Author Janet Mock’s ascent as a media and advocacy powerhouse has been swift since the 2014 release of her first memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. She has gracefully wielded her truth in watershed moments, such as when professional misogynist Piers Morgan misrepresented her identity on live TV or when she warmly discussed her experiences with Oprah on SuperSoul Sunday. Phobias and -isms didn’t stand a chance against her resolve, and her growth is more than palpable in her latest release, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me.
Her gaze is strikingly different on the cover of the two memoirs. On Redefining Realness, Mock’s expression captures the journey of coming to terms with her multihyphenate identity and the great risk of sharing her full truth with the world. On Surpassing Certainty, her gaze is dead-on and any reservations she may have had on her literary voyage have dissipated. Mock is Beyoncé-confident on the cover of this exquisitely packaged gift of her experiences.
While her first memoir concluded with Mock embracing her multihyphenate identity and finding true love with her now-husband, Aaron, Surpassing Certainty gives the winding and often “sloppy” journey that leads up to her emergence as a public figure. This memoir feels more present and relatable, with greater self-awareness and transparency interspersed with girl-next-door anecdotes. She isn’t afraid to get super ordinary in this book, and it pays off.
Mock breaks the shackles that have marked the “trans memoir” genre. She is no longer offering a 101 master class on trans identity, but encouraging us all to find our unique way of being. She doesn’t shy away from discussing her experience as a transgender woman, but it isn’t necessarily the crux of her narrative. For instance, her racial identity (Black and native Hawaiian) takes center stage as she discusses navigating a predominantly white graduate school experience and confronting light-skin privilege and colorism while breaking into the journalism and media industry.
Mock unabashedly shows up for women in her book’s dedication, but her words speak to all 20-somethings that are “struggling, striving, and slaying in the shadows.” From balancing a social life in college to managing her initial pie-in-the-sky expectations for a major move to New York City, to the rise and fall of her first love, Mock chronicles the years when she was “just one of the girls” and her trans identity wasn’t center stage. She doesn’t weave as much contextualization into her story this go-around, but the complexity of it remains intact. The greatest example is the careful storytelling about her work as a stripper and healing from the trauma of sexual assault in college. She gives a glimpse of the many ways in which society pushes women to constantly find their own paths of survival.
Mock’s voice represents the last generation of Americans to emerge into adulthood without fully realized transgender superstars in their youth. Alongside Laverne Cox and, for better or worse, Caitlyn Jenner, she has played a major part in firmly planting trans identity in the mainstream. In Surpassing Certainty, Mock reaps these benefits while continuing the nuanced use of her experiences to help break the one-dimensional mold that trans women of color have historically been placed in, including tragic headlines and incompetent politicians working to deny us access to public spaces. Her story signals something greater.
I interviewed Janet Mock on Surpassing Certainty, what made creating this volume different from her previous effort, and how her life has changed since her breakthrough in the literary world.
In what ways was the writing process for Surpassing Certainty different than Redefining Realness?
I didn’t go out and seek sources outside of myself this time. I think it was because the journey I opened up about in Certainty really is just about me as a young woman. It was about leaving home for the first time, so I didn’t have to mine for my family relationships like in Realness, which was a lot about my childhood and teenage years. Being that it was my first book, there was a lot of “Can I do this?” It was paired with the sense of having written for years about parts of my story through journaling. With Realness I felt our culture was at a different space and consciousness in terms of trans visibility. The burden of education was lifted for me with Certainty.
I feel like it’s a lot more personal, which isn’t to say that Realness wasn’t personal, but there wasn’t the same sense of needing to contextualize. It was freeing for me as a writer to just write about being a young woman on a journey through finding herself in things that 20-somethings grapple with. I felt like I was speaking specifically to those young people and saying, “this isn’t your blueprint, but this is the way I navigated these spaces of desire, employment, education, and self-fulfillment.” And hopefully you can mine from my mistakes, mishaps, and triumphs and find some kind of lessons there for yourself.
It was interesting to hear you open up about what it was like to break into journalism. What do you think of the media landscape now in comparison to when you first entered?
When I first entered media, digital journalism was not taken as seriously. It was this new, emerging space. My peers and colleagues were trying to break into magazines because print was held up on a pedestal—to see your name in print, to see your name on a masthead. When I landed as a digital editor at People, I had this sense that no one was going to really see my work, or it wasn’t as important as writing for the [print] magazine. I think that has completely shifted and changed, and people are now eager to work in digital. There are so many outlets eager to hear more voices that mine from their own personal experiences, but are also able to use those personal experiences to react to, break down, challenge, and contextualize through culture writing.
What I have also noticed is that a lot of writers are having a hard time making a living because of the freelance economy. The way rates have lowered so much has made it hard for writers to make a living, which can make writing more discouraging. A lot of people—journalists and media personalities—have to brand their perspective and be multiplatform. You need to have a podcast and a column and hopefully branch out to have books and do TV appearances—having your hands in so many different pots to have your voice rise above and to be heard in this crowded media landscape.
You just got super personal there, because in the last few years you’ve done so much. You’ve worked on multiple podcasts now, with Never Before coming out and, of course, your MSNBC web series So POPular!, and writing and producing The Trans List. So what avenue of storytelling has proved the most challenging for you?
I think what’s always the least challenging for me is sitting down by myself and writing my thoughts. That has always been the purest form of my own expression. When I have to go produce a project, whether that’s a podcast or TV series or a documentary, I have my own intentionality and vision for the project, but it’s largely teamwork.
I learned a lot working on Never Before, my podcast with Lenny Letter and Pineapple Street Media. I’m working with a team of people who helped me create a vision for the kind of conversation series I wanted to have with cultural figures. It was a challenging process and it was a lot of hard work. It was two years in the making, from my friend Lena Dunham’s couch to the studios in Brooklyn to Tina Knowles-Lawson’s living room to Auntie Maxine Waters’s office in Washington, D.C. TV is always more challenging because there are so many more people and stakeholders involved. I’m someone who is impatient to the point of detriment sometimes, so it challenges me a lot.
I listened to Never Before, and it was flawless. It was like the more intersectional This American Life. So, what was most striking thing about Tina Knowles-Lawson when you first met her? What were the thoughts racing in your head?
Well, the thought racing in my head was I am with the source, number one. This is the source for all of the amazingness that is two of music’s greatest and important Black women in entertainment right now. But then as soon as she spoke and let us into her living room and at her dining table, I just was like, Oh, this is like my Auntie Joyce? She felt super regular for a woman who’s been so public, a woman who helped craft and shape her daughters’ careers. To be able to sit down with the woman who helped shape one of the most famous women in the world and a woman who means so much to me in terms of my adolescence and coming of age, the biggest challenge for me as a journalist and an interviewer was to be able to recognize that and be honest about where I stood. Yet at the same time, being present enough and being a journalist and being able to listen to her as a just a woman having a conversation with another woman. At the end of the day that’s what it was, despite all of the different attachments and feelings and resumes we brought to that table. I still can’t believe it was Ms. Tina!
It’s so interesting to hear you talk about your possibility models so openly and your inspirations because that is what you are to me as a Black trans woman who was trying to find themselves in college. So how do you juggle parts of your life that you own and can just hold yourself with the fact that you are a possibility model for countless folks—not even just trans women?
Well, Raquel, you saying that alone is always like a gut check for me every single time. It’s like, Oh wait, that’s why I’m doing this work. I remember the first time I decided to step forward with my story in 2011 in Marie Claire. It was because I felt I never saw the kind of woman I wanted to be in the world. The kind of woman that, yes she’s trans, yes she’s Black, yes she grew up low-income with Black families and families of color in these communities. I never saw her thriving in the world. I never saw her celebrated in the world. I wanted to step forward and say, “Look, hey girls, you can have a job. You can have a fly cubicle. You can have good friends and a great career. You can do all of the things you want to do and live your life, and you also don’t need to separate from the fact that you have this story of becoming that helps you build who you are and your resolve. There’s greatness in owning your history and journey, and you can have all of these things.”
There’s a line in Surpassing Certainty about sex work that reads, “Choice and circumstance led the women you knew to the pole.” You have been very open and intentional about looking at experiences such as sex work and stripping through a feminist lens. How do you so boldly embrace those parts of your past while it is still so touchy and taboo, even in the feminist world, to discuss openly?
I would say that is one of the greatest struggles for me in my public work, and one of the biggest criticisms I often get is around my centering of sex work and the sex worker rights movement. I believe it’s vital, and we need more partners and comrades in arms there. We need less judgment and policing. Our job is to ensure that, as they’re making these decisions about their lives and their bodies, we are fighting alongside them to create worlds where they are not policed and where they can have access to safety to take care of their bodies in this world and culture. I write about it not to just challenge systems and misconceptions, but to also challenge my own self in respectability politics. Often the women we uplift and “say their names,” the women we light candles for on Trans Day of Remembrance, the Black and Latina trans women, a lot of them have experiences in the sex trade and survival sex work. They’re not the kind of women we rally around and protect. I continue to speak it because I also know that so many of my sisters, this is how they survive and take care of themselves in a world where access to education, safe spaces, and employment is lacking and shrinking daily. If they need to take care of themselves by using their bodies to do so, I am going to stand alongside them as a force field to help make the world a bit more understanding of their journey.
You are very open about taking time and space to have certain experiences before you were ready to share your story. Do you have advice for young women, trans women, and women of color who are trying figure out how to express themselves and their stories?
I think the number one piece of advice that I would give is to sit with yourself and tell yourself your story first. That’s where I started. It started in journals. It started in morning pages. It started with just sitting down every day and holding myself accountable to my feelings and my past experiences, to the good, to the bad, to the folks who wronged me, and to the folks who wished me well. It enabled me to say, “There is a story worth telling here.” That, then, enabled me to find my safe first readers. My husband, Aaron, and my best friend, Thanh, who I write about in Certainty, were some of my first readers. To share and read those stories aloud with them allowed me to gain a certain confidence to say I am worthy of being heard. The next layer of that was also reading.
I think being an avid reader is just as important as writing. You need to seek out other people who have created stories. One of my greatest inspirations is Maya Angelou. Her memoirs and segmenting of her life experiences into different books was an inspiration to me to say, “Yes, I wrote Realness about my girlhood, and now I’m going to write Certainty about this section of my young womanhood at a time in my life when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and I didn’t have the answers yet. Let me show everyone what it’s like to be sloppy, young, make mistakes, and seek love and affection and desire in all of these different people and experiences.” So it’s a process of being accountable to your truth with an audience of one—yourself—and to open that up by sharing your writing with other people, like writing groups, and then being an avid reader.