By Michelle Kirichanskaya
Today we’re pleased to welcome Laekan Zea Kemp to the WNDB blog to discuss young adult novel Heartbreak Symphony, out today, April 5, 2022!
Aarón Medrano has been haunted by the onstage persona of his favorite DJ ever since his mother passed away. He seems to know all of Aarón’s deepest fears, like that his brain doesn’t work the way it should and that’s why his brother and father seem to be pushing him away. He thinks his ticket out is a scholarship to the prestigious Acadia School of Music. That is, if he can avoid blowing his audition.
Mia Villanueva has a haunting of her own and it’s the only family heirloom her parents left her: doubt. It’s the reason she can’t overcome her stage fright or believe that her music is worth making. Even though her trumpet teacher tells her she has a gift, she’s not sure if she’ll ever figure out how to use it or if she’s even deserving of it in the first place.
When Aarón and Mia cross paths, Aarón sees a chance to get close to the girl he’s had a crush on for years and to finally feel connected to someone since losing his mother. Mia sees a chance to hold herself accountable by making them both face their fears, and hopefully make their dreams come true. But soon they’ll realize there’s something much scarier than getting up on stage—falling in love with a broken heart.
First of all, welcome to We Need Diverse Books! Could you tell us a little about yourself? How did you find yourself becoming a writer? What drew you to young adult fiction specifically?
I don’t know who to attribute this to, but it’s been said that when we go through something really difficult or traumatic at a young age, that there’s a part of us that stays that age forever.
I think this is true for me and I think it’s the reason I gravitate so much toward YA especially. My teen years were really difficult and I feel like I am just forever processing the way those events have shaped me and the way they’ve shaped how I see the world. I’ve still got a lot of emotional unpacking to do, and writing is my way of doing that.
How would you describe your writing process?
Writing under contract was a huge adjustment for me. Prior to that I was 100% a pantser. I couldn’t really tell you how long revisions would typically take me because I wasn’t consciously measuring that sort of thing.
So I’ve spent the past two years not just trying out different writing processes but also figuring out how my creativity and productivity change under different circumstances. Figuring out what kind of rituals I need. Figuring out my ideal environment.
I’ve learned that I need low lighting, mostly silence, small achievable goals, and frequent brain breaks. I like writing in chronological order and outlining just a few chapters ahead so there’s still plenty of room for play and discovery. And as a very mood-based writer, my mental state is everything. If I’m feeling rushed or anxious, it’s better to not even open my laptop on those days. Learning to tell my inner overachiever, “No, we’re not going to work today,” has been key to finding a sustainable creative practice for me. One grounded in compassion and self-care rather than fear and over-production.
Growing up, were there are any books or authors that touched or inspired you as a writer? When do you think you first saw yourself reflected in literature?
One of the most profoundly exciting moments of my author career was getting a blurb from my favorite author of all time, Melina Marchetta. I was able to write her a letter and the first line in the letter was, “Your books are my soulmates.”
And discovering her books when I was a teenager, truly felt like that. On The Jellicoe Road, is my favorite contemporary novel of all time and her Fantasy series The Lumatere Chronicles is my favorite fantasy series. Everything she writes is just so mind-blowingly beautiful.
But the reason I picked up one of her books in the first place is because when I saw her last name on the cover, my thirteen-year-old-self was like, “Oh my god, she’s Latina!”
She’s not. She’s actually Italian. But many of her books explore discrimination faced by the Italian immigrant community in certain parts of Australia and so the characters and the themes ended up still resonating with me so deeply.
However, I think my initial reaction to seeing one of her books for the first time, really illuminates how desperate I was to find books written by Latinx authors. In truth, it took many more years before I’d see my experience on the page.
Now in my thirties, I feel like we’re just on the cusp of being able to provide the type of diverse and nuanced experiences I craved as a teen, which is why I’m so thrilled every time we get a Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything, or Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, or Fat Chance Charlie Vega. These are the books helping to give shape to this new Latinx literary canon, which I am so grateful exists and also so grateful to be contributing to now with my own stories so that a reader out there might have that same experience of being validated and celebrated on the page.
What can you tell us about your upcoming book, Heartbreak Symphony? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
Heartbreak Symphony has been described as Clap When You Land meets On the Come Up, in a dual-POV romance that follows Aaron and Mia, both reeling from the tragic loss of a parent and both aspiring musicians who are terrified of chasing after their dreams.
This book was written at the height of the pandemic in the summer of 2020, and it was the most difficult drafting experience I’ve ever had. And I just want to say before I go any further that I really hope readers will treat these 2022 book babies with as much compassion as possible. They were written during a time of so much uncertainty. So much tragedy. So much grief.
Grief is at the center of Heartbreak Symphony, not just because there was no escaping it at the time, but also because 2020 just so happened to be the ten-year anniversary of my father’s passing. So while this story is a celebration of love and life that takes place in the same neighborhood as Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet with some secondary characters you just might recognize and while it is an ode to artists and community and all the ways we can create our own futures, it’s also very much the story of me learning to carve out something beautiful from a tragic loss that turned my world upside down.
I lost my father to colon cancer when I was a teenager and revisiting that grief through these characters was an incredibly emotional journey to say the least. But it was also worth it. Especially knowing that the teen readers I wrote this book for might need it now more than ever.
It’s a story of loss, yes, which we’ve all experienced far too much of over the last two years, but it’s also a story of healing and how community is the key to overcoming whatever life throws at us. It’s a lesson that Aaron and Mia learn as they grapple with how past trauma has shaped them and their communities but it’s a lesson we all desperately need to learn right now. That we are all connected and that safeguarding that connection is how we survive.
A major theme I heard is included in your latest book, Heartbreak Symphony, is doubt, particularly the doubt we have about our own talents and abilities. What led you to explore that in your story, and have you yourself ever explored imposter syndrome?
Doubt is the artist’s constant companion and something I struggle with every time I sit down to work. But I think losing a loved one who still had so much life ahead of them, so many dreams unfulfilled, it tends to make your own dreams feel even more paramount. However, the weight of that can be crushing. The stakes are higher and therefore the imposter syndrome is even louder. I wanted to explore that and what it’s like to be carrying around this legacy that can feel like a gift and a burden at the same time.
How do I create art that honors who my father was? How do I live the kind of life he would have wanted for me? How do I achieve our dreams for the both of us?
These are heavy questions and ones that both Aaron and Mia also struggle with. What they ultimately find though is that we honor our loved ones, not by being perfect, but by being honest. Honest about the things we want. Honest in our intentions of going after them. There is so much joy and fulfillment to be found in just being ourselves and living a joy-filled life grounded in purpose is the greatest gift we can give to those we’ve lost.
You and the characters in your book identity as Chicanx. What does that word mean to you and what does it mean seeing Chicanx representation in books, both the ones you wrote and the ones others have written?
To me, being Chicana means being in between. It means being several generations removed from my family’s immigration history while also being close enough to my ancestral home to remain grounded in some of those traditions. It means feeling victimized by and lost in colonization while simultaneously feeling found and rescued through connection with other Chicanes. It means engaging in a life-long reclamation process while also compassionately coming to terms with all I’ll never be able to get back.
There’s so much beauty and heartache and grief and resilience that exists within my identity. So much tension. And it’s something that is impossible to navigate alone, which is why books featuring Chicane characters are so essential. They’ve been essential to my own growth and healing and all I can hope for is that my books offer Chicane readers the same as well.
Between Heartbreak Symphony and Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, food and music appear as major elements in your writing, which makes me wonder what are your personal connections to those things and what do you like to eat and listen to in your personal life?
The food in Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet carries a lot of meaning. First and foremost, it’s a symbol for our cultural roots through which we derive so much strength. And especially for those of us who are Chicane and exist on the peripheries of our own culture, not born in our ancestral home, food is one of the ways that we stay connected to that power source.
I feel the same way about music and really wanted to highlight in Heartbreak Symphony its ability to heal and transform. Both of these cultural touchstones are incredibly nourishing and play an essential role in the characters’ overcoming so many obstacles.
In terms of what I love to eat and listen to, my go-to comfort food is al pastor tacos with fresh onion, cilantro, pineapple, and lime juice. I could literally eat them every single day. My musical taste is much more eclectic and varies depending on my mood. Some days I’m craving Natalia Lafourcade, other days Rage Against the Machine.
Aside from being a writer, what are some things you would want others to know about you?
I’m a former ESL teacher and advocacy was a big part of my work, so I love community organizing and working with other authors and industry professionals to make traditional publishing more equitable and inclusive. So if you ever want to stir up some good trouble in regards to green initiatives in publishing, book access for low-income students in K-12 schools, addressing pay disparities for BIPOC authors, or amplifying Latinx voices in Kidlit, please get in touch!
If you could go back and tell your early writer-self anything, what do you think you would say?
When I first started taking writing seriously, in my late teens, it was really a source of catharsis for me because there was a lot happening around me that was extremely painful and difficult. And, really, it became a place to hide.
And I continued to use it as a way of hiding from the world for about a decade. Even when the danger had passed. Even when it was safe to venture out again. I chose this cocoon I had created for myself, and I think I missed out on a lot because of that.
So if I could give any advice to my younger self it would be that living is the greatest source of inspiration and there’s a big difference between living and just existing. So get help for those things that are keeping you from experiencing the world. See a therapist. Get on medication. Prioritize relationships and find community with other writers sooner. So that instead of always seeing the world as this big scary place, you can see it as one where inspiration and creativity are everywhere.
What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
The best advice I can offer to aspiring writers, especially writers from marginalized backgrounds, is to get really clear on your WHY. Why do you write the kinds of stories you do? What is the higher purpose or the higher calling of your work? What does it mean? Who is it for? What kind of impact are you hoping it will have on those readers?
And the reason this is so important is because on your worst days, in the midst of imposter syndrome, in the midst of the worst of these ongoing attacks on marginalized creators, your WHY is going to be your life raft. It’s going to be the thing keeping your head above water, above all the noise. It’s the thing you will be clinging to in those dark moments. So make sure it’s as clear and present in your mind as possible and that you return to it, over and over again, in order to remind yourself why you have to keep going.
Are there any other projects you are working on right now and at liberty to speak about?
My debut middle grade novel, Omega Morales and the Legend of La Lechuza, is also a 2022 release. It comes out in September and it’s about a girl who must learn to trust herself—and her ancestral powers—when she comes face to face with the Mexican legend, La Lechuza.
Also, my debut picture book was recently announced. It’s called A Crown for Corina, and it’s about the symbolism behind Mexican flower crowns, told from the perspective of a girl picking flowers from her abuela’s garden to make a crown for her birthday. It’s illustrated by the incredible Elisa Chavarri and the art, which I’ve already had the privilege of seeing, is absolutely gorgeous.
Finally, what diverse books would you recommend to the readers of WNDB?
I’m part of a marketing collective called Las Musas so I definitely have to shout out books from some of my comadres. Lulu and Milagros Search for Clarity by Angela Velez just came out on February 8th. It’s a story about two sisters who are total opposites who go on a cross country road trip to visit colleges and it explores the weight of family expectations, the difficulty of stepping out and becoming your own person, and what sisterhood really means,
My second recommendation is Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun by Jonny Garza Villa, which was recently named a Pura Belpré honor book. It’s about a Corpus Christie teen who accidentally comes out as gay on Twitter and how his family and friends react, but most importantly, it’s about the joy that can be found when we decide to live boldly in our truth. It’s also the cutest love story and hilarious and readers will absolutely love it.
Laekan Zea Kemp is the author of Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, which received a 2022 Pura Belpré honor. She has three objectives when it comes to storytelling: to make people laugh, cry, and crave Mexican food. Her work celebrates Chicanx grit, resilience, creativity, and joy while exploring themes of identity and mental health. She lives in Austin, Texas. Laekan invites you to visit her at laekanzeakemp.com or follow her on Twitter @LaekanZeaKemp.
Michele Kirichanskaya (she/her