Find Inspiration in The Risk It Takes to Bloom

In The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation, Raquel Willis illuminates and speaks about the experiences that many trans people (myself included) have – not only when coming out and transitioning, but when navigating the lifetime of coming out that cisnormativity demands of us. Even as I write this review, cisnormativity is unaware of itself such that it registers as a spelling error in the default language built into a word processor. I do not think it often when reading books about trans experiences, but throughout The Risk It Takes to Bloom I found myself reading the words of what felt like an undisputed voice of my generation of Trans Elders. I include this in my review not as though my assessment confers legitimacy, but to say that the contents of Willis’ book shift between incredible storytelling, a consciousness-raising gift, and clarifying force that elucidates the challenges that my generation of trans people will face throughout our lives. Her words, and work echoed through time, well ahead of the present. The book left me feeling hopeful that transness might, in our lifetimes, be seen as a valuable salve rather than those who are constantly seeking salvation from cisheteropatriarchal constructs.

Equity seeking groups are often asked to become an embodied classroom of “101” training exercises which is important and necessary but also exhausting, and Willis’ book is a comfort in the face of these pressures to not only be trans but become a stand-in for all transness for those around us. It often means that trans people tarry with a why-can’t-you-be-more-like-that respectability politics that Willis writes about with depth. She delineates the emotional and career costs of quiet comparisons people make between her and high-visibility white counterparts who are less outspoken about anti-Blackness. When speaking at the Women’s March on Washington, for example, she reflects on how her time was cut short. She asks questions afterwards like “Had my participation been taken for granted so that the march could claim intersectional brownie points? Should I have trusted my initial skepticism? I’d spent days smoothing over every syllable and sliver of nuance only to have my voice ripped away. And it wasn’t some white male conservative villain who had silenced me, it was supposedly some of the most progressive women imaginable” (256). It is an important read for the clarion call and question it asks of all of us doing any kind of work for justice and equity: How can we do better? How can we do better for Black trans people?

The book is an important invitation to reflect on whether claiming spaces are 2SLGBTQ+ inclusive and equitable on the basis of being “gay-friendly,” do all they can live up to that aspirational friendliness towards trans people. Willis’ words are an invocation that implores us: “What good is an organizational strategy if none of the people you aid are Black and trans? Press releases and social media updates don’t do enough to transform the culture and make society safer now. I keep thinking if I just pay my dues and do what I’m told then eventually I’ll be able to champion Black trans lives in this environment. Sometimes I want to scream that keeping our people alive should be the priority” (261). Her book is a reminder that we can be deeply moved by information, but it does not become transformative or impactful unless we commit to changing ourselves and our contexts. What of ourselves have we risked by learning or knowing information that is a marker of acceptability, when Black trans people already know it but stand to lose so much more than their white counterparts by being vocally curious about the status quo? I hope her book is thusly movement-shaping, as much as it is movement descriptive.

The Risk it Takes to Bloom is not just the representation of Black trans life, but an actualization of it that fully realizes the debt trans people owe to Black trans women. Where my generation was introduced to transmisogyny at length by Julia Serano, Willis centers afrotransphobia and afrotransmisogyny as the struggles that we must take up and center for our collective trans liberation. And I am grateful for it. Her book illuminates the way that afrotransphobia and afrotransmisogyny, when dismantled, look a lot like freedom and liberation for white trans folks too, though this shouldn’t be why white folks pay attention. It is a unifying tome at a time where division and hatred masquerading as concern forces our varied oppressed identities to choose whose liberation is more important, as though freedom from oppression is an a la carte proposition rather than an urgent, intersection-honoring imperative where the least prioritized and included need to be the most platformed, prioritized and tended to for the way that their liberation frees everyone else.

Trans life has often lived in the long shadow that violence against trans women in particular casts, which cisnormativity insists is personhood, more than the remnants of which direction cisnorms have bent the light. It is a physics of oppression, where being included in theory is branded as inclusivity and equity, even when you are confined to the shadows as a specter that does not even get to be considered a spectator, let alone active participant in shaping the destiny of trans community. Transness for example, has been mostly rendered in pop culture narratives (by mostly cisgender people) of violence and lives lost, than in the thriving that is equally possible. Willis’ letters to trans women who have lost their lives is a reclaiming of the vitality, agency, and possibility that is inherent to trans lives, yet so seldom granted to Black trans women by cisnormativities while they are alive. It is among the many aspects making her book so important. It doesn’t just detail the difficulties, but it ensures that mourning those our community has lost is more than an intellectual or political exercise. Written alongside the story of her own thriving, familial acceptance (not without its challenges), career lessons and successes, these letters are an important calling back of intergenerational trans power that foretells a generation of transcestral thriving. She writes powerfully in summation that, “white queer folks get to worry about legislation, while Black queer folks are worrying about our lives” (343). The letters she writes to trans people who have lost their lives ensures that history does not erase a humanity often relegated to footnotes about violence on the way to freedom that continues to prioritize life at the intersection of white heteromasculinity and ciscentricity.

Trans folks have historically been treated as though being seated “at the table” should be enough, because we were previously denied a seat altogether. Where inclusion alone has been an insufficient measure of trans equity, I’m comforted by the nourishment Raquel Willis’ book offers trans people, and allies who open its pages with an appetite left wanting for the justice she writes into possibility, especially for Black trans people. For those hoping to learn more about transness and seek answers to the ongoing question of “what can I do to help?” read The Risk It Takes to Bloom and let yourself be impacted, changed, incited, freed, outraged, enlivened, and called to foreground Black transness in all things. The writing is also just beautiful, and I’m grateful to share this Earth with an activist whose words I get to be excited about the next installment and hopeful release of for years to come. If you read any book in 2024, add The Risk It Takes to Bloom to the top of your list.

Charlie C.
Programmer & Library Assistant, Main Library

Charlie loves to read across genres. His favourite part of working at the library is connecting people with resources to help better their lives and experiences; knowledge is a path to empowerment. Accordingly, he is interested in reading and borrowing adult non-fiction books related to almost everything. He enjoys reading about business, self-improvement, environmental sciences and spirituality/esotericism. Books that help ask big questions and invoke equally big wonder are among his favourites. Charlie’s other hobbies include writing, hiking, photography and cooking.