Janet Mock • Redefining Realness

You should read this one.

Figuring out what the stakes of a book is, for me, the most important step in the book review process. Expecting a book to be other than what it’s attempting to be delivers you to your own prejudices and blinds you from a book’s worth.

Judging by its cover, you might think Redefining Realness is a simple inspirational memoir. Its subtitle is “my path to womanhood, identity, love and so much more,” and the pull quote on the cover, from bell hooks, calls it “a life map for transformation.” Judging by the surface of its writing style, you find a light read, though heavy in content. However, when you think about the stakes of this book and how well it lives up to its goal, you realize just what a tremendous achievement it is.

I hope to convince you of this fact below the fold.

Janet Mock, Redefining Realness. 2014 autobiography of a trans writer and advocate. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Janet Mock © 2014 Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Janet Mock © 2014 Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Redefining Realness is the autobiography of the trans writer and advocate Janet Mock. In 2011, Mock came out as a trans woman in Marie Claire. This book is her own much more detailed version of her lifestory up to her gender reassignment surgery. She has continued the story in Surpassing Certainty, published this year, which I have out from the library and hope to read shortly.

Redefining Realness is an absolutely first-class book, one that I’d recommend everyone read, though I must add a large Content Warning for its depictions of rape, abuse, and drug use. I’m not going to get into the details of her story, focusing rather on how the book is written.

As a writer, Mock has two incredible strengths: clarity and nuance.

Realness reads like an extended magazine article with elements of a self-help book. It’s approachable, lucid writing, with a frame narrative of her telling her lifestory to a date with whom she’s falling in love. She’s opening up to him, and she’s opening up to us.

The general style is simple to explain. Mock narrates an event or passage from her life, explains what she’s learned from it or how it affected her understanding of who she is, and discusses its connections to larger issues, especially as they affect trans women. She has lived a life full of incident and faced incredible hardships, so just on the level of reading about a life it’s very engaging. Mock is incredibly brave in bringing into full light the painful, sometimes shameful details of her life. She speaks her truth clearly.

It’s her ability to teach the reader as she goes, however, that sets the book apart for me. Mock patiently and clearly explains the culture of trans women that she has experienced as she goes along, discussing issues from pronoun usage to sexual orientation to social prejudice to sources of pride and inspiration. She notes common experiences that she has shared, and clarifies how her experience is different from many trans women. She also explains the culture of Hawaii, where she’s from, which she also recognizes is not well known.

As someone who knows little about the issues that are central to being trans (or Hawaiian), I greatly appreciated her clear, patient explanations: “To be mahu was to occupy a space between the poles of male and female in precolonial Hawaii, where it translated to ‘hermaphrodite,’ used to refer to feminine boys or masculine girls. But as puritanical missionaries from the West influenced Hawaiian culture in the nineteenth century, their Christian, homophobic, and gender binary systems pushed mahu from the center of the culture to the margins. Mahu became a slur, one used to describe male-to-female transgender people and feminine men who were gay or perceived as gay due to their gender expression. Despite mahu’s modern evolution, it was one of the unique benefits of growing up in a diverse place like Hawaii, specifically Oahu… where multiculturalism was the norm.”

This clarity also serves to make the action propulsive. She has a great eye for detail, particularly for hair, dress, and charisma: “The lady had long, full wavy hair that served as a backdrop to her curvy body. She gracefully moved her head to the lyrics, basking in the glow from the yellow-tinted lightbulb directly above her. Her deep-set brown eyes, magnified by a pair of full false lashes looked straight ahead, stoic, almost numb, mirroring the turmoil of an unbearable heartbreak. She was a diva among a moving mass of chorus queens who appeared blurred; only she was in focus.”

You can tell that she is teaching you a certain way of thinking by how you begin to understand the word “woman,” which she often uses when most people would write “trans women”: “I personally know many women who choose to leave behind their pasts—their family and friends, anyone who knows they’re trans—in an effort to blend in as cis. The trans community calls this ‘living stealth.’ For many, it is an act of survival.” Her project is stated clearly in the title: redefining realness. One method of redefinition is to expand the meaning of “woman” to include trans women without modifiers.

So you can see that where Mock really shines is how she weaves nuance into her clear writing. She generalizes from her own experience but recognizes that her experience is not universal, and carefully examines these distinctions. To take one example, she notes that since she’s a femme trans woman interested in straight men, her experience is in some ways much more akin to a heterosexual cis woman than to the Ls, Gs, and Bs with whom Ts are often put, if that makes sense.

Though Mock had an incredibly difficult childhood, she brings out the positive effects or her own good fortune. She’s also a generous, detailed analyzer of the complexity of emotions and relationships: “When a person transitions, it doesn’t affect only the person undergoing the change but all those who love that person. I didn’t take into account the mourning that my father, my mother, my siblings, and my family would undergo as I evolved…”

One fascinating stylistic feature is that Mock includes quotations from interviews of members of her family, reflecting on the life they shared. These little passages give you a different perspective to the events and add nuance to the story.

A final thing. When I learned about this book, I was curious about what I felt was a clumsy, unmemorable title: Redefining Realness. (Its title was originally going to be Fish Food, fish being slang for someone who looks like a “real” woman.) I was ignorant of the importance of the word “realness.” This is how Mock defines it, basing her definition on the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning: “Simply, ‘realness’ is the ability to be seen as heteronormative, to assimilate, to not be read as other or deviate from the norm. ‘Realness’ means you are extraordinary in your embodiment of what society deems normative… To embody ‘realness,’ rather than performing and competing ‘realness,’ enables trans women to enter spaces with a lower risk of being rebutted or questioned, policed or attacked.” Adopting realness is a “pathway to survival” for many trans women. But defining realness as strictly in line with heteronormativity produces many problems, chief of which is the reinstatement of detrimental hierarchies of behaviour and appearance; hence in this book Mock is “redefining realness” in a more open sense.

Redefining Realness is a great many things. It’s the autobiography of a trans woman aimed at the broadest public, which is groundbreaking. It’s the autobiography of a half-African-American, half-Hawaiian person who was treated as black growing up in multicultural communities. It’s the autobiography of someone who’s simply lived a life worth recording, who’s lived through horrific abuse, extreme poverty, and social ostracization. It’s an examination of an extremely complex family life that could be considered dysfunctional but that also produced the woman she is today. It’s a primer about trans woman culture, an argument for its worth, and an argument for social improvements. It’s a primer about Hawaiian culture. It’s the examination of someone shaped by 80s and 90s pop culture and by literature. It’s an inspirational book about overcoming circumstances and discovering yourself and finding love. It’s also just an engaging, delightful read.

You should read it.

Many thanks to Alex for recommending it to me.