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Editor’s Note: Keeping you in the know, Culture Queue is an ongoing series of recommendations for timely books to read, films to watch and podcasts and music to listen to.
Raquel Willis has spent more than a decade working as both a journalist and activist for Black and LGBTQ people, championing these causes and uplifting voices. Now, she’s ready to share her own story.
“The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation” is Willis’ first book, exploring her journey into her own womanhood as a transgender person, navigating Southern Catholic family dynamics, social justice work and transphobia both in the media and in real life. Across its pages, readers are transported alongside Willis’ life, growing and blooming with her at every step of the way.
The book has been building inside Willis since the early 2010s, she said, but she didn’t feel ready to share it with the world. Now, that’s changed.
“A lot of the conversations we were having about systems of oppression, particularly in the summer of 2020, brought all the conventions of White supremacy and the cisheteropatriarchy more into the fore for a lot of people,” Willis said in a phone interview. “So I also felt that perhaps the world was more primed to hear what I had to say in this way.”
Blooming in spite of hardship
“The Risk It Takes to Bloom” derives its title from a line written by Elizabeth Appell: “And the day came when the risk to remain closed in a bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
For Willis, who first heard the line in the intro to the 2009 Alicia Keys album “The Element of Freedom,” the words specifically connected to the way she felt about gendered expectations at the time — the idea of being painfully enclosed in a bud, rather than being allowed to be free and blossom.
“The idea of blooming really matched up with the points in my life when I decided that my silence was not going to help me grow,” she said.
Her life, she said, has been full of moments of blossoming: From coming out to her family as gay as a teen and, later, as a transgender woman, to the death of transgender 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn. Even in the wake of tragedy, Willis bloomed, embracing her identity and staying true to herself.
Willis hopes readers will be encouraged to do the same, but she recognizes that many people may struggle. People are sometimes afraid of what they may lose when claiming aspects of their identity, like “the woman who feels like her gender is only a liability” or an employee who hides certain parts of themselves to get ahead.
“Many of us are hungry for validation and we are often made to feel like validation can only come by fulfilling expectations even when they don’t fit us anymore,” Willis said. “I had to make a conscious decision, particularly into owning my trans-ness, to understand that there was no amount of validation that was going to come to me if I tried to live this cis-het life, or this cis-gay life at that point, that would fulfill me.”
Sure, she might have had more social acceptance, Willis said. But she wouldn’t have been moving with dignity.
Transgender issues are also cisgender issues
“The Risk It Takes to Bloom” is being released at a time when the rights of transgender people are hotly contested among lawmakers, and violence against transgender people — especially Black transgender women — is on the rise. Trans people are perhaps more visible than ever, while Americans are more aware of how dynamics of race, gender and sexuality play out in our lives.
“Revolution isn’t a singular event but a continuously unfolding phenomenon,” Willis writes in the book. In spite of everything happening in the world, liberation is still possible.
“Trans voices are so necessary to disrupt these ideas of who we consider to be valid and who we consider to be normal and who we consider to be worthy,” she said.
The memoir is just Willis’ latest opportunity to do that. But it’s not just for transgender people; cisgender people are “bound by gender all the time,” she said. Cisgender boys and men are told they can’t cry or like the color pink, and cisgender girls and women are told they can’t be strong or capable leaders.
“In some way, we’re all gender nonconforming,” Willis said. “All of us fail to meet these ideas of manhood, masculinity, womanhood and femininity.”
Below, Willis shares other works that influenced her memoir, or works that she feels her book is in conversation with.
Add to queue: Celebrating all things Southern, trans and Black
Read: “Hiding My Candy” by The Lady Chablis — The Lady Chablis was the most well-known transgender actress in the 1990s, made famous by the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Born in Florida, her story takes her all over the South, eventually finding a home in Savannah, Georgia. Willis called the 1996 book “the last major Black Southern trans memoir,” a direct relative of Willis’ own work.
Read: “Wrapped in Rainbows” by Valerie Boyd — This biography of Zora Neale Hurston was written by one of Willis’ mentors, who died while she was writing “The Risk It Takes to Bloom.” Both “Hiding My Candy” and this book “utilize dialect in a way that’s really important to me,” Willis said.
“I had small moments in ‘Bloom’ that do that, but I think their use of African American Vernacular English really gives me life.”
Listen: “The Velvet Rope” by Janet Jackson — Released in 1997, Jackson’s sixth album “really delves into some taboo topics,” Wilis said, and “talks about queerness explicitly.” The singer received a GLAAD Media Award for the album, and her song “Together Again” is an ode to the people she lost to the AIDS epidemic. And the music video for Willis’ favorite song off the album, “Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” is set during apartheid in South Africa.
“There’s so many layered meanings there around Blackness, around nonconformity, that I appreciate in that album,” she said.
Listen: “The Age of Pleasure” by Janelle Monáe — Monáe’s fourth album mingles sounds from across the Black diaspora, and while it was only just released this year, after the writing of the memoir was complete, the work connects with Willis’ own.
“I saw (Monáe) in concert in Brooklyn about a month or so ago, and it was just a beautiful space where queerness and transness and uniqueness was prioritized and celebrated,” she said. “The voice was on point, the outfits, the body, the beauty, the sounds, of course, were everything.”
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