Camryn Garrett's debut novel Full Disclosure is something we've never really seen.
Yes, on the outside its 17-year-old heroine Simone Garcia-Hampton resembles so many other Gen Z girls: texting her squad, rolling her eyes at her overprotective two dads and crushing on the cute boy at school, Miles, who she wants to lose her virginity to. But Simone is a teenager living with HIV, and no one but her and her parents knows her status.
Simone knows that disclosure is necessary if she and Miles take that plunge, but it's far from easy. She's in a new school with new friends, and while working on an upcoming production of the musical Rent, of all musicals, she is witnessing first-hand what her peers really think about HIV--and it's telling. But her fears are confirmed when she finds an anonymous note in her locker, threatening to tell the school that she has HIV if she doesn't break up with Miles. For a young woman trying to come into her own and not be ashamed of who she is, she is facing a serious dilemma. Does she come out to everyone and risk it all or continue to live in the shadows?
TheBody sat down with Garrett, who is only 19 years old, to talk about the inspiration behind Full Disclosure, what teens don't know or understand about the epidemic and what she hopes people living with HIV will take away from her book.
Kellee Terrell: Looking at your resume, which includes articles written in Time, Huff Post and MTV.com, it's incredibly hard to believe you are only 19 years old. When did you start writing Full Disclosure?
Camryn Garrett: I started writing the book when I was a junior in high school, but I have been writing since I was little and thankfully I had teachers that boosted me up and told me that I was good at it. When I was in 8th grade, Time magazine had a kids' section and I got to write and interview people [like Warren Buffett].
KT: Impressive. So of all the stories you wanted to tell for your debut novel, why this particular journey? Why make your heroine a Black girl living with HIV?
CG: I wanted to write something I was interested in, something that mattered. Also, around that time, I was reading a lot of adoption blogs of parents who had adopted children living with HIV--[even after all these years] there were still rumors that Angelina Jolie had adopted a child that was possibly positive. At the same time, I was learning that outside of Larry Kramer and other white gay men, there were also Black queer [and straight] people that were HIV activists too. They got erased. So this book is how I worked to put those different aspects together.
KT: What did you know about HIV before writing this book?
CG: Honestly, I didn't know a lot, and neither did my friends. I went to an abstinence-only school, so we weren't really taught about HIV. All they told us was that HIV turned into AIDS and that [if you contracted it] you were going to die. That's it. It didn't make sense to me then, because I knew that Magic was still alive, so how was that possible? They never mentioned the medical advancements that have saved peoples' lives. Even in pop culture, outside of How to Get Away with Murder and some books, HIV isn't really mentioned.
KT: Yet, even in the face of that mainstream invisibility, throughout the novel, you weaved in issues such as drug resistance, viral load, U = U and HIV criminalization laws. You'd be surprised how many folks that are new to HIV don't do their due diligence. You did good.
CG: Thank you! Like I said I started with an adoption blog , websites and other articles about HIV including [the 2015 Washington Post article "Telling JJ"]. They followed this 10-year-old [Black girl] who was living with HIV, and she was struggling with taking her meds.
From there, I wrote a draft but I made sure I had people living with HIV read it and give me their thoughts. They were honest. They told me what was accurate, what parts weren't relatable and what they didn't believe would happen in real life.
KT: That's key. The best folks to give feedback on what it's like to live with HIV are actual people living with HIV.
CG: They shaped the book in so many ways. In the opening, I initially had a word for the part of the hospital where Simone goes to for her appointment and one of the readers told me it sounded clunky and weird, so I changed it. Even those little details matter.
KT: Despite us living in a more sex-positive world, Simone still faces so much stigma in her life whether it's with her friends or even her grandpa who seemed hesitant to hug and kiss her. How did you approach layering that into the story?
CG: When I was thinking about what would be her story, I knew I didn't want it to be about Simone getting sick or dying. I wanted for her main obstacle to be stigma. So, I talked a lot to my friends about HIV and heard the things they had to say and went from there.
Also, the story takes place in the Bay Area, where you think everyone is super liberal, but even those people can still have biases.
KT: Her fathers are interesting. They shield Simone from so much, it's as if she doesn't know there is an entire world of possibilities for her like falling in love, having sex, getting married or even having children. Just the opening chapter where her father comes with her to her gyno appointment and freaks when she mentions wanting to have sex.
CG: This is a two-part thing. First, this is how my mom would probably be if I told her I wanted to have sex: She would definitely freak out. Second, I have two dads for a reason. They have this connection to HIV, they remember how it was back then and all the people they lost, so they are worried about her. Not in a necessarily in a medical sense, but they also remember how horrible people were to people they knew living with HIV. They carry that all with them.
KT: Having Rent be how some of these teens are first introduced to HIV juxtaposed with Simone's own fear about disclosing her HIV status to them is eye-opening.
CG: Having seen the movie, not the musical because I was too young to see it [on the stage], I thought it would be really fitting. It was a way for me to call back--again--when things were very different. [As the rehearsals unfold], Simone is watching the other kids and she doesn't feel like they understand or take it seriously.
KT: Circling back to the notion that young people don't know enough about HIV: In your eyes, as a 19-year-old Black woman, why do you believe that is so dangerous?
CG: I saw someone on Twitter say that she almost got HIV from getting her nails done. If I had just came out of my abstinence-only class, I might have thought the same thing. This ignorance makes us vulnerable and when we are in sexual situations, we don't know how to protect ourselves because we don't even know the basics. And then there's the stigma that comes from not being educated about HIV. This stigma directly hurts people who are living with HIV.
KT: Finally, what's your message to people living with HIV?
CG: I want them to know I wrote Full Disclosure so that people with HIV could have the love story that HIV-negative people often get [in books]. I want them to know that they deserve love and happiness.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.