If you’ve been listening to this podcast this past eight years, you know that we always do our interviews “in house” as we value the moment of the recorded conversation as well as the encounter with someone’s work and personality. Rules are made to have exceptions however and today, We are happy to introduce you to a conversation between Amélie Tresfels and Michaëla Danjé around the book that Michaëla recently edited, which is entitled AfroTrans. This book is the very first one published by Cases Rebelles‘ newly created publishing house. With this new endeavor, the panafrorevolutionary collective co-founded by Michaëla, continues to inspire many of us around the world as the planetary dimension of the book’s orders have shown. Originally published in January, it’s already been reprinted twice! If you’d like to read from Cases Rebelles on The Funambulist, you can find their two texts for the magazine: “Unquiet Imaginaries of Black Resistance” in The Funambulist 27 and “Revolutionary Reparations” in our 30th issue about Reparations.
In this conversation, Amélie asks Michaëla about AfroTrans, which gathers essays, interviews, poetry, and fictions by Black trans women, men, and non-binary persons, from and about their lived experience, in a resolutely political approach but without ever essentializing trans identities. They also talk about collective creation, Black resistance, the importance of language and, crucially, love.
Huge thanks to Michaëla, Amélie, and the Cases Rebelles collective for this fruitful collaboration.
Michaëla Danjé is Afro Caribbean. She is a rapper, a beatmaker, a writer, a documentarist filmmaker, and she is an activist and member of the Cases Rebelles collective that she co-founded. Her essay “Négritudes spectaculaires” is due for publication at the end of 2021 at Cases Rebelles Editions.
Amélie Tresfels is a journalist. Her contributions feature interviews with activists, artists and researchers on topics related to gender, sexuality, race and prison abolition. She is currently working on a French translation of Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention by Kelly Oliver.
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE CONVERSATION ///
1/Amélie Tresfels : AfroTrans is a collective work. One of the text you have written for the book is called “Je chante l’amour collectif” (I sing the love collective). In the summary of the book, you say, « This book is made up of a multiplicity of voices, perspectives and experiences ». I wanted to come back to the collective aspect : why is it important to you and what does this collective dimension create ?
Michaëla Danjé : Hi Amélie! First I’d like to thank you and The Funambulist for giving me the opportunity to talk about AfroTrans. I would say that my love for the collective goes way back: it probably started in the eighties when I began to get involved in hip-hop culture. I always had a preference for collective action, for groups or crews or posses; I always wanted to hear a multitude of voices or engaged with the crews who were involved in all the elements of hip hop culture.
So yes, with AfroTrans I wanted to create something that would leave space for movement. I truly believe that what is made collectively, what speaks different languages, it has the potential to reach more people. It is also a more constructive process when you do things this way. To me, it is way more interesting than a monologue or than putting out something that only focus on one specific individual or one single analysis for example.
In AfroTrans, it was really important to me that no one be at the center, especially not me! And that is why there are people from different locations, different generations, from different walks of life and experiences. The book doesn’t showcase – at least it’s what I think – a homogeneous group or crew of like-minded people who are all friends and experience the same things together.
I think that we can agree that we live in societies in which too often there is an egregious, toxic, staging of the individual self. It is absolutely essential that we ask ourselves : what does this prevent ? What are the consequences of liberal iconization, of constantly turning people into stars, constantly relying on the idea that in order to exist, a group needs representation in the mainstream media, a group needs leadership? Since the beginning of Cases Rebelles, we’ve been extremely critical of this ideological strategies. We’ve been cautions not to go this way. We really think that these strategies are dead-ends because to build something, even at the smallest level, you need balance, you need dynamics that create space for everyone. There is no good outcome when dynamics are based on leadership or I would say, avant-garde.
“Je chante l’amour collectif” is also an ode to the wonderful women I live with, the women of Cases Rebelles. And it’s also about paying tribute to all the ancestors, people that came before us because they are always people who did things before us. We are never the first and we must always acknowledge this fact. In “Je chante l’amour collectif”, I also wrote about some of the many paths and stories that have built afrotrans identities. Inheritance is crucial, lineage is crucial, you have to be aware of it and to be humble. You need to quote others, you have to tell about your sources.
For example, even if it is widely accepted that Cases Rebelles was the first black podcast in France, we were able to exist only because we inherited from past generations, from people we often mentioned in our work.
2/A.T : This collective approach definitely creates a deliberate heterogeneity in the content of the book. The format of the different texts is very diverse and fluid. As I mentioned before, the book is made of poems, interviews, personal stories. Why did you choose to mirror this heterogeneity in the form as well ?
M.D : I think that first, this broad range of formats allows readers to relate more to some forms than others. And I personally didn’t want to impose a format. I wanted everyone to be able to participate on their own terms. Otherwise, that would have already narrowed the scope of the project and reduce the number, or type, of participants. Academic formats reduce the possibilities and modes of knowledge production. It’s part of something I wold call a class struggle : who can speak and who can be heard?
It reminds me of something I’ve read recently in a book by Katherine McKittrick, her last book which is called Dear Science. I would like to read the quote:
“Dear Science argues that black people have always used interdisciplinary methodologies to explain, explore, and story the world, because thinking and writing and imagining across a range of texts, disciplines, histories, and genres unsettles suffocating and dismal and insular racial logics. By employing interdisciplinary methodologies and living interdisciplinary worlds, black people bring together various sources and texts and narratives to challenge racism. Or, black people bring together various sources and texts and narratives not to capture something or someone, but to question the analytical work of capturing, and the desire to capture, something or someone, but to question the analytical work of capturing, and the desire to capture, something or someone.” (Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories, Duke University Press, 2021, p. 4.)
I really don’t want to sound pretentiouus and to dare to say that AfroTrans is like Dear Science, no. But I feel close to this way of thinking. The words of Katherine McKittrick are realy speaking to me. We really believe in alternative ways of creating knowledge. I also think that the fact that someone chooses a specific format tells us something about them, about who they are. That’s why I wanted this heterogeneity to be present, even though it was more difficult to organize, to put together as a book, but I am happy about it because it creates different rhythms, different vocabularies and it mirrors the heterogeneity of the group of people who made AfroTrans.
3/A.T : As an editor, what was your role? Did you guide the participants in their writing ? Did you give them specific instructions?
M.D : At first, I didn’t have any particular request except from the fact that the text shouldn’t have published before. Of course, with some people, we discussed what they wanted to write about beforehand but we only had these conversations to let them know there was no good or bad content. I told them: This is a project that gathers about 10 black trans people so feel free to speak your truth, feel free to speak your mind. There was almost no proofreading afterwards. Some people I helped by, like, asking them questions to help them write their text. Sometimes I would say “Ok, I don’t think this is the right text for this project” but it was very rare. I just had to choose sometimes between some texts. We did some orthographical corrections and syntaxic maybe.
One thing I stressed was that they didn’t have to write about being trans. They had to choose their subject, their interest and I trust them on this.
Anonymity and safety were central issues for me. I didn’t want it to be an obstacle so I insisted on the fact that everyone should write about things they are comfortable sharing. It was important to be that no one be in danger or feel in danger.
I would say I am more cautious about that because of a difficult experience I had, I went through. It was a couple of years ago – I don’t remember when. It was about “Marianne et le garçon noir”, Léonora Miano’s collection of texts, to which I had contributed. When I am alone in front of a piece of paper, I don’t really think about what I am writing. I thing about but I’m really in my mind, I don’t care about other people. So with this particular project, Marianne et le garçon noir, when I realized that I wasn’t ready, from a psychological point of view, for the world to see what I had written, it was already too late. And in fact nothing bad really happened. But I had a lot of anxiety and it was a really difficult period. I often think about this traumatic psychological experience and I don’t want anybody to go through the same thing. That is why, I really wanted people
to feel safe. I would say “Cover you tracks if you need to, use nicknames, pen names. We don’t need anyone to sacrifice themselves. I want you to feel comfortable when the book is out in the world. I want you to feel safe.”
Some people ended up refusing after accepting initially and I can understand that.
I never insisted. It was just an opportunity I introduced to people and they were free to take it or not. Of course it has not been easy as a process, to do the book. It’s a complicated subject, everyone feels their own temporality and the quarantine didn’t help at all. But the yes, the book is here, now !
4/A.T : You write in the introduction that the book is not an inventory, an ” activist state of play ” (“état des lieux militant”) and that these people are simply “experts of their own experience which is enough”. Can you explain a bit more what you meant ?
M.D : First of all, about the obvious: yes people know what they are going through and I think they are competent. Yes, they are experts of their own lives and they know what they are writing about. It’s not an external perspective. They didn’t have to come from some kind of university or academic perspective. The thing about activist work – if I look at myself for example – even if I had done some activist work which can be linked to black trans identities , we, as a collective, have been working for 11 years on many other issues. So, yes I am an activist myself but I am not only or exclusively a trans activist. I’m a Black trans person who is doing activism, it’s another thing. A lot of trans people, black or not, are activists but their activism can be about a lot of things. Activism is thus very broad and was not a criteria to choose contributors. Moreover, pretending to be able to present kind of a state of play of activism seemed both too ambitious (and maybe pretentious) and too limited, too constraining. And maybe this would presuppose or imply the existence of a homogeneous black trans activism in France, which is not the case. Furthermore, it would mean taking the risk of showcasing a sort of elite, a group of leader activists.
I was also not interested in making the book carry the burden of cataloguing, listing all current struggles that trans people face today in France in one book. First, because there are too many and also because some of the contributors don’t even live in France : Kuchenga lives in Berlin, Blxck Cxsper is in Quebec. Finally, the people who wrote the book face oppression that are often related to their existence as Black people. It is true that, as black trans people, we can experience these things differently but our struggles are Black people struggles. So the question really was : what matters to us today as Black trans people from France and from elsewhere ? What drives us ? How do we live ? How did we grow up? And of course, a lot of other questions.
5/A.T : You say at some point, “In the global narrative, our ancestral trans-identities have been obscured or disqualified. Our contemporary Afro-trans identities have been recolonized by Western paradigms […] cultural imperialism, etc.” Is the book a response to this (re)colonizatio n and “whitening” of trans-identity? Is it a reminder to white people that black trans people also exist ?
M.D : I would say that white people know that Black trans people exist. In fact some black trans women like Laverne Cox or Janet Mock are deeply involved in the society of spectacle. Do white people want to listen black trans people? It’s another question and I don’t think so.
I always feel that it is extremely essentializing and imperialistic to think that we could agree on a single definition, on a common vocabulary on transgender identity and that we could all agree on modes of expression to define our realities. This really hinders the possibility of looking for historical traces of black trans identities. If we conceive trans identities only through the lens of how they have been defined within the western world, it prevents us from searching for, from finding what they may have been elsewhere. For example, if medicalization is the sole yardstick to measure, to judge who is trans or not, it is obvious that experiences that are not recent or modern, experiences that matter to us as Black trans people are going to be left out, disqualified, squashed by modern definitions and western vocabulary of transgender identity.
6/A.T : Many of you in the book tell stories that are rooted in overseas territories (Guadeloupe, Reunion Island…) but also, as you mentioned before, in the UK or in Canada. What can we say about this geographical diversity present in the book and about this “plurality of Afro-diasporic and transnational histories” ?
M.D : I would say that as black people, we are populations borne out of displacement. For example, I descend from the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We all, as black people, come from deportation, migration, or both. And this movement still goes on. The African diaspora is constantly being rebuilt, recomposed, being woven, unraveling and being woven again and again. If yo think about the people in the book, have never met the incredible Kuchenga, but we are close because we have been discussing, sharing for a while and this is something that is specific to our black communities, this circulation of ideas throughout the black diaspora: we constantly create connections, we constantly reconnect with one another. It seems obvious to me that, as people coming from diasporic trajectories, we continue to move, we continue to carry stories from several territories. They cannot be told from a single place or just from France. That is why Black conversations involve many territories and continents and we keep moving because it is the stuff we are made of. In my personal experience, I didn’t grow up in Guadeloupe, I grew up in the north of France but I often went to Guadeloupe and it’s part of my gender construction. As I say, as I wrote in one of my text, my experience with Guadeloupe has often been one of support and freedom when it came to gender-related issues.
7/A.T : This next question goes hand in hand with the previous one because it’s also about space and territories. In the book, Sika Lari speaks of a vision where the body and the knowledge of the body are conceived and articulated from the periphery, while usually assigned to central spaces such as the city center or Paris “intra-muros”. You also talk about the importance of speaking from the “province”, this “other margin” as you put it.. What role does this tension between center and periphery/margins play in the book and in your lives ?
M.D : I really like the parallel Sika Lari draws between contested bodies and contested spaces. Her piece, “De grands ensembles”, is amazing. And it really spoke to my personal experience.
Growing up as a black person in the provinces and in the remote countryside of the french Flanders made me who I am today. I always felt a…I would say a discrepancy between the way the black experience was predominantly depicted (from Paris and Ile de France) and the hyper-isolation I was experiencing in the countryside of the north of France. The kind of racial violence I was subjected to was also different. I guess that’s why I always believed in the necessity of highlighting a multiplicity of voices, of black voices. Our experiences do not come down to Paris and its suburbs. This hegemony flattens the black experience in France as it claims that we are all experiencing the same things. But we know, for example, that in places where black people are very few, racism is going to manifest itself in a specific way. We cannot assume that, just because the majority of black people live in or around Paris, this is what life looks like for every black person in France.
I also feel like there is always this urge to reproduce or to enunciate a sort of authentic, singular, monolithic identity. I suppose this is linked to the wish to centralize everything but also to this constant tension between the collective and the individual that forces us to choose one specific, one single experience and identity in the end, as if it was too difficult to keep in mind that each black person in France experiences different things, each black person in France have different life experiences), often for geographical reasons but other reasons like gender, class and so on. If you create a narrative that implies that if you’re black, and especially if you’re trans, you’re bound to end up in Paris, you’re not only erasing the potential of envisioning a livable life in other places in France but there is also this misleading focus on Paris that makes us believe that everything happens in Paris, everything happens there. It is all the more an issue because it gives the impression that analyses always come from these centers and that the French black experience could only be thought from Paris And if you stay on this path, you end up thinking that the black experience in general could only be understood from the US and this is super constraining. And that’s wrong, it’s a false idea.
Even though we cannot encompass every experiences – I mean, it’s hard – but it is imperative that we refute the idea of a center. There can’t be any center of the black experience because there is no single black experience. As black trans people, also live in cities like Nantes, Lille, Marseille, in the countryside, we live in former colonial territories, in territories that are still colonized. These lives must be told, must be heard and they bring more complexity. They must be integrated in all the analyses about black experiences to show how complex and diverse our lives are. And it’s also about accuracy.
Also, that’s my opinion, we think and reflect in a different manner from those margins. We produce other analyses, the text, the brilliant, wonderful essay of Sika Lari is a proof of that. I think that we look at the world differently because we’re not on the same margin.
It is also important, crucial to remind people that we don’t necessarily always want to escape from these places. Not everyone dreams of living in Paris one day or in the United States or I don’t know where… For example, I hate Paris! But that’s not the matter here…
We don’t necessarily want to escape from our margin. I must add to finish my answer that I was deeply influenced by caribbean thinkers such as Edouard Glissant and the way he conceptualized “the periphery”.
8/A.T : I can imagine that the decision to intregrate other languages that French in the book, such as Creole and English, was also driven bythis goal to translate a plurality of experiences and voices.Why did you decide to integrate different languages in the book such as Creole and English ?
M.D : A long time ago I was deeply influenced by Edouard from Glissant, again, and Patrick Chamoiseau who tackled issues linked to language, especially focusing on diglossia in the Caribbean, in Martinique. I think that is why I stopped seeing language only as a tool. It is not. Language shapes how we think, how we look at and understand the world, our environment. For example today, the vocabulary that the French language offers us to talk about transidentity flattens the reality of our experiences. In “Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature”, Ngugi wa Thiong’o explains it very well and shows how the supremacy of the colonial language impoverishes our experiences, and keep us at a certain distance from our direct environment. Since the beginning of Cases Rebelles, we’ve had this wish to decentralize knowledge and to welcome other languages when it was possible. So when I realized that we could incorporate creole in the book, I instantly seized the opportunity. It is not much but it is important. And I don’t wanna blame people who only speak or other colonial languages because that is a product, a result of colonization. But as a publishing house, we will make sure to incorporate other languages every time it is possible and I hope we will soon be able to publish books that will be written exclusively in creole!
9/A.T : In an interview you said that you were inspired by black gay anthologies released in the US in the 90s to create AfroTrans. Is AfroTrans part of a lineage? If so, which one and how? How do you dialogue with a legacy but leave something new for the next generation? What did you do differently in this work?
M.D : It seems to me that gatherings, for black people as a group always in movement, in displacement, have always been very important, especially the “veillées” (gatherings at night) where we were able to share stories, music, riddles. It was in these moments that we could recreate a sense of community, of humanity despite the trauma of slavery. These were places where we could express our many voices. Without these gatherings, we would have lost this sense of community and with it, the desire to act, to create together, collectively. The anthologies I have mentioned, the work of Joseph Beam, Assoto Saint, reproduced the tradition of these gatherings by inviting people in a place, or a book, where they could express themselves in a group and as a group. I feel the same warmth we feel in our bodies during these gatherings when I read these anthologies, at least the warmth I imagine people were feeling during those gatherings.
AfroTrans has inherited from this desire to create collectively and to see it as a necessity. I really want to thank the people who have participated because to do so, you need to understand deeply the meaning of it and to see it as an imperative, a collective imperative. The difference between AfroTrans and the gay anthologies I talked about is that in AfroTrans, only Black trans people are invited to the gathering. But the legacy is in how it is structured. The difference is the type of invitation we sent. I really hope there will be other books like this one, about Black trans people, in France or elsewhere. Creating as a group and telling our stories together is part of our tradition of resistance and survival. It is not an accident that AfroTrans is the first book that we publish as Cases Rebelles. This desire to create collectively is a big part of us.
10/The collective Cases Rebelles recently started a publishing house and you published AfroTrans yourself on the 11thof January this year. . Why is it important to have your own publishing house, as a black-only independent group ?
M.D : We have been doing things independently since the beginning of Cases Rebelles. We are used to doing things ourselves, on our own. Independence is kind of addictive and it is sacred. For us, as Black people, it was obvious that we will do things independently. And I would never even consider offering our project, a project like AfroTrans, to another publishing house. Even today, there are still not a lot of publishing houses founded by Black people in France ; so by adding another one, we wish to allow more voices to be heard.
Having our own publishing house allows us to control everything ; to decide where we want to sell the book and how. It is even more important for this book, as we know it is a topic that can generate a lot voyeurism. We want to keep in mind that this book comes from a Black-only collective, exclusively composed of lesbian and bi women. It is not just another book or some trivial editorial product. Having our own publishing house enables us not to give in to capitalist dynamics, even the smallest ones. The idea that everything can be bought and sold is pervasive even in activist work. As soon as you create something, you run the risk of it being turned into a commodity, all the more if you’re not in full control.
Also, we do not fool ourselves. We know that a lot of people who are interested in AfroTrans generally don’t care about black people’s lives. There is a strong desire to make Black trans identities cool and sexy. We’ve been fighting on a lot of issues for the last ten years and it’s clear that when we produced texts or other works about the police or prison abolition, it didn’t elicit the same kind of enthusiasm. Ironically, when you read the texts in AfroTrans, you realize that police violence comes up several times, as well as issues related to white supremacy and racism. This sudden passion for our work is a testament to the constant disregard for Black lives as a whole. If transgender experiences are the only entry point into the book for some people, that’s a real problem. What about our people who are detained, assaulted at the borders, deported, locked up in detention centers ? These people, they are us, this is our lives! If people are only interested in us when we are trans, it sucks! This is the very essence, I would say the true nature, of racist dynamics.
11/Cases Rebelles wrote a manifesto against the book “Sexe, Race & Colonies” a few years ago, and you are now writing “Négritudes spectaculaires” about the permanent spectacularization and aestheticization of black people’s sufferings and joys. Does the format of this book, a compilation of varied, intimate, personal, complex, poetic stories, allow you to counter this voyeurism and this permanent fetishization of the experiences of black people?
M.D : First, the fact that there are no images in the book kind of limits the potential voyeuristic dynamic. However, I think that it is a constant struggle, because we cannot prevent people from engaging in aestheticization and voyeurism. People can always interpret something their way.
I cannot tell you, be sure that AfroTrans is protected from any kind of spectacularization but, at least, we really had this problematic in mind when we created the book. And for example, we had this in mind when we tried to construct, to choose, which text would come first and so on. I believe social media has emphasized this habit of spectacularization. Even if it comes from a long history – I talk about this history in my future book “Négritudes spectaculaires” – it is very difficult today to make some people understand that it is, for example, not necessary to post a video showing police violence. You can describe what you saw, talk about it but do not post the video. We are not all equal in front of these violent and traumatic images. And we have a responsibility when we share content. Often, I saw this in social media : people always posted the story of some trans women being murdered and that was the only thing they were posting about trans people. But, similarly to violent content, if “beautiful” content can be pleasing for the eye, it can also be very toxic. Which reminds me of Hélène Bémé’s powerful contribution; her text is called “Polaroid Girl”. It seems that people really enjoy and are ok to see Black trans people, especially people who are considered beautiful. And it is really damaging for people who are not beautiful the way people think trans people should be beautiful. I think images confine us, as well as the idea of conceptualizing political issues throughout the lens of representation and visibility. As Black trans people, we know for sure that visibility without safety is worthless. And beauty is really a toxic and white concept.
12/You created the collective Cases Rebelles in 2010, which you describe as a “panafrorevolutionnary collective”. Can you explain a bit more what you mean with “panafrorevolutionary” and why you decided to use that term to define Cases Rebelles ?
M.D : It’s a term we coined because when we started Cases Rebelles, we didn’t want to define ourselves as just be only a feminist or queer or anti-racist. We were trying to be revolutionary and we still do. And we wanted to fight, at least try to fight, all the fights, all the struggles. We wanted to tell that our aim as Black people was to be revolutionary on all fronts. That’s the meaning of “pan”, which means “all” ; “afro” was for black, obviously ; and “revolutionary”, like told you, we’re trying to be good revolutionaries, or bad revolutionaries!
13/American filmmaker and activist Tourmaline recently stated on Instagram “I’m not satisfied with Black trans lives mattering; I want Black trans lives to be pleasurable and to be filled with lush opportunities.” Do you embrace this concept of “pleasure activism” and/or the concept of “joyful militancy” ?
M.D : To be honest, I’m always uncomfortable with these bold, clear-cut statements on social media. It is as if it was easy. Personally, I am dealing with different traumas ; joy and pleasure are complex notions for me. And from a class perspective, I am very far from lush opportunities and that’s not what I’m about ; I’m about anti-capitalist revolution. Period.
I may never feel wholly joyful or feel pure pleasure because of my struggle with my mental health. But you don’t fix people by telling them to be happy or to relax or to enjoy. I feel that these injunctions can be very guilt-inducing. It also reminds me of some star “star activism” where at a certain point you have to “market” your character with narratives of life-changing choices and bullshit like that. Statements are just statements, systemic dynamics are real.
But yes, pleasure in activism and joy : it is important. When we, Cases Rebelles, translated Assata Shakur’s autobiography, we could feel in the text the pleasure of doing things collectively, of sharing, discussing, even arguing, laughing. That is clearly what keeps us going as well. You can’t change the world if you are always angry ; you also need love, pleasure and joy in what you are doing, even if it is activism. I think it’s crucial overall in life to find, to know what feels good, what gives us joy and to energize ourselves with that. But this has its limitations. Cases Rebelles is my family. They are part of my daily life. We try to experience enjoyable things together but we all go through life with our wounds, and some of them will never heal. Not everything can be healed. And joy is not as simple as the word. People do not like to be reminded of this fact because of the whole personal development discourse that is sold as a path to liberation.
I have dealt with psychiatric issues since I was a kid, so joy is a complex word and a complex concept. And usually I’m not ok with those kind of statements.
14/Is there anything else you wanted to add ?
M.D : Yes : Love. I just wanted to add that, even if there were many difficulties, there was also a lot of love involved in the making of AfroTrans, between me and the other writers. There is a lot of love in the collective Cases Rebelles as well and it is what keeps us going : being there for each other, caring deeply for each other and looking out for one another. I really really hope readers will feel it in the book.
Thank you for having me Amélie, and many many thanks to The Funambulist !