For Books’ Sake talks to: Janet Mock
10th Feb 2014
It’s a truth she will passionately defend, as illustrated by her calling out Piers Morgan’s misguided interview attempt on CNN. She launched the hashtag #girlslikeus to encourage young trans women to discuss their shared experiences and now her groundbreaking memoir is about to take the UK by storm.
For Books’ Sake: From Redefining Realness, it seems that love – whether platonic or romantic – is at the centre of your work.
Janet Mock: I think love is something that I’ve always obsessed over growing up and it’s not an obsession I’ve gotten over. So I think it’s very much inherent, whether it’s in the podcasts, where it’s me and Aaron literally talking about that first year of my life, when I had been outed as a trans woman, and him standing besides me.
He was very much pivotal in me doing that, having that affirmation from someone who perceived me as not less than, but as the greatest woman alive to him. And I never thought I’d had that, right?
Growing up as trans* is not something that you, yourself, take pride in and definitely not something that a man would see as a plus, or a positive thing, in a relationship.
So I think that, having experienced that kind of love, I wanted to show young women that we are not just a tragedy, that we can have fulfilling partnerships and relationships and the quest towards that can be transformative, if you find the right partner who can go on that journey with you. So yes, I am very obsessed with love!
This book for me was like a shattering down of this image that the media had made of me: ‘Janet Mock’, the black trans woman of colour who made it out. FBS: One of things that struck me in your memoir was your honesty and your bravery as a survivor. Survivors of abuse often feel pressure to omit parts of their history. Did you feel you had to project a perfect life story to avoid being pathologised as being trans*?
J: I think one of the first things I learnt in terms of abuse, and dealing with sexual assault, is that I needed to be quiet about it and I kept that a secret. And, in turn, I kept a lot of things in my life, the bad things in my life, the traumatic things in my life, secret. I kept myself and my identity a secret.
These are all things I learned. And having to unpack that, the memoir, the process of writing, really helped me to reflect on the things that were done to my body and to me, how I learned these behaviours and actions of silence.
And then sitting in that space alone, and transforming silence into something else, as Audre Lorde said, when we transform silence we become even more powerful. The things we thought would hold us down. Things that we thought people would judge us about, that we would judge ourselves about; it’s the sense of releasing all of that shame, so the story telling process has been a work in progress.
I’m still a work in progress and I still have issues around all of these things. To be able to share that and know that there are other young women out there who have gone through these things, hopefully it will make them feel more comfortable about speaking up about that.
FBS: I think that’s so powerful, and I think that means a lot to so many people, so thank you for that.
J:Well, it was very scary to do so. You know, this book for me was like a shattering down of this image that the media had made of me: ‘Janet Mock’, the black trans woman of colour who made it out.
There is a success story out there and it’s hard combating that media machine, because American media loves to build up heroes that they can then tear down.
So, instead of letting the media tear me down, I chose, instead, to be raw and honest in my experience so I am seen as a full person and a fully authentic self.
I think that’s why I wanted to name it Redefining Realness – because that’s what authenticity is to me. Standing in my own truth, my own trauma, in my own triumphs as well. And so that was the purpose of that book, but it was a very scary, daunting process.
FBS: Were you under pressure to achieve?
J: I felt that I needed to be overeducated, I needed to be über accomplished, so I worked at People Magazine, I got a Masters degree from New York University, I worked at one of the top publications in America. I felt like I had to over accomplish and over extend in order to get the minimal amount of attention.
I had to be the right kind of trans woman: articulate, educated, all of these things. So I decided to say, ‘I will not go by the politics of respectability and instead make space for the erotic in my book, space to talk about sex work, I will talk unapologetically about trans women of color in my book and trans sisterhood and trans womanhood.’ And all of these things that we’re told don’t exist or people just to choose to ignore.
FBS: Representations of trans* people seem be either totally detached, such as queer theory and academia, or they’re creepily involved, exposing every intimate detail. Do you see the memoir as an antidote to these models or perhaps a balance between the two?
J: [Trans* memoirs are] an apolitical tradition, so people don’t normally talk about anything beyond themselves. It’s quite a navel gazing genre. And so I chose to navel gaze a little bit but also contextualize my personal experiences in a broader light, in a broader framework. And say: yes I did sex work, but this is how it looks for all of us. So you can see the political nature and the systems of oppression that push trans women, specifically poor trans women, specifically poor trans women of color, into sex work.
And so that was my purpose with it, to shed light, a bright light, into the stories of other women who did not have the same concessions that I had. I had a scholarship to college, I had a home. I wasn’t on the streets trying to make money for rent. I was on the street trying to make money for transition surgery, which is insurmountable too, but I needed to be aware of that.
And for me I also wanted a book that was accessible to trans women, young trans girls and women and feel like they could speak with more language and understanding with where they’re at in their lives, why they’ve gone through what they’ve gone through, what that looks like and how I made it through.
And at the same time I want it to be accessible to cis women, who may just like my hair and have been following me for a few years because of my curly hair and now they’re interested in reading my story. And by reading my story they’re getting the stories of a lot of marginalized trans women, and they can see the connections between cis womanhood and trans womanhood, and just womanhood in general.
So I wanted a book that was educational and affirming and political. Our bodies are political bodies. They’re bodies that literally have to petition the state to be reflected in our own self. So I wanted to shed light on that without diminishing the personal struggle that I went through. I do hope it’s a balance between the two.
FBS: You’ve done so much already, but have you got any other creative goals?
J: I think for me, I know now that I want to write more books. I don’t know what the idea for those next books are. I do think that one of them would be about my young womanhood because Redefining Realness is very much about my girlhood.
But it’s not so much about what it was like for me to live as a woman, where most people took me as a cisgender woman of colour. They didn’t see me as a trans woman.
So, really exploring the years from 2001 or so until coming out publicly. I don’t really explore those things in the book and that really needs to be another book, because I still need time to reflect on that.
Beyond that, I want to do more media work. I would love to create a sitcom or a dramedy or something and being a show runner, telling our stories in a different kind of way. Creating culture, creating pop culture, I would love to go into that too. But these are just things that are floating around in my head.
One day I would [love] to create a camp for trans girls, that would be amazing. That would be the legacy work I’d love to do, bringing a bunch of trans women and trans girls and share a week, or a weekend, in the summer together.
Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More is released in the UK on 20th March and is available for preorder now.