Tag Archives: Zoraida Cordova

On Finding My Place in Fantasy

By Zoraida Córdova

“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:

BRUJAS

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.

CEREMONIES

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.

FAMILY

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.

MYTH

“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.

Mermaids in America, Or, how does this Ecuadorian girl end up writing fantasy?

By Zoraida Córdova

I’m Zoraida Córdova, and this post is a can of worms. I wish they were tequila worms, but I don’t think those are allowed in YA. (just kidding.) I’ve been starting and stopping this blog post, mostly because there is so much to say, and sometimes I don’t know how to say it. I want to talk about race and writing and the place of race in writing.

Then again, race is a funny thing. Not ha-ha funny, but uncomfortable funny. We don’t want to talk about it; not really. We want to pretend like it’s a thing of the past and it isn’t. It’s in the mirror every time I look at myself (and that’s quite a lot), it’s when I walk into an Upper East Side clothing store to shop for a dress and a nice white lady asks me to find a size for her. There’s the “I don’t work here,” followed by the uncomfortable apologetic laugh. See? Funny.

So let’s put aside the race thing for a second and talk about me.

My decision to pursue my writing career was met with a lot of raised eyebrows. My immigrant family didn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to be a lawyer or a doctor. The thing is, unlike my other immigrant friends who were pushed and forced into law school and engineering, my family didn’t put a break on my creative pursuit. I’ve always thought they were fucking crazy to do that, but I love them because of that.

My family is untraditional. We are Ecuadorian. I can’t tell you much about Ecuador. I can’t list any historical dates, president’s names, or famous heroes. Basically, our claim to fame is giant turtles from GALAPAGOS and half of Christina Aguilera (the half buried under the blue contacts and bleached hair. Check out her nose. That’s totally Ecuadorian.)  See? You don’t know shit about Ecuador and that’s okay because I don’t either.

When we came to New York we lived in a nice part of Hollis, Queens. I didn’t grow up in the Barrio or the Hood. I rarely left my house so in that sense, I was overprotected. So I stayed home and listened to my angsty alternative rock music and wrote poetry and read books about vampires and witches. I didn’t think about myself as “un-American” or a “minority” because sure, there are not a lot of Ecuadorians in this country, but I am not LESS THAN anything. It wasn’t until people started asking me things like “why do you act white?” “why do you talk like a white girl?” “why do you listen to white people music?” “why are you in my class you spic?” (And it was another minority girl who asked this last one.)

I didn’t know what a spic was. Even when I watched West Side Story for school, it just seemed like old-timey curse words. I wasn’t aware of my Other-ness until the people around me made me aware of it. I made a very clear decision to not hang out with the “Latin” kids in school. Instead, I gravitated to the skaters and misfits who didn’t fit in their brown skins either.

And then I started writing. My first short story was called (pause) “Final Heartbreak” and it was about a group of high school friends and their drama. First I want to remind you that my name is Zoraida Cordova. All of my friends were Guyanese, Jamaican, Black, and Philippino. There wasn’t a single one among us with blond hair or blue eyes. And yet, every single one of my characters (based on each one of my friends and myself) I describe as having light eyes and pale skin. At one point I wrote “Johnny’s black hair and green eyes shone under the lights.” “Pacey’s gray sweater matched his eyes.” “Pacey was Australian but didn’t have an accent.” (Pacey was also the only made up character. My imaginary boyfriend.) During the climax of “Final Heartbreak,” I introduced Egyptian twins (keep in mind I was 12-13) and I wrote:

“Then four shadows appeared at the door. As they came closer, you could see that it was Johnny, Courtney and Courtney’s friends Rachel Greek and Ian Greek. Ian and Rachel were brother and sister. They were Egyptian but came to the US when they were a few months old with their parents. Their parents were rich and had a successful company of computer software. Their skin was very fair and had a golden tone…”

So okay, laugh. Please do, because I’m laughing. Like I said, race is a funny thing. I haven’t read this story in 15 years! But if we get shrinky-with-it, we can see what is obvious in my early work: the lack of diversity. The only reference to foreign characters is REALLY foreign, and I make it a point to single them out. When I read E.C. Meyer’s piece on Diversity in YA, I was nodding the entire time. Especially when he said  “The books I read and the shows I watched almost universally featured white main protagonists, with people of color usually cast in the role of sidekicks or incidental characters.” The TV I watched were Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, Saved by the Bell (thank you Lisa Turtle), Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and ALL OF THE OLSEN TWINS MOVIES. Like, all of them.

This list, all of it, it influenced my first works by white-washing everyone I knew. My home life and friend life was full of diversity. Hell, I’m full of diversity. On my mother’s side we have Spaniards, Afro-Caribbeans, and one Chinese ancestor. On my dad’s side we have Spaniards and Italians. All of them became Ecuadorian and through them, I became American. Or a mermaid. Yes, I became a mermaid.

Naturally, after I graduated and went into the real world and kept writing, my characters remained white. It’s ingrained in my psyche from 25 years of television and movies (Latin TV has the same problems as American TV, but that’s another can of tequila worms). In a recent convention, out of 78 YA authors, only two of us were non-white. A girl came up to me and said, “Thank you for making the love interest half-Ecuadorian and half-Greek.” Another girl at the same convention said, “we’re so excited you’re here because there aren’t many Hispanic authors.”

The same way I was made aware of my other-ness in high school, I’m becoming more aware of it as an author. I used to think of myself as writing fun stories, oh look at my mermaids swim! Now, as I watch my writing change, I see how my choice of making a non-white love interest might have allowed this reader to see herself in a book. And not in a “racial” way. Layla Santos of THE VICIOUS DEEP trilogy is not bi-racial to prove a point. She is bi-racial because I felt like it. Because I wanted to put some of me in my work. Because it’s not Lena Dunham’s Brooklyn, and I would be misrepresenting my city by only having white characters.

I notice things in my fiction, THE SAVAGE BLUE, in particular that I didn’t notice before. Tristan Hart, my protagonist is half white Brooklynite and half merman. I wanted him to transcend race and species. Tristan literally belongs in two worlds and he has to make them both work in order to continue with his life.

For me, writing urban fantasy allows me to write about this dual sense of belonging which all teenagers struggle with no matter where they come from. And there is nothing funny about that.

* * *

Zoraida Córdova was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where she learned to speak English by watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker on repeat. Her favorite things are sparkly like merdudes, Christmas, and New York City at night. You can find her at www.zoraidacordova.com and https://www.facebook.com/CordovaBooks.