Janet Mock is a memoirist, entertainment journalist, television host, TV producer, and activist. Mock’s first memoir, Redefining Realness
, chronicled her childhood in Hawaii and introduced the ideas of trans identity and the trans youth experience into the American mainstream, centering the lives of trans women of color within the public conversation about gender identity and LGBTQ+ rights. Surpassing Certainty
continues that work, describing Mock’s journey from a trans teen who hides her full identity in order to survive into a successful professional with the confidence to publicly embrace her story. Mock's gift for pairing incisive social critique with an emotionally rich accounting of her life makes reading her books a wonderful and eye-opening experience — like having a long talk with your best friend, who just happens to be a feminist trans woman of color with a rich history and a great deal to teach about how we do — and should — define womanhood. Warm and wise, Surpassing Certainty
is a vital contribution to the growing literature on gender identity and an absorbing personal history.
At the very end of Surpassing Certainty
you write about omitting your first husband, Troy, from your earlier memoir, Redefining Realness
. You write, “I omitted him mostly because of the strength of the narrative. I preferred to present the portrait of a woman who had never had love… until true love arrived. As a writer, it was the line of stronger desire, one that offered simplicity to the reader.”
I found this to be a fascinating and revealing statement because it gets to the heart of memoir as a narrative form. In memoir, the author gets to craft herself as a character, rearranging the facts and feelings of her life into a new, though still authentic, history. In this way memoir can function as a sort of rebirth, and I wondered if that was part of the form's appeal for you?
Completely. There is a sense of being able to editorialize, to rearrange, to reimagine the ways in which I experienced certain things in the moment, but then also being able to come back in as the current me, who's sitting there writing at a safe space at my desk, and conceptualize experiences.
I don't think that I was aware of the fact that I omitted certain parts of my history to create that stronger desire. I probably really challenged myself when I was writing at the desk to be honest, and that was something that I did, even though I wasn't ready to recognize it then.
What I love about writing in this genre is the sense of revealing myself to myself, revealing my desires to myself, getting to know and figure out the ways in which I think and the ways in which I act in the story that I choose to tell — having that, and then breaking the walls (breaking the page?) and telling that to the reader, and trusting them to not think any less of me for having made that distinct omission and choice.
You write early on in Surpassing Certainty
that disclosure is not an obligation but a gift, and emphasize throughout the memoir that trans-ness is just one facet of your identity and not relevant to all relationships. Despite that right to privacy, you've chosen to speak out about being a trans woman, both through your memoirs and through activism, actions that you described as necessary and freeing. How has public self-disclosure helped you see yourself in a more positive light?
I can speak about it in two different ways. There's the private citizen part of myself that I was before I decided to come out publicly, where largely I didn't feel safe enough to do that work and to be out, or to disclose in every space and relationship that I was in. Once I was able to gain a sense of comfort and contentment, and a fear of not losing my job or not being able to support myself, I was able then to step forward and to say that I can do this work. That I hope to make it better so that other young women, other young people who are grappling with what I grappled with, and grappling with the identities that I have grappled and been living with, that they're able to access the same kind of comfort and safety that I've been able to access. To be able to sit at their own desks or at their own easels and be able to create the portraits of themselves that they want. For me, that's the ultimate mission with my books and all of the work that I do as a storyteller, to hopefully allow people to, one, see themselves, and, two, feel empowered by the fact that they're not the only people who have been to where they've been.
On another level, a personal level, it's freeing for me to not feel contained by self-imposed or imposed silence from some other force. For so much of my life I lived feeling as if, if I spoke, if I said something, I would lose everything. I would be pushed out. No one will want me. No one will love me. No one would want to be friends with me. It took me decades to get to a space of saying, "This is my truth. This is who I am, and I don't care if you like me or you don't like me." That's not the goal. The goal is to speak. The goal is to be honest. The goal is to speak my truth.
That's why I love the genre of memoirs so much. It suits me. After I wrote Redefining Realness
, I thought I'd go write an ideas book or something, unpacking beauty culture, or maybe a YA book... I still have a YA genre series type of a book in me that I really want to tell. I thought I'd go do something like that and get away from myself, and then I went to a writer's retreat, the Hedgebrook retreat for women writers. I found myself returning to myself again and realizing that, as I toured my first book, I didn't check in with myself. I was so busy doing so much work, whether that was activism, producing television projects, promoting my memoirs, or speaking on college campuses, that I didn't check in with myself. I craved my own audience again.
What I love about writing in this genre is the sense of revealing myself to myself, revealing my desires to myself…and then breaking the walls (breaking the page?) and telling that to the reader.
This book enabled me to come back to a genre that I love, and a genre that, frankly, was among the first that I fell in love with, thinking about Maya Angelou and what she was able to craft an entire career out of. I was like, If it's good enough for Maya Angelou, I think it's good enough for me
] That's what gave me the strength and the confidence to try memoir again.
You mentioned “audience” a moment ago. One of the things I really enjoy about your work is that despite your academic background and clear interest in subjects like intersectional feminism and marginalization, your prose is jargon-free and incredibly intimate and relatable, almost gossipy. It's a lot of fun to read, but really smart and often quite pointed. I found myself wondering if your prose style is a reflection of your personality, or a rhetorical technique designed to appeal to a specific audience. It sounds like your primary audience is yourself.
It's probably the way in which I speak to myself when I don't feel policed by others' expectations or I don't feel the burden of representation. There is a sense of, How do I speak to my younger self?
A lot of speaking with my younger self is to strip myself of all of the knowledge and the jargon that I've obtained through going to college, grad school, and then engaging in the world and learning from other people on Tumblr, Twitter, and being woke.
Once you grab this jargon, sometimes you forget that all of this language can also be a barrier. It can shut people out who feel as if they don't have that language, who feel as if they're not good enough or they don't have the knowledge or technique or sensitivity to be able to engage in these conversations with those who are like them or unlike them.
In my undergrad journalism course we were trained by Professor Beverly Keever to write at a seventh-grade level. That's what I was taught. It means that if there are any words that may need explanation, you better put an explanatory comma in it, or you don't use those words because we can't assume that everyone has the same experiences or the same depth of knowledge. If we want to enlighten people, or give them new thoughts and ideas, we have to be willing to do the work of educating them. In my first book I included a lot of explanatory commas because we were at a different space culturally. It was the first book written from the experience of a young trans person, someone who went through medical and social transition as a young person. There were a lot more commas. It was like, "Transgender, an umbrella term that describes the..." [Laughter
] I had to.
The reason why that book is successful is because it is a teaching tool masked within a memoir. You're going to get all of this knowledge, all this jargon, and be able to keep up with the wokest type of gender-theory person. At the same time, you get, hopefully, a moving personal narrative.
With this book, I stripped myself of that. I told myself that I didn’t want to have to do the work of explaining the words that I used. I challenged myself to talk to the seventh grade girl that I was. I would not use those terms with her. I didn't even use the term transgender when I was younger. That wasn't a term we used. We were just like, "Oh yeah, she's a girl." Like, "Oh, you're one of the girls."
For me, it was like, How do I do what both of my grandmothers always did?
, which is speak it plain. They spoke it from experience, and they never felt the need to perform intellectualism. They just were smart and they just were intellectuals. I really just followed the map that they crafted there.
Early on you write, "I thought that deliberately stating that I was a trans woman, a woman who hadn't always been seen as a woman and therefore had to fight for her right to reveal herself as one, would have only lumped me in with the tragic trannies who consistently sashayed across my screen as modern day freak shows." First, that's the most poignant and accessible definition of trans womanhood that I've ever come across.
Wow, thank you.
Do you think that the popular idea of who a trans woman is has shifted since the early 2000s?
The short answer would be yes. Yes in the sense that there's a lot more visibility. There are a lot more people that can be pointed to, a lot more names that someone who may not engage in this space or these politics would be able to say, "Oh, yeah. I know this person. I know that person."
Specifically, times have changed in the sense that Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympian whom generations have had relationships with, an American hero, transitioned. This is something that globally, because of the Olympic stage, the world kind of grappled with. I was at a conference in Kenya with a lot of trans activists, and I realized that the story reached there because they were talking about it. For the first time, trans activists were getting media attention and media requests and interviews to talk about their work because of the fact that the Kardashians are a global phenomenon. [Laughter
Folks like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox offer two different mainstream examples that people can point to and see that trans women are not a monolith, that we can be black or white, Latina, whatever. We're also not a monolith when it comes to our politics, in that you can have an ultraconservative like Caitlyn Jenner, who votes against her community's interests, and then you have someone like Laverne Cox, who will go on the stage at the Grammys and speak about a young 17-year-old trans activist named Gavin Grimm. Then the world can see another portrait of trans-ness in Gavin Grimm, a Virginia high school student who's fighting for the right to have access to the restroom.
For so much of my life I lived feeling as if, if I spoke, if I said something, I would lose everything.
Also, media makers are a lot more aware of the sensitivities that even in 2014, when I was promoting my first book, were not there. I was asked questions that largely were not really sensitive, were not really thoughtful at times, were super sensational. Culturally, we have grown up a bit.
Of course, there's so much more to go, but when I was growing up, the main portraits were what I talk about, the freak-show element on daytime talk shows like Maury
and Jerry Springer
. People’s most common relationship or interaction with a trans woman was her disclosing onstage to her boyfriend, and then the boyfriend being shocked and moved to violence. People didn't equate that with the ways in which men then treat and abuse and beat up, and oftentimes kill mostly young trans women of color, and that those things are directly related. It's going to take us a long time to come to this point of unlearning and complicating, and seeing a more diverse portrait of trans womanhood.
My goal at least is to engage in challenging that and showing that we can have all kinds of different experiences and still be deserving of being seen and having the rights that we need to be able to access the world freely and safely.
One of the dominant themes in your book is race. You write vividly about being one of five black women in your journalism program at NYU and a minority in the publishing industry, and about the poverty, violence, and marginalization that trans women of color often face in America. It made me wonder about the progress our politics and culture have made regarding trans persons since your first memoir: Has the increased visibility of trans individuals in media made America a safer place for trans women, or only for those who meet certain criteria like whiteness, celebrity, or beauty?
Yeah, I would say that the one population that was not shocked by the way in which our politics and the administration has shifted would be trans people of color, and I would expand that out to LGBTQ people of color, who rarely ever run the mainstream LGBT organizations, are rarely ever in leadership, have done a lot of activist and political work on the ground with little-to-no pay, who have never really been offered resources or space or been centered in any way. So when this shift happened, I felt like my communities were not really outraged, we were not really surprised, but it still was shocking in the sense of like, Wow, America is showing itself to all of America and not just us. We're not the only ones being pushed out. We're not the only ones being told to go away, to go hide, and that we don't belong.
So in a sense, yes, there are these layers of respectability, or these limits put on which trans people society will let in. It's largely binary-identified trans folk. It's largely folk who are white, who are moneyed, and who are as close as possible to cisgender-normative beauty standards, non-trans beauty standards, who often don’t look trans. Also, as we gain more visibility and we see more of ourselves, other people see us, too. There's a part of the hypervisibility which is now that people know that we exist, we can be targeted.
So part of this growing visibility in our culture, whether that's through the bookshelves, through the movie screens, through the television screens, through politics, what is also happening is that — because marriage equality as an LGBT agenda item has been passed, it’s the law of the land — the next focal point has been to target trans folk. We have someone like Gavin Grimm who has to fight his school in order to use the restroom. Now the restroom issue is where we are in our movement in the sense that that has become the most central issue for the movement.
But if you ask marginalized trans folk what the central issue is, they would not say restroom access. They would say that it would be, number one, the violence and the targeting that's happening to trans women of color. I believe that already this year, 10 have been killed in the United States alone. That's not including South America and Asia where their numbers are a hundred times more than ours. So while visibility is great, hypervisibility also becomes something that is being addressed. Young women are targeted on the streets more because people know that we exist in a way in which they didn't know about us before.
There's a lot of sex in Surpassing Certainty
, which you attribute sometimes to a desire for connection and other times to a growing feeling of empowerment and ownership of your body. You're uniquely well-positioned to talk about sex from different perspectives — as a woman, as a trans woman, as a woman of color, as a survivor, as a former sex worker, and as an equal partner in loving relationships — and it seems like your message is primarily sex positive. Would you be willing to talk a little bit about why sex scenes are a recurring motif in your memoir and about the role sex has played in bringing you to your current position of certainty and confidence?
What a beautiful question. I knew as I was writing this that my challenge would be the writing of the sex scenes, which I wanted to keep super simple and short. I didn't want, like, "He tore off my bodice!” There was a political point. I am a sex-positive, sex-workers'-rights-supporting, trans-woman-of-color feminist. This period in my life that I'm writing about coincided with the first time I felt free in my body. I finally felt comfortable learning how to share my body with other people, whereas in my teenage years, because of medical reasons and stuff, I did not feel as comfortable.
What does it mean to be a young person engaging in the hookup culture? What does it mean to be a young person on a college campus? What does it mean to be a young person engaging in first love? What does that look like and the comfort that comes from there?
If you ask marginalized trans folk what the central issue is, they would not say restroom access.
I really wanted to center a politics of desire, a politics of pleasure, to write about sex as something that's matter of fact. Because oftentimes when we have portraits of people, political figures or anyone who serves as a representative, we desexualize them in order to contain them. In order to say that they're respectable, you don't talk about those things. For me, I wanted to challenge myself to fight my own inner police. I needed to unlearn that. So as a writer, I sat and wrote the experiences that I remembered. This was not every sexual partner that I had. The book doesn't do that. I chose certain ones for different schematic reasons.
I was 19 to 26 years old and sex was a huge deal. Sex, connection, and relationships, whether they were platonic or not, were super central in my every day. I didn't go from campus to my bedroom and go to sleep. I also was a young woman in New York City. My experience was going out, socializing with my friends, and then sometimes finding a cute boy to kiss or to do more. I wanted to write about that.
Another recurring theme in Surpassing Certainty
is food. You have a remarkable memory for culinary experiences, and almost every chapter features detailed meals shared with friends, families, and lovers. I got the impression that, beyond serving as a connecting force for you, shared meals provided a refuge or a pause from the complicated process of navigating your life in your 20s. Food also seems to serve as a literal metaphor for your ambition and appetite for a full life. Is that an accurate reading?
For me, food represented, for sure, the sense of sharing. For readers who read my first book, you'll see that a lot of the biggest conversations, the biggest points and pivots in my life, happened around my grandmother's kitchen table. Even the first time I told my mom that I was trans was at our kitchen table. For me, food has always been directly linked to a space of safety, a space of sharing, a space of, of course, physical nourishment.
It also speaks to the hunger I had in that period, the hunger for answers, the hunger for assurance, the hunger for figuring out what my place was in the world.
The hunger, the safety piece, and the nourishment piece went hand-in-hand. I'm really glad that you read that on that level. Thank you.
I detected a conflict in your memoir between loving and respecting pop culture, and the idea that escaping into pop culture — as opposed to the hard-news journalism you describe in your work with Julio — allowed you to “play pretend” and avoid confronting your own struggles. You write, "Pretending felt safest. I believed it was the only way I could make it so I stripped myself of backstory and connection and flattened myself, distilled myself, made myself smaller and easier to contain and digest."
Now that you've reclaimed your backstory, has your relationship with pop culture changed? Do you still believe that it functions in opposition to politics?
It's interesting because now I challenge myself. I watch television differently. I'm more aware now that that was a way in which I survived for many years. The way I navigated the world was just to see television as escapism. And there’s a part of it that is. If I'm watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta
, there's a part of that that's just escapism. I'm not watching it with a political lens, but there is a part of me that certain things trigger and pull up, where I'm like, Oh, that was really problematic.
And it's like, How will I engage in this, and how will I engage in this publicly?
, which is a whole other layer.
I would say, specifically in this political climate, I find myself turning more toward escapism, in the sense of, I want something that will entertain me. I don't want something that'll make me think too deeply because I feel as if every headline that comes and every breaking news item, I feel the weight of that.
At the same time, my challenge now as an adult — this is with growth and progressing as a human being — is that I know that they're not completely separate worlds anymore. And that I don't have to compartmentalize them in a way that I used to in order for mere survival. Now I'm able to say, OK, that's enough of this news stuff. Now let me go here.
But I can still have an eye on what's going on. My relationship is still kind of similar, but I'm a lot more aware of when I turn towards the pure escapism of television.
So many recent shows feature minority characters and issues that pop culture and politics seem intertwined.
What's so great now is that there's so much out there that I don't have to engage with every single one of them. We have options.
Also, the next layer of that is there are a lot more people who look like me on television. There are so many different shows, from Empire
, and Underground
. I can't even name them all. When I was growing up there weren't that many. Now it's a whole different cultural environment where there seems to be an openness to American diversity, compared to our political landscape, which has gone to this other end of it where it's like, "We don't want any of these people to exist here."
For me, the struggle now, the tension that I have as a viewer, a lover of and someone who critiques pop culture, is realizing that the stakes are high outside of culture. I also need to go to the political landscape to ensure that I'm spending more time there. When I was younger, I didn't want to deal with that, period.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a writer, TV host, and advocate whose work has appeared in Marie Claire
, the New York Times
, and Lenny
. With a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, the Honolulu native worked as an editor at People.com, produced HBO’s The Trans List
, hosted a series of specials for MSNBC, and appeared on OWN’s Super Soul Sunday
. Oprah Winfrey has called her a "fearless new voice" and "trailblazing leader" who "changed my way of thinking." In addition, Janet has been honored by the Ms. Foundation for Women and Planned Parenthood and has spoken at the Women’s March on Washington. Time
magazine named her one of "the most influential people on the internet." She is the author of the New York Times
bestseller Redefining Realness
and the new book Surpassing Certainty