Poet Mary Jean Chan interviews Travis Alabanza, a queer Black British interdisciplinary artist and author of Before I Step Outside [You Love Me]. Travis talks about their book, their aesthetic, and their experience of harassment and tokenisation, while also recommending some top artists and offering advice to young queer poets.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us about your art and activism. Many artists focus on one medium, but you use theatre, soundscapes and performance art alongside your poetry. As an interdisciplinary artist, how do you imagine these forms working together?
Sometimes they don’t! And I think no one speaks about this. How do the poets take me seriously when I’m also doing some big old gay lip synch on a Thursday night? How does the theatre world look at me as someone who can create theatre when I’m reading poems at a poetry night? I see this happen a bit!
But then I realise – I know for me – what I am always doing is creating a performance. I am a performer at heart, and whatever I’m doing, whether using the tools of soundscape in my sets, theatrical devices, words and text – it’s to suit the performance best.
I love poetry SO much, it is my first love. I just think I knew that these added elements would heighten my poetry and the experience for the audience.
Who is your intended/target audience?
I think it changes depending on what I’m writing. If I’m honest, sometimes I don’t think about the audience. I just think about what I need to hear right now, and then I write it. Self-centred, I know, but I feel it creates the most authentic work – then if people connect to it, that’s a bonus.
I am obviously really aware, especially since the chapbook, that lots of queer and trans people from around the world are connecting with my work. Trans youth in particular often send me messages about the book – and I guess that speaks to the fact that queer people, queer people of colour, are who I think about intently when I wonder who is listening to or reading my work.
I’m interested in the self-portraits that appear throughout your chapbook. Mainstream chapbooks usually only feature a single headshot of the poet (if any at all), but you allow the reader an intimate knowledge of your various emotional states through photography. Can you tell us more about the decision to use various photos of yourself in the text?
I’m vain! (Only slightly.) Vanity is a sign of reclamation for all the times we are told gender non-conformity is not beautiful.
I guess there are a lot of reasons for the style of the book. First, big shout out to the designer Jessie Denny-Kaul Bach who made all the images, as well as the look and feel of the book, possible. I think I wanted so many images of myself for two primary reasons:
1) I knew a lot of people only had references of me from my style, my looks, my aesthetic. The way I was perceived online was almost as a trans ‘look’ or ‘mood board’, a style, a femme thing – yet without making people think about what that actually means. I know I am often reduced to just aesthetic. And I wanted these images NEXT to these words, to show the content, to show the danger behind appearing this way, to show that when you just reduce me to ‘fierce’, ‘yass’, ‘like photo’ – but do not protect me on the streets – it is a disservice.
2) I wanted the book to feel personal. To feel intimate. To feel like you are getting to know me, and see me, and I think embedding my image and self through the book does that.
In your chapbook, you frequently alternate between the lyric ‘I’, the second person ‘you’ and the third person perspective (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘it’). Does this have anything to do with attempting to create a trans/non-binary/gender non-conforming voice on the page?
Throughout this book, even in the title, I’m playing with the questions: who am I talking about? Am I referring to you? To me? To us? Are you reading this as if you could have written it? Is it you stepping outside, and declaring love? Or is it me stepping outside, who needs YOU to love ME?
I want the reader to cut and paste where applicable. To choose when the narrative is for them, and when it is not. To know when they can sit and say: ‘yeah, I experience this, this is me’, or when it is ‘I need to step up and do more’. For me, changing the subject and perspective constantly unsettles who the audience/reader is.
I love the line in Before I Step Outside [You Love Me] which notes that ‘harassment, on trans bodies, is the constant and consistent daily reminder that your body is public property’. Your use of the word ‘property’ implies ownership, as if your body were no longer your own. Does language have a role in defusing such intrusive encounters, when you so poignantly observe that ‘our language is not sufficient’?
I think writing for me is about therapy; it’s about a process of reclaiming this space. I do not think it defuses anything, it doesn’t stop it – but writing and language, and being able to process and talk about what’s happening really helps me. It’s a weird relationship. I long to write about joyous things – love, rivers, and so on. But most of the time I write to process the feeling of having no control in other aspects of life. For me, the fact that I wrote this whole chapbook on public transport was exactly that. Not to defuse the situation of harassment, but rather to cope with and process it.
Defying gender norms (through dress, performance art and simply being in the world as a trans-femme person) involves a kind of visibility that often invites unwanted scrutiny and harassment, which you document so vividly in your chapbook. How do you negotiate what you describe as your ‘long[ing] to be invisible’ with the work that you do?
I am still working on negotiating my relationship with visibility. Sometimes I find it really hard. But I have to be clear: even without the visibility my work brings, just by me existing as trans and gender non-conforming, I would be highly visible. My trans friend who is not an artist or public speaker is still hyper visible the moment they go outside. This is what I mean by visibility in this context – not necessarily the visibility that goes along with my work – more the visibility that goes along with being gender non-conforming. I wonder if people know how lucky they are to walk to the shop without people staring? Or to not get stares? Sometimes I wonder if people realise what being stared at for 12 hours a day truly feels like? If they did, I’m sure they would long to be invisible too.
Do you take issue with often being called upon to ‘represent’ a specific gender identity? Does the possibility of tokenism worry you?
Constantly. I think I can only truly represent myself, my own views and who I am. But in the UK trans artists of colour are blocked from accessing so many opportunities. When there are so few of us around, I often feel a pressure to speak for or represent us all. I definitely feel like sometimes I am placed on a list, or a line-up as a token.
But I think tokenisation will always happen. What I am more interested in is how I disrupt that. For example, always bringing and telling the organiser a list of other trans and queer black artists they could also book! For example, Chloe Filani, Nat Raha, Krishna Istha, FKA, Phoenix, are all artists/writers/poets that are queer and/or trans and of colour whose work I really like. I think by doing that, even saying ‘is there room for another person on this panel, or line-up’, addresses that tokenism and allows me to take the space whilst also not having to represent a whole group of people. It’s definitely still a learning curve, but I’m now way more comfortable about asserting this especially with places where I’ve worked multiple times.
Who are some of the poets/writers/artists you admire or are inspired by?
I’ve kind of mentioned a few above, but I can ALWAYS do with more. I am absolutely in awe of and have the biggest art crush on Selina Thompson at the moment. Honestly, the work is amazing, but also the way she conducts herself as an artist – so honestly declaring boundaries, sharing space and resources – inspires me to do better and think harder. Dean Atta is a writer I will always be thankful for, too.
I am always inspired by performance artists, drag artists and visual artists, and Victoria Sin’s presentation, aesthetic, visual work always inspires me. There are too many! I saw Hot Brown Honey, a queer women of colour performance collective, at Latitude Festival and oh my goodness they gave me a new lease of life!
Do you have any advice for young trans/gender non-conforming/non-binary poets?
We have already re-made all the rules by existing – so remember your writing does not need to have any. Writing without rules is so fun. Creating your own rules for your writing can be fun. Writing for yourself is such a self-loving task. We need more of us! My advice would be: being messy is okay, not everything we write has to be perfect, and to keep at it.
Travis’ latest chapbook Before I Step Outside [You Love Me] reads like a lyric essay, contrasting poetic reflection with essayistic observations about surviving as a black, trans-femme person in a society that is hostile to one’s gender expression. I can’t recommend it enough. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us.
Travis Alabanza is a performance artist, theatre maker, poet and writer that works and survives in London, via Bristol. Their multidisciplinary practice uses a combination of poetry, theatre, soundscapes, projection and body-focussed performance art to scream about their survival as a Black, trans, gender-non-conforming person in the UK. Travis published their chapbook Before I Step Outside [You Love Me] in 2017 and has appeared in the Black and Gay in the UK Anthology in 2015. They are currently starring in a new stage adaptation of Derek Jarman’s seminal film Jubilee at Manchester’s Royal Exchange which will transfer to the Lyric, Hammersmith in early 2018.
Mary Jean Chan is a poet and editor from Hong Kong who has been shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Her work has appeared in The Poetry Review, PN Review, Ambit, The London Magazine, Callaloo Journal and English: Journal of the English Association, and is forthcoming from Carcanet New Poetries VII. Mary Jean is a Research Associate in Poetics and PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is a co-editor at Oxford Poetry. She is the winner of the 2017 PSA/Journal of Postcolonial Writing Postgraduate Essay Prize.