Travis Alabanza is a performance artist, poet and writer who works in London. In 2016/17 they were an artist in residence at the Tate, performed and toured both nationally and internationally and became established as one of the prominent emerging queer voices in art. Their work often crosses medias, spaces and people – and screams about their survival as a black, trans, gender non conforming person in the U.K.
Today, Read The Muse chats for a second time with Travis, this time about their most recent project, a beautiful chapbook titled Before I Step Outside [You Love Me]. This publication is an amalgamation of writings on race, class, gender, and love. Most of all, it is a compilation of works documenting their survival, screaming their desires to claim more than the life they currently possess. Introducing this work, Travis explains that every word in this chapbook was inspired by their daily experiences of harassment and violence, particularly whilst navigating public transport, as a Black, gender non conforming feminine person. Resonating with all of our differences, Travis’ work will ground you, break you and build you back up again, with the reminder to hold love for one another and for yourself permeating each page.
RTM: How did you come up with the title, Before I Step Outside (You Love Me), and what does it mean to you? Were there other ideas in the mix?
Travis: I think people are always scared of titling their work, especially when going to print, it becomes so…. permanent. But I think for me I always go with instincts, as soon as the title comes to me, I trust it- and go with it. I ask a few friends their opinion, but to be honest, I’ve already made up my mind. I needed a title that worked both at directing attention to me, and the reader, that could contain multiple subjects and meanings – but that also – was deeply about caring and loving for me (and you) outside. So…here we are!
On first appearances, the chapbook is incredibly elegant. If we flick through it, we are presented with pinks and blues, watermark-esque images which have a pop-art style using the dotted effect. Is there a particular style or intention you are achieving through the presentation of the chapbook?
I think it’s important to note that this chapbook isn’t just the efforts of myself. It is a complete collaborative conversation primarily between myself and the incredibly talented designer Jessie Denny-Kaulbach (and of course the photographers whose images are used in the book). Jessie has been a friend of mine for 8 years, she has lived with me (for short times), been around me, experienced my life as I have experienced hers. She understands and has seen the violence I experience, but also, knows the joy and style and brightness in our friendship, my aesthetic and being. I simply told Jessie “I need this book to feel like me, the good and the bad, like a warm hug, but also a good cry” – and she came through with this. We wanted colours that I wear a lot (pastels, pinks, blues) – we wanted there to be joy or warmth in the pages that held so much hurt. This was as much an act of healing myself through the pages, as well as telling my story.
The style of the photography displays a vast range of ideas. Sometimes you are laughing, in another you appear to be shouting, in several you appear to be posing, and others are more candidly poised. Sometimes these also show you wearing feminine clothing, or capture you closeup, or your hair, or parts of you. How does this reflect your writing, or your feelings about this chapbook, or your own thoughts and feelings about the body and clothing?
I think I really wanted images of me laughing. I told Jessie this. I needed photos of me smiling, scared, looking, aware – because I wanted to capture the multiplicity of my emotions. I think when we look at transness, there is a real danger to just focus on our violence, or our surgery, or our this… and obviously this book is about violence, but I think violence is complex – a lot of the times I’m experiencing violence after experiencing pure joy, or in between joy, or just after a show, or DURING a photoshoot – I wanted violence to sit in between how it does in my life. The fact that trans feminine people have to learn to juggle and dance between intense emotional states in order to survive.
Is there a particular point for you where you are able to relate to or feel solidarity with other trans people, until the experience is different as a Person of Colour who is trans?
I think this is where we have to think intersectionally. I think what is interesting about this chapbook is that it isn’t just drawing on a trans commonality. Women, those read as women, people effected by misogyny, all can understand what it is liked to be watched, to be harassed maybe, to be followed home? Gay men may also resonate with the parts about hiding femininity, policed outfits, even harassment. I think what I’m trying to show is there is a commonality in the experience, yet where it differs, is whom is allowed to be a victim? The frequency? And the threat to death. Trans women and gender non conforming people are the highest rates of death in the LGBTQ+ community – yet where is our hashtags? Our loud vocal support? I think I can relate to other trans (particularly trans feminine) people – we have an affinity, but I think this gets confused when we also think about white [trans] people’s relationship to my oppression as a black person. Ultimately, my affinity and love is with other black and brown gender fuckers like me.
To what extent would you agree that your writing is a form of healing and therapeutic activity, as well as activism and providing a sanctuary for others who share your experience?
Yes, I say this often. My work is always coming from a place of healing. I had written almost all of this on public transport, to heal, to make sense, to find comfort in a horrible experience. I don’t try and think too much about how it can help others, as I think sometimes that creates a disingenuous work, I look at how it can help me, and then hope through that it can help others. Ultimately, this book for me is therapy. I read it outside the other day and it calmed me down. And then I knew: right, no matter what other people think, this has captured something for me.
In the piece titled O/B/S/T/A/C/L/E, you tell us that the following piece has not been re-edited since you wrote it after the experience of having a chicken burger thrown at you in daylight. Does this piece fully explore how you felt about this traumatic moment in your life? How did it make you feel afterwards (short term and long term) and how did you treat/feel about yourself since? If you could speak to the person who threw it at you, what would you tell/ask them?
Right, I think this piece is so difficult to read. Since then, BURGERZ (my theatre show that opened in March as is back next year) – was created. So I have really delved into and examined that incident of having a burger thrown at me. I don’t think the piece OBSTACLE could ever fully examine a moment that we as human beings shouldn’t feel prepared for? Food, thrown at you, in broad day light, in front of everyone – and no one doing anything. I felt alone. I felt like an animal. But it was also a turning point in having to realise what this life equals, what it means to be trans feminine, and the realities of that violence. It was a harsh, undeserved, horrible wake up call. I am not interesting in speaking to the person who threw it, not at all. I care and am interested in speaking to the people who did nothing. Who saw it happen and said nothing. That, I guess in some way, is who I have been speaking to with my work ever since. This book, is to them, it’s to us, it’s to all of us – so that no one can ever be left alone like that, in such a busy street, again.
The way you use language is certainly interesting and always feels like there is something more for the reader to understand than meets the eye, from the peripheries or the interior. What also creates this effect is the interpolation; the ability for the reader to share your experience or relate their own similar experiences, which brings into the picture both your individuality and the reader’s, for example, where they live, their friends and family, their experiences of harassment.
Who/what inspired you to write this chapbook, or has it been a long time coming? What writers or fellow friends who are artists do you look to for inspiration, self love, or love sharing experiences and art with?
So I think there’s a lot in this question. Firstly: who inspires me. I am so blessed to be surrounded by so many black and brown queer artists, that take risks, that are true to themselves, that create with authenticity – and that reminds me to do the same. XANA, Rebekah Ubuntu, Rhys Hollis, FKA, Sadie Sinner, Christopher Kirubi, are all artists I think of when I think of this decision to be bold, to be true, and to hold you in the centre of your work. But I also think of other writers, those that have come before me, those whose styles may be different – but just by them existing, I was told I could possibly do. I think of Dean Atta, and Keith Jarret – both I feel have nurtured, held and supported my work. I think of Alok Vaid-Menon. I think of my friends a lot when making work. How it is only possible for me to survive with them, and that this work can only exist because of them.
How does it make you feel when people tell you that your art inspires people or makes them feel love both for you, for themselves, for trans people?
When people tell me I inspire them, or that they love me – I feel different things. It takes getting used to, I try and remind myself that love is different forms. But it obviously means a lot when other trans people resonate with my work – we have so few reference points for ourselves – so if I can create one, then I feel humbled to do so.
Your writing importantly demonstrates the way in which to be trans does not mean to be transitioning, but rather that trans bodies can always be transitioning, instead of reaching from one to the “other”, which implies that male and female mean different things. “I wish I didn’t feel the immense pressure to medicalise my body” – what are your thoughts and feelings or concerns on medicalising bodies?
I think I mention this in the book because I want to broaden the idea of what trans is. So often in mainstream LGBT+ movements and wider context, people have ONE image of what it means to be trans, and really, that just isn’t it. I’m searching for a gender politics that realises trans is the complete, that in a world where gender was liberating and safe to explore we would all be trans (or trans wouldn’t even exist). I wonder how much the pressure to medicalise our bodies comes from a search for legitimacy, but also for safety. Obviously, there are lots of trans people that want and choose to medicalise transition and that is respected, and I am not going against that, I am saying – there is also a pressure for some to do so out of safety. Out of validating a dysphoria. Out of a pressure. And I wonder if we lived in a world that explored, celebrated, and protected gender non conformity – if this would happen as much..
One unique, personal aspect of the chapbook is the rawness of your writing; both of the emotions, the content and the language style itself. How much has your writing been edited for this project, if it has at all?
I try not to edit too much. I know that is probably bad practice. But sometimes I’m like – what the hell? This is what I said, this is how I felt, I want you to FEEL something first. Some of these poems are edited, but a lot of the diary entries, writings, prose, just came straight from my phone to the page in that moment. I wanted this to feel like I could have written it on a tube journey, over editing would have sterilised those feelings.
Moonlit Brothers is troubling and sad as you highlight the complexities of your harassers who might actually envy you as much as they harm you, but you make it beautiful and warm in a way. Was this based on a real scenario or rather a collection of experiences that recur for you? How do you feel about it?
Moonlit brothers is my favourite piece in the book. I think it speaks to so many of my old selves, my friends, and my neighbours. I think a lot about the different types of people who harass me, and how they provoke different responses. And I guess moonlit brothers is talking about the complexities of black men harassing me, where it could come from, and how the Black struggle is one where often I have to protect and fight and march for people that may in turn harass me. I am definitely harassed more in public by white people – but moonlit brothers was almost a tender, soft, difficult love poem to the black men who have harassed me.
“I want you to know, before you step outside, that there are other’s stepping too.” What does the word “other” mean to you?
The other felt like other trans people, other gender non conforming, other people of colour, other people who are other’d outside. We are here, we exist. I wanted us to feel united, together in our other’dness, in that moment.
If you could paint the essence of your gender, what do you think it would look like? What colours, feelings, memories would it evoke?
I think my gender would feel like pinks and purples and warm hugs and calm clear oceans painted on a backdrop – and then would just get loads of conflicting colours splashed onto them in really big and ugly ways. My gender feels calm and ugly and loud and quiet at the same time.
A question you would ask yourself?
I would ask: “how do you want this book to stay alive?”
You can buy your copy of Before I Step Outside (You Love Me) at http://travisalabanza.bigcartel.com/. Meanwhile, follow them on Instagram and Twitter (@travisalabanza) and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/travisalabanzaartist/.