Janet Mock writes about her journey through contemporary America as transgender woman of Color from a complicated background. In this memoir, she narrates her story, talks about trans issues in general, and attempts to communicate her experiences not just as a transgender woman but as a someone trying to make sense of the world around them. Because in some ways this is an advocacy/celebrity memoir, the writing is perfectly competent. I will say that I listened to the audiobook version and hearing Mock read it herself probably made me a bit inclined to not really care about the language issues that some reviewers brought up.
I was looking into the reviews for this book and for the most part they’re positive. Which isn’t good enough for me. I am a bit of a glutton for understanding people’s motivation to upend something that seems more or less ok, so I looked at the negative reviews. Some of the reviews were basically saying that the structure of the book was uneven and the writing wasn’t stellar. Which, fair enough. This isn’t the kind of memoir where the goal seems to be to tell a story in the only way possible. Janet Mock is a professional writer, but she’s not a professional memoirist. So the language is less artful at times than it might be in someone with an MFA or a more natural gift for language. But I think these reviews also miss part of the implied goal of the book.
Then I found the reviews that just wanted this book to be something it is not. Here’s some things it is not: a Communist upheaval of total world Capitalism, a radical renegotiation of sexual politics and gender, a radical much of anything. This is by its very nature a transgressive book, but I don’t think it’s a very radical one. Mock’s very existence is already an outlier in contemporary American society. As a Black woman, she has faced down real and persistent oppression. As a transgender woman, she has faced down real and persistent oppression. She can’t even be on national television without someone boiling down her existence to her sexual organs. And so, I think this book just being written and published works against mainstream understandings of gender and sexuality already. I found reviews that questioned her conclusions, that one of the things she is looking for in life is love and understanding (in her case, from a man). There are not a lot of trans voices in mainstream media, and so I understand there often feels like a responsibility to be everything to everyone. This is what I mean by this book seems impossible to write. If Janet Mock tried to speak for everyone, she would be criticized for taking on too much, if she tried to make this a primer on trans issues she would invariably miss some, if she simply told her own story, it would miss the experiences of others. And so the book did try to be a mix of all these things. There is some primer material within this, this is her own story, and she does try to at least speak to or acknowledge the experiences of other trans people. And so because she is limited as a person, all of these are somewhat underserved. If we see the goal of this book, as I thought it was, was to tell a personal and somewhat identifiable story about a person struggling with identity with a goal to examine the humanity of its subject, then I think this book is successful in purpose. If this book also attempted to bring people into the compassionate fold of understanding some trans issues without being “too scary” I think it’s successful in doing this as well. But I found it compelling, I found it earnest, and I found it to be attempting something meaningful, both personally and beyond personally. I don’t think the criticism of this text is unfounded–Capitalism is often a zero sum game and heteronormative desire is a problematic binary that needs constant renegotiation, but I also think this book, which constantly talks about “telling one’s own truth” does just that. It just so happens that for Janet Mock, according to this book, that truth doesn’t work for everyone else.
I can understand feeling let down by this book if you wanted something much more radical, but I also think this is a book that can act as a bridge between someone who is willing to try and an understanding of these issues, these communities, and these stories.