Western North Carolina-based author Jaye Robin Brown first conceived of her new YA novel, Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, when she heard an NPR story about the wealth of radio pastors. “It was fascinating,” Brown says, “and I thought, what if one of those guys had a gay daughter?” When another writing project stalled, she turned to this idea and found that the writing flowed quickly. “I wrote 10,000 words in a weekend, which never has happened before.”
The result was a fish-out-of-water story in which Joanne Gordon, the daughter of a successful radio minister, moves from gay-friendly Atlanta to a small-town Rome, Ga., with her father and new stepmother. She’s bound by a bargain in which her father will allow her to start her own radio show under the umbrella of his ministry — provided Joanna, an openly-gay teen, goes back into the closet. This arrangement, however, hits an iceberg when Joanna finds herself in a love affair with Mary Carlson, a pillar of her church and high school communities.
Brown will launch Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Aug. 30. The event includes a panel discussion featuring Lauren Gibaldi, Ashley Herring Blake and Kathryn Holmes, moderated by local author Amy Reed.
Brown, who came out in her late 20s, writes in part from personal experience, but also out of the time she spent as a teacher in a rural high school. She’s seen kids ejected from their families for coming out, she says, a rejection driven by the parents’ faith. And yet, in rural communities, faith remains very much a part of kids’ identities. “I see faith as so important to these young people,” Brown says, “because it’s so important to their families. For a while, you take on the mantle of whatever your family is about, and so they want that in their lives. It’s a comfort to them, and yet there’s all this other messaging.”
In Peaches, this conflict between faith and sexuality complicates virtue — the loyalty of friends and the bonds of family — and the natural process of self-discovery. Teens “have very clear thoughts about the world, and what they want for themselves,” Brown says. “A lot of them really do have good parental relationships.” But while Joanne makes friends and works hard to build a new life in Rome, she and Mary Carlson must still contend with preachers sermonizing against homosexuality, the censure of relatives and church members, the potential repercussions for Joanna’s father’s ministry, and — perhaps most damaging — the negative stereotyping of their high school peers.
Nevertheless, Brown says, she sees room in the real world for a romance like Joanna and Mary Carlson’s. “I know there are places where there’s ugly stuff happening,” she says. “But I do think that there are other faith communities where there’s a shift happening.” And, while she adds that she understands that her depiction of the life of a gay teen in a small town may be “too hopeful in certain areas,” she’s nevertheless proud of the circle of friends she depicts in Peaches. The group includes an autistic teen who is widely accepted by his peers, and instantly accepting of Joanna. Importantly, too, Joanna enjoys full acceptance by her own family.
And Joanna does find romance in a rural southern community, an event that, for Brown, is the true heart of the story. “It is kind of an issue book,” she says, but she hopes readers — gay teens and their allies — will focus on the romance.
“It’s a romance first and foremost,” Brown says. “I just felt that was really important, so I did it.”
WHAT: Launch event for Georgia Peaches and other Forbidden Fruit
WHERE: Malaprops’ Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Aug. 30, 7 p.m. Free