Sarah Browne, the central character of Flesh of the Peach, begins the novel at the top of the Empire State Building, reeling from a nasty breakup. The source of her heartsickness is Kennedy, a married woman whose first name Sarah knows only as ‘E’. Though Kennedy appears only a little in the early part of the novel, to Sarah, she is larger than life, enchanting and awful. I chose her name to try and distil the idea of an American aristocrat – she’s a Kennedy, maybe or maybe not one of the infamous Kennedy family, a name which summons scandal, style and magnetism. Aloofness and inconsiderateness too comes pre-packaged with her white, upper-class privilege. Kennedy chooses her husband over Sarah, relegating her lover to second place with an easy shrug. Even when it is over and the details of this relationship become just another handful of memories, Kennedy casts a long shadow. Sarah’s toxic choices later in the novel make sense because she is nursing a wound that can’t easily heal.
All this isn’t much different to the legacy of any bad relationship. Why make Kennedy a woman rather than a man? When I started writing the novel, I had no idea that Sarah would be bisexual, but the fact of her sexuality soon fell into place. Sarah is complex, and while her story has a lot of running and hiding from her emotions even as they chase after her brandishing sticks, I wanted her to have a kind of boldness and self-knowledge too. Being bisexual is not something she denies or fights – she has long ago figured it out, just as she knows that she is an artist. Her sexuality is not a weapon or something that harms her – she makes plenty of other choices that do just that.
Representations of bisexuality is hard to find, or at least, I’ve struggled to find it in the mainstream, and struggled myself to understand just what it is. Too often bisexuality is not named as such. Characters are ‘going through a phase’ or ‘just see love’, or they fall into the ‘villainous bisexual’ trope, using their sexual fluidity to trap and taunt. I’m not saying bi people can’t be villains (and both Kennedy and Sarah are not written as saints) but there needs to be room to talk about sexuality in definite, undeniable terms as well as in poetic, plot-ready ones. Something nameless is harder to say and harder to understand. It took me a while myself to come to terms with this, and to make sure I actually wrote the word ‘bisexual’ down on the page. Name it, make it clear. Having Kennedy as a woman makes Sarah’s story one that is not about denial. It’s a story about the complexities of love and grief. About what a person can try to learn about themselves from their past and their present alike, and what is hidden, and might come back to haunt them if they don’t.