Juliana Delgado Lopera
in English, with dollops of Spanish
in a nutshell Colourful coming-of-age story narrated by a badass Colombian teenager unwillingly uprooted from Bogotá to Miami by an obsessive mother whose love for Jesús embroils the whole family, drunken grandma included, in an over-the-top Christian cult (no gospel singing but plenty of salsa).
why? A funny, compelling and ultimately moving debut.
flavour extract Señoras y señores, you do not know sighing until you've experienced the masterful, polished, revered Colombian Female Sighing. In this family, sighing deeply, sighing loudly, is the biggest and most annoying form of protest. Because it inevitably begs the question: ¿Qué pasó? Because it comes with the inevitable answer: Ay nada. A form of protest that continues questioning itself to eternity for the sole purpose of soaking up all the energy in the room until someone breaks down and tells you their secret.
What I loved most about this novel is that it treats real heavyweights of topics - mother-daughter bond, queer sexuality, migration - with a humorous yet heartfelt tone. There is an underlying sadness in Francisca’s entertaining narration of her mother’s aberrant behaviour - what else could 'homegirl' Mami do as a newly-landed immigrant than organise a grand baptism for her baby Sebastian, whom she had miscarried seventeen years earlier? Francisca, despite her antagonistic stance towards her mother, remains until the end an understanding and respectful daughter, because she can see that la Iglesia Cristiana Jesucristo Redentor is the life support of both her mother's American Dream and her thinning sense of self - an executive jefa running underlings and maids turned uninsured, invisible immigrant worker. As narrator, indeed, Francisca devotes two long chapters to the life of Myriam, the mother, and Alba, the grandmother. Both interludes shed sympathetic light on the women behind the larger-than-life characters they have now become, and what led them to that ant-infested townhouse in los Mayamis.
A detail that had me hooked from the beginning is the fact that Francisca addresses her narrative to her 'reina', an imaginary ideal reader who, for once!, is explicitly female - a friend, a girlfriend, me and you. This element, alongside some turns of phrase taken straight from Rupaul's Drag Race, make Francisca’s sexual awakening as a lesbian (possibly a gender-fluid individual) fairly foreseeable, but once again the writer strikes a perfect note, full of Francisca's longing for love and acceptance, but never grave. Love and acceptance are indeed two things that seem impossible to achieve together, because loving who she wants to love would lead to Francisca's exclusion from the community her family belongs to. The novel doesn't abound in images and visual descriptions, but another element that I enjoyed from the start is that its Miami is an entirely different place from the land of sunny beaches and beauties of popular imagination. In fact, the heat is unforgiving, the ocean is nowhere to be seen and all that's left is the fiebre tropical, the tropical fever, that regularly unleashes onto the city and inside Francisca.
The last aspect I'll mention is actually the first that made the novel palatable to me, namely its hybrid language. I landed on this title through one of my slightly crazed but effective searches about Latina and Spanglish literature, a literary world that had awakened my interest long ago, back when I was doing research about migrant literature for my PhD, but which had never resulted in any actual reading. I reckon that the interweaving of English and Spanish may make this novel slightly difficult or frustrating for some readers, but I think it’s a challenge well worth taking. By not translating or excluding Spanish (mostly regional terms and reported speech, occasionally whole sentences) the author is not, it seems to me, opting for a mimetic effect, since it is clearly stated that in Miami Francisca lives in the midst a solely Spanish-speaking community. The challenge posed to the reader is to experience, through his or her own effort, what it means to live balancing precariously in-between not different cultures, so much as different identities: the one our parents have left ready-traced for us, and the one we slowly discover is us.