Last night I was honored at the fourth annual Girls Write Now gala, an organization committed to empowering girls and women through writing, mentoring and community-building. Along with fellow honorees Jenni Konner and John Osborn as well as my girl, Alicia Menendez, as emcee, we spent the night celebrating stories. Watch the clip and read the transcript below:
Thanks so much. I was really surprised by Alicia’s speech because she likes to say that she’s the next Oprah so…it’s like a little battle there [audience laughter]. Thank you all so much. I have so much gratitude to Girls Write Now for making this empowering event possible. I am so honored to be in this space with all of you, celebrating and centering our truths, our words, and our stories.
For me as a young person, books were my very first refuge. They were the spaces in which I was able to escape, that allowed me to leave harsh realities in poverty stricken communities, realities that offered little hope for a young, multiracial transgender girl like myself.
And with my library card serving as my ticket, books quickly became the vessel unto which I could imagine and reflect and dream as a 12-year-old searching for self. In my local library in Kalihi, on the island of Oahu, in Honolulu, Hawaii, I sat with Cellie as she gave voice to her experiences by writing letters to God. I cried with Maya Angelou when she refused to speak when her body was violated as a young person. I yearned alongside Pecola as she measured herself against impossible beauty standards. And I believed. I believed that the dream was the truth, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote in Their Eyes Were Watching God – the first book that meant everything to me.
And I was 16 when I first met Janie Crawford – the protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece. It was just a year after I re-introduced myself as Janet to my classmates. And I was hooked from the opening pages in which Janie returns to Eatonville, her hometown, in mud-covered overalls, she was welcomed by harsh judgments of the gossiping neighbors, and the compassion of one friend, her dear friend Pheoby who fed her as she sat barefoot on her backporch telling her life’s story for the very first time.
This novel had the audacity to center a woman of color’s quest for self. This novel let girls and women on the margins know that their stories mattered. This novel served as my blueprint for living, for loving, and for writing. I held “Their Eyes Were Watching God” so close to me as I embarked on writing my first book. I wrote “Redefining Realness” to center my self and my experience in a way that no other book had done before.
I wrote it for the 12-year-old girl I was, sitting amongst the stacks of a local library searching for herself in the bound pages of books. I felt my book could be the mirror, or a mirror, that this girl never had. I could let her know that she was not alone, I, I,… And this is what stories do: They let us know that no matter how different and unique we are and how isolated we may feel, someone else has been there, someone else has survived, and someone else has made it out.
Telling our stories is a revolutionary act.
My work uses storytelling to shift conversations, conversations about living at the intersections of identities and experiences, conversations about how restrictive norms oppress us all, conversations about our freedom to define and declare who we are, and conversations about our urgent call as a culture and our need to create equal access to public spaces, libraries, art, music and writing programs, sensitive and knowledgeable healthcare centers, and yes, even something as so basic as restrooms [audience applause].
Girls from all walks of life must be welcomed into all spaces as they are and accepted without the threat of ridicule, exclusion and violence. It wasn’t easy growing up being black and poor and trans and a girl in America, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Existing at these particular, and specific intersections shaped me, and shaped the way I viewed the world, it enabled me to see gaps in representation, rhetoric and policy which forced me to dream, it forced me to imagine those gaps are filled, a world where girls like us are no longer disposable but centered.
Stories written by other girls and women with perspectives just as unique as my own aided my survival. They taught me that my experience mattered. They taught me that what I had to say mattered. They taught me that writing could be a tool of liberation.
It is why the act, the act of a girl sitting alone with her experiences and thoughts and the courage to record what she knows to be true is revolutionary.
Feminist writing is life giving and affirming. I dedicate this award to those who served as my guidepost: Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Barbara Smith, Gloria Anzaldua, and Zora Neale Hurston. I accept this award on behalf of any girl holding on to an untold story.
Let this be a resounding reminder that you wield the power to be your own heroine, with the stroke of your pen, and the audacity to write your truth. Thank you.