Six Bridges Book Festival: Mayra Cuevas
Romance Smolders for Latina Aspiring Chef in YA debut Salty, Bitter, Sweet
Author Mayra Cuevas believes in the power of joyful stories.
As a teenager in Puerto Rico, she found solace from the turbulence of her parents’ divorce in great Latin American writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. Puerto Rican poets Lola Rodríguez de Tió and Julia de Burgos inspired Cuevas to write down her own thoughts and feelings. Now, she wants to reach out to teens with her own work.
“I love writing YA because at that age, teens are going through a lot of confusion and angst,” Cuevas said. “It’s a time when you can use stories to work through emotions and make sense of what’s going on in your life.”
But she doesn’t believe all stories should focus on grim subjects for teens of color. Cuevas belongs to a collective of Latina artists who are all writing works for young people. “We’re all promoting this idea of having more Latina characters and stories that are about joy and life and not about suffering,” Cuevas explained. “Because not every Latina story should be about the dark side of immigration. I want Latina girls to be able to see themselves in a story about love and joy, like this one.”
A young woman learning to stay true to herself
Salty, Bitter, Sweet focuses on Isabella “Isa” Fields, a trilingual Latina teenager who moves to Paris after the death of her grandmother and divorce of her parents. Disoriented by family dysfunction and loss, she seizes on her passion: cooking. By winning an apprenticeship competition in France, she hopes to find her place in the world by landing a job at a renowned restaurant. The plot and the sauces thicken together when suave, attractive Diego shows up to annoy Isa and distract her at exactly the wrong time.
Cuevas believes that romance is a genre with much to offer young adults.
“I remember at that age reading a lot of books that had love as a theme,” she said. “The idea is all very new and everything’s happening for the first time. Now, as an adult writer, I have the gift of perspective and I can give that perspective to readers to show them ‘This is what a healthy relationship looks like.’ I want to help them explore the question: ‘How do you not lose yourself in a romance when it’s so exciting, new, and full of possibility?’”
Cuevas thinks the romance genre has unique power to pass on helpful life advice to teens in a way that is appealing and enjoyable. “I stumbled a lot through romantic relationships growing up, and now I can give that wisdom I earned back in a story form, instead of handing it down like an adult telling a teenager what to do.”
Creativity and giving to others through cooking
Romance is only half the pleasure of the novel—the other half is the sensory appeal of the food. The descriptions are mouthwatering and the culinary techniques convincing: it’s clear that Cuevas herself knows her way around a kitchen.
“I’m very passionate about food,” she said. “My mother hates to cook, so there were many nights of microwaved burritos in our house. But we had cable TV and I watched the Food Network, so if I wanted something like that I had to learn to cook it myself. I even got in trouble for using my aunt’s stove one time!”
Cuevas appreciates the deeper power and meaning of sharing food as well. “Cooking is very creative, and there’s a giving of oneself to others through food, caring for others, and healing. People feel cared for when they get a plate with a warm meal. And food also unites us with meals that are traditional in certain cultures. Meals also become markers for life events, when we remember certain meals we had at special occasions or with a mother, sister, or grandmother.”
The connection of food with family tied all the thematic elements of Salty, Bitter, Sweet together, inspired by Cuevas’s own life.
“The family story did come about first. For me, it’s important to write from my own experience. And I’m very familiar with dysfunctional family dynamics because that was my upbringing. For Isa, her life is falling apart, she’s lost almost everything and she is clinging to the things she’s most passionate about like a life raft. She has to rebuild her life and learn how to love in a healthy way without losing herself by establishing a healthy give-and-take with someone who accepts her fully for who she is.”
For Cuevas, the love in her debut novel doesn’t end with a romantic relationship, but extends to a young woman’s capacity to love and forgive in general. “To be seen for who you are and understood is very important. Isa has lived kind of a lonely life. She finds a group of friends all passionate about the same thing—cooking—and then once she feels loved and accepted she has room to love and accept others.”
Mayra Cuevas will appear at the Six Bridges Book Festival to speak about her debut novel, writing fiction featuring women of color, and her passion for the young adult genre.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Mayra Cuevas is a professional journalist and fiction writer who prefers love stories with a happy ending. Her debut novel, YA contemporary Salty, Bitter, Sweet, was published in March 2020. Her debut fiction short story was selected by best-selling author Becky Albertalli to appear in the Foreshadow YA serial anthology. She is currently a producer and writer for CNN. She keeps her sanity by practicing Buddhist meditation and serving on the Board of Directors of Kadampa Meditation Center Georgia. She lives with her husband, also a CNN journalist, and their cat, in the charming town of Norcross, Georgia. She is the step-mom to two amazing young men who provide plenty of inspiration for her stories. Follow her journey on Twitter @MayraECuevas, on Instagram @Mayra.Cuevas and her website MayraCuevas.com.
feature by Rosslyn Elliott