On the Life Stories podcast (available on iTunes), memoir writers talk about their lives and the art of writing memoir. Janet Mock’s interview took place the morning after her second appearance on CNN’s Piers Morgan Live — where Morgan showed less interest in discussing Mock’s book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, than in attacking her and other trans people for not being sufficiently appreciative of the attention he’d given them, and for getting upset when he said she was “born a boy.” It’s a familiar struggle for Mock. “Ever since I was a child,” she says, “I was fighting, mostly the people I loved, against their ideas of who I should be or who they expected me to be based on what they learned in the world, especially about gender expectations. Trying to explain that to people who want to sound bite my experience in order to entice readers or viewers has been a huge battle.”
Below are some highlights from that conversation — the entirety of which you can listen to right here:
4. For Mock, Redefining Realness isn’t a “transition” story, nor is it about learning to “pass” as a woman.
“I walk in the world as a woman because I am a woman, and people should take me as that. I’m not passing as anything that I’m not. I’m just being myself.
My struggle is not just [about] my gender. It’s poverty, it’s systemic oppression, it’s criminalization and drug addiction, all of these different things. It’s a child growing up in an environment that is super loving but ill-equipped. For me, it’s very reductive to just say that it’s a transgender memoir, but I think that that’s the most enticing, attractive thing for many people listening to me… For me, it’s centering around trying to mess up that single-identity lens focus a little bit, and say: How do we talk about someone in all of their facets? How do we explain that?”
5. One reason for writing the book was that Mock felt the Marie Claire article in which she made her debut as a publicly out trans woman was — in part by necessity — an incomplete representation.
“I knew that if I would’ve come out in all of my layers of identity and experience, then it would’ve been sound bited differently. It would’ve been different than just ‘I was born a boy…’ It would’ve been Janet Mock, her confessional of being transgender and a teenage sex worker and growing up in a dysfunctional family. The focus would’ve been so much more muddied and then difficult for people to even care about me. It would’ve been super-sensationalized; my credibility as a person would’ve been checked, because we know there’s so much stigma in all of these identities and experiences that I’ve had.
That was an interesting process, stepping forward in that way. It was someone that I trusted, but at the same time, she didn’t work at the magazine; she was a freelance writer, and we know freelance writers don’t have that much agency in saying what they want the story to be. It was supposed to be a third-person profile, not written in ‘I,’ in first person. So we had all these little stumbling blocks along the way; we had no control over the titles, the deks, and all of this kind of stuff. It was a difficult thing, and at the same time, I’m grateful for it, because I know that it gave a lot of young women a sense of representation. For me to take up space in a major women’s magazine is important … but it felt false for me, because it wasn’t in my words, it wasn’t completely in my perspective, and it was still filtered through someone else’s gaze and experience.”
6. In Redefining Realness, she writes about making friends with other trans women in Honolulu’s sex worker community while still a teenager, and her own involvement in the profession.
“You can’t discuss sex work without talking about poverty and criminalization and joblessness and the lack of sensitive trans-inclusive health care and the high medical costs that come with needing to find the gender-affirming treatments that you need as a young person.
I learned so much from these women about resilience and building your own system of support in a world that tells you that you shouldn’t exist and that if you do exist you need to go into hiding, not tell anyone about your past… Being 16 and having to climb that summit, these women became a refuge for me. They taught me so much about what greatness looks like.”
7. One of the most important things they gave her was understanding.
“I don’t have to explain anything to trans women. Trans women know exactly what’s going on. And I think that that’s a part of the frustration with everything that’s been going on in the media… that sense of going into a lion’s den and knowing that there’s no way you’re going to come out of this victorious. Because no one wants to listen to who you are, they want to tell you who you are.
So self-definition is something that I continue to talk about; I continue to quote Audre Lorde there, because ‘if we don’t define ourselves for ourselves,’ we’ll be crushed up into other people’s fantasies of us and eaten alive… It’s been the biggest battle of my life, and gaining more and more visibility and voice also leads to greater and greater chances of people trying to strip that away from me and telling me who I am.”
8. Mock’s CNN interview was the latest in a series of media events, like Katie Couric’s interview with Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera or the Grantland story outing Dr. Essay Vanderbilt, where the trans community has refused to accept being stereotyped.
“When marginalized people gain voice and center their own experiences, things begin changing. And we see this in all kinds of grassroots movements. Now we have access to the internet and YouTube and Twitter, and when something is wrong in mainstream media, it’s not the only media outlet anymore. We can talk back. You don’t have to invite us on your shows or write about us, but we’re not going to be quiet.
And we know media; most times they don’t read the book. And that’s been apparent in the interview I went through [on CNN], compared to the one with Melissa Harris-Perry [on MSNBC], who read the book, and who came to it with such kindness and warmth and generosity. Never asking me about transition, but asking me about the power of being able to write your story as a young trans woman, as a young poor trans woman of color. What does that look like to be able to come to that summit, to say I’m going to write my story down and tell it, and sell it to a major publisher … and then dare to change the genre in some way? Or shift it a little bit, and elevate it to a grander place?”
9. She is already seeing the impact of her book on other women’s lives.
“There’s this one woman who wrote to me and said, ‘I’m sitting in bed with your book at 5 in the morning, after having a john just leave my apartment, and feeling so shitty about myself, and blaming myself for putting myself in this situation where I have to do this kind of work that I don’t want to be doing, and you gave me reflection and truth and understanding.’ And it’s still very surreal to me that my memoir could be as impactful on some young woman’s life as Maya Angelou’s [I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings] was for me, as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was for me, as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was for me.”
10. What can other media professionals do to avoid the mistakes CNN made in approaching Mock and her story?
“I think the number one thing is recognizing the other person’s humanity. I think with trans stories, people just see them as subjects, and when you see someone as a subject, therefore they look like an object to you… Great conversations always spark in a genuine interest to recognize and know the other person’s story, and therefore recognizing and understanding and celebrating their humanity. Knowing that this isn’t some subject for you, but this is someone you’re trying to engage in a conversation with — and I think for me, that’s the fundamental thing.
We’re also talking about ally-ship too, right? Which has become an identity which to me should be an active process of learning and growing and action. So if a community is telling you that you did something wrong, your job is not to defend yourself. Your job is to listen. We have this term in social justice groups: You step up and you step back. You already stepped up by doing the media portrait, and now you need to step back and listen, because obviously people were hurt by these various portraits. And your job as an ally, or as someone who wants to further the conversation, is to listen.”
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