How to be… A Writer: Janet Mock

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– As told to Tamara Pridgett

In 2011 Janet Mock publicly came out as a transgender woman. A year later she created the #GirlsLikeUs campaign, celebrating and encouraging trans women to live visibly. Writing and speaking about the intersection of her identities, Ms. Mock is now a New York Times best-selling author with her book Redefining Realness and has sat on thought-provoking panels discussing the intersection of pop culture and social justice. Janet is challenging the status quo as a black woman in an intellectual space reserved for white patriarchs. She brings a refreshing perspective to what Black Feminism is by way of her self-definition. She continues to show that it is possible to be black, a feminist, and in tune with her sexuality saying, “for me to pretty myself up in whatever way I want to… I think that there’s power in claiming that space.” Her story is one of strength and courage. A story of self-acceptance, self-actualization and self-definition.

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Name: Janet Mock

Age: 30

Location: New York, New York

Profession: Writer

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How did you get started?

I began writing and reading vigorously in middle school when I signed up for my first library card and began writing for our monthly school newspaper. I continued reading and writing throughout high school, where I worked on the yearbook and newspaper staffs. It was in college, specifically my junior and senior years, where I actually began reporting and writing longer feature pieces for our daily campus paper, Ka Leo O Hawaii. I remember being particularly proud of a piece I wrote on a library janitor who was an immigrant from South America who wrote poetry. After undergrad, I moved to New York where I earned my masters in journalism, completed internships at InStyle and Playboy magazines, and freelanced for People.com where I eventually climbed the ranks to Staff Editor during my five-year stint there.

What’s an average day like?

Journaling in the morning, followed by a few hours of emails, social media messages and phone calls, meetings and coffee dates. The above describes the days in which I am not traveling for signings and speaking engagements.

The ups and downs you sometimes face on the job:

As a young woman writer who is visible and vocal about issues that most people don’t have knowledge and language to discuss, I am both empowered by my visibility and voice and vulnerable because of it. So many of the ups are paired with downs. It’s part of the journey.

Your greatest achievement so far?

Writing and publishing my book, Redefining Realness, which debuted on the New York Times bestsellers list in February.

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When writing Redefining Realness was there ever a moment where you wanted to shut down production?

No, I never experienced such a moment because I understood intimately just how privileged I was to have access and craft to tell my story. I was acutely aware everyday as I wrote and edited Redefining Realness that this text would be my homage to the work of my foremothers – from Audre Lorde and Sylvia Rivera to Zora Neale Hurston and Marsha P. Johnson.

In an interview with Slate.com you said people told you your book wouldn’t be taken seriously in academic circles due to your cover, specifically the fact that you are attractive and feminine. How do you think we challenge this stigma of attractive/ feminine women not being taken seriously in academia?

We challenge this by dismantling this hierarchy that privileges masculinity over femininity, this hierarchy that perceives femininity as frivolous and unnecessary and masculinity as necessary and functional, this hierarchy that says a woman with big hair, pushed up breasts, and a lacquered lip has nothing to say and a person in pants or a perfectly tailored skirtsuit does. Personally, I could care less about being perceived as less serious because other people’s perceptions of me are not my business, and I know – deep down – that my adornment are extensions of me, enabling me to express myself and grab hold of my body, a body that has been told over and over again that it should not exist.

Is there anything you wish you would have added or left out of Redefining Realness?

No, not at all. I had three years to write Redefining Realness and was intentional about the memories and stories I shared, the experiences I contextualized and the direction of the book as a personal-political account of my quest for identity and a celebration of my girlhood.

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What are your thoughts on the intersection of gender, sex, race, fashion and the media? How has pop culture framed you?

I think Chapter 14 of Redefining Realness really speaks to this intersection, using my relationship as a fan of Destiny’s Child as an example of how seeing yourself represented in media can shape your perception of self, showing you possibilities that you were not able to see before being exposed to those images.

My coming-of-age as a teenager hit at the same time as the late-90s pop music boom, with boybands and Britney Spears and the influence of MTV and TRL. I remember seeing a void in that space, feeling as if young black girls didn’t have a place in that particular space. Frankly, I felt left out. Then, I saw the premiere of “Bill, Bills, Bills” on the countdown – and seeing those four black girls being glamorous, using their voices, their image and talent helped me dream of greater possibilities for myself. They gave me license to be more unapologetic with my voice and my look. They fed me in ways that continue to impact me today as a young trans woman writer of color who loves popular culture, social justice and aesthetics.

What might be next for you?

I’m a writer so I will always write, whether it’s an essay or another book project. I am also interested in having more conversations about the ways in which popular culture and media serve as mirrors for our society. I’m hoping to have more of these conversations in shared spaces with people on-camera as a host and conversation leader.

What writings by women of color authors have impacted you?

If I had to choose one book it would be Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston which instilled the tenet that a woman’s quest for identity and love is valuable. I would also add the following incomplete list: Sister Outsider and Zami by Audre Lorde; This Bridge Called My Back by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Sula and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith; and Ain’t I a Woman by bell hooks.

You stated at the age of four you knew you were a girl. What advice do you have for parents that have children who are dealing with their “this I know for sure moment”?

I would tell parents of trans and gender diverse children to listen and affirm their children, to let them know that nothing is wrong with them and that they are loved. I would also advise them to let their child lead the way on their expression, to support them as they explore their identity and to respect the agency of their body and identity.

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What are your top go-to hair tips?

For curly girls like myself I swear by the following:

  • Condition, condition and condition even more.
  • Get trims frequently.
  • Add highlights for dimension
  • Shampoo with no-suds shampoo, like Hair Rules’ Cleansing Cream.
  • Achieve big hair for the gawds by flipping your head upside down, teasing roots with fingertips (or a smooth, gentle comb) and use a texturizer like Oribe’s dry texturizing spray.

Fun Fact:  Do you have any interesting or fun facts about yourself or journey you’d like to share with readers? I’m quite skilled on the volleyball court. See Exhibit A…

Photos courtesy of Janet Mock and via
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