Debut YA novelist Laekan Zea Kemp’s Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, the story of two teens who must save a beloved family-owned restaurant when it’s threatened by a dangerous loan shark, is a moving story of first love, family and the power of resilience. Kemp reflects on the role that hunger has played in her own life as well as in her first book.
I’m peering over the edge of the counter, flour dusting the tips of my fingers, as I watch my grandmother roll out balls of dough into the shape of tortillas. She clicks on the burner beneath the comal, and I watch her pinch and flip each tortilla until it puffs up like a balloon.
Most of them go into a brown tortilla warmer, tucked in tight like they’re sleeping.
Except for the one she’s slathering with the rounded end of a stick of butter, which comes apart on the face of the tortilla, gold and glittering. She folds the tortilla once, then twice. A pocket to keep the butter from running out. It gets on my hands anyway, and on my face. It tastes like home.
“Can I have another one?” I ask.
She smiles. She always lets me have seconds.
My grandfather and I are idling in the Sonic parking lot, drinking coconut cream pie shakes through straws that aren’t big enough. Coconut is his favorite flavor. His sweet tooth is bigger than mine. He’s the reason I order dessert first, if I order it at all. Because life’s too short to wait.
He tells me, “I know I’m not supposed to have favorites. But you’re mine.”
We cheers with our Styrofoam cups.
I’m holding my hands over my ears while fireworks pop in kaleidoscope shapes above my head. I stare at the sky ablaze, wishing it were the kind of beauty that didn’t make a sound. My cousin and I are on the roof of their trailer house—a Fourth of July tradition.
Our parents are down below, buzzed and laughing as they set up the next line of fire. My uncle’s frying tripas next to the patio in a gas wok, the popping grease almost as loud as the fireworks.
We crawl down when they’re ready, resting the tripas in warm corn tortillas before covering them in homemade salsa.
I eat too many tacos and groan.
“I told you you were going to give yourself a stomachache.”
My aunt pulls out a chilled strawberry shortcake from the fridge and I feel better.
The car’s headlights finally pool over the Sky-Vue entrance sign. There’s a double feature at the drive-in tonight—Mulan and The Truman Show. But we’re not here to see a movie.
We park in front of the snack bar, our shoes kicking up dust as we get out of the car. It smells like popcorn and pimiento cheese, and I picture spreading it across two warm tostadas before layering in a handful of cabbage, fresh white onions and seasoned ground beef, before finishing off the sandwich with a giant pickled jalapeno wedged between the two tostadas.
“Why are they called Chihuahuas?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” Mom says.
And I wonder for a second if that’s the reason so many white people think we eat dogs. But it doesn’t bother me enough to eat something else. We drove an hour and a half to get here. I’m eating a damn Chihuahua.
My dad orders 10 of them, and we eat them in the car with both hands, the paper wrappers torn in half and laid across every surface to catch the grease running down our chins. It takes practice to hold the tostadas just right so they don’t crack in half with that first bite. But the mess is part of the experience. You don’t eat a Chihuahua sandwich. You devour it.
This is why food matters. It’s a part of life that is safe to devour. A place where our passions can be unhinged. A moment of want that isn’t regulated by what someone else is willing to let us have.
Almost eight years after beginning work on my debut novel, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, I see how timidly I used to dream, and how the process of writing this book is what gave me permission to want with a fervor, to devour life for the delicious existence that it is.
My protagonists, Pen and Xander, take that journey, too. When another character asks Pen why she doesn’t try to follow her dream of baking, she thinks, “People from my neighborhood don’t take risks. We have dreams, sure. But the numerous threats involved in their pursuit keeps us from pining for things beyond our reach. We don’t shoot for the stars or even the moon. Instead, we pray for roots. Something to tie us down, to ensure that the places and the people we love are never taken away from us.”
My praying-for-roots moment came when I was 18 years old and bargaining with God to let my father live. He had cancer, and I hoped that I could entice God with a trade.
“I’ll never ask for anything else. Never expect another miracle. No shooting for the moon. No wishing on stars. If you just keep him here, rooted to this spot,” I prayed.
It turns out, God doesn’t bargain. Which means that shrinking myself and my dreams is not actually payment for anything. But there is a cost.
If I hadn’t finished this book, I wouldn’t have learned this lesson. I wouldn’t now be on the verge of a career helping to shape the Latinx literary canon for the next generation of young people. I wouldn’t be dreaming among the stars and wondering what lies beyond them.
Because there is so much.
So much I want to say and do and be. For me. For my community.
And this is just the beginning.
So no more praying for roots on stolen land. No more second-guessing the reason I was planted here in the first place. No more thinking that if my story only matters to some, it doesn’t matter at all.
It’s time to look up. To accept that desire is supposed to burn. To devour the joys of this world that has tried and failed so many times to devour us.
Photo of Laekan Zea Kemp courtesy of Diana Ascarrunz.