Reprint: Neo-Griot Kalamu ya Salaam’s information blog
Anyone who knows me knows that I stan for Janet Mock. So, I couldn’t wait to get my hot little hands on her book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More. What took a minute was finding the time to read it—and I’m so glad I finally did!
Talk about keeping it real. Redefining Realness is a memoir where Mock lays bare the intimate details about her childhood and journey to being true to herself. She talks about it all—sharing stories of growing up in Hawaii and on the mainland, her parents’ battles with drug addiction and violence, her experience of childhood abuse, her time as a sex worker, her friendships and relationships, and her decision to transition. Considering how invasive cis folks can be into the lives of trans folks (remember that cringeworthy interview between Katie Couric, Laverne Cox, and Carmen Carrera a few months back?), I think Mock’s decision to share as much as she does is pretty astounding. Her choice to share so much of her life is brave and bold and I respect her deeply for inviting readers into her life.
Mock signifies on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God a few times throughout the text and with good reason. Redefining Realness is a rare autobiography in that it reads less like a memoir and more like a conversation with a homegirl. As I was reading I kept on thinking about the relationship between Pheobe and Janie in Their Eyes. I think Janet’s conversational tone and accessibility that made me feel like I was on my couch with a friend sharing secrets rather than reading a carefully constructed narrative. That, I think, is a gift and one that makes this book imminently readable.
As the title suggests, one of the book’s aims is to trouble the notion of what is “real.” Janet Mock certainly challenges the notion that hegemonic cissexist standards of beauty, particularly the notion that trans women should be able to “pass,” is a goal to aspire to. Over time, for Janet being “real” means living in her truth, participating in loving relationships, being accountable to others, and following her passions.
Although Redefining Realness definitely has some feel good takeaways within its pages, it does not sugarcoat a damn thing. As we all know, life is often dangerous for queer women of color. Look at Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson, a lesbian couple that was recently murdered, allegedly by Cosby’s own father. Or Islan Nettles, who was beaten to death by a man in a transphobic rage. Or Cece McDonald, who spent months in prison after defending herself against transphobic attackers. This list could go on and on.
So, another thing I appreciated about Redefining Realness was the way in which Janet made it clear that her experience as a trans woman was both singular and representative. That is, she is in no way a representation of all trans women’s experiences, but at the same time, some of her life experiences mirror the experiences of so many women, trans and cis, living, loving, and trying to make a way in a world where we were never meant to survive. To that end, Mock writes:
“We need stores of hope and possibility, stories that reflect the reality of our lived experiences. When such stories exist, as writer and publisher Barbara Smith writes, ‘then each of us will not only know better how to live, but how to dream.’ We must also deconstruct these stories and contextualize them and shed a light on the many barriers that face trans women, specifically those of color and those from low-income communities, who aim to reach the not-so-extraordinary things I have grasped: living freely and without threat or notice as I am, making a safe, healthy living, and finding love. These things should not be out of reach.”
I see Redefining Realness illuminating one of many stories of trans experiences, stories that are far too often ignored or relegated to the sidelines or sensationalized, even in supposedly inclusive queer spaces. I hope that the book, and the recent public interest in trans folk such as Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera, will not only shine a light on these famous individuals, but also spark interest in the lives of everyday trans people and support the grassroots organizations advocating in trans communities.
Have you read the book? What are your thoughts on Redefining Realness?