Zoraida Córdova has already found a ton of success as an author: she’s published an impressive stack of YA fantasy and science fiction books—including the award-winning Brookyln Brujas series and stories for the Star Wars world—as well as multiple contemporary romance novels under the pen name Zoey Castile.
But not until her latest book, The Inheritance Of Orquídea Divina, has she written general literary fiction. In it, she tells the story of a grandmother and family matriarch who may just be a witch—and whose family secrets are even more mysterious to her relatives than her strange magic. When she tells the family she’s dying, they all come to collect their inheritance, but no one can guess what exactly she’s leaving behind for each of them.
Why did the author choose this moment to tell this story, in this style? Córdova sat down with Scary Mommy to talk about what sparked the idea for this rich book that blends generational storytelling and magical realism as well as why she decided to stray into a new genre to tackle the story.
Scary Mommy: Your story is so unique and creative. How did it come about?
Zoraida Córdova: I wrote a short story for an anthology called Toil & Trouble. And that anthology was about women in witchcraft. I had this image in my head of a woman who transformed into a tree, as you do. And I couldn’t get that image out of my head.
A couple of years later, I got the opportunity to turn that story into an adult novel. And I had to zoom out from that image and that scene of the family gathering. I had to ask myself: Why is this family here? What happened to them? What caused this woman to be this way? Basically: Why are you like this? I just keep asking those kinds of questions that the world zoomed out enough that I could look at the big picture.
This is your first adult book that’s not a romance. How did you decide that this was not a YA book?
I wanted to put my characters through a lot more trauma than I normally would in YA. That’s not to say that I believe YA books should be picturesque and happy books. I think that there’s an ordeal that all characters have to go through as part of a hero’s journey.
But for me, I think that The Inheritance Of Orquídea Divina was a book about an inherited trauma that happens in a lot of families—not just Latino families, right? All families can experience this and all families have secrets. So it’s really about how volatile those secrets could be and what we’re willing to do to survive in certain situations. That’s when I decided this is not a YA book. Because even though it ends in hope, I just wanted to do a lot more different things than I would have been able to do in YA.
You just mentioned generational trauma— and how it’s not just a Latino thing, it’s an everybody thing. But it’s pretty common in immigration stories like this one—was that on your mind when you were writing?
Not consciously. I’m a first-generation immigrant. I came to New York when I was six with my mom and my grandmother. We had a family visa. And it’s part of who I am. It’s not a tragic story. It’s not, thankfully, like other people who come here with refugee visas and things like that. We’re immigrating, but it’s not like we’re running from our lives. We’re just starting a new life. Orquídea is running for her life.
But because it is part of my origin story and part of my narrative, I sort of can’t write a book without it. I’m conscious of it. I’m conscious of how lucky my family was to be able to get a visa in the first place, because they’re so difficult. They were easier in the 70s and 80s. And before that you didn’t even need a visa, right? You just came over. And now it’s this thing that’s so politicized. I can’t escape it. It’s part of my story. And so in all of my books, there’s a touch of that. It could be a passing line, like our family immigrated here 20 years ago, and that’s it, the story moves on. But for Orquídea, she’s running away. She comes here looking for home, she’s looking for roots.
How do you approach magical realism?
I have no idea. I have no idea how to write magical realism. I write fantasy. I’m a genre writer. I write for Star Wars. I write for Marvel. I’ve written fantasy, I’ve written science fiction—all of my books except for the contemporary romance are fantastical books, right? Orquídea Divina was a weird place for me to be because I started it thinking: it’s going to be a contemporary novel except for the tree part. Like, she turns into a tree and that’s the magical realist realism aspect of it. But as I kept writing, it became more magical. And magical realism is the magical in the mundane or the mundane and the magical—I’m not sure which way it goes!
But it is a long literary tradition that started as a painting movement in the twenties and made its way to Latin America. And it was something that was ascribed to Latin American writers, but the idea of this fantastical whimsical magic in the every day—it makes sense for marginalized communities specifically in Latin America because if your family member disappears and you live in the middle of nowhere in Colombia or in Argentina or in Ecuador, is it that an armed guerrilla or militant group took them or did an angel come down from heaven and whisk them away? That’s like the magical thing that happened to you, right? It’s this way of answering these impossible questions. Am I cursed? Or is it actually a nation’s rocky foundation because of an unstable government because of colonization? What is it, bad luck? It’s these ways of looking at the world through a different lens.
I don’t think that I intentionally set off to write this book the way it was. I come from a very strong literary tradition of magical realism. I’m pretty sure García Márquez didn’t want to be called magical realism, but, you know, that’s the label that we’ve given him and Isabella Allende. If you have HBO, she has a really great chat in which she talks about it probably more eloquently than I’m doing.
Going off of that, you write a lot about witches and magical women generally.
I think that I’ve always been enamored with the idea of having magical powers because magical powers could save our, all of our everyday lives. I was 10 years old when I wrote in my Spice Girl, sticker-cover diary: Dear diary, I’m now a witch. And that was like a year after I got my first communion, so my mom was probably really excited about it.
It’s something has always appealed to me: witchcraft as a metaphor for rebellion, for a communion with the natural world, for feminine power that embraces all kinds of femininity.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I want readers to take away a sense that we each have a divine power. And it could be someone whose smile brightens somebody else’s day, it could be somebody’s positivity. It could be the gift of of giving gifts. We all have something inside of ourselves that makes us incredibly unique and gives us the ability to keep going.
And what do you want your readers know about Ecuador and its culture—the readers who don’t have a connection to Ecuador?
What I want people to take away from Ecuador is that it’s a small country, but it’s very beautiful and it has a very complicated past just like all of Latin America and the world—the world has complicated past!
I wrote this book with the knowledge that this might be the first time anyone has ever read about Ecuador. We’re a very small country. And we have very strong people, very resilient people. And it’s a hard balance. Am I writing it for Ecuadorians? Am I writing it for English speaking readers of all backgrounds?
The truth is the reason why I chose to have Marimar and Rey and Rhiannon never has been there before is that’s the entry point, right? Their ancestry is from Ecuador or their grandmother is from Ecuador, but they’ve never been there. And so they’re seeing it through the eyes also of strangers of people who have left and come back. It shows that point of view because that gave me the ability to to write about it from the eyes of the stranger. Every time I go back to see my dad or my family it’s like that. Like I’m looking at it from the vantage point of distance.
It’s not a concise representation of everything that Ecuador is or was, or can be. But it’s just a glimpse of a very beautiful country.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple of self publishing endeavors for my pen name, Zoey Castile. And I’m also working on the next book in my contract with with Atrium, my publisher. I have a lot of irons in the fire and I always do. I’m going to keep writing weird things with magic and family. And so that’s all I can really say, but if you enjoyed The Inheritance Of Orquídea Divina I have a very long backlist to keep you entertained until my next book comes out.
What have you read and loved recently?
I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, and I think my top three would be Saint by Sierra Simone, which is this angsty erotic romance about a monk and his ex-boyfriend who go on a beer road trip across Europe. It sounds crazy, but it’s perfectly angsty and beautifully written.
Also A Lot Like Adiós by Alexis Daria, which is a ex-best-friends-to-lovers trope in which they have to pretend to be together while they work together and are surrounded by their entire families.
And The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang, which came out recently as well, which is about a woman who gets into a relationship while her entire life is falling apart. And so this relationship sort of saves her and, and saves both of them. And it’s really beautiful.”
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