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:
Life Stories: Janet Mock, Author of Redefining Realness
For Mock, Redefining Realness isn't a "transition" story, nor is it about learning to "pass" as a woman.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
What can other media professionals do to avoid the mistakes CNN made in approaching Mock and her story?
Ron Hogan is the creator of Beatrice.com, one of the first literary websites, where he launched the Life Stories podcast in 2012. He's also a contributing editor at Shelf Awareness and can often be found expressing an opinion on assorted subjects on Twitter @RonHogan.