"I am not good at faking it," Lil O'Brien laughs when faced with a comment about the sheer honesty of her memoir, Not That I'd Kiss a Girl. The book is very much a story about discovering a sexual identity and learning how to express it.
O'Brien recounts life as it is lived, sometimes confused, sometimes clear. Amid the life-changing good times and the raw and painful moments, she packs in incidents of laugh-out-loud humour and acute observation.
"There are parts of the book that make me giggle still," she says. "One was having a boyfriend when I was 16 - because I was desperate to get a pash. And what a nightmare that was and what anxiety it caused me."
Her time with teenaged Harry from a South Island farming family was a mix of innocence and inexperience. "Finally," she writes, "my patience ran thin, and I grabbed him by his surprisingly rough hand and hauled him out into the garden …"
This first encounter, needless to say, does not go well. They "were supposed to kiss so I could tick that off my list". She was unprepared for it to go further or for Harry to turn up on the doorstep of her parents' home the next day. O'Brien suddenly found herself in an awkward "relationship" – at least according to Harry – with "scheduled" 8pm phone calls, bottles of $6 spumante and closed-mouth kisses.
"That was fun to write because it captured the absurdity of a teenager … Most of the book is nothing about pashing boys but, on the other hand, a lot of the book is about that pressure you feel as a teenager to fit in, to keep up … everyone else has kissed a boy, lost their virginity. It's a little example of the process that I was going through, of not really understanding why I was supposed to be so flustered about these boys."
O'Brien came from a family with all the outward trappings of success. She went to a private all-girls' school, worked to be on the soccer team and was a prefect. At the University of Otago, she lived in famous Dunedin student houses with their legendary parties, the morning walk of shame and the Force 10 hangovers. Queenstown was just over the hill and O'Brien went to Colorado's ski fields for a working holiday.
But, as she gradually discovered, she was more sexually interested in other girls. The overnighters with shared beds and casual snuggles had taken on additional emotional freight. The difference between the intimacy of friendship and sexual expression is sometimes very small – although the explosive emotions and reactions are not. More than one of O'Brien's crushes ended badly.
Coming out is not easy. It never has been.
"I guess I have always been interested in the process," O'Brien says, describing her book. "I think that part is glossed over a lot – and it is the most confusing part. I think that is why people don't write about it, because it can be quite difficult to create a narrative of a time that can be very back and forth."
"I just wanted to do a deep dive into the times I felt I made progress and the times that I backtracked. A book like that was what I was looking for when I was a teenager – not someone necessarily saying how to do it but just someone sharing how they did it so I could find things to relate to."
Ultimately, O'Brien never made the final decision to come out to her family. "My parents overheard me saying on the telephone that I was into girls – and they told me to leave." After a furious argument, she was only permitted to come back for her clothes the next day when the house would be purposely left empty for her.
"But I think the worst time wasn't that particular single moment, it was three or four years later, when I realised that they weren't ever going to come to me and have a conversation about it, that it was not going to evolve itself. In fact, it was becoming harder. I thought I might get over it and they might get over it but four years later it was just a silence that I found very hurtful – and I had to negotiate how I felt about that."
O'Brien has written about her life in occasional magazine articles and she has also been into Auckland high schools as an educator in a Rainbow Youth gender and sexuality programme.
"I just really loved putting the pieces of the past together to create a narrative and it had a really good reaction, so it made me think that there was this need for these stories in the world. And that kind of simmered for a few years … Then I said, 'I just need to write the full story,' so I sat down and started writing."
See review page 24