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November 2014

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Redefining Realness

Written by , Posted in Feminism, Reviews

Four Stars

janet-mock-book-coverYou might be familiar with Janet Mock. She has been a writer for People magazine (which I unapologetically read every week), and more recently has shared her story of being a trans woman of color in a feature for Marie Claire magazine. I first learned about her where I learn about many things that aren’t necessarily covered on CNN or in the New York Times: on Twitter. I’d see her comments retweeted by other people I follow, and learned about her book when it came out earlier this year. I had originally purchased Lena Dunham’s book to read this month, but exchanged it for this one because I realized I don’t really care what Lena Dunham has to say about things, but I do care what Ms. Mock has to say about things.

This book is a memoir that focuses mostly on her youth, starting with her memories as a young child in Hawaii, through moving to New York City for graduate school. Ms. Mock was assigned the gender male at birth, but never felt connected to that; she felt like a girl. Her story is fascinating, surprising, and at times heartbreaking. It can almost read like fiction, because it was difficult for me to realize that someone could experience what she did and come through it not just to survive, but to thrive.

Ms. Mock faced many disadvantages growing up, but she also recognizes that she had some things that other trans youth do not have. Early on she found her best friend Wendi, who was also trans, and helped her to not be alone at school. She is a very smart person and was able to earn a scholarship for college. Her family was supportive of her as she took more steps to make sure that her actions and appearance matched how she felt – she was not thrown out of her home when she shared her reality with her mother. That’s powerful.

Her writing about accepting who she is, and especially about what it means to be a ‘real’ woman, made a strong impression on me. This idea that we value trans people more if they ‘pass’ for cis people, or that someone is lying if they don’t share that they were assigned a different gender at birth, places cis as the center of ‘normal’ when in reality being cis is just common. This sentence, coming on the second-to-last page of the book, is one I want to embroider and hang on my wall: “We must abolish the entitlement that deludes us into believing that we have the right to make assumptions about people’s identities and project those assumptions onto their genders and bodies.” Spot on.

I should say that I’m not used to Ms. Mock’s style of writing. I’ve read loads of memoirs, but most of them are written by comedians, and thus have a very different feel. I think she finds her stride about three chapters in (although who knows in what order she wrote the book), but I nearly stopped after the first chapter because the writing was so very … descriptive. At times I felt like there was some sort of adjective word count she felt she had to hit, that I was reading a book that suffered from a lot of ‘tell not show’ sentences. It’s not the type of writing I generally like to read, but the story behind all of those words was so interesting and powerful that either I figured out a way to accept the style, or it became less prominent as the book went on. No matter – I’m very glad I stuck with it.

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