Many know Selenis Leyva from Orange Is the New Black where she plays inmate Gloria Mendoza, a former corner store owner become the unofficial leader of Litchfield’s Spanish Harlem. Fewer know that she and her trans sister, Marizol, co-authored a powerful and informative memoir released a couple of weeks into the Covid-19 lockdown. As it walks us through their childhoods and adult lives right to the present, this joint memoir about self-actualisation explores what is it to navigate the world as an Afro-Latinx woman of modest means.

It is also about what it is to navigate the world when you are all that, and trans. In fact, the crux of the memoir is Marizol’s difficult journey to make her gender expression match her gender identity. When Selenis’ younger brother, Tito, recovered from what the doctors predicted to be a terminal condition, their parents vowed to honour the miracle they had prayed and pilgrimaged for by taking in other kids around the Bronx who did not have the privilege of a loving family. Enter a cast of foster children including Marizol — née José — a dark-skinned and curious baby boy who immediately struck those around him as different. Quickly, the soft and feminine Selenis became José’s favourite and Selenis came to realise that that her baby brother was struggling with his gender identity.

“In a world where Afro-Latinx trans women are invisible, the few narratives that centre their experiences should be wholly and entirely focused on that mammoth task.”

My Sister is dual exploration. Narrated by both Selenis and Marizol, the memoir is told in alternating chapters that guide us through three sections titled José, Beginnings of a Transition, and Marizol. Selenis does not only tell us about how she saw Marizol become Marizol, but also about her own difficulties getting an acting career off the ground and learning to love her Blackness in a traditionally racist Latinx family. While the details of Selenis’ life take up space in what should be Marizol’s story, some may find it helpful to see Marizol’s story unfold from a perspective that cis readers are able to better understand. This joint approach is especially successful in high-stakes scenes. When José skips school to meet an internet crush on Coney Island, the narrative cuts rapidly between their perspectives to create urgency and build up to a crescendo of impending parental chastisement.

Both a theatre school graduate and seasoned actress, Selenis has a natural flair for storytelling and shaping the narrative that Marizol, who often brings in undeveloped details, unfortunately does not. That said, it is Marizol who expertly weaves facts and figures about her community into the fabric of her story. These serve to create a story that is both inspiring and informative: it is useful to be able to give a face and fable to these facts and figures that can sometimes feel abstract in their impersonality. This is but one example of how My Sister is an invaluable record that archives the intersectional difficulties of being Black, trans, and woman.

My Sister is an invaluable record that archives the intersectional difficulties of being Black, trans, and woman.”

What is most beautiful about this joint testimony is seeing how Marizol, a courageous woman who chooses to put herself first, gifts Selenis the strength to truly love herself, Blackness and all. Selenis says it best: “if she can do it, why can’t I?” This is, however, also a reminder of how the presence of Selenis’s story urges readers to look for equivalences between these two experiences where there are, frankly, not many. Selenis, an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community who learned a lot through her experiences on Orange Is the New Black, is most certainly able to offer an informed perspective on the issues addressed and book publicity incentives. But in a world where Afro-Latinx trans women are invisible, the few narratives that centre their experiences should be wholly and entirely focused on that mammoth task.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her @verybookishjane on Twitter.

SELENIS LEYVA can currently be seen starring as Gloria Mendoza in the Netflix hit series Orange is the New Black. In addition to her film and television credits, Selenis is an outspoken activist for LGBTQ+ rights, and often invited to college campuses to speak on diversity and inclusion. You can find her @selenisleyvaofficial on Instagram.

MARIZOL LEYVA is a transgender model, cook, and activist from the Bronx. She has been featured in publications such as Cosmopolitan, Latina Magazine, Time Magazine’s Motto, and People Magazine’s Latina Love Project Series. You can find her @iam_marizol on Instagram.

Orange Is the New Black star Selenis Levya co-authors a memoir with her trans sisterMy Sister: How One Sibling's Transition Changed Us Both Published by Bold Type on 24 March 2020
Genres: Memoir, Afro-Latinx, Queer, Debut, Coming-of-age
Pages: 256
Format: Hardcover
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When Orange Is the New Black and Diary of a Future President star Selenis Leyva was young, her parents brought a new foster child into their warm, loving family in the Bronx. Selenis was immediately smitten: she doted on the baby, who in turn looked up to Selenis and followed her everywhere. The siblings realised, almost at the same moment, that the younger of the two was struggling with their identity. As Marizol transitioned and fought to define herself, Selenis and the family wanted to help, but didn't always have the language to describe what Marizol was going through.