An Identity in Translation: On Fiebre Tropical
The Feminist Press, $17.95, 281 pages, May 2020
In their debut novel Fiebre Tropical, nonbinary author and historian Juliana Delgado Lopera creates fifteen-year-old narrator Francisca, a teen who has been forced to leave her Bogotá home in favor of a Miami apartment shared with her sister, mother, and grandmother, three generations of complicated Colombian women.
At first, Francisca responds to everything and everyone with an almost stereotypical angst—she reads Plath, wears black, and refuses to participate in the Episcopal ceremonies her family embraces after leaving Catholic Colombia. She says things like, “Dear God… Come collect your ridiculous children. And bring me a black eyeliner.” But Francisca, perhaps due to the book’s semi-autobiographical nature, quickly becomes a dynamic and devastatingly authentic voice on the page.
Historically, Mami had been a tremenda Connoisseur of Silence, a Reina del Silencio, which meant she knew when to drop silence like a stink bomb and manipulate its emptiness, closed on its edges, to get a certain outcome. Silence, reina mia, is a powerful tool in this family.
As seen here, the novel contains Francisca’s rich humor and intensity, which create momentum while also allowing the reader to dwell in the delight of experimental, even transgressional language. To Francesca, everyone has a moniker. She refers to the women in her life as “homegirl” and to her God as “Papi Dios.” She makes distant concepts like religion personal, using terms that reveal elements of culture, class, and gender. Ultimately, the book would not work without the constant reminders of intersectionality, in language as well as other aspects of identity.
In the passage above, we see the mix of English and Spanish that gives the novel a distinguished tone. Early responses to Fiebre Tropical refer to it as inherently bilingual, and yes most monolingual English speakers may have trouble deciphering the Spanglish turns of phrase that inundate both dialogue and narrative. And yet, the book is not bilingual in the traditional sense, because a non-American or non-Colombian Spanish speaker will also have difficulty deciphering the Spanish portions of the book.
“Cachaco, please .” A favorite phrase of Francisca, cachaco refers to residents of the Colombian inlands, but can also be taken to mean hundreds of other things from chic to soldier, depending on the context. Francisca is constantly taking terms like these and reappropriating them for her own use. Her narrative is translingual, crossing the borders of language.
Lopera uses an unapologetic and clever combination of English and colloquial Miami Spanglish to create a voice for her narrator. This translanguaging effort creates a peculiar but purposeful effect. For much of the novel, readers who are not an inherent part of this community find themselves in a liminal space. This same space is one that Francisca inhabits constantly, pushed to the margins of language. As the novel goes on, the reader starts to see Francisca reclaim her identity—through both language and action—to become a person who could not have existed before her move to America.
In less deft hands, Fiebre Tropical might have been like every other coming out novel published in the last decade; however, Lopera makes Francisca much more interesting than that. She is a young girl struggling to find her place in a country that does not want her. Francisca’s reaction is to begin creating a new kind of identity, an amalgamation of things learned and seen, assembled in inventive ways.
This is a bildungsroman without the usual detritus of the genre. From the beginning, Francisca is an outlier. Her voice has been called irreverent by some reviewers, for her uncensored responses to religion and her views on the world. She’s inherently skeptical and yet so naïve. She has been raised by women who are outliers themselves. Perhaps Francisca is not irreverent but honest. She speaks about the world as she sees it, using terms both gross and sublime.
Her vulnerability laid bare on the page, she shuts down when her attempts to please her mother aren’t accepted, when her sister can speak of nothing but church, and when she realizes her senile grandmother understands much more than she lets on. We see Francisca’s desperation in the cruel way she sometimes rejects Pablo, her only friend, but also in the way she reaches out to the magnetic Carmen, the daughter of the church’s pastors. Her relationship with Carmen drives much of the novel. Its conclusion is at once expected and surprising, believable and thought-provoking.
Much earlier, uprooted and transplanted like a willful flower, Francisca arrives angry:
I considered walking out, taking a bus. Where? With what money? I didn’t know anyone. Spoke basic English. I sat on the toilet, phone in my hand for twenty, thirty, sixty minutes until I understood there was no one outside Miami, no body who would come for me. As Mami said, Esta es our new vida, Francisca. Look around, this is your home now.
Unprepared for the transition, she ultimately finds a place for herself. Through Francisca, Lopera devotes this book to an unnamed addressee called “reina mia” or “my queen.” Some might argue this queen is a character in the novel, others that it is a future love. But this is a queer book. Consequently, I posit that it is addressed to queer Latine kids like Francisca, young transplants who will discover their sexuality by blowing up condoms in neighbors’ bathrooms and kissing strangers next to pools. At its heart, this book is a love letter, making space for the Franciscas of the world.
Jamie Danielle Logan holds a BA from Tulane University and an MFA from the University of Memphis. She has served as Managing Editor at The Pinch and Product magazines and now holds the same position with BreakBread. She is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Southern Mississippi where she is Associate Editor for the Mississippi Review. Her work can be found in the New Ohio Review, Palette Poetry, Rougarou, and elsewhere.