Redefining Realness

Trigger warning: sexual abuse

In this profound and courageous New York Times bestseller, Janet Mock establishes herself as a resounding and inspirational voice for the transgender community – and anyone fighting to define themselves on their own terms. With unflinching honesty and moving prose, Mock relays her experiences of growing up young, multiracial, poor and trans in America, offering readers accessible language while imparting vital insight about the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of a marginalised and misunderstood population. Though undoubtedly an account of one woman’s quest for self at all costs, Redefining Realness is a powerful vision of possibility and self-realisation, pushing us all toward greater acceptance of one another – and of ourselves – showing us as never before how to be unapologetic and real.

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I’ve been a big fan of Janet Mock’s for a while now. I loved her Never Before podcast (the Kris Jenner interview!) and her journalism is fantastic, as is her jealousy-inducing Instagram account. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading her first memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More. I mean that title alone screams Lydia, READ ME.

I think sometimes my subconscious tells me to put off reading books until I’m ready for them, and that was very much the case with Redefining Realness. As someone who has spent much of the last year or so consumed by questions about identity (‘be yourself’ is about the most stress inducing advice a person can give me), reading Janet’s story hit me hard. So, next time you’re beating yourself up for not having got to a particular book yet – relax. You’ll read it when the time is right.

In Redefining Realness, Janet details her life from early childhood up until she goes to college and ends with her reassignment surgery. The book is a mix of Janet’s own story with contextualising elements regularly added to place her personal experience into the wider struggles that many trans women, and especially trans women of colour, deal with. She emphasises that her story isn’t representative of the entire community and acknowledges the spectrum of gender, particularly when it comes to parts like her need for reassignment surgery – a procedure that was necessary for Janet specifically, but one that she takes pains to explain is not necessary for all trans women.

Redefining Realness is a memoir that is also a great introduction to transgender identity, the systemic prejudices trans women face and the sometimes deadly consequences those injustices can have.

What I loved most about this book though, was the nuanced, compassionate and equally resentful way that Janet writes about her family. In writing about her parents, Janet navigates the dichotomy of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent with ease. Both of her parents were pretty disastrous, unreliable people while she was growing up. She quickly learned that she had to provide for herself, financially and emotionally, as both her parents had limited room for her needs because they were consumed by dealing with their own. Though both her parents at times appear villainous – her mother with her total focus on her own romantic life at the cost, repeatedly, of her children; her father similarly consumed by his own relationships, drug abuse and a need to impose his ideas of masculinity on the child he didn’t understand – they are also loving, complex people all of their own. Though both regularly let her down, they never let her go. Whether it was her mother nursing her back to health after her surgery, or her father’s response after she came out to him (defensively, aggressively) – “Your disrespect for me is apparent… But I’m the parent and you’re the child and it is not your job to love me the way I love you. My love for you is unconditional” – Janet shows that even in their neglectful moments, both her parents still proved their love for their daughter. Families are complicated, painful, delicate ecosystems and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that represented in a way that felt authentic to me until this book.

Janet’s unflinching commitment to describing every inch of the painful, frightening and vulnerable process of becoming yourself pierces right to the heart of the struggle of growing up. A sense of being in hiding from something is, I think, a state very familiar to many of us, and Janet’s gradual inching out of the shadows is inspiring to read as she comes to terms with the abuse, shame and hardship that led her to becoming the person she is today.

She is fucking epic.

Becoming a person is a long, hard process that requires an awful lot more patience than we ever imagined when we were young. Reading stories like Janet’s is a much needed reminder that struggle, pain and frustration are only one aspect of a long, complicated life. And, once again, that there is a lot of baggage behind even the most glamorous Instagram feed.

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Lady Memoirs for the Soul

We are fast approaching the end of summer. Even though I am no longer a student, I can’t help but think of September as the beginning of… something. The thought of it makes me feel reinvigorated somehow. Does anyone else feel this way?

What I want, in periods like these, is to feed that sense of invigoration. For me, that means reading the thoughts of the people I most admire. So, books by women.

Here are a few to kick start your inspiration engine:

Lady memoirs

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

I thoroughly believe that everyone should read this book. I have the audiobook, and I listen to it whenever I am having a hard day. Amy Poehler is such a giving, open hearted writer. It pours out of her and infects you with its goodness.

“Hopefully as you get older, you start to learn how to live with your demon. It’s hard at first. Some people give their demon so much room that there is no space in their head or bed for love. They feed their demon and it gets really strong and then it makes them stay in abusive relationships or starve their beautiful bodies. But sometimes, you get a little older and get a little bored of the demon. Through good therapy and friends and self-love you can practice treating the demon like a hacky, annoying cousin. Maybe a day even comes when you are getting dressed for a fancy event and it whispers, “You aren’t pretty,” and you go, “I know, I know, now let me find my earrings.” Sometimes you say, “Demon, I promise you I will let you remind me of my ugliness, but right now I am having hot sex so I will check in later.”

The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is a singer on an art mission. Her memoir chronicles her journey from human statue to record breaking Kickstarter legend.

The Art of Asking is a book about art and trust and love. Amanda’s is a life lived to the fullest reaches of vulnerability and fearlessness. It makes wonderful reading.

“There’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen.

When you are looked at, your eyes can be closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, and you are seeing and recognizing your witness. You accept energy and you generate energy. You create light.

One is exhibitionism, the other is connection.

Not everybody wants to be looked at.

Everybody wants to be seen.” 

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Wild is a story of healing. After losing her mother at 21, Cheryl Strayed’s life falls apart. Her family disintegrates, her relationship with her husband implodes, and her relationship with heroin gets intimate.

Until one day she just can’t take it anymore. Until one day she picks up a guide to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2000 mile track across America. Until one day she decides to walk that trail, alone.

It’s an introspective, vulnerable, funny, heart breaking read.

“The father’s job is to teach his children how to be warriors, to give them the confidence to get on the horse to ride into battle when it’s necessary to do so. If you don’t get that from your father, you have to teach yourself.” 

I Was Told There’d Be Cake – Sloane Crosley

There is an essay in this book about how one time Sloane Crosley threw a very tense dinner party and one of guests shit on the floor of her bathroom.

Obviously a must read.

“Life starts out with everyone clapping when you take a poo and goes downhill from there.” 

Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert

Okay, so I guess this one technically isn’t a memoir. It does, however, feature stories from Liz Gilbert’s extensive creative life. If you care at all about creating, or if even a little part of you wants to make something, I beg you to read this book. It isn’t some art instruction manual, or a book about the morning routine that will make you write a best seller. It’s a simple exploration or creativity. It is about the joy of making something just because you want to make it.

It is not a book about success, in the traditional sense. It is a book that asks you to commit to creating because it’s what your heart wants. I think it is a book many of us bloggers would benefit greatly from reading.

“Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.” 

Wild

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State – and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humour, Wild powerfully captures to terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

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Shout out to second hand books!

I went to see the movie adaptation of Wild by myself one morning when I was still a student who had time for that sort of thing. The movie starts with Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) lowering herself to sit on the edge of a mountain, peeling off her shoes and socks and ripping out a bloody and blackened toe nail. I reacted with a noise along to lines of AAAARRRGGGUUUGH. My fellow cinema-goers looked at me with disgust.

I looked forward to this scene in the book with a strange, excited sort of anticipation. What I didn’t know from the movie is that Cheryl Strayed left the PCT with less than half of her toe nails remaining.

But she kept on going anyway. This may be the least of what is awesome about Cheryl Strayed.

(which is impressive)

Guys, this book did things to me.

I like to think that some part of me only put off reading it the two years following my infatuation with the movie because I knew there would come a time when I, like… needed it.

If you’re one of those people who spends a lot of their life hoping that something is going to happen – but remain unsure of what that something should be, and are, as a result left feeling generally speaking too paralyzed by confusion to go looking for it (hoping that’s not just me?) – then this book is for you.

Don’t get me wrong. It does not make for easy reading. Before her hike, Cheryl’s life has turned into a black hole of grief, heartbreak and drug use. After her mother’s sudden and devastating death from an impossibly fast spreading cancer, her family falls to pieces. Her siblings scatter and the stepfather she has always adored slowly fades from her life. All of this leaves Cheryl with an uncontrollable desire to burn what remains of her life to the ground. She got married very young – a couple of years before her mother’s death – and by a couple of years after, she and her now ex are signing their divorce papers and getting tattoos to remember each other by.

Cheryl weaves the narrative of her life in and out of the present challenges of her days trekking the PCT. Every scene Cheryl describes – from the PCT to her tragic history – totally captivated me. The stories from her past are devastating and ever-present, yet somewhat overwhelmed by the daily challenges that arise for a person who decides to hike a thousand miles without having a clue what they’re actually doing. There was one time she nearly ran out of water and died because of a bit of bad planning.

While there was much about Cheryl’s life that I couldn’t relate to – I’m lucky, family-wise and way too anxious about death to experiment with heroin – the essence of the book, the feeling of being lost and constantly overwhelmed by that feeling, is one I think most of us have experienced at some point.*

*Brief side note – have most of us experienced this? The other day I had a conversation with a co-worker where I told her that pretty much every day I wake up with a panicked voice in my head screaming WHATNEXT?AMIWASTINGMYLIFE?AGAGAGAGAGHHH! at me. I kind of assumed this was the norm, so was pretty surprised when she gave me the side eye and told me that had never happened to her.

Anyway.

Ultimately it seemed like what Cheryl discovered on the trail was a life where she couldn’t deny the present. The seemingly endless path in front of her and the excruciating pain in her feet were impossible to ignore. Even when it feels like the walls are built of the past and the road the future, neither of them are where we actually live.

Cheryl puts it better:

‘It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was…. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands any more. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.

How wild it was, to let it be.’

The Art of Asking

Considering the amount of posts I’ve written concerning memoirs by ladies, it’s weird to me that I haven’t yet talked about The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer.

Chances are you’re wondering who Amanda Palmer is.

She’s a singer-songwriter.

She’s also a lot of other things. She’s a music industry rebel who lied her way out of her record contract, then went on to run a record-breaking Kick Starter campaign where her fans (including myself) collectively provided over a million dollars to fund her independent record and subsequent tour. She has since turned to Patreon where fans (including myself) pay her per thing released (as of now she earns $35,312.82 per thing). She encourages illegally downloading her music, so long as you share it with your friends. Almost all of the music she has produced independently of her ex-label you can either pay what you want for or have for free. When she’s touring she couch surfs, usually staying with fans.

She is a loved woman.

A lot of people hate her.

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A really great introduction to Amanda and her book is her TED talk. I really recommend it.

In her wonderful foreword, Brene Brown says of The Art of Asking:

‘… this book is not about seeing people from safe distances – that seductive place where most of us live, hide, and run to for what we think is emotional safety. The Art of Asking is a book about cultivating trust and getting as close as possible to love, vulnerability, and connection. Uncomfortably close. Dangerously close. Beautifully close. And uncomfortably close is exactly where we need to be if we want to transform this culture of scarcity and fundamental distrust.’

I have never read a memoir like The Art of Asking. In terms of thematics, it has much of what I’ve written about previously. It considers everything that’s harmful in the way we live our lives, and offers an alternative. The way it does it, however, I haven’t really seen before.

In terms of chronology, this book is all over the place. It is a bucketful of puzzle pieces tossed into the air, somehow falling into the perfect portrait of Amanda’s life and values. The book isn’t separated into chapters so much as vignettes – Amanda marrying her husband, Neil Gaiman, Amanda graduating from college and not wanting a job because she wants to make art (sounds so familiar), Amanda’s human statue years, Amanda meeting and falling in love with Neil Gaiman, Amanda’s escape from her record label, her disasters, etc. I think she chose to write the book in this style because in the end the timeline doesn’t really matter. Throughout her life and career Amanda Palmer has been driven by one value: her connection with others through art. That means radical trust. It means loving without question. It means being able to ask for help when you need it.

I think what is particularly compelling in Amanda’s version of this story is that she’s honest about the fact that this isn’t easy. She didn’t hesitate asking her fans to help her make her record, but when it came to her husband offering her a loan to see her through until the aforementioned funds came in, the choice was agonising.

I so admire people like Amanda Palmer, who live their life in a way that seems from the outside at least, to completely speak to their values. I love to read about people who live their lives in purposeful and compassionate ways. This book is an inspiring and heart-opening read for anyone who would like to stop worrying and let people help.

Also, if you didn’t already, you will an enormous crush on Neil Gaiman by the end.

Furiously Happy

Jenny Lawson made a community of crazy when she started writing about her struggles with her mental health on her blog. She writes about the times when life is just bizarre – most of the time, actually – and when it feels like too much to handle. People fell in love with her first because she’s hilarious, and second because she’s honest. She hasn’t so much defeated the stigma attached to mental illness as she has hunted it down with an army of taxidermy animals and a felted vagina* (I really can’t stress enough how much you should read this book). Clearly our collective crazy is something that we want to talk about.

Furiously Happy is her second memoir. It calls itself a funny book about horrible things. And it has a taxidermy raccoon called Rory on the cover. He’s the happiest damn taxidermy racoon you ever did see. I promise.

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See? He’s loving life.

Jenny Lawson’s funny and ridiculous stories just make you feel better about life. There is a sincere tone to all of her essays that made my heart feel full throughout. It is this truthfulness at the centre of the work that allows Jenny Lawson’s writing to veer so fluidly between talking about laminated cats and self-harm, I think. Whatever emotion she is in, she is in fully, and as a result, so are we.

I ended up giggling with this book in the corner of a library (not recommended. People get annoyed) and doing that thing where someone is talking but you can only nod because if you talk you will inevitably cry. Kind of like after you watch a really emotionally manipulative advert and you don’t want the people around you to know it got to you because you’re smarter than that. Except Jenny Lawson isn’t trying to sell you a new phone plan. She’s just telling you about her life, which, like most people’s, is made up of the pretty great and the very bad.

‘…There is something wonderful in accepting someone else’s flaws, especially when it gives you the chance to accept your own and see that those flaws are the things that make us human.’

Furiously Happy, for me at least, was a book that demanded I see life outside of my own skin sack. When you look at the community that Jenny Lawson has created you notice one overwhelming truth: everybody is struggling. For the past few months I’ve been feeling pretty lost in life, and when you’re in that space it becomes really easy to consider yourself… kind of a failure. Reading this made me feel – for a little while, at least – like that’s bullshit. Everybody’s struggling with something. Whatever negative feelings we’re dealing with right now don’t make us failures, they just make us people. And that’s totally okay.

‘…Stop judging yourself compared to shiny people. Avoid the shiny people. The shiny people are a lie. Or get to know them enough to realize they aren’t so shiny after all. Shiny people aren’t the enemy. Sometimes we’re the enemy when we listen to our malfunctioning brains that try to tell us that we’re alone in our self-doubt, or that it’s obvious to everyone that we don’t know what the shit we’re doing.’

*Reading Jenny Lawson’s life makes your own more amusing. While writing this review I searched through the whole book asking myself what was that vagina made of? and then, after a while had passed and I still hadn’t found it did I imagine the vagina? and, eventually finally! The vagina! This is only one of the many gifts reading Furiously Happy provides.

Why Not Me?

Why Not Me? is Mindy Kaling’s second essay collection. I have talked about how much I loved the first at length. In this second offering she has managed to give us even more of herself. Her mission statement for the collection is this: ‘If my childhood, teens and twenties were about wanting people to like me , now I want people to know me. So, this is a start.’

Why Not Me Edited

She proceeds from there through a collection that covers showbiz beauty standards (they are always hair extensions. Always.), dating in your thirties (apparently there is less drama) and the question of where she gets her confidence. She also talks about Ike Barinholtz’s alarm that one time she got behind on washing and wore her padded bra to the office. I too own a padded bra, though I have never summoned the courage to wear out of the house for this very reason, so I can imagine what that must have been like.

Mindy Kaling deals with a lot of crap. In every other interview some journalist feels the need to remind her that she doesn’t look like a ‘typical’ famous person. She has a constant stream of press asking where do you get your confidence?  in a way that sounds like a backhanded compliment. Asking someone so incredulously and consistently why they are so confident starts to feel like you’re telling them they shouldn’t be really fast.

Her answer to the confidence question is this: work hard. Get good at the thing you want to do and show it off. Hard work is the central theme to much of the book. She wants us to know that her craft is something she has worked hard to hone over a lot of years. I loved this. So much of what we consume is designed to appear effortless. We consider ‘talented’ a way of being rather than something we have to strive for. It’s easier to assume that a writer emerged from the womb clutching a book of original poetry than to go through the years of hard work that led up to it.

Celebrate this festive season with us

True to her intentions, at the end of the book, I do feel like I know Mindy Kaling a little better. Through small asides and quick anecdotes she does a wonderful job of sketching out the identities and personalities of her friends and loved ones. Her mother passed away a few years back, but she remains is a clear and constant presence in Mindy’s life. She calls her mum her best friend. Mindy also gives us some insight into her much discussed relationship with BJ Novak. They have a tumblr dedicated to them. It is absurd that she waited for this long to give us more information. From what I can gather he’s a funny guy who’s on his phone a lot who also happens to be very kind. Mindy Kaling did an amazing job of giving us pieces of her life to explore while keeping the whole as her own. (or maybe she’s just making sure she still has material for the next memoir. You’d have to ask her).

Reading Why Not Me? is like the midnight conversations you had in your kitchen at university. We get to gossip about being famous and going to the white house. We learn how to look spectacular (I would also refer you to Mindy’s Instagram for this) and what the average day in her life looks like. But she also shares with us her 4am worries (‘19. Is my father lonely? Would he tell me if he was?’) and that some days she obsesses about celebrities she’s skinnier than. She also reminds us of all the ways in which Mindy Kaling is not Mindy Lahiri.

Durga Puja Festival

Mindy Kaling does a really great job of making you feel like you’re probably going to be okay. I recommend this book to anyone who needs reminding of that.

Not That Kind Of Girl

The tag line of Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl is ‘a young woman tells you what she’s learned’ – and I totally agree with that. Reading this book is kind of like one of those slightly drunken chats you have in the kitchen with a friend at 2 in the morning.

I like Lena Dunham. Get over it.

I think that she has fallen victim to what women in media often do – a lack of women in media. There are so few female voices that when one appears they are expected to represent all women. Obviously this is impossible, and it’s an idea that does a disservice to both Lena Dunham and women in general.

With that out of the way…

not that kind of girl

The tag line of Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl is ‘a young woman tells you what she’s learned’ – and I totally agree with that. Reading this book is kind of like one of those slightly drunken chats you have in the kitchen with a friend at 2 in the morning.

Lena isn’t afraid of sharing the darkest parts of herself. She throws herself into taboo topics that we often avoid – I guess to protect ourselves from them. Lena herself says that ‘it’s not brave to do something that doesn’t scare you’ – and this attitude is one she seems to have employed throughout the book, because she doesn’t shy away from anything.

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Not That Kind of Girl contains some frank and entirely unromantic portrayals of sex that jar with me a little. It doesn’t make for comfortable reading. The hateful behaviour she describes in the men that she has dated is upsetting to read both for her sake and because of the depressing familiarity of it. I think most of us have moments we look back on with regret because of how we allowed ourselves to be treated.

She talks about her difficulties in connecting with other people, whether that’s friends, or boys, or even family. She talks about how her anxieties have often controlled her life. She talks about feelings of disassociation from herself, her sex life, her relationships and her work.

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One of the most impressive aspects of the book was her discussion of her anxiety, and how it has affected her life. Talking about anxiety is hard because it’s difficult to see. In many ways, anxiety is one of the least understood mental health problems, because in general people don’t have a lot of patience for the fear or others. It is easy to see anxiety as self-indulgent because fear is so often irrational. As such talking about anxiety is so important. I feel that actually this is a book that I would have benefitted from reading when I was seventeen and in therapy because I got so socially anxious I was making myself sick on a regular basis. It felt like such an impossible thing to explain to anybody, and here Lena has explained it.

The central theme to the book is art as a means of connection, something familiar to any of us who have ever felt compelled to make things. It’s a pretty beautiful message, actually.