“Write what you know” is one of the most overused and debatable pieces of writing advice out there. When you’re from a marginalized community this becomes increasingly hard for a few reasons. First, if you write about your own communities (#Ownvoices), you face the burden of representing everyone all at once. The next challenge is more brutal. You wrote what you knew, or thought you knew. You did the thing. Now, your work is suddenly too much your own. Too diverse. Too much of everything. Too unrelatable because, at the end of the day, no one knows you.
Being an Author of Color in the fantasy space is hard. You have to constantly wait for the market to be ready for you as a person. But more importantly, fantasy often borrows from other cultures to make something “new,” and the cultural appropriation line is blurred. Can you appropriate your own culture? What stories are you allowed to tell? Whatever your answer is, you don’t get a pass when you offend a group of people, even if it’s your people.
When I was writing Labyrinth Lost, I knew I wanted to write about witches with a Latin American background, but I also wanted it to completely fictional. So, I went back to basics and trusted my instincts. This is what I know:
Bruja is the Spanish word for “witch.” The word itself has both negative and empowering connotations. In Latin American countries, like where I’m from in Ecuador, the neighborhood “bruja” might be someone to be feared, but always the person you go to when you think you’re “ojeado” or have the Evil Eye. Brujeria is a faith for many, but it is not the faith in my book. In Labyrinth Lost, I chose to call Alex and her family “brujas” and “brujos” because their origins do not come from European traditions. Alex’s magic is like Latin America, a combination of the old world and new.
I never had a quinceañera. I had friends who went all out. They were like mini-weddings. My mother was a single parent and, in my once introverted mind (really, I was), I didn’t want one. But it’s an important part of coming of age for some Latinas. It’s the representation of womanhood and familial responsibilities all at once. I knew I wanted to give my witches something similar because this book, above all, is about family. So I created the Deathday ceremony. A bruja’s Deathday is a magical coming of age, like a Bat Mizvah or a Sweet 16. Even though the Deathday ceremony was created for the world of Labyrinth Lost, aspects of it are inspired by the Day of the Dead and Santeria. The respect for the dead and family comes from the Day of the Dead. The use of singing, shells, small animal sacrifice, and drums comes from Santeria.
While I believe that Latinxs are not a monolith, the one thing we share across the board is family. The opinion that matters the most in my house is our grandmother’s. From tattoos to dating to haircuts; however big or small a decision, what our grandmother says is a big deal! For Alex in Labyrinth Lost, her connection to her sisters, mom, and deceased grandma is the same as her hope. My matriarchy of witches is based on my own experiences of having a close-knit family.
“What’s real in Labyrinth Lost?” I’ve been answering a form of this question a lot lately. I think because my background is from South America, there’s an assumption that the stories in Labyrinth Lost are real/taken from stories I heard as a child. Don’t get me wrong; I’m super flattered that my world feels real. It is exactly what I aim for as a fantasy author, and I thank my readers for that.
Let’s unpack Latin America. Latin America has many superstitions, despite the deep roots of Catholicism. There is no all-encompassing Latin American mythology. It’s not real. It doesn’t exist. My brief childhood in Ecuador doesn’t come with all the superstitions of all the other countries in South America. The UN recognizes 33 Latin American countries. That includes U.S. territories, former Spanish colonies, Portuguese and French speaking countries. What we think of Latin America is a U.S. media portrayal of white Mexicans and sexy Colombians and Italian-looking Puerto Ricans. We think of the parts that Spain conquered and colonized. At the end of the day, Latin America is extremely complicated because we are all so different and individual, but also united under region and language.
So what’s real and what isn’t?
We tend to paint Latinos as these magical and superstitious beings, and some of us are. The Native American community knows all to well what that’s like to a much worse extent. In hopes of stepping outside myths associated with Latinos, I decided to make up my own superstitions and my own stories and gods. It was so hard to take out the Llorona myth that everyone knows because even we have that story in Ecuador.
The gods of Labyrinth Lost are all made up. The other realms of Los Lagos is entirely made up. The Meadow is more inspired by Alice in Wonderland than any other culture. One of my favorite parts of writing this book was writing the cantos (spells) and epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. Writing creation myths is something I love, and the story of La Mama and El Papa (the major gods) was a lot of fun.
There is one monster in particular that is inspired by my childhood in Ecuador. When you’re a kid, everyone scares you with monsters. Duendes are evil elves that can steal you away. The Duendes in Labyrinth Lost are a little different, and hopefully I’ll get to bring them back in another book. But the one that’s stuck with me for a long time is the Cuco. In Mexico, there’s the Cucuy, which is a demon. For us (Ecuadorians), we scare kids with the “Cuco.” It’s a demon that eats children who behave badly. I always pictured a black beast with sharp teeth and claws. So, naturally, I turned it into the Maloscuros in Labyrinth Lost.
It is my sincere hope that readers from all ages and backgrounds find themselves in Labyrinth Lost, whether it’s the search for identity, strong family ties, or a pure love of quests and fantasy.
Zoraida Córdova is the author of The Vicious Deep trilogy, the On the Verge series, and the Brooklyn Brujas series. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic. She is a New Yorker at heart and is currently working on her next novel. Send her a tweet @Zlikeinzorro.
Labyrinth Lost is available for purchase.