Before Janet Mock was a high-profile journalist or an advocate for the modern trans movement, before she was a sought-after public speaker or a bestselling author, she was a young trans woman, trying to find her way, discovering her true identity the same way that we all do: one step at a time.
In her new book, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, Mock breaks down the journey of her early 20s, from her days as a student at the University of Hawaii and nights under the neon lights of Club Nu, the strip club where she worked in Honolulu. She traverses her love life and growing pains, along with the struggle to become her most actualized self, and how, against the odds, she made her way to New York City to follow her dreams.
But, while her new book (the follow-up to her 2014 memoir Redefining Realness) traces the autobiographic path its author took, it is also the story of a young woman grappling with how to tell it on her own terms, and what parts of herself she chooses to share with the world.
The result is a beautiful, 360-degree portrait of a modern day icon, in a way that makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that she's the one in charge of her narrative. We spoke to Mock about what she learned about herself while putting pen to paper, the advice she'd give her younger self, and the important reason she is reluctant to be the face of trans in America today.
What does “surpassing certainty” mean to you?
“Surpassing certainty came from the epigraph of my book, which is an Audre Lorde quote. I love her ability to speak of unspoken truths. She was doing it at a time when it was dangerous to be a Black, feminist, lesbian poet, writer, and mother. Her complicated intersections of identity — though they made her vulnerable — also made her powerful.
"She didn’t shrink into silence. She didn't shrink into shame. She says: When you speak, there will be compromises. There will be sacrifices. People will leave you. But you will find people who love you. You'll go out. You'll dress up. You'll flirt. You'll party. You'll paint your nails. Lorde’s quote is: 'And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.'"
"For me, surpassing certainty is about being able to be so sure in yourself, in your mission, in the things that you know in the world. This book is also the opposite of that, in a sense, because it is about a time when I was not certain, when I was unsure; when I was eager, hungry, ambitious — wanting so many things. Now that I look back, the whole goal for me wasn't just contentment; it wasn't just an achievement or an accomplishment. It was taking certainty in myself."
Did you learn anything about yourself while writing the book that you weren’t entirely aware of before?
“A lot of the book is framed as a full set of my 20s, but it really isn't: It's from 19 to 25. So [at 34] I do have a bit of distance from that, to be able to mine some lessons. The overall thread is this thread of, I had this hunger. I had this wanting. I had this insatiable, ambitious appetite that I learned about myself as I was writing. I was wondering where the hunger was coming from.
“There's also this other theme of wanting to be seen as I was, but also concealing myself, for my own safety, and taking care of myself. I continue to go between these two poles to this day. Being someone who writes an autobiography, I know I have the ability and the capacity to be able to share my work and my life experiences when I'm ready to share my work and my life experiences. At the end of the day, what I've learned about my story is that not everyone is deserving of it when they want to hear it. They're deserving of it when I say it's time for them to hear it. And that’s the other theme of the book: disclosure.”
You have said in the past that you don’t want to be the poster child for the trans movement, for a really important reason. Can you expound on that?
“The very first piece that was ever written about me, six years ago, when I first decided to step forward publicly as a trans woman, includes a line that expresses my reluctance to be labeled a spokesperson for trans people; because I knew, even back then as a 27-year-old, that my single experience cannot tell the story of millions of us who are out there, and thousands who came before us.
“I need to work as a storyteller telling my story, having conversations with people that I hope push us, challenge us, make us act, and make us think differently. That's the work that I try to do. But because my ideas are politicized, my personal experience is seen as a gateway for all of my communities. And when I say ‘my communities,’ some of them overlap and some of them don't: There's trans people, there's women, and then there's folks of color. No one asked me to speak on behalf of Black people or women. But they will tell me that I need to speak for trans people. It's interesting how people choose to magnify parts of me, and then also slough off the rest of the parts of myself. The reason why I love engaging with writing a book is because I think it gives people a fuller portrait of my story and my experiences; I hope that it also contextualizes the work outside of just my own personal narrative.”
One thing that does come up in the book is your evolution with your own body during your 20s, which is a journey all women seem to go through. If you could go back and give your 20-something self one piece of body advice, what would that be?
“Oh my god. Number one would be: Stop comparing yourself to people, images, anything outside of yourself. It's only going to bring you a sense of discomfort. Don't try to seek comparison, or visions of yourself, outside of yourself. You have it all within you. If you're comfortable in your body as it is, own that. Surround yourself with people who affirm you in that. You own this body, and it is yours. It's fine to have that complicated relationship with your body. But at the end of the day: It’s yours. So take care of it. It embodies you, but it is not all of you."
Do you think that trans women have a different kind of beauty standard or pressure to live up to, on top of the beauty standards all women face?
“I don't think that it's any more intense for trans women — I think it's seen as more intense for us. We're all grappling with the commentary of others on our bodies. I love the work of Laverne Cox and Hari Nef, because they're out there challenging the ways in which we say trans women can look. You don't have to be 'passible.' Laverne is very clear that just because she does not pass does not mean she's not beautiful. Those things are not mutually exclusive.
"The thing that I would say to young trans women who are struggling with their bodies is: I've been there, you're not the first to be there, and you're not alone. Being able to pass, though vital for a lot of people's safety — I also want to be clear about that, it is vital for a lot of people's safety — it is not the only gateway for you to be able to be yourself. We can look so many different ways. There's not just one standard of what a beautiful trans woman is.
“It's also hard for me to give that advice. It feels subjective. The way I look; the fact that I am seen as ‘attractive’; the way in which I present; the way in which I can blend in, and have that act as a safety, and be seen as ‘her’... If you are a trans girl who can’t pass, it’s difficult to hear advice from Janet Mock, because of how I look, so that’s part of my trepidation with offering advice. But I hope, at the end of the day, [trans women] can surround themselves with people who love them and affirm them, who don’t expect them to perform or to try to look like the standards that none of us can live up to.”
Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, by Janet Mock, is available now.