by Rose Bialer
Written as a part of our Tiny Review Series
Juli Delgado Lopera’s multi-lingual novel Fiebre Tropical opens in an ant-infested apartment complex in a hellishly humid suburb of Miami. The novel’s narrator, 15-year old Francisca—goth, sexually confused, and skeptical of this whole Jesús Cristo thing—has just arrived with her mother and younger sister from Bógota.
Miami is not as glamorous as Francisca had expected, with its never-ending stretches of highway and the constant dampness that rises from both torrential storms and sweat. As soon as she arrives, Francisca yearns to return home, or better yet, flee to a more exciting city. Miami gets a little better when Francisca meets Carmen, a pastor’s devout daughter and the religious youth group leader at her mother’s church. When Carmen enters her life, Francisca begins to experience the first, unfamiliar pangs of desire.
Carmen tries to help Francisca accept Papi Dios into her heart. The two girls become inseparable as they hand out religious flyers outside of Walmart and reveal their past sins and present desires at sleepovers. Francisca begins to question her gender identity and sexuality, and her relationship to her faith.
As she reckons with her queerness in her evangelical, immigrant household, Francisca experiences the shame of her identity and reflects upon its consequences, sharing in the collective female sadness that shapes her family.
The reader enjoys Francisca’s story with the benefit of hindsight. Her witty and honest voice addresses an unnamed listener she affectionately calls “mi reina,” suggesting she is recounting her adolescence to her current lover—a woman!—with fondness for her former self and acceptance of her queer identity. Now that she has found the language to articulate the complex feelings and experiences of her youth, Francisca is compelled to tell la reina everything. Through this nuanced perspective, Lopera approaches themes of queerness with compassion, curiosity, and a conspiratorial smile.
Fiebre Tropical is a coming-of-age novel not solely because of Francisca’s realizations, but also because of her palpable loss of innocence, or rather her disillusionment with the people and places around her. Francisca closely observes women in her life. There are no men: they’ve either died or left long before. Her mother Miriam, once a high-powered businesswoman at an insurance company, now folds t-shirts at the Gap warehouse and mourns her deadbeat ex-husband. Francisca’s grandmother, La Tata, spends all day on the couch watching telenovelas and drinking rum mixed with Sprite. Lopera writes, “Women in my family possessed a sixth sense from the close policing of our sadness: Your tristeza wasn’t yours, it was part of the larger collective female sadness jar to which we all contributed.” As she reckons with her queerness in her evangelical, immigrant household, Francisca experiences the shame of her identity and reflects upon its consequences, sharing in the collective female sadness that shapes her family.
In informal yet lyrical prose, Francisca narrates in a conversational, multilingual dialect, slipping gracefully between English, Spanish, and Colombian slang. Lopera shines in their refusal to pander to an Anglophone audience, and their voice and mode of storytelling are deeply original and full of surprises. With propulsion and style, Lopera’s electric debut novel mirrors the tumultuous nature of adolescence, reminding readers of what it feels like to be 15 and experiencing the sadness and beauty of the world around them.
Rose Bialer is a writer and teacher in Madrid, Spain. Her work has been featured in The Kenyon Review Online.