In case you didn’t know, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet is the yummiest book of the season! Truly this book is both mouth-watering and tear-jerking, and I hope you’re prepared with snacks and tissues. To celebrate, we (digitally) sat down with Laekan Zea Kemp to talk all things Bitter and Sweet! Read on to hear about Laekan’s initial inspirations, writing method, and favorite foods!
What was your initial inspiration for Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet?
There are so many pieces of me in this story. Pen’s mental health struggles mirror the mental health journey I’ve been on since my late teens & the conflict with her parents comes from those same late teen / early college years when my father was sick, my mother & I weren’t getting along & it felt like my entire world was falling apart.
The setting of the restaurant has more joyful origins & was inspired by my partner’s hilarious stories of working in a restaurant in our hometown. I loved all of their quirky traditions & inside jokes & wanted to use that environment to explore this idea of found families & belonging. And there are actually some scenes in the book that happened in real life and some secondary characters too that are based on real people.
When it comes to Xander’s character, he was actually inspired by my former students. I was an ESL teacher and most of my students were immigrants from central and south America. And so I’ve gotten to see up close what it’s like for them and their families to navigate our ridiculous immigration system. And yet through it all they are so resilient and so hopeful. I wanted to capture that in Xander’s character.
Can you describe your writing process? Are you a pre-plotter or do you develop the plot as you write?
I’m a headlights writer meaning I usually start out with a partial outline and then as I get deeper into drafting I continue outlining just a few chapters ahead of me at a time. Just enough to keep the momentum going so I’m not starting from scratch every single day but not so much that I lose out on the fun of exploring.
I just have to say – the food in this book! Reading Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet is a truly mouthwatering experience. What is your favorite dish from the book? Were there any dishes you wanted to include but couldn’t?
I have the biggest sweet tooth so my favorite food items to both write about, as well as eat, have to be the desserts in the book, including Pen’s famous coconut cake, cocada, cajeta, pan dulce, biscochito, dulce de leche pancakes, y todo.
I can’t recall a specific dish that I wish hadn’t been cut but I do wish I could have written an entire chapter dedicated to my love for the al pastor taco (and yes, I eat mine with pineapples).
Who was harder to write – Pen or Xander?
Because Pen and I are so similar, Xander’s character was the hardest to get to know. There were a lot more layers to peel back and a lot more rewrites to get at his unique voice. On the other hand, Pen just sort of poured out of me, which I think is clear in the way her character really anchors the story.
What was your first experience seeing Chicanx representation in literature and what would you like to see more of?
I can’t remember ever reading a book with explicitly Chicanx characters on the page until I got to college. But even when I go back and read the description for House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, the characters are simply described as being “Latino.” So I’m not sure if I ever came across that specific identity in a book until I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. But even that book is more so about the first generation experience rather than the unique experience of being third or fourth or even fifth generation.
So that’s what I’d like to see more of–Latinx and Chicanx characters across the diaspora and what it means to hold that identity in different parts of the U.S.
What are some books you’ve been reading recently or would recommend?
I highly recommend Running by Natalia Sylvester. I love Natalia’s writing so much and seeing her enter the YA space has just been so exciting. This story is about Mari Ruiz who’s father is running for president and not only does it tackle timely topics but it also explores that time in every young person’s life when you’re trying to develop your own identity separate from your parents and through that process you begin questioning whether you share their beliefs and values or if you’re starting to develop some of your own.
The next book I would highly recommend is Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland and her writing is just stunning. Every single page is covered in gems. It’s a story that uses speculative elements to explore really difficult topics, such as immigration, and it combines all of my favorite things: Mexican folklore, aliens, and a beautiful desert setting. Also, Sia’s father is a thirst trap, so be warned.
What are you working on now? Any exciting ideas or projects you can share?
I have a second Young Adult novel out with Little Brown next year. It’s another dual-point of view romance and actually follows one of the secondary characters from Somewhere Between Bitter & Sweet. It’s all about music and healing and community and courage and it’s just another deeply personal story that I can’t wait to share more about very soon.
I also have some picture book projects in the works that aren’t announced yet, as well as an unannounced Middle Grade novel that I’m hoping will be the first in a series. It’s about a girl named Omega who comes from a very magical family. They live in a small town in Texas where trees can read minds, cats have way more than nine lives, and the ghosts are more obnoxious than the living.
Each book focuses on a different monster from Mexican and Chicanx folklore and the first book focuses on La Lechuza, who is a witch with the power to transform herself into an owl.
I'm Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter meets Emergency Contact in this stunning Pura Belpré Honor Book about first love, familial expectations, the power of food, and finding where you belong.
Penelope Prado has always dreamed of opening her own pastelería next to her father's restaurant, Nacho's Tacos. But her mom and dad have different plans—leaving Pen to choose between not disappointing her traditional Mexican American parents or following her own path. When she confesses a secret she's been keeping, her world is sent into a tailspin. But then she meets a cute new hire at Nacho's who sees through her hard exterior and asks the questions she's been too afraid to ask herself.
Xander Amaro has been searching for home since he was a little boy. For him, a job at Nacho's is an opportunity for just that—a chance at a normal life, to settle in at his abuelo's, and to find the father who left him behind. When both the restaurant and Xander's immigrant status are threatened, he will do whatever it takes to protect his newfound family, and himself.
Together, Pen and Xander must navigate first love and discovering where they belong in order to save the place they all call home.
This stunning and poignant novel from debut author Laekan Zea Kemp explores identity, found families, and the power of food, all nestled within a courageous and intensely loyal Chicane community.
About the Author
Laekan Zea Kemp is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Texas Tech University and her M.F.A. in Teaching from the University of North Texas. She’s the author of SOMEWHERE BETWEEN BITTER & SWEET, forthcoming from Little Brown Young Readers in spring 2021. When she’s not writing she’s religiously re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reading anything by Melina Marchetta, and teaching English as a Second Language to the most amazing teenagers from all over the world.