Raquel Willis

Author/activist Raquel Willis talks about her memoir on growing up Black and trans in Georgia

MELISSA WHITLER | Contributing Writer

Black transgender activist Raquel Willis takes ownership of her story with her memoir The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation, releasing Nov. 14. Willis tells readers her story of growing up and figuring out her identity in Georgia and of finding herself. The memoir is a must-read for both trans and cisgender folks.

Willis took some time recently to talk with Dallas Voice about her writing and where she is today.

Dallas Voice: Your story is so powerful. What was your inspiration to share your life as a written memoir? Raquel Willis: It’s something that’s been years in the making. I studied journalism in college and graduated in 2013, [in a] time that was entirely different from now. Two months after I graduated, Lavern Cox began her role on Orange is the New Black. I was so hungry for stories from a Black trans perspective, and it was the first time I thought I had a story to tell. Since then, more trans memoirs have come out, but I feel like there’s still a need to hear from southern Black trans folks. We’ve not had much focus on this perspective in social justice movements. I’ve moved in between the grooves of the modern feminist movement, LGBTQ+ activism, and the movement for Black lives, and I feel like it’s important to consider all these together.

How long did it take you to process through everything to be able to write about it? It’s an ongoing project. The bulk of the writing and creative process happened between 2020 and now. The early part of the COVID-19 pandemic gave me space to process my early life, my relationship with my father and my gender.

I also spent a lot of time thinking about the social justice movements because we were at a particular point in the summer of 2020. It felt like radical and systemic change was just around the corner. Looking back, it feels like a failure of that promise of change and progress.

The ending of the book was tricky because I wanted to give a snapshot of what I was feeling as close as possible to this current moment. What has helped me make sense of the epilogue is what has always helped me stay grounded: remembering we have ancestors who paved the way when there were few bricks for them, and that there are generations coming after us to maintain the path for.

You use the specific term “trancestors” to remember those who came before you. What was it like to incorporate these people, both through your personal relationships with them and the letters to those who have passed before you? There were points where it was just a lot of emotions, especially when writing the letters. Those were hard. It’s heavy, thinking about the trans girls and women who didn’t get to stay here in the ways

I’ve been able to stay here and thrive. However, it’s important to elevate those stories as examples of those moments that fuel us.

There’s something that Janet Mock told me that I held on to throughout writing this book. She urged me to be okay having reverence for other Black trans women who paved the way. We must celebrate our sisters as much as we can. … It’s wild to think that these figures who are such titans are people that I’ve been able to share space with just a few short years after creating works so pivotal to my becoming. I wouldn’t be who I am without the ways they’ve shown up in culture. Monica Roberts, a powerful Black journalist and activist, was really instrumental to me as well. She passed as I was writing the book, and I continue to mourn her through publishing it.

How did you balance authenticity and vulnerability knowing this story would be read by so many? The beautiful thing about writing in this time is there are so many Black trans folks telling their own stories. I get the benefit of being less burdened by the basic expectations that people had before. Thanks to Janet Mock and so many other writers and thinkers, I had more freedom. And hopefully, the next Black trans folks who write will have it easier than even I have it.

Through this process, I worked hard to try to relinquish those burdens. I’m at peace with my history, and my family knows the difficult things that are in there. I think turning 30 during the process also helped, as it feels like no one can say anything to silence me. I have so much less fear and anxiety. I’m not so worried about people misgendering me. Like, if you want to look foolish, that’s your business. I’m not internalizing other people’s problems.

What do you want people to take away from the book, especially cisgender readers? What should their next steps be? I want cis people to know that they are not centered in this book. They should get comfortable with not being centered, as so many cis people have an insecurity with the fact that trans people are speaking up. They can’t stomach not being the default, and I love that. I want them to get uncomfortable, to feel the discomfort that trans people have been feeling their entire lives.

The role as a supporting character is beautiful in its own way. And I’ve seen cis people change. It’s one of the big pieces of my story, my evolution along with my southern Black family. They exist as examples of transformation. The truth is that none of us are going to live up to all the expectations laid out before us. The only way we’ll get to gender liberation is for all of us to recognize one another’s humanity. What binds all of us is really a shared experience of anxiety. Our anxieties and insecurities are opportunities to connect.

What does the future have in store for you? That’s a hard question to answer. My career has been a winding path, but the through line is the intersection of storytelling and social justice. I’m invested in elevating narratives that intervene with violence and discrimination and dehumanization, ones that expand our understanding of collective liberation. At the heart of so much of what I do is elevating Black trans dignity. In that vein, I am currently finishing producing two podcasts. Afterlives focuses on the story of Layleen Polanco and her legacy and launches in November. Queer Chronicles centers the voices of queer and trans youth living in battleground voting states and comes out in January.

How do you find joy through the hard times? That’s something I’m still figuring out. The most important thing is building a chorus of folks around you who will hold you accountable to finding joy. It is difficult to hold excitement about having my first book published with the paradigm shift happening politically and socially. It’s a lot to hold at one time, but I’m interested in doing that and examining the messiness and complications. Finding joy is key because we all deserve it. Even though right now it feels like a privilege, it’s necessary for us to find ways to model the things we know everyone deserves.

To learn more about Raquel Willis and The Risk it Takes to Bloom, visit RaquelWillis.com/Bloom.