Janet Mock Is Writing Herself Into Existence, One Memoir At A Time
The title of Janet Mock's new memoir comes from feminist writer Audre Lorde: "And at last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking."
"It's me paying homage to one of my foremothers," Janet Mock tells me when I interview her on Bustle's Facebook Live. "Someone who has created a blueprint for me to write myself into existence." That idea — of "writing oneself into existence" — is a directive that is both simple and complicated, and it is exactly what Mock, one of the most visible trans women in the world, is doing — one memoir at a time.
Hours after the Facebook Live chat, she and I are having a one-on-one conversation, tucked away on a love-seat in a private corner of Bustle’s New York City office. Mock is 34 years old now, just a few years removed from the events of her new memoir, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, but it’s clear she’s taken that time to reflect deeply on the stories she relates to her readers: dancing in a strip club in Hawaii in college; marrying her first husband, Troy, and divorcing him years later; moving to New York City to study journalism; and navigating the overwhelming white spaces of the magazine publishing industry.
This narrative is starkly different from that of Redefining Realness, her first memoir, a book that chronicled her childhood as a young, multiracial, trans girl, her solo journey to Thailand to undergo surgery, and her relationship with her now-husband, Aaron Tredwell. In that book, Mock felt she had to include what she calls “explanatory commas” — or asides that explained what she means when she uses words like “transgender.”
“In this book, I did not have that layer in there. I think our culture knows more now," she tells me. "It felt so freeing to just center my own personal experience as a memoirist. I definitely thought intentionally like: “What will this mean? How will these certain experiences expand beyond myself?” But I didn’t try to grab language or a proper dictionary — or be a dictionary for people’s 101 understanding of things.”
Surpassing Certainty is a memoir about making mistakes and being hungry: hungry for love, hungry for success, hungry for understanding of oneself and others, hungry for a place in the world. For Mock, that hunger led her to an education and career in journalism — first at NYU, then at Playboy and InStyle as an intern, and next at People, where she landed her first full-time journalism job. These stories are all told with the freshness and candor of a close friend — the book reads as though someone you know is telling you about her first heartbreak, her first job, and all the crazy things she learned along the way.
What becomes clear early in the memoir is you can't have a conversation about Janet Mock's twenties without talking about Troy. Though their marriage eventually ended, for many years, it was a positive, affirming, honest relationship — and Mock wanted to make it clear that such a partnership was possible for trans women. "All of us want to find love, we want to find fulfilling partnership," she says. "So I write about it because I want to show that 1) it’s possible; 2) that there’s different ways to disclose, because that’s tricky territory, and it’s one that can be dangerous; and 3) for me, is to show that also, the things that I've learned. It is really complicated when you’re trying to start something with someone else. But also that you can survive after it not working out."
And survive she did. Though their relationship wasn't completely over when she moved to New York City, it was clear she moved into the next stage of her life: her career as a writer and a journalist. In part two of the memoir, she writes of New York City, beginning with her time at NYU and moving into her internship at Playboy, an opportunity she describes in the book as "one of [her] most fulfilling professional experiences." Though Playboy initially seems like a surprising place for Mock to begin her career, she says that working at the magazine was actually an opportunity to explore, challenge, and expand her own feminism.
"It was strange to write in the book about seeing bare breasts on the wall," she tells me. "But then I also had to check and challenge myself, even then, to say, “Who am I to judge a woman for wanting to do that work? For choosing to do that work? For being paid to do that work? It’s not my body. It’s not my choice. But for me, those are spaces we need to be in. Because we sit and talk all day about feminist politics, and that can be a great safe care thing to have someone affirm you. But I think it’s equally challenging and equally vital to go into spaces that may seem to be more problematic, that don’t have this pretty bow.”
Over the course of the next several years, Janet Mock navigated spaces that could, to certain degrees, be described as problematic. As a young black woman, she lived — and witnessed — the difficulties of breaking into the media industry as a woman of color.
She tells these stories through an intersectional lens, owning up to her own privilege as a trans woman whose womanhood is "unchecked and unchallenged" in most spaces and as a multiracial woman (she’s half-black, and half-Portuguese and native Hawaiian) who is "privileged by the hierarchy of the skin-color system."
“Everyone is so afraid of the term privilege,” Mock tells me. “So for me, the reason that I do it, is to properly frame and be exacting about my place in the world and the spaces that I’m navigating.”
In one particularly illuminating story, she writes about a moment when she inadvertently invalidated the experience of a fellow intern, Anika, who felt as though her dark skin prohibited her from landing a job in the beauty industry. In response, Mock reminded her that Kelly (described as “pretty brown”) was working as a beauty assistant as InStyle.
“That’s one example,” another of the interns tells her. “Name another.”
Mock writes: “I could not name another and realized my mistake. Instead of affirming Anika’s experience, I had negated her very real lived experience as a dark girl who had navigated colorism her entire life, not just in corporate America but also within blackness.”
Despite her privilege, Mock isn’t immune to the challenges of being a journalist of color. After applying for a full-time job at People, where she had been freelancing for a year, Mock was told by her boss, also a woman of color, that they had decided to open the job to more applicants, because they felt hiring her would be a “risk for someone with little management experience” and that she had come off “as a diva.”
“Neither of us uttered the words racism or sexism, but those words loomed,” Mock writes. “We spoke in code, because that was what we had learned to do in order to navigate these spaces.”
Mock eventually did secure the job — a writer-researcher at a brand where she could talk about her true passion: pop culture. It's clear that this is Mock's calling: throughout our conversation, she's dropped references to Beyoncé, to Gilmore Girls, to Oprah, to The Bachelorette. Mock writes that she always wanted to pursue a career in pop culture media, an ambition that often conflicted with the rigid structure of journalism school, which at the time still heralded print, particularly The New York Times, and "hard news" as the pinnacle of journalistic greatness.
“I noticed this sense of stigmatization, particularly [from] male journalists, who saw themselves as hard news reporters: “You need to read this.” “You need to do this.” There was all these things I was supposed to do as a journalism student in order to be taken seriously,” Mock tells me. “I was not interested in being taken seriously. I was interested in taking the stuff that brought me joy seriously.”
Eventually, she came to the realization that pop culture, while offering an escape from the harsher realities of her lived experience, could also be a vehicle for talking about the issues that impacted her community. “There’s all these greater cultural meanings,” she says. “I think also that younger people — specifically millennials — know how precious these cultural moments are, that they mean so much deeper than just something that entertains us. It's speaking to us. We’re having conversations with it every single day on social media.”
Mock has come a long way since those beginning days in journalism; she now has created more spaces to talk seriously about all aspects of her identity: as a mixed-race woman, as a trans woman, as a lifelong fan of Beyoncé. She recently began a column at Allure called Beauty Beyond Binaries, which explores beauty as a cultural movement, and she launched a podcast with Lenny Letter called “Never Before” — a space for intimate one-on-one conversations with some of Mock’s faves about work, love, and life. Her first episode featured Tina Knowles.
Mock has created a space to tell her story and the stories that are important to her. But this isn't the end of the journey. "[I want] more voices," she says. "Just more complicated, nuanced, complex voices so that transness doesn’t become this thing where everyone is like “Oh, I know what transness is” just because they saw one person."
She adds: "I want more spaces for people to feel as if they can go out and tell their own stories." In telling her own messy, heart-wrenching, and ultimately, uplifting, affirming story, Mock has certainly set the standard — and perhaps, lit the spark of inspiration for others to write themselves into existence.