Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’re enjoying my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
Colombian author Juliana Delgado Lopera’s queer coming-of-age novel Fiebre Tropical follows fifteen-year-old Francisca and her family as they are uprooted from Bogotá to a deteriorating, ant-infested apartment in Miami. The book is narrated by Francisca, though it also includes flashbacks from the perspectives of Francisca’s mother, Myriam, and her grandmother, La Tata. Though the book is written in Spanglish and peppered with Colombian slang, it’s accessible to non-Spanish speakers.
The book opens in the middle of a particularly distressing scene, in which Myriam is performing a baptism on a plastic doll from a discount store, using the doll as a substitute for the child she miscarried 17 years ago. Missing her friends and her life back home, Francisca is unimpressed by Miami—and she’s even less impressed by the evangelical Colombian church that soon begins to consume her family’s life.
This was the real church of Jesús, hermana. Straight from Miami, Florida: Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo Redentor. A stinky room in the Hyatt Hotel nobody cared to vacuum. Because who needs Gothic churches; who needs divine architecture, angels dropping from the sky, a crucified Chuchito bleeding over His decayed muscular six-pack? Who needs a statue of the crying Madonna and Child when God is everywhere, including the windowless back room with the stained mustard carpet that a herd of pios colombianos got weekly—and for a discount—because Fulanito’s son worked as a hotel assistant manager there?
Everything changes when Francisca meets Carmen, the pastor’s daughter who makes it her personal mission to help Francisca reach salvation. As the two girls spend more time together, handing out flyers at Walmart and making fun of other members of the congregation during night-time prayers, Francisca develops feelings for Carmen and, over the course of the novel, Francisca begins to acknowledge her queer identity.
Meanwhile, Francisca’s home life is falling apart: Myriam’s mental health is rapidly deteriorating and La Tata has developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Francisca is left wondering why her family ever decided to leave Colombia in the first place.
Where was the Miami life we dreamed about from those Marc Anthony music videos? Where was our South Beach and our Versace and our long shiny hair unbothered by the humidity and our larger-than-life apartment overlooking the playa? Where was that feeling of grandiosity and fullness? Where was that feeling of superiority that we’d briefly felt the moment we told everyone in Bogotá we were moving to the United States—uyyy a los Mayamis—and amid the tears, the feeling of reverence?
Fiebre Tropical is a voice-led novel and Francisca’s whip-smart narration is wonderfully original. In many ways Francisca is a typical angsty teenager—she wears black, reads Sylvia Plath, and loves the Velvet Underground—but she’s also a particularly sharp observer. Francisca’s hunger to be seen, as well as her sense of loathing towards her mother, is palpable and an utter joy to read.
There were, however, moments in which I wanted this book to have more structure. More than once I found myself skimming as the book’s narrative deviated too far from its plot. I also wanted a better sense of Francisca’s life outside of her church; I’d have loved to have seen her in school. Nonetheless, in Fiebre Tropical Delgado Lopera probes interesting questions about migration, faith, and sexuality and there is no doubt that their writing is electrifying.
Fiebre Tropical by Juli Delgado Lopera (Feminist Press, 2020)
More books by Colombian authors:
An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo, tr. Sophie Hughes and Juana Adcock
House of Beauty by Melba Escobar, tr. Elizabeth Bryer
Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel, tr. Robin Myers
Delirium by Laura Restrepo, tr. Natasha Wimmer
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo, tr. Charlotte Coombe
The Children by Carolina Sanín, tr. Nick Caistor
The Bitch by Pilar Quintana, tr. Lisa Dillman
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thanks to Izara García Rodríguez
from Hay Festival Cartagena and Carolina Orloff from Charco Press for their recommendations for this issue! If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!