Nicole Arocho Hernández’s chapbook, I Have No Ocean, constellates around a longing for Puerto Rico, the devastating losses suffered from Hurricane María, and the vibrancy of her people. Hernández writes in Spanglish, exploring themes of colonization, homeland, embodiment, and grief. In this interview, author Nicole Arocho Hernández speaks with Sundress editorial intern Abigail Renner about the possibilities of resistance and the importance of dreaming.
Abigail Renner: This collection is enveloped by a longing for home, for Puerto Rico, for an “an island rimmed with sky, / framed in blue.” What is the importance of home, both in the sense of uprooting and belonging, in these poems?
Nicole Arocho Hernández: In that verse the speaker acknowledges the Americanization of their language, where nostalgia plays a role but, more importantly, the speaker has lost their sense of belonging to their homeland because they have lost their first language. They feel like a “visitor” in their own home.
I have been living in the US for ten years now. I went to Puerto Rico last March after a few years without visiting, and I felt both like a local and a tourist. It was disorienting and familiar. I cried in both relief and despair. That trip was cut short because of the pandemic, and the loss happening there because of COVID-19 is a trauma I cannot fathom writing about just yet.
I think and write about home in a few ways. Home is not just Puerto Rico but also Spanish, my first language, and Spanglish, my current language. These poems are my attempt to hold onto my Puerto Rico for dear life. After Hurricane María, all of us suffered devastating losses. Thanks to colonization, it feels like we lose a little more of Puerto Rico every day. In these poems, my grief, fear, nostalgia, love, and hope came together. More recently, I am thinking and exploring the meaning of home as the body, the one physical space we may truly call ours.
AR: Tell me more about your choice to weave English and Spanish together, sometimes without translation. How is language both limiting and expansive in this collection?
NAH: In Puerto Rico, we learn both Spanish and English in schools by law. Puerto Ricans use Spanish for everyday life, but with the influence of TV, social media, the Internet, and bilingual schools, English has become more embedded in the language and culture. Spanglish feels like my true language at the moment; I feel like I’m living in between languages right now. I am in a limbo land between English (the second language I use every day), and Spanish (the first language I am not dreaming in anymore). It is with Spanglish that I also contest the power dynamics between English, the language of the colonizer, and Spanish, the language of a previous colonizer but accepted as Puerto Rican by our culture.
I don’t think about my language as limiting. I understand that some American readers might not understand everything, but I am writing first and foremost for Puerto Ricans, for all of us who have experienced the United States’ ruthless colonization enterprise. I want my language to express what feels true. I am okay with the possibility of readers having to do a little bit of work to understand my poems.
AR: Throughout these poems you pay close attention to the body—of empire, of water, of the individual, of a people. Can you speak to the collection’s many relationships to the body (or bodies)?
NAH: I am invested in the body’s role as the first homeland, the physical space built for us to live in this world. While writing these poems, I kept thinking about our bodies as extension of the bodies all around us, natural or not, and their interconnectedness in the trauma of colonization. In the chapbook, I have a visual poem where the shape of an eye manifests as I write about the anger that comes with desperation, resignation, and fear of a natural catastrophe. The eye is looking at you, the eye is your own, the eye is that of the hurricane, the “I” is all of us.
Then there’s the thousands who died because of the criminal negligence of both local and federal governments. The historical bodies killed due to colonization. Our bodies of water, our land, being defaced because of predatory industries like big pharma. And there’s the bodies created for or participating in revolution, like the guillotine brought to protests. The bodies putting everything on the line to make a change for Puerto Rico. With a chapbook, it is hard to include all of bodies I am writing about, but I tried to include as many as possible to show how much irredeemable damage has been caused to Puerto Rican spaces of living.
AR: Thinking specifically of the poem, “Rompecabezas / It’s puzzling, isn’t it,” how do you conceive of a poem’s form and employ the space of the page, in both fragmented and sprawling ways?
NAH: That poem, which closes the collection, goes full-on Spanglish and almost stream-of-consciousness. I wanted to express the intuitive language, imagery, and memory that came to mind as I wrote about my nostalgia, grief, and longing for Puerto Rico. I used all kinds of approaches to form to find meaning in language, or erase it, and see what was left from that wreckage. Some poems need that breathing room the white space gives. Since this poem maps my complicated feelings while writing about Puerto Rico, I wanted the reader to have room for pause and transition from section to section.
Form is something that I usually think about when the (3rd? 10th?) draft’s language is finally falling into place. It is an exciting time for form in poetry, where all kinds of forms are being revitalized, invented, or broken to create new ones. I am currently delving more into visual forms, which is reshaping how I think about poems as pieces of art and their “container” (not so much as something that helps deliver the meaning of the poem but something that creates meaning along with the poem).
AR: Many of these poems are about Hurricane María and its devastating aftermath. In “Since you never ask,” the speaker poses the question, “Is there a storm worth embracing?” How might you answer this?
NAH: I mean, there are all kinds of storms we face on a daily basis, right? Here, I wrote of a literal storm, powered by climate change, that then brought many other storms with it. I think internal storms, like mental health struggles, should be considered seriously and taken care of appropriately. But then again, each person knows themselves best. There is not a clear answer.
I don’t believe that all strife is positive or can lead you to grow and be stronger. Some storms are out of our control and can kill us. Some storms are caused by the powers-that-be and they may not care if you die from them. Those are the storms we must fight against with our lives on the line. So that those coming behind us don’t have to fight the same storms again, in an endless cycle of pain and death.
AR: In the very center of “Maybe the thing I trust the most is my anger” you write, “It’s scary to let yourself be feral.” How can letting yourself feel anger and grief be a process of transformation?
NAH: First of all, anger and grief go hand in hand and may not lead to transformation. And that’s okay. Feeling them is the important part. We should always strive to feel, even if it is agonizing. It’s the only way to heal, isn’t it? But some of us don’t have those skills. I think before talking about the transforming power of feeling anger and grief, we need to address the need for emotional intelligence, of processing emotions, in all of us. Something that late-stage capitalism would rather have us not know.
I’m also thinking about the psychology of the colonized, how this prevents us from feeling anger towards the colonizer. Here’s a quote from journalist Benjamín Torres Gotay’s essay “I’m Quite Comfortable” about María: “Dumbfounded by such an unexpected turn of events, people could only react with statements of shock, like “I’m quite comfortable,” “receiving nothing would have been worse,” or “they are doing what they can.” (…) The ugly, unpalatable truth that we were abandoned, that we were forgotten, that we were not important to the US government did not fit, could not fit, in the minds of most people in Puerto Rico. It was unconceivable for them.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane María, my family was not dwelling on their emotions. They were not processing their feelings but just burying them while trying to move on past the disaster. This is a self-defense mechanism I know very well. It took three years and another disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic, to get me writing about the trauma of Hurricane María. It took that long to start processing the almost 5,000 deaths, the murderous mismanagement of the government, and more. It was also a way to not think about the unfathomable loss happening in real time. It will probably take me years to write about what we’re living in right now.
AR: Empire and colonization are such driving forces in these poems. How do you imagine a decolonized Puerto Rico, or even a world without empire?
NAH: I don’t know if full decolonization is possible. Our language, our culture, our way of life has been colonized. These changes have been happening for more than a century with the US, and many centuries before under Spain. I believe that one day Puerto Rico will not be property of the US Congress. What will our freedom look like? I’m not sure, but it will be a lot better than being one of the oldest colonies in the world being led by a Fiscal Control Board appointed by the US government without a path to self-determination. The local government must change, since it is so entrenched in the colonization enterprise. Some think that being a state will lead to decolonization, but that is a terrible misjudgment. Look at Hawaii. How their culture has been erased by the American empire.
AR: In “Lx Guillotinx,” you write, “everyone / teaches lx guillotinx / that a human being’s warmth / is worth more / than blood money.” Thinking of the revolutionary act of reasserting one’s humanity in the face of oppression, can you speak more about the importance of ongoing resistance in Puerto Rico?
NAH: Puerto Rico’s resistance has been happening since the beginning of invasion. It happens every day in smaller and larger ways. It was thanks to all of our efforts, be it in the streets protesting, donating to organizations, sharing what’s going on in social media, that Ricky Roselló was ousted as governor in 2019. Boricuas who value our island and want to see it free continue to fight for an independent future. There are more of us than what the media portrays or what unbinding referendums show.
AR: In “Reversing grief” the speaker says, “How dare you take us from dreaming.” Tell me more about the significance of creation, invention, and dreaming in these poems.
NAH: This line talks about dreaming for all Puerto Ricans. In this poem, the speaker refuses to give in into the grief that swallows you whole. Here, grief becomes the fuel for anger, which becomes fuel for radicalization and, thus, change. I think dreaming, envisioning a Puerto Rico that takes the reigns of its future and its possibilities, is essential. In my poems, I don’t want to write about trauma and its ramifications without also bringing forth the joy, love, music, tenacity, and history of my people. Puerto Ricans are creating new ways to survive every day. I want to celebrate this survival, the beauty of facing calamities without giving up.
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Nicole Arocho Hernández is a poet and translator from Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. She has a BA in Writing from Ithaca College and is pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Arizona State University. Her poems have been featured in Great Weather for Media, the VS podcast, Variant Literature, and The Acentos Review. Her spirit never left Puerto Rico. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram: @nimaarhe.
Abigail Renner is a junior at George Washington University studying English and American Studies. She is currently a writing consultant in her university writing center, where she loves unearthing writer’s voices and reading across a myriad of genres. She dreams of living on a farm, filling her shelves with romance novels, and laughing with friends over cups of peppermint tea.