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Travis Alabanza Photographer Eivind Hansen
Travis AlabanzaPhotographer Eivind Hansen

Travis Alabanza shares the 5 books that made them

From Elizabeth Wurtzel’s polarising classic Prozac Nation, to bell hooks’ All About Love

Travis Alabanza is not afraid to own their contradictions. “When I was writing my book I had a gender crisis; I didn’t even know if I felt non-binary or trans anymore, or knew what I wanted to look like.” The book in question is, of course, None of The Above: part memoir, part gender theory. In it, author and performer Travis emphasises that, contrary to the “born this way” narrative which often frames queer people’s experiences, the book grapples with doubt. “[It’s about] wondering what I’ll look like in 20 years, and how the world’s response to gender-non-conforming people will impact my choices on how I want to look.” 

In 2017, Alabanza was the youngest recipient of the artist in residency program at Tate Galleries, and their debut show, 2018’s Burgerz, toured internationally to sold-out shows. Their concepts on gender, trans identity and race have been platformed at universities including Oxford, Harvard, Bristol and more. So it’s not surprising that Travis has crafted such a considered, genre-defying book that, much like its author and subject matter, resists being simplistically pinned down. “To me, it was really important to show you could do theory in one paragraph and then make a funny joke about sucking someone off. Both of those things can exist – and if the latter makes someone distrust the former then whatever, you know?” 

Alabanza’s love of books makes them a perfect person to have kick-started our new Books That Made Me series. “When I came to writing my own book I was really petrified because for once this was a form I actually knew just as an audience member before anything else. In theatre, I just made a play and didn’t necessarily care as much about the form or tradition as much – but books I really care about.” We caught up with Alabanza over Zoom to find out more about the books that made them. 


Travis Alabanza: Giovanni’s Room is one of Baldwin’s fictional novels, set in Paris. Giovanni is a bartender due to be executed, who the male protagonist David ends up having an affair with. The book explores the protagonist trying to basically understand his bisexuality and his affair with Giovanni, how he struggles with the loneliness this brings, and what parts of himself he can show and which parts he needs to hide. 

I first read it when I was 15, and it was the first time I’d read a novel with ‘gay shit’ that felt classy. The stuff I’d read before felt a bit more like soft porn, and maybe at the time I just needed that! But Giovanni’s Room felt luxurious and dramatic. It included being set abroad and travelling to different countries, all these things you would normally expect from a romance novel but happened to be about a homosexual relationship. Baldwin had a way of writing that made it impossible to forget he was both queer and Black, something a younger me was searching for. It also got me hooked on James Baldwin – it was the gateway drug!


Travis Alabanza: If James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room feels classy, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation feels trashy as fuck. It’s a book about the author’s struggle with depression and her subsequent dependence on Prozac medication in her youth. I loved this book; people spent her whole career telling Wurtzel that she was a cheap writer and not very good and all her books were bad (I mean her third book Bitch is awful). I was told about this book because this is what started “the memoir” genre – the idea that people who weren’t particularly famous could write about their lives. I don’t know if that’s true, but the book definitely had a zeitgeist moment of all these people going out to buy her book. 

I love how confessional it is. I love that she’s not invested in creating beautiful sentences, but instead, she wants you to feel a part of her life. I love that as a narrator, I didn’t actually like her. I remember reading this at 18 and realising I didn’t have to like the person narrating the story, you can do something quite interesting with a book when the reader doesn’t like them. It’s a really beautiful, hard story of addiction, and a trashy book as well. Literature snobs always want every book to feel like this highbrow moment, and I think it takes a huge amount of skill to write a book about your life and for millions of people to want to read it when they don’t even know who you are. 

There’s a lot of merit in trashy stuff.

Travis Alabanza: For sure! It’s still so beautiful, and any book that can capture millions of people is incredible and she did that. She’s funny, she’s really harsh – sort of like if Joan Rivers was an author. 


Travis Alabanza: It seems like this book has had a bit of a resurgence recently. 

Definitely. It feels like we live in a time of not being open, vulnerable and loving, and the book feels like it’s asking us to do the opposite. We are living in a time of “do it on your own”, “don’t give people a second chance”, all these little snippets of advice on social media, these infographic lists that are actually massively lacking in depth.

Travis Alabanza: Absolutely. I was given this book when I was researching prisons and changing my understanding of the prison industrial complex. I was getting schooled on prisons basically by someone I was dating at the time, and they recommended I read All About Love to figure out why my position on justice and prisons at the time was wrong. The quote I always go back to is “to return to love, to get the love we always wanted but never had, to have the love we want but are not prepared to give, we seek romantic relationships. We believe these relationships more than any other will rescue and redeem us. True love does not have the power to redeem but only if we are ready for redemption. Love saves us only if we want to be saved”. I feel like no one writes like that anymore!   

Whenever I re-read it, it reminds me to be more generous to other people, be less of a moody bitch, forgive more easily and be more open to others. 

The oppressions we go through make us hard, and then you have to try and fight that hardness to retain a level of yourself and an ability to love other people

Travis Alabanza: bell hooks was great at acknowledging that you’re a victim to these things, but if you stay in that mode we’re the ones that lose out. 


Travis Alabanza: I feel like you can’t have a list of books that you love without the book that first got you into reading. Do you like green eggs and ham? I do not like them, Sam-I-Am!”  It reminds me how a good book can stay in your head, no matter what the subject may be. I used to repeat these words in the book, and my mum and I used to read it to each other all the time. The illustrations were amazing, I loved the inverted colours and that it’s just a really simple book. I just gag, I love it. It’s beautiful, really joyous and his books often have a bit of a twist and edge to them as well.


Travis Alabanza: It’s a great collection of poetry about friendship, sex and Blackness. It’s rare for me to go back to poetry but I come back to this again and again. As a poet, Smith hasn’t let the fact that they are being published change their vocabulary. Instead, they are showing how much they love writing and reading by using Black vernacular. Danez does this like no other poet I know of, where they clearly have so much love for poetry, Black culture, Black vernacular and they are saying the way we use our rhythm and vernacular is poetry. Danez is a “poet’s poet” whilst also not giving up any of those things that we think are in conflict with poetry. 

My favourite poem in this collection is called “an ode to gold teeth”. The poem could mean lots of things, but I interpret it to be about the older Black men in his family and how they age, and the aesthetic they choose to age with. It’s beautiful.