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In 2011, Janet- then a writer for People magazine in the US- publicly ‘came out’ as a trans woman. Redefining Realness followed soon after, along with the launch of Mock’s #GirlsLikeUs social media project, encouraging trans women to live more visibly, (read more about it here) and a profile in HBO’s ‘The Out List.’ I read Redefining Realness because, ever since introducing my own trans character (Dolly) within the framework of The Breathing Ghosts Series, I’ve been researching and finding out more and more about trans experiences- particularly those of male-to-female trans people (like the fictional Dolly, and the very much real, brave and talented Janet Mock.)I think it is crucial that trans people gain more public visibility, and greater understanding from our often too judgmental, too discriminatory society. So I downloaded the book on my Kindle, and expected it to be an interesting and thought-provoking read. Two days of furious reading later, I finished the book and exhaled ‘Wow.’ Interesting and thought-provoking, yes, but also gripping, moving and lyrically written.
Mock’s way with words is effortless, her imagery imaginative and flowing, describing with panache the personalities, appearances and quirks of her family, friends, and her fragmented life in Honolulu. Yes, her home life was difficult, and at times traumatic- she recounts her experiences of prolonged sexual abuse, her mother’s suicide attempts and neediness for a man that clearly dominates her, her father’s drug addiction, and her own descent into sex work, and yet at no point did it feel too harrowing or upsetting to read. (Although some parts- particularly her story of sexual abuse, and how her mother wasn’t there to comfort her after her sex-change operation- did feel profoundly moving.) Instead, it felt as though I was reading the manifesto of a survivor, a courageous and creative woman who- whilst facing the grim realities of street work at night and a (in my opinion) neglectful mother- also won a prestigious University scholarship, aced her grades and started taking hormones.
It seemed to me that she took her life in her own hands, even when circumstances within threatened to spiral out of control. Mock, an attractive woman from a multicultural background and a large family, describes her background as growing up young, black and at times poverty-stricken within Hawaii and the US. She talks honestly and movingly about the seediness of her own experiences as a sex worker, and gives useful statistics and information about her actual sex-change operation, and the discrimination faced by trans people. She also gives statistics of their (unfortunate and shocking) likelihood of falling into sex work or drugs in the process of saving up money for costly operations and treatment. A little smattering of references to pop-culture (Beyonce, Janet Jackson, TRL) make the memoir even more real, and brings it home that Mock’s experience could be, in some respects, every trans woman’s experience, for every trans woman is undoubtedly a modern-day survivor of an everyday battle to be respected, seen and heard.
Overall rating: 10 out of 10. Brilliant!
Image from here