By Lisa Freeman
Back in 1972, when my novel Honey Girl is set, secrets were whispered into someone’s ear or mumbled to a priest in a stuffy, wooden booth. Secrets that take root in young people can cost a life, but they can also save it. I wanted to write a novel that allowed the reader to peek into another world, a world where pink and dolls were for girls, blue and sports were for boys, and there was no in-between. I wanted to explore sublime everyday relationships, where mundane activities like waking up and going to sleep could bookend a day that changed a life forever. I wanted to write a story about the last place I would have wanted to be caught as an out lesbian when I was a teen. So I took the reader back to State Beach in Santa Monica, California, which is a real place I bring to life with fictional characters, a place where I once roamed with my own secret about my sexuality. Back then, being queer was something you took to the grave. There was no Tyler Oakley on YouTube. Telling was never a possibility.
Honey Girl is written in a close first-person narrative, which invites the reader to share in the narrator’s secrets without her revealing them. Haunani Grace Nuuhiwa is hapa haole, half Caucasian, half Hawaiian, and recently transplanted to the mainland from Hawaii after her father’s sudden death. Although she can’t keep her skin color a secret, she can protect her true identity by having a boyfriend, especially when he’s one of the hottest surfers on the beach. I can’t even count how many boyfriends I had before I came out. Like Nani, I tried to negotiate with myself, and I fluctuated between being straight and being gay. This, in my experience, was not bisexuality. It was conflicted homophobia, and this time of my life is a painful reminder of the days I spent trying to determine what degree of acceptance I would tolerate within myself, constantly battling between telling or remaining silent.
The Latin word secretus means to set apart or separate, and that is what a secret does. It’s hidden information that incites a deep fear of being hurt or shamed. So what does this have to do with a beach story about surfing the in 1970s? It’s a mirror of the reality that I grew up with—a reality that still exists, although we have made large strides in ending persecution due to sexual orientation in many parts of the world. The physical act of coming out is still, for most, a daunting process of negotiation and surrender.
Nani is a Virgo, which means she is tuned in to details and focuses intently on others. By learning their secrets, she is unimpeded by her own. It is very important to me that the reader always knows the truth about Nani. Although she never speaks it aloud, her internal monologue about being a funny kine girl rings louder than the dialogue she vocalizes. No one suspects she likes girls except one counterpart: the beautiful leader of the beach, Rox, who is attracted to girls as well. It’s interesting how we find each other on our path to coming out. Maybe two can keep a secret after all.
In order to capture history accurately in this novel, it was imperative that Nani wasn’t capable of even thinking the word lesbian let alone coming out publicly as one. This conflict is just beginning to erupt because Nani has other secrets she needs to deal with first. She stole her father’s ashes in order to perform a secret funeral, keeps a copy of Playboy hidden in her closest, and eavesdrops on her new friends. Nani believes secrets are doorways to power. Like Nani, my greatest strengths were once my greatest weaknesses, or should I say, my greatest secrets.
I wanted to bring to life a time when teens were not monitored, photographed, or Instagrammed every moment. It seems nowadays teens have to go deeper into their minds to keep their secrets safe, until they are ready to reveal them. Everything is public. Maybe that’s why anonymous blogs like PostSecret go viral; they provide a platform on which people can reveal their one truth that can never be spoken.
Whatever your secret may be, it’s been my experience that in order to survive a secret big or small, eventually it must be told. And if you’re being honest, nobody else’s opinion would stop you from feeling good about your authentic self. In the meantime, be safe, be strong, and don’t give up. To tell or not to tell is not a question: it’s a choice. The only question is when.
Lisa Freeman started her work as an actor and has been in numerous TV productions and films (Mr. Mom and Back to the Future I & II to name a few). She performed at the Comedy Store, which led to her writing career in radio and spoken word. Freeman has a BA in liberal studies and Creative Writing, an MFA in Fiction, and a certificate in Pedagogy in Writing from Antioch University. Inspired by Hawaii and the Los Angeles region, Honey Girl was written about a time when girls were the color of tan-before-sunscreen, drank Tabs by the six-pack, smoked Lark 100’s, and were not allowed to surf. Honey Girl is her debut novel.
Honey Girl is available for purchase.