about the environment in Puerto Rico, created a great deal of cognitive estrangement, a science fiction for us to navigate through. In the weeks after the hurricane, I often saw drivers struggle with the loss of landmarks: the particular trees, signs, or houses that told them where to turn. And as they would nearly pass their turn, they would swerve and screech to take it. In other words, the experience that science fiction tries to reproduce for its readers (life on Mars is similar yet weirdly different) was what we were living.
Given the widespread power outage, cognitive estrangement happened on a large scale with technology. In Being and Time, Heidegger pointed to the experience we have when there is a breakdown in technology. The idea is that we employ a kind of unconscious skill when we use the tools of daily life. We walk into our homes and don’t have to think about how to turn the light on; we turn the computer on and begin checking email without thinking about how the words appear. But when some part of the web of technology goes wrong, we take a step back and the things become objects again, rather than media we were using skillfully. When the entire system of electricity (station, wires, fuse boxes, switches) goes out, we are left with familiar and yet nearly useless objects that often provoke frustration. We are left wondering about electricity, and where it comes from.
While the hurricane was raging, people were in survival mode. But not long after, the majority of people began to feel a strong desire to use cell phones and computers. Call it whatever you want—a habit, an addiction—we wanted to log on. And so ensued a period of withdrawal that was not particularly pleasant for most people. At the same time, the distance gained by the breakdown gave a new perspective and the ability to reconnect to human needs, as opposed to the electrical needs of the computer. As with any addiction, there was a sense of freedom once it was left behind. Nevertheless, everyone wanted to return to their digital technology. As Vilém Flusser says in his study Gestures:
"Our dependence on the apparatus keeps us from posing questions of cause or purpose with respect to apparatuses. 'What is the purpose of France?' or 'Why industrialize?' (to take just two very typical examples of apparatuses) are theoretically possible but existentially false questions, for they assume a transcendence of apparatuses that we do not have." (17)
It may be that the presence or absence of technology in our lives is no longer an existentially authentic question; nevertheless, our relationship to technology changed.
We were fortunate enough to have potable water throughout the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. There wasn’t always running water, but we were able to get clean water, either from bottles or from a cistern. Prior to Maria, water appeared for me magically at the faucet. But when the electricity went out and the pump didn’t work, and water didn’t magically show up, then I began to feel the deep need for water. I began to wonder about its origins and who controls it. I think of the film Sleep Dealer, in which water has been privatized and is being pumped across the desert from Mexico to the United States. The image of these enormous pipes is so familiar, like oil pipes, but so strange. And the privatized and scarce water that once seemed foreign to me in this film, suddenly became a recognizable and terrible possible future, especially when after five months, many people still do not have electricity and water.
My daughter was born a month after the hurricane hit. We were obviously nervous about having a baby in these circumstances. Many hospitals had closed, and there were reports of deaths when the machines failed. Luckily, our town’s hospital had a generator that worked pretty well, so while the lights would flicker, they never went completely out. The birth was not a simple one, and it seems the cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck, and so my spouse had a C-section. A very handy device, the heart monitor, picked up the problem and basically saved her life and that of the baby. During the recovery, she asked the doctor whether he did a Zorro or a Star Wars and, in a supreme nerd moment, he reported that he had used both: the knife to make the large opening, and the laser for cauterizing. I think this represents the way I am thinking about technology. In our work and in our lives, sometimes we need to do a Zorro and sometimes we need to do a Star Wars, so that we use digital technology when it is the best tool and not just because it’s the easiest or flashiest. And as we transition back to an electric world (our house finally got lights back, four months after Maria) I think it best to forge some kind of balance, to make sure that we bend our technology to our human needs and not vice versa.
Since most people couldn’t watch television in their homes, movie theatres with generators were important centers of entertainment and they brought people together in catharsis. We were able to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi not long after it came out and I found that there was something in the tone of the film that matched where we were at: the rebellion was faltering, just surviving. It was not a glorious moment. The destruction of the past and the skepticism of traditional systems was refreshing and mirrored what we were all feeling. I especially liked the fact that heroism was put under the microscope. Yes, I’m sure there were moments of dramatic heroism during the hurricane, but I didn’t see them. I just saw family members taking care of each other and neighbors clearing roads for the community, and garbage collectors picking up the garbage when they could have just as easily stayed at home.
The truth is that the hurricane’s effects continue. We are still in it. I’m often at a loss for words about it all, but the language of speculative fiction has helped me to think through what we experienced. And now I wonder how many Caribbean science fiction and fantasy stories are at this moment being formed from Hurricane Maria. How many will be published? I, for one, am waiting for them.
In case you are interested in reading Latinx speculative fiction, here are some resources:
Latin Americans In English Language Speculative Literature List 2018
Latino Speculative Fiction
Putting the I in Speculative: Looking at U.S. Latino/a Writers and Stories
La Bloga's Latino Speculative Literature Directory
Where are all the Latino genre fiction writers? RIGHT HERE!