It’s been a minute since I picked up a book for my own enjoyment. And it’s been nearly a decade since I last picked up a Y.A. book.
This is not because the genre is “childish” or that adults shouldn’t be reading Y.A. fiction or that Y.A. fiction isn’t “real literature.” Such preposterous objections likely have to do with the fact that this genre, like romance, is dominated by women. But rather, because the last time I checked, the genre was very … white. Of all the Y.A. books I managed to get my hands on in high school, only a handful of them were written by marginalized authors — and a majority of that had to do with black author Sharon Draper. And even fewer books, if any, were written by authors who were actually young adults themselves.
Which is what makes Camryn Garrett and her debut novel, Full Disclosure, so fascinating.
Producing a novel like Full Disclosure on the cusp of 17 shouldn’t be surprising if you’re familiar with Garret, whose accomplishments include reporting for Time for Kids and being honored on Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21 list. But what is surprising is who the now-19-year-old author decided to center her debut novel on: a dark-skinned black girl who is HIV positive.
“When I was doing research about HIV, I didn’t realize that it disproportionately affects the black [and] queer community. Specifically, black men, but also black women. And I don’t think that’s like a well-known thing,” Garrett told EW. “When you think of like big stories that are about the AIDs crisis, like AIDs in America or even The Great Believers — which just came out last year — it’s always centered around white gay men and you think it only happened to them. That’s not accurate.”
Even with strides being made in the depiction of black LGBTQIA+ people who live with HIV (see Pose), it’s hard to find similar stories that take place in contemporary America or don’t begin or end with the HIV/AIDs crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s even rarer to find such a story that solely focuses on a black kid. But part of Garrett’s plan to fill this cultural gap not only includes making room for modern-day stories, but also engaging a subject that is especially taboo when mentioned in conjunction with HIV: sex.
Sex is taboo in its own right, but when teens are thrown into the mix, everyone — as Heath Ledger’s Joker would say — loses their minds. You may recall the furor that HBO’s Euphoria elicited for its portrayal of teens who openly engage in sex, drugs, and debauchery. Or the recent example of rapper T.I. telling the world, unprompted, that he accompanies his 18-year-old daughter to the gynecologist yearly in order to “check if her hymen is still intact” — an extreme case of parents being bad at recognizing it’s normal for teens to wonder about sex…with a misogynistic twist that stems from the heavily-policed sexuality of black girls. Through Full Disclosure, it’s clear that Garrett understands the puritanical squeamishness that America attaches to sex and seeks to broaden that conversation by inserting Simone, a black teen living with HIV who also has loads of questions about sex. It’s a decision that dually addresses our tendency to suppress the sexuality of teens and the stigma around HIV positive people and their sex lives. And there’s something deliciously refreshing and potentially game-changing about how Simone openly discusses sex, despite her status. And much of that is inspired by Garrett’s own experiences.
“When I was in high school, I had all these conversations with my friends about sex. [And] the reason that we were talking with each other is because we didn’t feel comfortable talking to our parents about it. For various reasons,” Garrett added. “Like I didn’t want to talk to my mom because I thought it was weird. But other people felt that it would be dangerous to talk to their parents about it or that it just would make things way worse.”
Full Disclosure acknowledges this confliction between parent and child and its candidness is made sweeter by the fact that both of Simone’s fathers are tuned in. In fact, the novel opens with Simone’s dad accompanying her to the gynecologist. While much of the experience is as awkward as expected, he does not once shame her or punish her for her burgeoning interest in sex and how that might be complicated by an HIV-positive status.
“I think there’s an idea that ‘responsible’ parents [have to be] very strict about sex or very strict about birth control or the ways their kids sort of approach it. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. So, I wanted to show a different side to combat that. And I think that parents should just try to keep open communication.”
There’s plenty more that Garrett accomplishes with her debut and she puts captivating spins on classic Y.A. tropes, like making the-seemingly-too-perfect male love interest Miles (who is a sensitive soul that also plays lacrosse) black. Or presenting us with a set of parents who are neither white nor straight. Or giving some nuance to the evergreen someone-is-clearly-out-to-ruin-your-life trope by having this mystery person threaten Simone with her HIV status — and how even the most progressive of people (the novel takes place in the Bay Area) can revert to base ignorance as a result. But perhaps the most remarkable thing Garrett achieves with Full Disclosure is the compassionate portrayal of people who are usually rendered invisible not only in Y.A but in life.
And she manages to write a hell of a novel while doing it.