Zoraida Córdova has already had a ton of success as an author: she has published an impressive stack of YA fantasy and sci-fi books, including the award-winning Brookyln Brujas series and Stories for the Star Wars world, as well as several contemporary romance novels under the pen name Zoey Castille.
But not before his last book, Tthe Legacy of Orquídea Divina, she wrote general literary fiction. She tells the story of a grandmother and a family matriarch who may just be a witch and whose family secrets are even more mysterious to those close to her than her strange magic. When she announces to the family that she is dying, they all come to collect their inheritance, but no one can guess what exactly she leaves for each of them.
Why did the author choose this moment to tell this story, in this style? Córdova spoke with Scary Mommy to talk about what sparked the idea for this rich book that mixes generational storytelling and magical realism, as well as why she decided to venture into a new genre to approach the story.
Scary Mommy: Your story is so unique and creative. How did it happen?
Zoraida Cordova: I wrote a short story for an anthology called Toil and trouble. And this anthology was about women in witchcraft. I had this image in my head of a woman who turned into a tree, like you. And I couldn’t get this image out of my head.
A few years later, I had the opportunity to turn this story into an adult novel. And I had to zoom out on that image and that scene from the family reunion. I had to ask myself: Why is this family here? What happened to them? What made this woman be like this? Essentially: Why are you like that? I keep asking these kinds of questions that the world has zoomed in enough that I can see the big picture.
This is your first adult book that isn’t romance. How did you decide it wasn’t 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’s books should be quaint and cheerful books. I think there is an ordeal that all characters have to go through as part of a hero’s journey.
But for me I think TThe Legacy of Orquídea Divina was a book about a hereditary trauma that occurs in many families, not just in Latin American families, right? All families can experience it and all families have secrets. So it’s really about the volatility of those secrets and what we’re willing to do to survive in certain situations. That’s when I decided it wasn’t a YA book. Because even though it ends in hope, I just wanted to do a lot more different things than I could have done at YA.
You just mentioned generational trauma – and how it’s not just Latino’s business, it’s everyone’s business. But it’s pretty common in immigration stories like this.
Not consciously. I am a first generation immigrant. I came to New York City at the age of six with my mom and grandmother. We had a family visa. And that’s part of who I am. It is not a tragic story. Fortunately, it’s not like other people who come here with refugee visas and things like that. We immigrate, but it’s not like we’re running away from our lives. We are just starting a new life. Orquídea is running for his life.
But because it’s part of my origin story and part of my narrative, I kind of can’t write a book without it. I’am aware. I am aware of how lucky my family was to be able to get a visa in the first place because it is so difficult. They were easier in the 70s and 80s. And before that, you didn’t even need a visa, did you? You just arrived. And now it’s this thing that’s so politicized. I cannot escape it. It’s part of my story. And so in all of my books there is a touch of that. It could be a passing line, like our family immigrated here 20 years ago, and that’s it, the story continues. But for Orquídea, she runs away. She comes here looking for a 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 am a genre writer. I write for Star Wars. I write for Marvel. I wrote fantasy, I wrote science fiction – all of my books except contemporary romance are fantasy books, aren’t they? Orquidea Divina was a strange place for me 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 aspect of magical, realistic realism. But as I continued to write, it became more magical. And magical realism is the magical in the mundane or the mundane and the magical – I don’t know which way it’s going!
But it’s a long literary tradition that began as a painting movement in the 1920s and has made its way to Latin America. And that was something that was attributed to Latin American writers, but the idea of this whimsical, whimsical magic in everyday life – it makes sense for marginalized communities especially in Latin America, because if a member of your family goes missing and you live in the middle of nowhere in Colombia or Argentina or Ecuador, is a guerrilla or some militant group took them or did an angel come down from heaven and take them away? It’s like the magical thing that happened to you, right? This is the way to answer these impossible questions. Am I cursed? Or is it actually the rocky foundation of a nation because of an unstable government because of colonization? What is it, bad luck? It is these ways of looking at the world through a different lens.
I don’t think I intentionally decided to write this book as it was. I come from a very strong literary tradition of magical realism. I’m pretty sure García Marquez didn’t want to be called magical realism, but, you know, that’s the label we gave him and Isabella Allende. If you have HBO, she has a really good conversation where she probably talks about it more eloquently than I do.
Watch the miniseries Isabelle on HBO Max.
From there you write a lot about witches and magical women in general.
I think I’ve always been in love with the idea of having magical powers because magical powers could save us, all of our everyday lives. I was 10 when I wrote in my Spice Girl journal, with stickers: Dear diary, I am now a witch. And it was like a year after my first communion, so my mom was probably very excited about it.
This is something that has always attracted me: witchcraft as a metaphor for rebellion, for 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 feel that we each have divine power. And it could be someone whose smile brightens someone else’s day, it could be someone’s positivity. It could be the gift of giving gifts. We all have something within us that makes us incredibly unique and gives us the ability to keep going.
And what do you want your readers to know about Ecuador and its culture, readers who have no 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 like all of Latin America and the world – the world has a complicated past!
I wrote this book knowing that this might be the first time anyone has read about Ecuador. We are a very small country. And we have very strong people, very resistant people. And it’s a difficult balance. Am I writing it for Ecuadorians? Am I writing it for English speaking readers from all walks of life?
The truth is the reason I chose to have Marimar and Rey and Rhiannon has never been there before, it’s the entry point, right? Their ancestry is Ecuadorian or their grandmother is Ecuadorian, but they have never been there. And so they also see it through the eyes of strangers of people who are gone and are coming back. It shows that point of view because it gave me the opportunity to write about it with the eyes of a stranger. Every time I go back to see my father or my family, that’s how it is. As if I was looking at it from a distance point of view.
It is not a concise representation of all that Ecuador is or was, or can be. But this is just a glimpse of a very beautiful country.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a few self-publishing projects for my pen name, Zoey Castile. And I’m also working on the next book in my contract with Atrium, my publisher. I have a lot of irons in the fire and I still have them. I will continue to write weird things with magic and family. And that’s all I can really say, but if you enjoyed it TThe Legacy of Orquídea Divina I have a very long waiting list to keep you entertained until the release of my next book.
What have you read and liked recently?
I’ve read a lot of books lately, and I think my top three would be Holy by Sierra Simone, which is that eerie erotic romance about a monk and his ex-boyfriend who go on a beer trip across Europe. It sounds crazy, but it’s perfectly scary and beautifully written.
Also A bit like Adiós by Alexis Daria, who is an old lovers best friend trope in which they have to pretend to be together while they work together and are surrounded by all their family.
And The principle of the heart by Helen Hoang, who also came out recently, about a woman entering a relationship as her whole life falls apart. And so this relationship sort of saves her and, and saves them both. And it is really beautiful.
Join the Scary Mommy Book Club community
It’s like a real book club, except we’re all sarcastic and very few of us wear pants. Find out what this month’s book is all about, get great novel recommendations, and lots of laughs.