Teenage author tackles HIV stigma in debut novel: ‘There has to be space for more black narratives’

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Camryn Garrett is the teenage author poised to shake up the world of young adult fiction, and her debut novel doesn’t shy away from the difficult topics.

The 19-year-old is intimidatingly accomplished for someone so young. In less than two decades on the planet, she has already written for TIME Magazine, Huffington Post and MTV, been named as one of Vogue’s 21 under 21, and secured her first book deal. But youth is just one thing she has on her side.

Camryn also has a fierce work ethic, boundless curiosity and speaks about the things she’s interested in with the confidence and eloquence of someone much older. But there are moments when her teenageness slips out. ‘Do you remember that really old movie Almost Famous that came out in the year 2000?’ She asks with a wry grin. She’s joking because she knows comments like these trigger a barrage of eye-rolling and exasperated sighs in her older peers.

But the year 2000 really is ancient history for Camryn, that was the year she was born. ‘

I have to stop saying things like that at author events, because whenever I do I just feel every head in the room turn towards me,’

she adds, laughing. A native New Yorker, Camryn is in London for just a couple of days to promote her book, and her schedule is packed. But she doesn’t seem jet-lagged, in fact she is bursting with energy and enthusiasm. Ah, youth.

The cover of Full Disclosure
Image copyright: Camryn Garrett

‘I love writing,’ Camryn tells us. ‘I feel off when I don’t write for too long – it’s like a draw for me that I can’t ignore. The process of writing this book was so enjoyable because I was writing about things that I care about, things that I’m so interested in.’

Her debut Full Disclosure, is about a dark-skinned black teen girl who was born HIV-positive and is grappling with keeping her secret while navigating the normal things that come with teenage life. Unsurprisingly, she has lots of questions about sex.

Camryn says she was drawn to this topic because it is still surrounded by so much stigma and taboo, and it was her own ignorance about HIV that shocked her into finding out everything she could.

‘I was really, really into Angelina Jolie – I mean… who isn’t? People Magazine used to have their archives online and I would just read, like every single cover story,’ she says. ‘There were stories about Angelina adopting her children; they thought her daughter had HIV when she first adopted her, because she got really sick. ‘And I didn’t know anything back then – I just thought “If your daughter has HIV – she’s going to die. Why would you do that to yourself?” But Angelina seemed so chill about it, and I just didn’t get it.’

Camryn started doing more research around HIV and adoption and found that a lot of couples adopted children who had the virus, and that it didn’t seem to be a major issue for them. The children would be on medication and the only time it could be a problem is if they had to disclose that they had HIV to a partner before having sex.

‘There has to be space for more of us, because our stories aren’t homogeneous’

‘A lot of these parents were really religious and they assumed their child wouldn’t be having sex until they were married, so it wouldn’t be an issue. But I can’t imagine that that is how it always works out.’

Camryn Garrett
Image copyright: Camryn Garrett

As a teen writing about teens, Carmyn’s voice has an irresistible authority. She’s able to bring to life what it means to navigate sexuality and sexual health as a teenager, without tainting the narrative with adult experience. That comes through in the vulnerability and vibrancy of her lead character, Simone. Being a teenager in this position is not without its challenges, but it has also given Carmyn her edge and allowed her the space to grow and develop that many older writers will never have.

‘It has meant that I could focus on my craft and improving my skills, rather than getting bogged down in the intricacies of publishing – who is my target audience, where is it going to sell, that kind of thing,’ says Camryn. ‘I also don’t have to think about bills or a job or fitting my writing in around that, so in that way I’ve been really lucky.’

When Camryn landed her book deal she didn’t tell anyone at school about it – she isn’t a fan of the spotlight. But one of her teachers got wind of the news and put it up on boards around the school so soon, everyone knew. But she needn’t have worried, the reaction from her schoolmates was overwhelmingly positive.

‘I already had this reputation from a young age that I was an author, that I was going to be a writer,’ explains Camryn. ‘So when I got by book deal, it kind of made sense, and everyone was so nice about it – they were all incredibly supportive. ‘My school was all about sports. Everyone was into sports, that’s what it was all about for most people. But I really wasn’t. But I knew I liked writing, so I decided to send the same amount of time and energy on my writing that other people were spending on sport. ‘That’s how I got it done, and how it became such a habit. School would finish at 2pm; I would do my homework but because I always stayed up late I would just have so many hours to fill, so I would write.’

Camryn knows where she’s heading. Her second book is already in the editing process and she isn’t short of ideas for the future either. When it comes to her inspirations, she sites Angie Thomas – author of smash hit The Hate U Give, that was also turned into a film last year. But she says the publishing world is still lacking in narratives for and about black teenagers.

‘The first book that I wrote when I was 15 didn’t sell, and publishers said it was too close to The Hate U Give – which I couldn’t see at all,’ says Camryn. ‘Other than the fact it was about a black girl dealing with racism, the stories aren’t similar. ‘I want people to use this book as a starting point for treating other people how they would want to be treated themselves’

‘I can’t speak for Angie, but I’m sure she doesn’t want to be in the position where she is the only one who can tell these stories, and then there being push-back from other authors who want to be in that space.’

Camryn says she hates the idea that there is only room for one author writing stories about black lives. She says the only way to create truly meaningful representation is to allow more voices into that arena.

‘There has to be space for more of us, because our stories aren’t homogeneous,’ she says. ‘White authors are seen as individuals. When a white author writes a character, they’re seen as just that – a character. When black authors write, there is this extra pressure to represent an entire community. ‘I feel it myself. Although it is definitely self-inflicted, no one is actually coming up to me demanding I represent the black community in certain ways – but I put that pressure on myself.’

Camryn feels this pressure every time she writes a new character. What skin tone should they have? What kind of romantic relationship? How about their relationship with their family? She feels that the choices she makes will always carry greater significance than if she were white.

‘If I write a black character who has a difficult relationship with their family, am I making a wider comment about black families in general? Even if that’s something I’ve experienced myself?’

It’s a minefield. The answer, says Camryn, is more black authors, and the normalisation of different stories. Camryn says black writers are so often tied to limited narratives – stories about struggle, racism, police brutality. Camryn believes these stories are really important and doesn’t think we should stop telling them, but she also thinks black writers have more to offer as well.

‘There’s only so many of these stories that I can actually read without feeling really depressed,’ she tells us. ‘I love romance, I want to see more romantic novels with black characters at the heart. We all have more than one story.’

Camryn’s hope for her debut novel is to shine a light on the realities of living with HIV and to start to unpick some of the stigma that still exists. There are so few stories that depict living with HIV in contemporary America and Camryn hopes her work will help to fill that gap in knowledge.

‘There is so much ignorance,’ explains Camryn. ‘I also want people to use this book as a starting point for treating other people how they would want to be treated themselves. I know that is such a cliché, but I think if there was one takeaway I hope people get from this novel, it would be that. ‘If we can get younger people to behave more compassionately and think about others with more kindness, I think that’s the best thing we can hope for.’

Written by: Natalie Morris

First published 18.11.19: https://metro.co.uk/2019/11/18/teenage-author-tackles-hiv-stigma-debut-novel-space-black-narratives-11162766/

 

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