Camryn Garrett is a college student. And today, her debut novel “Full Disclosure” was published. Garrett’s novel follows Simone Garcia-Hampton, a teenager starting a new school. Naturally, Simone is concerned about making friends and keeping her eye on a boy named Miles. As the new girl, the last thing she wants her peers to know is that she is HIV-positive.
When Simone and Miles begin dating, she realizes that if their relationship is going to progress—physically, like she wants it to, her diagnosis is something she’ll have to tell him.
We spoke to Camryn Garrett about her debut novel, sex-positivity and teenagers having sex.
See what she had to say below.
MN: I’m really intrigued by the concept of your book, a young teenager with HIV. Tell me how you came up with this idea. What made you want to explore a protagonist who lives this life?
Camryn Garrett: I read a lot about Angelina Jolie when she was adopting her kids. There were two different situations where she thought that two of her kids could have had HIV and then they didn’t; but she was saying that she wouldn’t have cared if they did and they would have dealt with it as a family. And when I was reading that, I didn’t know a lot about HIV. I thought if your kid had it, they would die. I started Googling it and there were a lot of stories from parents who had adopted kids with HIV and they were just not worried about it. They weren’t worried about their kids dying. But I didn’t expect it at all.
A lot of the blogs were very Christian. So they would say things like, ‘The only thing my daughter has to worry about is disclosing. And she won’t have to do that until she has sex and she won’t have sex until she gets married.’ And I was thinking, ‘I don’t think that’s accurate.’ That’s sort of where my idea came from.
MN: When I read that your book was about a sex-positive teen, I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I feel like a lot of people are not comfortable with the idea of teenagers having sex even though teenagers are having sex and have been having sex. So can you explain why you felt it was important to make this character sex positive and speak to the idea of people being concerned or worried about teenagers having sex.
Camryn: When I was 16, I had a lot of questions about sex that I couldn’t really ask the adults around me. Because in school, sex ed was abstinence-only. They couldn’t tell us anything. But I didn’t want to talk to my parents about it because that’s super awkward. So I didn’t really know who else to ask. So, it would just be my friends and I sitting at lunch, sort of like the blind leading the blind. None of us knew what was going on. I feel like it’s way healthier if we’re going to explore the curiosities and the answers in a book for young readers. They won’t get all the answers but they can start some place. There are teenagers who are having sex and have no idea what’s going on.
My friends and I, we weren’t having sex but we still had no idea what was going on.
MN: I’m sure your mom knows that you describe yourself as sex-positive. What does she think about the term?
Camryn: So my mom, she has a lot to say about it. She wasn’t exactly thrilled with the amount of book cursing and sex. She’s like, ‘Why does this all need to be here?’ What I told her was I thought this was all very accurate for their age group. This is what high school was like for me and I wanted to represent it accurately. And with the sex, I told her I didn’t feel comfortable coming to her about it so I wanted to give teenagers a space to bring it up in the book. If they’re reading it with their friends or in class, they can bring it up with other people. Once I explained it that way, she felt a lot better about it. I don’t think she loves it but she feels better about it.
MN: Could you give your definition of what it means to be sex positive? I think a lot of people hear the term and think it’s about you being out here, having sex with everybody, being irresponsible.
Camryn: Especially in my book, one of the things that I wanted to make sure that my main character is really responsible when it comes to protection and being safe about sex. For me, positivity, isn’t necessarily about sleeping with everyone—which isn’t bad, but whatever—I think for me, it’s more presenting that having questions about sex and being interested in sex as a teenager isn’t bad or shameful. And there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re interested in sex or not. It’s okay to be the way you are. I think a lot of times we shy away from conversations about it and you wonder, ‘Is there something wrong with me? Should I be a certain way?’
MN: Ideally, what do you hope readers are able to take from this book?
Camryn: The young people my age don’t—because we weren’t around for the AIDS epidemic of the eighties and nineties—so they don’t know about it. We didn’t learn about activism at that time or how devastating that time was in history. I also hope readers learn how to address the stigma against HIV. I hope they learn that rumors aren’t true. I saw on Twitter someone said they got HIV from getting their nails done and that’s a problem. I hope people learn enough that when [untrue] things are being said, they can take down the stigma on their own.
MN: Can you speak a little bit more about the stigma? I was listening to a radio show and the hosts were talking about a preventative HIV medication. And the way the hosts were talking about it, they even thought taking the medication and having sex was irresponsible. People are still not understanding that you can live a normal and healthy life with it.
Camryn: The stigma is really horrible and pervasive. I don’t think people realize that people can be beaten up or even killed because of the stigma. People my age don’t learn about it in schools—that makes sense—but there comes a point where you have to educate yourselves. I think a large part of the stigma does come from the initial people who had HIV. So, the initial people were gay men and then the Black community. The stigma is widespread in the Black community, especially the Black, gay community. So when people hear about HIV, they think about those communities and their bias about those communities come out. People have to work on their internalized—not necessarily outright hatred but their biases. Some people just don’t know or were raised to believe certain things. But if people educate themselves, they can check their own behavior and then check the behavior of people around them.
MN: I wanted to know a little bit more about your process writing this book. Were you still in high school when you started writing it?
Camryn: I was a junior in high school when I started writing.
MN: How did you balance that with regular school work, I’m assuming applying for college, thinking about your future in that way? How did you manage that?
Camryn: I wrote this November of my junior year (2016). By then, I didn’t apply anywhere early decision but by then, I had all of my materials ready. So it was a way to get a break from school. I was stressed about college and the future so I wanted to write something I would have a lot of fun with. In November, there’s a national novel writing month where people pledge to write 50,000 words in November. So I did that and sort of just ignored everything else that was going on. And it was really fun. Because it was like getting completely invested in the writing and the characters even though the draft wasn’t very good. I think after that, I sent the draft to agents and then got my agent. And then she worked on revising with me for a couple of months in the new year. So that was like four months and then we went on submission to the editor. And she offered really fast.
MN: The book was officially released today. But I know there are some advanced copies. So, for the people who have read it, what has been the response?
Camryn: I don’t read reviews but…
Camryn: Yeah, I don’t think I can handle it. But I’m excited about the people who come up to me and tell me that they learned a lot about HIV from the book. One young woman who has HIV, told me she was really excited to share the book and she wished she had it when she was first diagnosed, which is sort of like the best reaction for me. I think that was my favorite reaction so far.