by Janday Wilson
Janet Mock first felt the stirrings of storytelling’s transformative power when she was a young girl in Honolulu stalking literary icons like Maya Angelou, Terry McMillan and Zora Neale Hurston in the Kalihi-Palama Public Library stacks: She knew she needed a notebook to capture the overflow of thoughts and feelings that the words elicited. Years later, after accomplishing her childhood dream of moving to New York and becoming a writer, she gained national and international attention when she shared that she is a transgender woman in a 2011 Marie Claire profile. Mock has since used that spotlight to give greater visibility to the devastating injustices faced by the trans population, availing herself of every opportunity to advocate specifically for young, low-income trans women of color.
Mock believes that the conversations facilitated by storytelling can deeply affect social movements. In 2012, her Twitter campaign #GirlsLikeUs gave trans women an open forum to connect and share their stories. Her recently released memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, is her ultimate act of storytelling thus far. “Creating this work taught me that [I am] enough, that [I] deserve to be heard and affirmed,” she said.
Mock’s recent appearances on Piers Morgan Live and the ensuing contentious debate about Piers Morgan and his show’s language regarding Mock’s trans background are a striking reminder of why she feels it is so important to educate the media and public at large about trans people. In an emailed statement about that incident, Mock told Mediabistro that, “The show framed our conversation with problematic language that showed their lack — and our culture’s lack — of understanding about trans people’s right to define themselves. It’s problematic for media professionals to use terms and words that we do not use to identify ourselves. What we must do is give people the freedom to declare themselves and define themselves.”
Read on for our conversation with Mock about her memoir and her mission.
Name: Janet Mock
Position: Writer, activist and author
Resume: Started her career at People.com, where she was a staff editor for more than five years. Left to focus on her writing, public speaking and advocacy centered on trans women of color from low-income communities. Has made televised appearances on shows, including Melissa Harris-Perry and Piers Morgan Live, and her commentary has been on BuzzFeed, NPR, Colorlines, The Huffington Post and more. Has received accolades from the ADCOLOR Awards and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, among others. Board member at the Arcus Foundation, a global social justice organization; is an advisor for the media site Youngist; and has served as a consultant on programming for trans youth at New York’s Hetrick-Martin Institute. Her memoir Redefining Realness was published on Feb. 4, 2014, by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. She is also the founder of the Twitter campaign #GirlsLikeUs, and creator of the Redefining Realness Storygiving Campaign (the initiative to donate copies of her memoir to low-income trans people raised $2,500 in two weeks and garnered 127 book orders) and the user-submitted storysharing project I AM #RedefiningRealness.
Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii
Education: BA in fashion merchandising from the University of Hawaii at Manoa; MA in magazine journalism from New York University
Marital status: Single
Best career advice received: “I’d say it would be [Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet] Alice Walker. And it’s not necessarily like she told me this directly, but she said, ‘Write all the things that you should have been able to read.'”
Guilty pleasure: The Real Housewives
Last book read: Bone Black by bell hooks
Twitter handle: @JanetMock
When did you know you wanted to be a writer and a storyteller?
It was in a public library in Honolulu, where I grew up. I remember I was sitting in the stacks and I was trying to look for Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And [there was] that sense of reflection that not only was I feeling Maya Angelou’s story, but also that sense that there’s so much coming up and welling up in me. And I felt I needed to have a notebook while reading. Because it wasn’t my book… so I couldn’t write in it and I didn’t have money to buy books anyway. But I knew I could get paper and I could start writing my thoughts down… I was in the fifth grade. And I knew that words would be my refuge and words were where I could create a composite of the dreams and the life that I wanted to live, and really write about my reality and bring words to that.
Describe your early journalism career in New York.
At [my] internships a lot of it was in the fashion closet and packing up boxes and writing shipping labels and assisting editors with products. I was like, so I definitely don’t want to work at a women’s fashion magazine. And then I was rescued, I think, by the online world, which was slightly different. It’s not like how it is now.
People.com was a stepchild of People magazine, which was the juggernaut. They were creating… the mold and creating what social media is and communicating [immediacy] to readers… And so that’s how my career was. It was sitting in a cubicle. I wasn’t a features editor. I didn’t write long-form pieces that I thought I would be writing. I was writing smaller blurbs, learning to sharpen language, and communicate what readers actually wanted and how to entice them to click on things without sensationalizing.
Storytelling is a common theme in your life. How did you develop your voice to make it adaptable to the different social media platforms that you use it on?
That’s what I learned from working at People.com for more than five years. You just know that people want certain things when they’re looking at certain spaces. Twitter is more about creating small conversations… Facebook is a lot more photos. Instagram is all photos… It’s about creating conversations outside of just getting [people] to click on your story. Because sometimes the conversation will then lead them to the story and to further engage with your work.
[S]ocial media has been a way for me to not only raise the visibility of this marginalized group of women, young trans women, it was also a way for me to get people to understand or at least know someone in their life that’s trans, which oftentimes [is] me. I’m the first trans woman that many people meet through social media. So it’s knowing that that’s not just an interaction in which I’m broadcasting, it’s also an interaction in which I interact with their content through Twitter, through Facebook, through their blogs and YouTube and all of this stuff.
Why and how do you encourage other trans women to share their stories?
It’s not enough for me to tell my story, it’s also [important] to then create spaces for these young women to share their stories. And so that’s why I started the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs. That’s why I started the storysharing platform [I AM #RedefiningRealness] on Tumblr. And so it’s just constantly creating opportunities for others to share. Not just for me to talk at them, but for them to have a conversation with me. I think that’s where a lot of media platforms get it wrong. They think that you talk at people, and there’s no value in talking at people. There’s a lot of value and growth in conversations and that’s how you can move social movements forward.
What has been the most personally gratifying outcome of all of your trans community advocacy work?
I feel like I have those moments every day. For so long I think that trans peoples’ stories have been told by journalists or by other people telling us what our lives look like and then warping that and not telling it in totality. But now, with social media and the tools that come with being able to buy a computer and a couple of free programs online, you can create the content of your own life. And I see that every day online through Twitter, through YouTube. Trans people are telling their own stories. Unfiltered. Away from the gatekeeping of media professionals who have good intentions but oftentimes just want to entice readers with sensationalized stories. Instead, now trans people are creating the record of their lives… I feel like that’s a monumental success.
In October, you spoke on a panel with bell hooks at The Ohio State University, and you realized she had read your entire memoir the night before and even quoted passages from the book during the discussion. Tell us about that experience.
That moment was just surreal for me. Period. I studied bell hooks’ work, I looked at her theory and it’s just shaped me. A book like Feminism Is for Everybody, I read that one first. And then I fell even deeper in love with her when I read Ain’t I a Woman? because so much of that intersected with my sense of womanhood as a young trans woman of color… but then to have her have this transformative experience through my book because she carried my story with her, it was profound for me. It was a great dream enough to just share a space with her… I hope that the book is what she calls it, a life map for transformation. That it does change minds and it gets people to see trans people and their identities as not something that’s foreign, [but as] something that we’re all striving for. We’re all striving for authenticity and to be loved and affirmed as exactly as who we are, you know. And I think that that would be the ultimate goal for me. [That] someone reading this… would feel transformed and also moved. Not so much to advocate for trans people, but to challenge the media’s and pop culture’s perception of trans people as jokes and punchlines and tragedies. We’re so much more than that. That would be the greatest goal or the greatest dream to be fulfilled with the book.
In a recent interview, you mentioned that you had considered being a showrunner. What would your concept for a show be?
For me, it would be kind of like… Living Single or Girlfriends. Something like that. It would definitely be a women-centered show about, maybe like bell hooks says, bringing the margin to center. You know what I mean? Like centering a story of a trans woman, but [so that] her ‘transness’ is not what defines her. I would like to create a show… that really shows the lived experiences of being someone that’s told her womanhood is not real or valid. That would be powerful. But just to have her doing fun stuff. Really living life where everything is not about transness or gender 24 hours a day.
I just think about something like [the web series] Awkward Black Girl. Just creating a show out of nowhere. That would be fun for me. Another dream is to have a conversation series, a space where I sit and hear stories and share conversations with other people, and give space to other stories. Cause at the end of the day that’s what I do. I’m a storyteller, I’m a writer and I would like to find out how to do that in different platforms outside of just the written word.
Do you have any last words of wisdom for the storytellers out there who want to make a positive impact?
Anchor yourself in your own experience and write from that place. And you’ll find your voice. You’ll find out what you want to do. You’ll find your purpose. And I think that everything comes out of that. It’s [about] being able to sit still with yourself and really excavate those parts of yourself that were shut off or silenced or put into the dark a long time ago. I know that when I actually sat down with myself to do that work… that’s when my life began transforming.
Janday Wilson is a storyteller based in the greater New York City area. You can find more of her work at jandaywilson.com.