What does it mean to be real?
For Janet Mock, a trans advocate and writer, it entails being forthright about the hardships she’s faced and the choices she made growing up as a transgender person. Mock, who travels the country speaking about the transgender community and who has been recognized for her work by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the Anti-Violence Project, first moved into the public consciousness when she was featured in Marie Claire in 2011. Since then, she’s been collecting stories from her adolescence and thinking about how her life trajectory fits within the context of issues like racism, sexism, and transphobia. The result is a memoir that takes the coming-of-age narrative to both a higher and deeper level.
In Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Mock juxtaposes the personal and the political with a dose of academic theory and pop culture, honestly detailing both the joys and difficulties of her journey—including discrimination and her foray into sex work. No stranger to the power of the pen (she was an editor at People), Mock was featured on HBO’s 2011 documentary The Out List, is a regular on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show, and is the creator of #GirlsLikeUs, a movement for trans women living visibly. She spoke with me recently in New York.
Carbone: Your memoir divulges a lot of pretty intense information. Did you ever have second thoughts about revealing anything?
Mock: Some of the stories that were the rawest for me, a lot of them I didn’t include in the book. I included what I felt comfortable sharing. There comes a point where you are like, is this too much? I felt like there were definite lines—if it wasn’t really important to my life journey, I wasn’t going to share it. Now, I’m getting that reader feedback. [Some people] point out stuff to me on the phone, ‘oh my, I can’t believe you wrote this.’ I didn’t think about audience too much: I felt that it was my experience, so as long as I was being honest it would be OK for the purpose of the story. Now the story-sharing process is starting.
Carbone: Speaking of feedback, have you been surprised at all by any of the reactions you’ve gotten from folks?
Mock: Every one! I really cared a lot about [what] the people who know me or think that they know me thought about the book. My dream was to have Barbara Smith and bell hooks do blurbs, and I got both of them. Hearing them say that it was an important book and that it taught them something [was an honor]. The biggest [reaction] was Barbara putting me in the literary canon of Richard Wright and Maya Angelou; that was something I had to sit with for a few weeks, and I’m still kind of not—like I can’t see myself in that. She had a conversation with me and said it was important to her to put it in its right [literary] context. Having these heroes of mine who’ve seen my work, I don’t think any review is going to top that for me, so that’s been intense and surreal.
Carbone: In the book, you reference many different writers you respect—including Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin. What guided you in that process?
Mock: So many of those stories were so pivotal to my coming to [my] identity. [They represent] the truth of how I found out about self—like what does self mean, what does it mean to be publicly vulnerable, what does it mean to be honest? [It’s] the power of transforming silence into action—you know Audre Lorde.
Carbone: Did you have any writing routines while working on Realness?
Mock: To kick-start it, I just wanted to write down all my memories. I sat down and committed every morning, I think for about four months, just doing 500 words in the morning before I went to work, right when I woke up; or just a fragment of a memory, just as raw as I could have it, kind of like journal entries. But I did it on my computer. Often I would go over and write 1,000 words or more. Then I didn’t touch it, all those stories and memories, for a long time. When the book became a reality in that, like, a publisher wanted it, beyond the proposal and it was something slated—I then wrote and sat in a café for eight hours Monday through Saturday usually, just grabbing all those journal entries, grabbing all of those stories and compiling them and making note cards and outlines and all that stuff. When I could leave my job because of the advance, all I did was concentrate on my book for an intense six months, and it just evolved from there. It was my first time ever having a writing schedule.
Carbone: I’m curious about the cover, which shows you standing and looking determined. I want to know what your thinking was, because I feel like it relates to your advocacy work on behalf of the transgender community.
Mock: I think it’s just the genre of memoir. Maya Angelou is on a lot of her books. Barbara Smith was on her books. I feel like it’s almost this woman-of-color tradition, so [the cover design] felt as if I was following that same canon. The other level of it is that trans women of color are deemed invisible. They’re people that we are told to keep in the dark in our society.
I’ve heard people say that this book may not be taken seriously in academic circles even though there’s a lot of theory in it because of the cover, because of the way that I look. Why can’t a woman who is quote-unquote attractive and quote-unquote feminine have serious thoughts? So, there is a part of me that wants to push back against all of that. There was a lot of thought and discussion about the cover. I went back and forth. I wanted my words to stand alone, but I also knew it was necessary. A lot of the book is about image, my self-image, how I saw myself. I needed to be visible.
Carbone: Our culture is so stigmatizing toward anyone engaged in sex work. Did you struggle with sharing those moments in the book or feel conflicted about it?
Mock: I completely reject the politics of respectability. It’s limiting and full of untruths. We need a space for the erotic, the messy, the struggle, the complicated in our politics. We need space to discuss unspoken, uncomfortable dark truths. I write in the introduction of my book about exceptionalism, which lies to us by saying that if you are perfect and articulate and respectable and well-credentialed then you will be listened to as a marginalized person. For me, speaking about sex work was vital, because it’s an experience that has shaped me, an experience that offered me community, resources, and resiliency; it is also one that I have been taught to be shameful about and to cover up. My hope now is to shun that shame and stand fully in the complexity of my truth, my experience. I’ve already seen the power of being vocal about my experiences as a young woman who used sex work to move past struggle and survival through the emails and tweets I’ve received from other young women who traveled that same path.
Carbone: What are you reading these days?
Mock: I’ve only read bell hooks’ theory, so now that I know her as a person, I’m reading her memoirs: I’m reading Bone Black and then Wounds of Passion. I’m reading other women of color memoirs now, just kind of diving into them. Unbought And Unbossed, I’m reading that, by Shirley Chisholm. I’ve found myself revisiting Toni Morrison, like The Bluest Eye and Sula.
Carbone: Do you think you’ll write any other books?
Carbone: How do you feel the book will help other trans women or the movement for trans social justice more broadly?
Mock: I wrote Redefining Realness because not enough of our stories are being told, and I believe we need stories that reflect us so we don’t feel so isolated in our apparent “difference.” For so long, the media has been telling our stories through the filters of journalists, some well-meaning and others super-disrespectful, and I think it’s empowering to have stories that are unfiltered, coming directly from the source. Mainly, I wrote the book to raise awareness about the experiences of girls like myself and to empower these young women by giving them a story that actually reflects them—a story I did not have growing up. I hope being honest about my experiences and contextualizing them empowers young women to step into their truths, tell their own stories, and live visibly.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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