A New Version of Possibility: Talking with Juliana Delgado Lopera

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Juliana Delgado Lopera is an award-winning Colombian writer, historian, speaker, and storyteller based in San Francisco. They have been awarded fellowships and residencies from Hedgebrook, Headlands Center for The Arts, Brush Creek Foundation of the Arts, Lambda Literary Foundation, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the SF Grotto. They have received two individual artist grant from the SF Arts Commission, a 2019 Ebony McKinney Award, and were the recipient of the 2016 Jeanne Córdova Words Scholarship. Their work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Eleven Eleven, Foglifter, Four Way Review, Broadly, TimeOut Mag, and more. They are the former executive director of RADAR Productions, a queer literary non-profit in San Francisco.

Delgado Lopera’s new novel Fiebre Tropical tells the coming of age story of fifteen-year-old Francisca as she is uprooted from her comfortable life in Bogotá, Colombia and into an ant-infested Miami townhouse. Miserable and friendless in her strange new city, her alienation grows when her mother is swept up into an evangelical church, replete with Christian salsa, abstinent young dancers, and baptisms for the dead.

The novel is a triple-headed triumph that could be described as radical or, more simply, as sincere. The first triumph is in the story itself, an unbarred exploration of all things liminal that’s not satisfied by answers or plot, but constantly fulfilled by its own process of finding truth in the uncategorizable and in-between. The language is just as compelling. Written entirely in Spanglish, the novel insists on language as it exists for the writer, as it does for so many people, and is as much a refusal of the norms of the American publishing industry as it is an embrace of language as it is, not as it ought to be. But our interview begins with the third triumphant aspect of the book, the powerful and impolitic voice which Francisca commands from her very first line. “Buenos días, mi reina,” she says, immediately breaking through the fourth wall with a non-italicized and performative bravado.

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The Rumpus: From the very first page, the novel’s narrator, Francisca, is speaking directly to the reader, calling her “mi reina,” my queen, giving the reader an immediate feeling of intimacy, like stepping into a sisterhood already ongoing. But there are also some less intimate and overtly performative moments when Francisca will address the audience as “Señoras y Señores,” as if she’s on stage and we’re in the audience. Where does the play with performative voice come from in her?

Juliana Delgado Lopera: A few places. I grew up in Colombia watching telenovelas with my grandmother, so there was always this dramatic mood in the house. She was a seamstress, and she baked cakes and cooked food, all for a living. She would make me outfits and I would put them on to watch telenovelas and then reenact them, so I lived in this very melodramatic space for a long time. It was actually really hard to fall in love for the first time because, you know, love isn’t like it is in telenovelas.

But also, when I grew up, my grandmother and all of my aunts would sit at the dining table and you know, talk shit with each other, not in a bad way, they just did. And even though they were all telling similar stories with similar themes—they were either exhausted with their jobs or their husbands or things were too expensive or they were trying to lose weight—each one of them was so particular about the way she told her story. It was gendered language, woman’s language, female language. I don’t know how to say it exactly, but it was secretive language they had among each other. They were all very strong women and they all have a very particular voice, each so different, one from the next. It’s what made them who they were.

And then, moving to the States, I couldn’t pronounce things right, I couldn’t say certain things, some of the words I didn’t know so I would make stuff up, and the way I told my own stories started to matter, too. So that was the beginning, the fertile soil where a lot of these things started taking shape for me.

Rumpus: So the way you tell a story, the voice, really started to take shape when you became immersed in English as foreign language, which was during your impressionable years, the same years that we see Francisca in the book?

Delgado Lopera: Yes, Francisca moves to the States when she’s fifteen. I moved when I was fifteen. And there was a change in me, like there is in her. I was a very talkative child when I lived in Colombia but when I moved I became very silent because I couldn’t speak the language and because of all of the xenophobic things that happen to an immigrant kid, like being talked down to, etc. So, I became very observant trying to figure out how to navigate the language, basically just interacting with a bunch of immigrants in Miami.

I remember the first few times when I was listening to some Cuban people speaking Spanish but literally translating idioms into English and I was like, “What the fuck are they doing?” At first I was like, “Oh no! Language purity! What are they doing to the language?” But I started falling in love with the way people were pushing language so that it fit the world that they were in, with the way they were creating language. To me, that in-between space of language is very interesting.

Rumpus: When you were recently on the podcast Queer Words with Wayne Goodman you said that you wrote in English when you first started writing because the language felt further away, that it gave you a critical distance from the stories you were telling. Now you’re writing entirely in Spanglish. Do you feel you’re getting nearer to these stories in some way?

Delgado Lopera: The distance served a purpose at the time. But my relationship to both English and Spanish has changed, just like my relationship to the States has changed and my relationship to everything has changed, really. Now I can speak English fluently and so it makes it very different. At the beginning I was writing poetry. I was hating living in Miami, I wanted something raw, and I was reading romantic stuff like Sylvia Plath.

Rumpus: Whose collection Ariel plays a role in Fiebre Tropical.

Delgado Lopera: Yes, because Plath was embodying exactly what I was feeling and because, like Francisca, I was also learning English by reading Plath. But now I’m closer to the languages, which allows me to get closer to the stories, too.

What happens now, to me, and I think it was Borges who said this, is that I stopped seeing English and Spanish as mutually exclusive. Borges didn’t see them as separate languages growing up. Now I don’t either. I use both languages everyday, all the time. Even in my closest relationships, like with my girlfriend, I speak in Spanglish all day. I cannot keep them separate. So now the texture of that feels closer to me.

Rumpus: How interesting to be generating a new tradition by way of what lies between old traditions, the liminal no longer just in-between, but distinct in its own way, too.

Delgado Lopera: Yes! It’s so liminal. It’s interesting because there is a big disconnect between the literary institution and what’s happening on the ground. If you go to LA or New Mexico or New York or Miami, people are living in Spanglish. There’s no theory about it. Everything is in Spanglish. People have molded the language and are living the language. It’s very much a language that is discarded as less than because it’s a mixture of both and so it lacks purity. And also because it’s a language that’s being spoken by immigrants so there are, again, xenophobic undertones. The anxiety that comes from the mixture of both languages is also an anxiety that is coming with the changing demographics of the country. But the crazy thing is that the literary institution is not catching up to the way that people are actually speaking and existing.

Rumpus: I can only speak from my experience as an English speaker who is a stumbling student of Spanish, but the town I live in, Pecos, exists totally in Spanglish. Sometimes I follow along, but I’ve become used to not always understanding. And, to be honest, I like it like that, the language always a little out of reach. It was the same wonderful challenge of reading Fiebre Tropical, but with the book I could pause and look up the words and phrases if I couldn’t discern the meaning in another way.

Delgado Lopera: Well, that’s interesting because you’re describing the experience of being an immigrant here. I’ve been here sixteen years and there are still a lot of things I don’t understand. And yeah, I feel like it should be an invitation to not understand something, to be sitting in the unknown. I like that it brings up discomfort for some folks. It’s okay to sit in the discomfort of not knowing something. That very much replicates the experience of having to navigate a world that you are not born into, the fact that we have to be so incredibly creative to navigate it.

But I didn’t set out to do that. I wasn’t like, “Oh! I’m gonna do this in Spanglish so that people can experience what it’s like to be an immigrant!” I wrote Fiebre Tropical this way as a sort of unconscious happening. And then, of course, there was time to do revisions and to think about craft and all of that, but when I started writing this book it just came out, it was just my voice.

But ugh. I have had so much pushback on writing like this, people getting caught up in the Spanish and not talking about the craft, both in writing workshops and publishing. For a second, when I was first writing, I tried to write it all in English and to name my characters, like, Jane and Mr. Smith. And that’s not to say it’s not okay if other bilingual writers want to write like that, but that’s not me. The voice that Fiebre Tropical is written in is the language it’s written in, and it is Francisca’s voice.

Rumpus: In how you’re describing language and voice, I’m reminded of how I’ve heard you speak about queerness as a concept so much bigger than sexuality or gender.

Delgado Lopera: There’s a way that we talk about queerness in a mainstream way to equate it with the LGBTQ community and that has its purpose and that’s okay. But there is also this way of queering language and of language that is queer because it’s off, it’s not quite there, it’s moving away from a normative way of embodying language and that’s some of what is happening here, because I am bringing in Spanish and rhythm and slang and a particular voice. It’s not a traditional way of using language so, yes, there is a queering there, because it’s pushing the boundaries and so redefining the boundaries, a new version of possibility lies within it.

I love language. Queer people and people of minorities are always pushing language in really beautiful ways to make sense of the world. And this is also what’s happening in this book. Francisca is pushing language to make sense of what is happening, not just English, but Spanish, not just Spanish, but Colombian slang, like a witch’s potion.

Rumpus: Can I ask what your relationship with God is like?

Delgado Lopera: I’ve had a very troubling relationship with faith because I do come from a very religious family. My dad’s side of the family is extremely Catholic. One of my aunts is a nun. And my mom’s side of the family is very Christian. Things have shifted a lot with my mom in the last five years, but it was very troubling for a long time. They were very religious people and there was little space for difference—not just sexuality, but all difference was frowned upon. I am a very different person, not just because I’m gay, but I do drugs, I’m trans, I’m weird. It was too much. So I hated God.

But being in the Bay Area, I’m getting into Buddhism and I’m going on meditation retreats and spending time in nature. After reflecting on the fact that I come from a lineage of very religious people, I realized they are also very spiritual people and that they ended up in the religion that was available. For my mom, moving to Miami with two girls, not knowing anybody, we ended up in this cult-y church. So I’ve been reflecting a lot on this spiritual lineage, and I realized it was missing from my life, that I yearned for it, but couldn’t do organized religion.

Rumpus: In my own ways, I feel that, and I wonder if that’s what I was picking up on with “spiritual relief.” It takes a sort of taxing cynicism to not believe in anything and then, when you let it back in, there is something like relief in saying, “I may not understand, but I do have faith.”

Delgado Lopera: Yes. And there is so much cynicism that we have to have now, so it’s nice to just allow for that connection to other people, to nature.

Rumpus: But to speak to the tradition of our religions, there are two long chapters dedicated to the matriarchal figures in the book, La Mami and La Tata. We get to go back to their childhoods in Colombia, when they are the same age as Francisca is in the book. There is something really compelling about a queer book with radical elements that also has this need to go back to the mother figures and the history of their lives and the traditions that underlie the present-day story. Can you talk more about your decision to do that?

Delgado Lopera: You’re saying it perfectly. Both of those chapters started because I really wanted La Mami and La Tata to be full human beings, complex, for us to know that they have lost, that they yearn, that they want to fuck, that there are all of these human qualities there. I also wanted to imagine what it must have been like for them to be teenagers.

And, I just love writing historical fiction. I realized that while I was writing Fiebre Tropical. I did a lot of research, especially for the section in the 1950s, about the grandmother who grew up on the Colombian coast. I wanted to explore what it would be like to not really have language at all, for your body, for what’s happening, for what you want in the world. For me, there was this moment in the book with the nun.

Rumpus: You took the next question right out of my mouth! What a moment, for La Tata to see the nun naked.

Delgado Lopera: It just happened while I was writing, I was like, okay, she’s gonna see the nun naked, bitch. She has to.

Rumpus: And smoking a cigarette.

Delgado Lopera: And I love that! You know, it was subconscious, but when I got there I was like, yeah, she needs to see this. There is some queerness to the grandmother, but there is no way of articulating it beyond just this yearning. I wanted to arrive at that because she comes from a matrilineal family, and there are all these things that get passed down from generation to generation; you can see it all throughout the book. But these women had very little control over what they could do as women, especially the grandmother—to be fifteen, in the 1950s, in Colombia, in this very tight society circle, in this coastal town, with no way to articulate what she wanted or needed while being pressured by all these external forces.

Those chapters were also a way to bring Colombia to life. To show how it was such a part of the character’s language, their mannerisms, their gestures. You know how they are always flipping their eyes, their hair? Those are all very much Colombian. I wanted to make that more concrete.

Rumpus: I have one more burning question from the book and it’s about hair. Some of the most stunning moments in the book for me came by way of hair, the role braiding hair plays in the family, and then, as Francisca starts to play with gender, contemplating her arm hair for example, and later, when she’s realizing her feelings for Carmen, she says, “I refused her medicated Dove deodorant with its minuscule hairs. The mere idea of having pieces of her in my pores gave me an excruciating thrill that I couldn’t understand.” It seemed to be this ongoing exploration of grooming, which related to class, gender, sexuality, and all things identity.

Delgado Lopera: I didn’t think about hair and grooming, but it is in the back of my head. Colombians have a very class-based society and there is so much around hair, with women specifically. In Bogotá there are hair salons everywhere you go, everybody gets everything waxed, you don’t see people with curly hair, everybody has their hair straightened. You don’t see any hairy women; everybody waxes everything. Everything. It’s a huge deal. Huge.

Just an example, the first time I went back to my house from San Francisco with armpit hair my mother sat me down on the toilet and was like, “wait right here,” while she heated up the wax and waxed my armpits, right there. “Raise your arm,” and I was like, “No.” But she insisted so I did.

I also wanted to get at the invisible ways that women hold their bodies, you know? Hair is something that’s always present, it’s just that people, usually women, are hiding it in all these different ways.

There is also this way that, like you said, grooming is a part of class, and I’m interested in the ways that’s the same as the way we desire someone or don’t desire someone. The fact that Francisca is attracted to someone like Carmen who has greasy hair and a little mustache, you know, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by all these beauty standards that are so ingrained in the culture. Part of the attraction to Carmen is because she represented many things that are undesirable in a woman and are undesirable in a girl, but she doesn’t seem to be bothered by it.

Rumpus: Okay, now I want to ask you about Bogotá. You are working on another project now that took you there for two months and while you were there the city broke out in riots which you documented on your social media.

Delgado Lopera: I went back to Bogotá for two months, doing research for a new novel, specifically on the underground party scene in Bogotá because I didn’t know about it, and I was able to connect with a lot of people there, including the people who are doing the archiving of the LGBTQ history in the city which is amazing and unlike maybe San Francisco or New York where queer history is already kind of institutionalized, this is very new and loose. All of this is gonna make sense when I talk about the riots because I was, from the moment I got there, I was connected with the right people. I was going to places where a lot of trans sex workers hang out.

Then comes the November 21, the day when the protests were organized to happen. Never before had the country been able to organize all these various groups at once. They had been trying to do something like that for a long time, but it was always a little segregated.

Bogotá has ten million people and it is estimated that about a million people came out to march which is the most beautiful thing. I have never experienced anything like it and I have protested a lot in the States. It was a Colombian context. The safety was different. The people were different. The way that people expressed themselves was different.

It was at the level of art, of creativity. There were puppets and dancing and parties in the streets. The group of trans women that I was hanging out with, they created this huge inflatable trans woman. She was ten feet tall. Imagine that, an inflatable trans woman, big dick, huge tits, and all these trans women protesting the ways that trans women had been killed but in this beautiful and super creative way.

That day, by 6 p.m., I was already back to my house, then I started hearing something called cacerolazo, which is when people get their pots and pans and bang them outside their windows to protest against the government. Especially in places where people are oppressed, this is good because it’s just noise.

The noise starts—and remember, ten million people so this is a huge city—and I’m in the center of the city and as soon as I heard it there were tears in my eyes.

My neighbors came down from above and we started banging the pots and pans. The sound was beautiful, but when you looked out, you could see all these little pots and pans outside the windows, tee tee tee tee tee. I had to go out to see what was happening. It felt like a fair. Everybody’s out, waving flags and making noise. And then someone tells us where the president’s house is so we walked all the way there and there are five hundred people outside, and of course it’s also militarized so there are armed police, too. It starts pouring rain and we’re all dancing and banging pots.

Rumpus: I’m choked up, Juliana. Dancing as a form of protest. Kitchen objects as instruments of protest. Beautiful.

Delgado Lopera: I know! Nobody even cares about the rain. We’re all dancing and singing and banging pots.

Rumpus: It’s strange, though, that image of joy and dancing happening in front of men with guns.

Delgado Lopera: Yeah, they had military everywhere. And it’s sad. But the military kids are super low-income. It happens here, too. They join up because they are poor. So, it’s also sad, those men with guns.

There had never been anything like this ever in the history of the country. The next day there were more protests and in response, the government starts saying that the protestors are getting violent even though they weren’t. The government was actually paying people to incite violence so they could get the riot police and it got very scary after that. Terrifying. It was probably one of the most terrifying nights of my life.

But the protests kept going. I went to the president’s house a few more times and I went to the women’s march, all these feminine girls just going for it. The young people want something different, and to see so many people who aren’t assholes together wanting peace—it’s a beautiful thing to watch because even though it’s an authoritarian country people are politically engaged and I love that.

Rumpus: I’m curious about the timing of going back to Colombia, and going through those protests, and then coming back to the States to head into the launch of your book. How did it all come together for you?

Delgado Lopera: Well, I brought some of my books with me because I wanted to figure out how it felt to have them there. I had been really wary of being a Colombian writer writing in English. But what this trip did for me was helped me to fully accept where I am and who I am, like, in linguistic terms. I had this fear that I would not be one-hundred-percent Colombian. I was sort of plagued by this notion of authenticity.

You know, my family is like, “Why are you writing in English; I can’t read this.” Like my mom, she speaks some English but she won’t understand all of the book. She asked if there would be a translation, but I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t even know if this can be translated. It might not be possible.” But because I stayed for so long, I was able to just connect people as I am. This trip made me feel proud of who I am, proud that I write in another language but also don’t, that there is a lot of in-betweenness.

I am representing Colombian-ness in a different way, and I am embodying it however I want to. I am a very queer-looking person, like, very queer-looking. I call a lot of attention to myself when I’m in Colombia, like a lot a lot. I couldn’t walk down half a block and not be stared at. In San Francisco, there is a lot of otherness embedded into the city already. In Colombia, being such a spectacle created a different sense of self and I think for me what that did was to foster a process of acceptance, an appreciation of where I am, and that I don’t have to chase some kind of language purity. Even though I write about not aiming for that purity and I talk about it, it’s harder to accept it within myself. Especially with Spanish. Spanish to me is so precious. I have a fear of writing in it, of messing it up, of messing up my Colombian-ness. I was able to let go of that fear. I accepted that a lot of us are living in-between and that’s okay. In-between is a place I can tap into to generate really good work if I can move away from fearing it, which I am.

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Read an exclusive excerpt from Fiebre Tropical.

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Photograph of Juliana Delgado Lopera by Juliana Delgado Lopera.


Sarah Haas is a writer living in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Tupelo Quarterly, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Entropy, and more. More from this author →