Melissa Lozada-Oliva is a Guatelombian (Guatemalan-Colombian) American writer who is pushing the boundaries of our reality to explore very real truths about humanity. This September, she published her newest novel Candelaria, which follows three generations of Guatemalan women: the all-seeing grandmother Candelaria, her daughter Lucia, and her three daughters Bianca, Paola, and Candy who are all spread across the U.S. Spanning time and place, the book switches between the past seeing the women battling the everyday struggles of life, and a near-future when an earthquake unleashes a zombie apocalypse that only Candelaria can save her family from. This was inspired by a real-life earthquake that hit Guatemala in 1976, which killed 23,000 people and left thousands homeless or without electricity and the ability to reach others, the impact of which is still felt today. Insightful and compelling, the book offers a new take on family, womanhood, love, and the apocalypse genre as a whole.
“I was thinking about my grandmother and how funny it would be to see her fight zombies, and then thinking about fighting zombies as this metaphor for survival. It was funny to me to imagine her facing zombies and then being like ‘I’ve seen worse!'” Lozada-Oliva tells HipLatina. “I also became fascinated with the earthquake of 1976 and my mom’s stories from the time, how she told me that she saw the earth open and how her grandmother held her hand and said that they were going to the kingdom of heaven. Scary!”
As with many writers, she’s loved writing all her life, characterizing it as “the only thing in the world that’s all mine,” a way to relate to other people around her and get to know them beyond superficial pleasantries. What’s extraordinary about all of her work throughout her career is that each of her books are a wholly separate project that explores similar themes but through different genres. From her beginnings as a spoken word poet, she has published peluda, a poetry collection about Latinidad, feminism, hair, and identity. Not to mention her critically acclaimed novel-in-verse Dreaming Of You, which follows a woman bringing Selena back to life and facing horrifying consequences. Over time, her obvious tie to poetry has loosened but not the roots. With Candelaria, that has never been truer, as it came from a spoken word poem she wrote and performed in 2015 titled “How To Survive The Zombie Apocalypse As An 82 year old Guatemalan Grandma.” Funny, relatable, and heart-wrenching with Guatemalan Spanish peppered throughout, the piece is a stunning foundation to what Candelaria would later expand on.
Fast forward to the first year of the pandemic, and Lozada-Oliva was set to explore the world she’d created in the poem and expand it into a full-length novel. She’d done something close to it once with Dreaming of You, which takes on the form of a novel using poetry, though she quickly discovered that it wouldn’t be as simple as relying on what she already knew. She would have to take it in baby steps. Throughout 2020, she spent her time slowly working on it, practicing writing short stories first to get used to a slightly longer form of storytelling. And just when she felt ready to try again, she found herself stuck again and, like many writers when they hit blocks, found herself questioning her entire sense of self. But, as she says, she defied that voice and “just kept going.”
“I just kept teaching myself and asking questions and reading books and watching YouTube videos, filling up notebooks with charts and character summaries, texting my friends that I feared the end of my life was near,” she jokes. “As many people know, poets make great novelists, but they have to get used to all the rules and structures of telling a story. I have a newfound love for plot, for easter eggs, for all the way narrative can play out. Dreaming of You prepared me a little bit, but the only way you can learn how to write a novel is by writing it.”
It also helped that she had guides to reference throughout the writing process for help and inspiration including Yo! by Julia Alvarez, The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, as well as the movies Prometheus, Wolfgirl, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She also conducted research into the Guatemalan earthquake in 1976 and invoked her own family’s experience with the historical event.
In doing so, she found that her family was an influential starting point for her cast of characters but it was also important for her that Candelaria, Lucia, Bianca, Paola, and Candy each became their own people. One way she did so was by having them relate to their Latinidad in radically different but valid and relatable ways. Whether it’s about denying it all together to find safety in Anglo-American culture and assimilation, making it a fundamental part of their identity, or throwing it away altogether to focus on their life beyond their family’s background. Despite these explorations, Lozada-Oliva has made it clear that this isn’t meant to be a “Latina” novel but “a novel about the specific experience of being a Guatemalan-American loser in Massachusetts” where readers can “come away with thinking about everything we function at the whim of in order to survive.”
This is especially true when it comes to how these women relate to the men in their lives. In the first chapter alone, Candelaria murders her long-term partner because she’s convinced he’s turned into a zombie. As the plot unfurls, we see how that violence is replicated in the relationships that the other women experience as both victims and perpetrators, whether it’s cheating, manipulation, deceit, abuse, or just being a plain bore. The one exception is Julian, an Indigenous Guatemalan man who struggles to make sense of the world around him and help the women in his life, and who is the only male character we get to hear from directly. All the characters in the novel, including Bianca’s nonbinary roommate Blue, are fiercely complicated and compelling, both because of and regardless of gender.
“When you’re born a girl, and sometimes especially a Latine girl, you’re sexualized from the day you are born. I didn’t really have a lot of relationships with men growing up (who weren’t gay at least) because I didn’t know how to behave around them in a way that wasn’t romantic, because I was taught that they only wanted to have sex with me or murder me. There’s a world where men really are creepy, abusive, or inconsequential,” Lozada-Oliva says. “On the other end, we raise men to all at once destroy, protect, and keep it all inside. Doing that is obviously gonna make you messed up, to yourself, to your family, and definitely to women. Julian is an ode to the boys in my life who are wrestling with that, who I’ve deeply loved and who have saved me in one way or another. That being said, the women in this book are just as messed up as the men. In fact, the most evil character is a woman.”
In a world on the brink of complete climate collapse, racial injustice, and gender inequities, it might seem strange to say that Candelaria, which mentions all of these things, is the perfect antidote and answer to our times, especially if you read books as a form of escape. But never before has a story about the apocalypse been written so unique or from a Guatemalan perspective. For too long, the sci-fi and speculative genres have been dominated by white, non-Latinx male writers. Finally, here is a story that centers Latinas—our hopes, our fears, our choices, and our mistakes—when we are often forgotten and left out in conversations about the fate of our community and the world’s future. Which, as the book points out, is ironic considering we know about sustainability and survival. For Lozada-Oliva’s part, she’s not afraid of the apocalypse, not because she doesn’t think it’s coming but because she knows it is. She notes:
“For some reason, the inevitability of it all relaxes me. The world is gonna end—so what? How are we going to take care of each other until then? It shouldn’t freeze us, it should make us do something. So what the hell are we gonna do before it does?”