Consent, Mental Health, and Inappropriate Relationships in Can I Stray by Jenna Adams
By Victoria Bromley, Eleanor Bowskill and Daisy Ward
Content warning: mention of statutory rape
Young men and women may not understand the importance of conversations regarding consent, relationships, and mental health while exploring adolescence and entering adulthood. It may not be until later in life, when they reflect on these experiences, that they come to recognise them as harmful. Jenna Adams’ debut novel Can I Stray is a voice to the younger generation to encourage open conversations about safe sex, consent, and mental health, which strives to protect vulnerable adolescents from entering unhealthy relationships.
Can I Stray follows fourteen-year-old Brooke and eighteen-year-old Matt as they are cast as joint leads in Romeo and Juliet at their community theatre company. Taking a leap beyond friendship, themes of forbidden love are soon mirrored off-stage as the two explore the limits of their connection. What once felt like an innocent love affair to teenage Brooke becomes an emotional struggle when she discovers that their sexual relations were illegal. Written through a dual narrative, the novel follows Brooke and Matt’s lives into adulthood and how their inappropriate relationship has affected them in ways they never anticipated.
Our discussion began with Adams’ audience and whether she considers Can I Stray a young adult or a new adult book. Whilst dialogues on consent and inappropriate relationships seem to be aimed at a younger audience, being more susceptible to these dangers, the strong themes of statutory rape seem challenging for books aimed at pre-teens. Adams agreed with this conflicting nature of pinpointing her audience but defined her book as “new adult.” The earliest moments were told through the perspective of a fourteen-year-old girl, yet heavier topics were toned down, and often occur off-stage. For Adams, “the thing that makes the book really NA is the perspective that the characters get by the end,” with the novel covering a time span of eight years into the character’s adulthood. As such, the novel elicited a positive response from adult readers, some of whom said, “the book prompted them to think back about their own experiences as teenagers and see things in a new light.” Perhaps the novel’s main purpose is to encourage these reflections and begin new conversations.
Adams felt that the relationships and sex education she received in school was “completely insufficient.” It was this shortcoming that fuelled her passion for writing about teenage sexual politics. All she did learn at school was “how to avoid pregnancy and STIs,” and it was only from watching relationships and sex education educators on YouTube that she discovered discussions about “consent, body image, pleasure, LGBT+ identities, healthy relationships, the list goes on.”
Adams went on to highlight the amazing work done by charities, such as Brook, that “campaign for improved RSE (relationships and sex education) and provide services and education for young people.” RSE is now mandatory, and consent is a part of the curriculum. However, there still needs to be more openness about mental health at school, where young girls are seen as “attention seeking,” which can prevent them from speaking out to receive the vital support they need. “I'm a firm believer that everyone deserves help, and everyone can get better.”
Regarding Adams’ inspirations for the book, it was no surprise to learn that Holly Bourne was one of her favourite authors who is “excellent at making heavy subjects accessible and age-appropriate for young people.” There is a likeliness between Adams’ and Bourne’s novels around “friendships, mental health issues, dating, their first sexual experiences.” Other writers which inspired Adams were John Green and Kate Elizabeth Russell, author of My Dark Vanessa, who is an “expert in alternating between the perspectives of a teenage girl and an adult woman.”
What makes this book so genuine is how Adams began writing the novel as a fourteen-year-old girl herself. “I think having been Brooke's age when writing it will hopefully make her different perspectives and experiences authentic.” While writing intermittently throughout the years, the whole novel took a decade to complete, in which Adam’s “relationship to writing changed over the years” as a young girl’s dream of novelistic acclaim was met with the reality of becoming a “part-time second job.” Finding the time to write is “something all authors struggle with,” and there is a temptation to abandon a project as there’s no immediate gratification. “Sometimes I really wanted to give up on the book and write something else, and it could be hard to keep motivated, especially when there's no guarantee it will get anywhere.”
To conclude our discussion, we asked Adams what she would tell her fourteen-year-old self today if she had the chance. “To my fourteen-year-old self, I'd say: keep going. Keep writing. And don't be afraid to ask for help. It gets better.”