Janet Mock may be interested in definitions, but in her memoir “Redefining Realness,” she forgoes any crystallized simplicity and delves into the messy complexity of a life. Mock’s story of growing up, figuring herself out and navigating the world as a transwoman is intensely personal, but firmly rooted in the literature and theory of identity politics.
“I grew up in a world where black and brown bodies were not valued. There were all of those systems of oppression, and it’s a story of navigating all of that,”Mock says of her experience growing up trans in Oakland, California and Honolulu, Hawaii. Though her book is about her story of transition, she is eager to stress that being trans is just one piece of who she is.
With forthright, erudite language, Mock tells anecdotes of watching Beyoncé on television as a teenager, and of her struggles communicating with “super-loving but super limited” parents ill-equipped to accept the person whom they considered their only son. Mock sought wisdom and advice from the trans community in Honolulu and found comfort in her friendship with Wendi, her best friend who is also trans.
The pressure to represent the trans community is not something Mock takes lightly. Activism and political visibility underlie “Redefining Realness” and assure readers that this memoir will not be Mock’s final word on how trans women of color are perceived. She sees it as vital, particularly when transwomen are bombarded by invasive (not to mention irrelevant) questions about their genitals as model Carmen Carrera was recently on Katie Couric’s show.
“If a marginalized person wants to be heard, they have to be exceptional,” says Mock of the mantle of respectability she feels she is charged with maintaining. “You need to have a master’s degree, you need to have your talking points, you need to be smiley — all of these things while people are asking the most ridiculous questions,” she says.
The struggle against societal norms is a large part of Mock’s story, and the activism that is ingrained in “Redefining Realness.” And activism is very important to a community affected by alarmingly high rates of attempted suicide — 41 percent compared to 4.6 percent in the general population according to a study released last month from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.
But being an advocate for her community is hardly the beginning of Mock’s quest. She seeks to push the bar ever-higher, and she’s going to need to. Mock had three dreams — to be herself, to be a writer and to live in New York City — and if the silhouette of the Empire State Building on the cover of her book is any indication, she’s going to have to draft some new goals.
Mock hopes her story of transition can stand out in a body of work that she considers largely “apolitical.” But perhaps the most significant point underlying “Redefining Realness” is that Mock’s definitions don’t stop at the real — they imagine what could be.