Fiebre Tropical is a Vivid Portrait of Queer Longing
Author: Sarah Neilson
January 7, 2021
Despite the devastation 2020 has wrought, one bright spot is the publication of some stellar queer literature. And “stellar” is a perfect word to describe Juli Delgado Lopera’s debut novel, Fiebre Tropical, which came out in March 2020, just in time for the world as many of us knew it to fall apart.
The novel’s protagonist, Francisca, herself experiences a big upheaval. The book opens with a lament: a dispatch from the Miami townhouse she finds herself in with her mother, Myriam; her sister Lucía; and her grandmother, Alba, whom she calls La Tata. Fifteen and uprooted from her life in Bogotá, Francisca is thrust into that particular grief of major life disruption at a time of life when everything feels more intense.
“The heat [in Miami] is a stubborn bitch breathing its humid mouth on your every pore,” Francisca narrates, “reminding you this hell is inescapable, and in another language.” Myriam is facing her own grief, namely, for a child she lost in infanthood before Francisca was born. Enveloped into an evangelical Catholic church, Myriam is also fixated on holding a baptism for this child, using a doll as a stand-in for his body. Lopera deftly captures the friction of mothers and adolescent daughters, and roots it in the adolescent perspective, thereby respecting it. Even as Francesca resents her mother, she is trying to reach her: “I didn’t know how to reach that part of Mami, how to get past the faith wall… Mami could come back to me if she wanted to.” Both Francisca and Myriam seek validation in their desires and longing, and isn’t that one of our shared human conditions?
As the family’s life unfolds in Miami, Francisca’s voice is a guiding light for the reader. And, it does feel like a light. Funny, irreverent, and deeply moving with its pitch-perfect rendering of the kaleidoscopic emotionality of the character, Lopera proves to be a master of crafting and inhabiting Francisca’s voice–and her heart. The prose is also bilingual, in English and Spanish, a much-needed approach to writing about not only immigration but life itself in America. This country is a multi-lingual one, and it is past due that our literature reflects this.
While this is a story of reckoning with grief, there is plenty of sunshine to be found in these pages. Francisca, against her instincts to reject the church outright (“Catholicism is a fake and boring religion,” she narrates), falls in love with the pastor’s daughter, Carmen. Their relationship unfolds in a way that feels very true to life, and crests in an overwhelming wave that is both devastating and survivable, like life.
Francisca’s queerness, though, isn’t based solely on a crush on one girl. Fiebre Tropical breathes queerness. Francisca frames the church as a drag competition in her mind: “Category is: My first time at the evangelical Colombian church inside the Hyatt Hotel. Only the holiest, most respectable panela people walk this category.” Her ability to hold multiple truths at once is another way in which she embodies queerness. This becomes especially apparent later in the book when she tells the stories of her mother and grandmother’s youth. It is also apparent in the way in which she grieves, with both visceral messiness and grace. And it is evident in the corporeality of not only the characters, but the setting. Dripping with sweat, hating, and loving the experience of being alive, feeling a heartbeat and another heartbeat and a rhythm in the world that pulses through your own blood and bones: this is the stuff of a great queer novel.
Fiebre Tropical by Juli Delgado Lopera Amethyst Editions Hardcover, 9781936932757, 240 pp. March 2020