Writer and activist Janet Mock discussed her new book
Janet Mock, a contributing editor for Marie Claire, a transgender rights activist and the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, & So Much More,” came to campus last Tuesday for a conversation with Professor Jasmine Johnson (AAAS) about her memoir. She spoke of the challenges she faced while writing and the important questions her memoir poses about growing up multiracial, poor and trans in America. “Redefining Realness” addresses the process in accepting oneself while at the same time understanding how to coexist with and accept others.
Mock, born in Honolulu, Hawaii, has a Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Merchandising from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a Master of Arts in Journalism from New York University. She began her writing career as a staff editor at People Magazine. Five years later, she became a contributing editor for Marie Claire, in which she came out publicly as a trans woman. In 2014, Mock published “Redefining Realness,” showcasing not only her own writer’s voice but also her perception on self-identity.
Her voice, however, was one discovered through her exposure to other works when she was a young girl. There were three books, Mock said, that especially inspired her memoir: “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Hurston, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou and “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker.
“They were black, they were womanhood — they were about love. They were about finding your own space in a world that was not built for your survival. They taught me how to survive,” Mock said during the event. She emphasized the importance of finding outside inspirations through quotes and texts, saying that reading these works filled her up and gave her language. “[The books] emerged me in ways that enabled me to write and take up my own space. That my words are deserving of their own space; that my existence is deserving of a book — that I deserve to be on a bookshelf.”
In addition to gaining inspiration from the written texts, Mock also explained her use of writing alongside quotes of inspiration that serve as mini gas stations throughout her memoir. “I had a bulletin board when I was writing when I first started. And so a lot of these quotes always existed; they were always in front of me.
“As I was writing the book, someone’s words were in my ear, in my head.” Mock suggested “Their Eyes Were Watching God” — the audiobook — as a way to immerse herself into her own writing. “I knew that I wanted to say that this book does not stand alone; it is part of a tradition. … It is a syllabus too. These are the people, these are the works that have fed me, that have influenced me. You can’t separate the woman-ness and the blackness — from the everything me-ness.”
Looking at the book from the public’s perspective and how it serves beyond the bookshelf, Mock said, “It’s what the media does. So much of [the media] is that we want to create and hold up symbols. We want to tokenize people to become these blank slates that are all of their experiences — their multiplicities, complexities, nuances, lost in service of this single identity, this politic, or movement.” As one of the most influential trans women and millennial leaders in media, Mock saw her book as a means of challenging pop culture labels. “I was this trans-figure, and that was one of the reasons why I fought against that.”
Mock, who has a strong presence on social media, founding #GirlsLikeUs, and who has gained media recognition being named one of “12 new faces of black leadership” and one of “the most influential people on the internet” by TIME, saw it important to address the balance needed in juggling public life with private life. When writing her memoir, Mock had to choose which moments she wanted to reveal and which she preferred to keep private. Mock mentioned Beyonce as a model for this balance. “In a world where nothing is private, she has been able to have some sense of privacy and control.”
While Mock carries a strong presence on social media, she does so consciously. She knows it is important to set boundaries and create safe spaces for sharing. She went on to share her choice to post a couple photos from her wedding and explained how it was a purposeful choice on her part.
“I thought on a political level it was necessary for black women to see themselves in a space that brings forth trans women and black women and trans women of color. To see themselves in a bridal space. To see themselves loved, publicly.” Mock said that her love for social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat is based on how they allow you to share what you want to share. “The only difference is that I have more people watching — sorry,” she laughed.
Despite the potential artificiality that can be seen through social media, Mock talks about her definition of “Realness” in not only the context of her book but also the context of her life. To Mock, “Realness” is deciphering the difference between “being normal” and being oneself; it is acknowledging the existence of this “normal” and knowing in what ways you would have to give up part of yourself to adhere to that sameness. Mock asked a universal question that speaks to many college students especially: “How do we account for being acceptable in society by not shedding our queerness, shedding our trans-ness, shedding our race and performing?”