Grits and sweet tea are stalwarts of Southern tradition. In many communities, so is church.
“When you grow up in the South, one of the first things people ask you is, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In smaller communities, it’s just such a part of the fabric of life,” out author Jaye Robin Brown told Georgia Voice. “I consider myself really spiritual and I get really irritated that gosh, doesn’t the LGBT community get God too?”
It was that thought process — along with a NPR report on the wealth of evangelical radio preachers — that led Brown to write her latest young adult novel, this one with a LGBT protagonist. Inspired by that NPR report, Brown wondered what it would be like if one of those preachers had a lesbian daughter, and the plot for “Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit” came to life.
“It’s not a religious book. It’s a romance, first and foremost, but religion is one of the themes in it,” Brown said. “I found as I started writing, I wanted to write a happy love story. None of the gay girls die. But I also wanted to explore this idea of religion and being queer and can the two co-exist.”
“Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit” tells the story of Jo Gordon, the out lesbian daughter of a Georgia-based evangelical radio preacher.
“He is marrying for the third time and moving them from Atlanta to Rome, Georgia, and he asks his daughter to lay low for her senior year so he can ease into this new family. She agrees … but she’s a girl, and shenanigans ensue,” Brown said.
Brown was nervous when she approached Harper Collins about publishing a young adult novel featuring a lesbian protagonist. But her nerves were unnecessary: the publisher thought it was a great idea, and there was zero resistance to the pitch.
“I’ve gotten tons of emails from people around the world just like, so appreciative to read about a gay teen who wants to stay in her faith and wants to be both,” Brown said. “Even though it felt really vulnerable personally, it’s felt really good to have a story out there.”
Brown, who now lives in Boston, grew up in south Alabama and moved to Atlanta after college. She made her home in the Little Five Points area for seven years, and then moved to North Carolina — where her writing career took off. Brown started taking classes at the University of North Carolina-Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program.
“I kind of always wrote, and I read a book by a woman named Kate DiCamillo called ‘Because of Winn Dixie.’ I love children’s literature and at the time I thought, ‘Gosh, I want to make a reader feel this way,’” Brown said. “People are like, ‘Man, I have a book in me; I want to write a book one day.’ That was me, but I really wanted to do it.”
Her debut novel, “No Place to Fall,” hit shelves in 2014. “Georgia Peaches,” her third book, followed in late 2016. She hopes that the growing amount of young adult novels featuring LGBT characters will help LGBT teens who read them.
“I’m gay, so I experienced it,” Brown said. “I didn’t come out in high school, but when I moved to Atlanta, to rural North Carolina, I had to go through a little bit of the same kind of thing as Jo. Do I reveal this? Do I not reveal this?”
However, she maintains that “Georgia Peaches” isn’t based on her own life.
“As a writer in fiction, you do tend to draw from your experiences and what you know,” Brown said. “I feel like I was able to draw on a similar feeling of parallels.”
On choosing faith and family
Brown said the religious themes in “Georgia Peaches” are things many LGBT teens in the South struggle with.
“I feel like in larger cities a lot of times your worth is placed on your education and your success and your accolades, whereas in the Appalachians it may have been based on how much land you owned, or how pious you were. So maybe you didn’t have a lot of land, but you went to church on Sunday and you walked the path, so you were well-respected in your community,” she said.
Though there are LGBT faith-affirming resources available online, not all teens can access them or feel it’s safe for them to do so, much less come out in a religious environment. Even with these struggles, Brown believes that if faith is important to LGBT teens, it is possible to find a place the two can coexist.
“You might choose to step away from your faith, which is fine if that’s where you’re going to go, but if it’s something you want in your life, you might not find it in your home church, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there,” she said.