Book Review: Quiereme by Juliana Delgado Lopera
In Japan, repairing broken pottery is an art form called Kintsugi (“golden joinery”), which uses gold to meld the broken pieces back together. In her book of essays, Quiéreme (“Love Me”), Juliana Delgado Lopera’s outlines the ways in the which the self can be divided and put back together again through the joinery of language.
In America, the children of immigrants are often split in two selves. Latinx immigrants like me, for example, speak two languages: Spanish at home and English at school. The self that grew up watching Mexican telenovelas and listening to Spanish ballads was barely on speaking terms with the self who grew up reading The Catcher in the Rye and listening to Notorious BIG.
Quiéreme, with its references to the Jerry Rivera songs buried in my childhood memory and to the Roland Barthes of my literary present, feels like a literary golden seam, uniting two parts of the immigrant self that interact so rarely. In Delgado Lopera’s four-essay collection, what’s most astonishing is her unique Spanglish voice, erudite and nimble, unfettered by italics and explanations. The essays span Delgado Lopera’s move to the United States from Colombia as a teenager, her struggles to come out in a Christian community, her imaginary life, and her divorce at age 26. Of the transition from Colombia to the US, she writes:
Y este país de mierda that we will never leave, that we’re leaving right now as we kiss good-bye the rows of onlookers that are our life, este país de mierda will be nothing but a shadow, nothing but a ghost que baila pegadito (“that dances close”) [16, italics and translation my own].
The cultural ghost the dances close, the self that is hidden but never entirely forgotten, beneath a new American self is the heart of this book, but the divisions proliferate as Delgado Lopera’s collection unfolds chronologically.
Beyond the fragmentation of the immigrant experience, there is what happens to girls. American culture cleaves girls (and later women) in half; the “good girl” and the sexual being, the Madonna and the whore. Delgado Lopera writes about this in the context of her family’s immersion in an evangelical church upon their arrival in the States, just as she begins to grapple in earnest with the fact she is a lesbian: “My sexual compass’s north fogged with a terrible yearning to kiss any girl” (27).
Swept up in the church community, Delgado Lopera’s mother “drifts away, slowly then quickly, like an air balloon” (29). Left to her own devices, young Juliana tries to combat her identity, “her demons” on her own.
So my querido reader, I’ve put systems in place. I have a notebook where I write checks every time I think or feel something hetero and X’s every time I think or feel something homo… The more I try, the more I morph into one big walking X (28).
Is there anything more quintessentially, neurotically American than applying the metrics of the Quantified Self to homosexual impulses?
For Delgado Lopera, loneliness sparks the creation of alternate universes, opens chasms between reality and the imagination. To make and keep friends, she makes up romances with boys: “at twelve I had my own set of feminist Colombian boys…in the drawer of my imagination” (21). She adds another layered plane of invention to soothe her own yearning for acceptance and romance with endearing fictive storylines about author Lorrie Moore (“On Sundays, we go to church together…Nobody knows I’m female, nobody knows Lorrie is not gay”) and Michele Bachman (“still homophobic and Republican— but somehow capable of love and intimacy with a certain María”).
At her all-girls Catholic school (“Really-quick: picture nuns, picture impeccable uniform, picture Jesús bleeding from crosses everywhere you look, picture this humble narrator in a ponytail and yellow headband [the 90s, mi reina],” 19), Delgado Lopera’s imagination runs wild.
When I first moved to Miami I pretended my math teacher was my lover and we walked around Floridian lakes holding hands. She also wrote me letters that I wrote every day during my job at Payless.
The self-effacing voice of a narrator who understands herself begins to falter in the final title essay, in which Delgado Lopera turns to her divorce. The essay itself is deeply felt, but the writing about those emotions feels uncharacteristically inchoate after the dexterous clarity of the previous essays. Some of this is intentional: the monotonous chronology of diary dates has a numbing effect, as does the replaying of the narrator’s final conversations with Laura. But some of it feels more like a record of tears shed than an exploration of grief.
Even so, some of the most poignant passages in the book are nestled in this final essay, including the inspiration for the painting that graces the book’s cover:
The other day, I saw pigeon wings on the street. Bloody wings perfectly arranged against the gray pavement…There was something so tender about it… Disembodied wings? Mi reina por favor. I yell at God every time I stumble upon some clear metaphor for my life…On the train, I’m reading, staring at my half reflection, at the vague outline of my face: two black holes, lines mapping my mouth —I’m getting old… There are places on my face that I don’t recognize so I don’t stare for too long (37).
To be bird without wings, to be haunted by the ghosts of past selves, to be shattered and put back together again— these are the metaphorical universalities of the divided self. In Quiéreme, Delgado Lopera brings her disparate selves together into a lyrical whole.
The ease with which her narrative undulates between languages paradoxically underscores the unease of moving between worlds; Delgado Lopera’s prose sparkles most brightly when it wraps itself around the Latinx immigrant girlhood experience, weaving together with fluid prose those disparate selves—those ghosts that dance close.
Image: Juliana Delgado Lopera.
Yohanca Delgado is a editor-in-chief at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.