Not Oprah’s Book Club: Redefining Realness
Janet Mock’s writing is compelling, familiar, and even conversational, which makes the complex work she is doing in this book seem easy. Redefining Realness is a number of things: it is primarily Mock’s personal story. But it is also a subversion of the trans memoir, a by now ubiquitous form, as Mock claims her own life and refuses to let familiar beats fall into familiar tropes. It presents a different story from those of class-privileged white trans folks whose memoirs are usually the ones to reach a wider audience. And it is the trans memoir we need right now.
It’s also impossible for me to review this book with much distance. There are notable differences between Mock’s identity and story and my own, but she writes with such open honesty about experiences that hit close to home. There are moments, as in the the narrative of telling her boyfriend Aaron about her trans history which bookends the memoir, where I’m struck by reading a feeling I’ve experienced described better than I ever could. And there are other moments, when Janet is navigating her family, when I had to put the book down because of the intense mix of familiarity and difference between our experiences. More than just a narrative of transition, Mock’s writing is real and human, offering a story about personal growth that will be invaluable for many audiences.
Redefining Realness is Janet Mock’s story of growing up mostly in Hawaii, speaking up about her gender, and acting with determination to live more fully as herself, something that has clearly continued through the writing of this book. It is the story of a brilliant and independent honor student who will do whatever she has to to survive. The book engages with racial identity, poverty, sexual and domestic abuse, sex work, and medical transition. It is the story of a young trans woman of color, and it is the story of someone who explores and embraces all those identities, but who also refuses to be limited by those categories. While the story involves a lot of struggles too often faced by low-income trans women of color, it also includes beautiful friendships, loving relationships, and personal triumph. Mock recognizes that acceptance from people in her life at an early age has positively impacted her journey. She also gives us a complex look at the supposed privilege of “passing” in her life, challenging the way this idea has been applied to trans folks, when really what we’re talking about is conforming to cis standards for what a woman should look like, not deceptively passing as a “real” woman or pretending at “real” womanhood. Ultimately, it is her commitment to being fully herself in all her complexities that shines through.
Mock brings the same bravery and fierce determination that is evident in her history to the writing of the book, claiming her own story and making sure experiences that have often been used to dehumanize trans women and reduce us to our transition status instead serve to give the reader a more full and honest glimpse of her humanity. Mock situates her experiences and choices in a sociopolitical context, showing that much more than transition impacts trans women’s lives and giving the narrative broader import. At the same time, she shows a sharp awareness of her own psychological process, the ways experiences shaped her and her sense of self and motivated her actions, offering readers an insight into the personal impact of systemic oppression and the resilience it takes to survive and even thrive.
There is still so much work to be done to improve the world for trans women – particularly low-income women and women of color – that Mock describes in this book. But this is also an exciting time, especially around representation. Redefining Realness is being released not long after Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox refused to be reduced to their genitals by Katie Couric, CeCe McDonald was released from prison and quickly appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry, Laura Jane Grace and Against Me! sang about being trans on the notoriously transmisogynist Late Show with David Letterman, and Laverne Cox proclaimed in a keynote at Creating Change: “for the first time, we are setting the agenda for how our stories are told.” Redefining Realness is the book for this moment.
Feministing received a review copy of this book.
Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing.