Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, and So Much More by Janet Mock.
Atria, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2014.
Memoir, 263 pages including acknowledgements.
I’d seen this book recommended multiple places before I finally bought it. The tagline says “You will be changed by this book” and I have to say, that is entirely accurate. Janet Mock is diverse and disadvantaged in so many ways – part Hawaiian, part African-American, transgender, from impoverished circumstances, a former sex worker, abused and traumatized as a child. Yet out of this mix she has formed something gorgeous.
First and foremost, Janet Mock is an excellent writer. The beauty of her prose and her ability to convey complex emotions and difficult situations at points actually took my breath away. I’ve been reading approximately 200+ chapter books per year for at least a decade, and at this point in my reading life, it’s rare for me to have such a visceral reaction to a book. This is the most beautifully written nonfiction book I’ve read this year so far.
Mock is unafraid to use her full vocabulary but also unwilling to use a big word when a little one will do better. She conveys a great deal of information but it never comes off as jargon or infodumping. Instead, this rich book rewards thoughtful rereading, even as you want to move forward and find out where she goes next.
Her perseverance and coming of age is the driving force of this narrative. While the book’s purpose is not giving general information about being trans, at points Mock steps away from her personal narrative to give crucial background information that not only makes this book more accessible to the layperson, but also more useful. However, she is very diligent in reminding us that while her story might be representative, she doesn’t speak for all trans women, Hawaiians, mixed race peoples, sex trade workers, etc.
When letting us into her world, Mock also draws us into her ideas and challenges us to think deeply about issues that might not seem to affect us, whether that is race, class, gender, sexuality, occupation, education, and more.
She talks a lot about passing and how it shouldn’t invalidate someone’s identity. Just as it is incumbent upon white people to speak out about racial injustice, Mock takes it upon herself (as a trans woman who could easily pass for cis if she chose) to speak out against the idea of passing as a measure of validity. It was amazing to read about someone who has been marginalized in so many ways willing to call out her own areas of privilege and think deeply about both her own life and the ways in which it applies to the wider world.
Mock also has a lot to share about racial identity. She was raised on Oahu during her early life, but then moved to the mainland to be with her father. In Hawaii she was steeped in the indigenous cultures of her family but felt out of place as there were few mixed Hawaiian/African American children. On the mainland, she learned about being black but was disconnected from her Hawaiian roots and culture.
Particularly since her parents separated early in her life and she was raised at various points by each, with an ocean as well as two cultures between them, Mock explores the dichotomy of her two disparate cultures, rather than a blending of races in one happy family life. She does find some similarities, but it seems like she is mostly torn between cultures, loyalties, and expressions of herself for most of her childhood. Her deeply considered reflection on these circumstances provide ample food for thought for the rest of us.
I really want to recommend this book to everyone. That said, this book is not for the close-minded. If you have friends or family you’d like to recommend a book to, or if you yourself are new to all this, don’t think you know any trans people, and feeling uncomfortable about the idea, then I’d recommend starting elsewhere first. Perhaps the biography As Nature Made Him or the elementary school novel George would be a better fit, or even reading or watching videos online.
If you have at least a basic familiarity with/understanding of trans issues, or you feel that you are open and ready to learn, then this is the book for you! I would not recommend this book for children because of the sexual content, rape, and abuse, and if those items are triggering for you, be forewarned. It may be appropriate for individual teens, particularly trans teens of color.
While Mock is a native (indigenous) Hawaiian, I’m still debating including this as part of my #100indigenousbooks challenge. While some early chapters deal with her life in Hawaii, it’s not a major focus of the book.