Food and community are at the heart of Laekan Zea Kemp’s debut novel, Somewhere between bitter and sweet (Little, Brown), so it’s no surprise that the book’s bustling restaurant setting was inspired in part by the experiences of Kemp’s longtime partner, who worked in a restaurant as a teenager. “He would have all these hilarious stories about the hijackings they would do,” Kemp says. “And in large part because there were so many teenagers working in the restaurant.”
A contemporary YA romance set in Austin, Texas, the novel follows Penelope “Pen” Prado and 18-year-old Xander Amaro as they meet due to their common bond with Nacho’s Tacos, a well-known neighborhood restaurant. loved, and end up falling in love. Kemp says she first conceptualized Nacho’s taco world as a way to “throw people in. [an environment] and see how they would interact, how they would build relationships and create community. And then, you know, I’m a big food lover.
The novel has no shortage of mouth-watering passages describing Mexican cuisine and the desserts that aspiring bakery owner Pen creates, out of cocada (which Kemp and his grandmother made and sold: “I’d make a killing with every sale of garage, ”Kemp says) to Pen’s signature coconut cake menudo with white chocolate frosting. Of the many savory and sweet dishes featured in the book, Kemp says the recipes gave her the opportunity “to show off Pen’s creativity and also the innovation of not only herself, but [Chicanx] community as a whole. “
Although Kemp wrote her first book during her senior year of high school and has already published work on her own, Somewhere between bitter and sweet marks its debut in traditional publishing. One thing that hasn’t changed in this transition is who Kemp focuses on in his stories. “I’ve always written Latinx protagonists,” she says. “It’s just what comes most naturally to me.”
In 2019, Kemp heard about #DVPit, a Twitter pitch event featuring non-agent pitches from marginalized voices, and she decided to pitch. Somewhere between bitter and sweet. A few weeks later, she signed with Andrea Morrison at the Writers House.
Shortly after submission of the manuscript, Samantha Gentry of Little, Brown acquired the worldwide rights as a pre-emption. Laekan attributes this to the nature of #DVPit, which “gets a lot of interest and excitement very quickly,” and the fact that Morrison was able to present his book in person at a publishing conference rather than via email.
With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, Kemp’s debut, due out in April 2021, faced unexpected complications. Although Kemp says she “wasn’t one of those people who dreamed of having a big launch party,” she struggled to assess how the book is doing after publication. She calls for the support of Las Musas, a collective of non-binary Latinx women and authors who write children’s literature, “absolutely essential” to overcoming these difficulties. “There is so much knowledge and information sharing,” she says. “I also think it’s really useful to belong to a community that has a very specific mission and that really fascinates me. It really helps me put things in perspective and see the big picture.
Yet some exciting things have happened since the release of Somewhere between bitter and sweet: The novel received two star reviews and is featured in the current issue of Enjoy your meal. For Kemp, however, “the most special thing [about her book’s release] was the fact that my grandparents were able to walk into a Barnes & Noble and pick up a copy.
While Kemp currently writes full-time, she balances her authoring responsibilities (“Administrative work as an author is unreal!”) With her work for Las Musas and the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival. She manages the Las Musas Twitter account and newsletter and contributes regularly to her podcast, and she also helps create educational resources for the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival.
The next step for Kemp is Heartbreaking Symphony (Little, Brown), another dual-point YA romance and companion novel from her debut, coming out in April 2022. She says her screenplay focuses on music rather than food and focuses on Aarón Medrano , a secondary character of Somewhere between bitter and sweet, like him and his musician colleague Mia Villanueva “A link to make a pact according to which they will audition for the music school of their dreams”.
Kemp says both characters have been through the loss of a parent and face the jitters that come with that trauma, but much like Somewhere between bitter and sweet, it’s “a story about community and caring for one another”.
For now, Kemp’s wish is that readers of Somewhere between bitter and sweet connect with his characters and his message. “I write romance that doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional formula,” she says. “I really prefer love interests to be some kind of refuge for each other. What I hope for readers who are looking for love, friendship, or any kind of relationship is that [they] find someone who wholeheartedly believes in [their] dreams and I would do anything to help them come true.
A version of this article appeared in the 6/28/2021 issue of Editors Weekly under the title: Flying Starts