‘They Bring Activism To A New Level’: A Radical Roundtable With Female Zinesters
By Sara Century
‘I love that zines can be about absolutely anything.’
Zines have been around for a long time, arguably tracing back to political pamphlets in the 1700s. An early example that is often cited is Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” which marked the first work to openly ask for America’s independence from Great Britain.
The PoC Zine Project cites infamous literary magazine Fire!! — founded by Langston Hughes and Richard Nugent — as a potent example of an early zine, a marked player in the Harlem Renaissance, and a valuable reminder that the Riot Grrrl movement doesn’t own zine culture.
What might be considered the beginning of the modern era of zines can be found in sci-fi pulps from the 1930s. Specifically, this is when people started using the term “fanzine” because these were more about the celebration of genre as opposed to advancing a political agenda. (And I’m of the belief that sci-fi zines of the ’30s arguably single-handedly created geek culture.)
Since then, zines have played an important role in the development of many music scenes, subcultures, and activist groups, including punk rock in London (Sniffin Glue Zine), Los Angeles (Search and Destroy), the Bay Area (Maximum Rock’n’Roll), and New York (Punk Magazine) — and of course, the Riot Grrl scene in the ‘90s.
“Zines” have been used to unite people of color in America during times of slavery all the way up to today, with zines such as Evolution of a Race Riot by Mimi Thi Nyugen and Osa Atoe’s Shotgun Seamstress.
For my part, I’ve always been fascinated and moved by the fact that zines were a major means of communication for lesbians during the extreme oppression and media persecution of gay people in the 1950s. The first known lesbian zine, Vice Versa, was meticulously typed on carbon paper, and produced in batches of just 12 per issue. But those issues were read, mailed, and passed on so that hundreds of women ended up reading them. Queer zines of the ’90s like Shocking Pink and Outpunk are also legendary for providing radical theory to an entire generation of queers.
Zines run the gamut in both quality and subject matter, but they all share a common and salient thread — they speak for their time, they are unedited, they are personal, and they deal with things you would never read about in major publications, from the personal to the political and beyond. While zines remain a mostly print function, recently the medium has taken on changes to adapt to the digital age, not only by making zines easily available directly from zinesters via platforms like Etsy and Big Cartel, but in their format as well, such as with the multimedia zine/s of musician EMA, or the several online zine archives (read collections of zines by PoC here or ones by queers here).
Something seldom discussed, however, it the way that feminists more or less run the zine world right now. Almost every one of the zine fests I’ve been to in the last two years — including Seattle’s Short Run, Olympia Zine Fest, Portland Zine Fest, New Orleans Zine Fest, Chicago Zine Fest — has been run entirely run by women and put on by women, with women tending to make up the vast majority of the tablers as well. To my mind, zines have always been there for people who are typically shut out of standard publishing venues, people who have to rely on their own wits to get their words out.
I recently caught up with a few of the zinesters and fest organizers that have been working hard to bring together their zine communities by tabling at and hosting zine fests.
Shannon Connor puts out a contribution-based zine annually called Basements and Living Rooms: A Zine about DIY Music and House Shows, as well as booking DIY shows, printmaking, teaching, playing music, helping with the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP), and organizing Milwaukee Zine Fest. (Shannon is barely online but can be reached through any of the organizations listed above.)
Aleeya Wilson is a word and music artist from Denver, Colorado. She writes “That Other Zine,” a loose autobiography about her life whenever something odd or unusual occurs, which is quite often. Aleeya also plays punk-influenced shoegaze in her band Death In Space. Aleeya will be starting an MFA in Writing at the University of San Francisco in the fall.
Vanessa X is the creator and editor of Asswipe, and has contributed to Slingshot, Maximum Rock N Roll, and other publications in the Bay Area. She loves getting real mail at PO BOX 1241, Oakland, CA 94604.
Marya Errin Jones is a social media strategist, zinester, producer, creative non-fiction journo, traveler, curator, and communicator. She founded ABQ zine fest.
Rhea Tepp is an active musician, writer and creative weirdo. She is one of the organizers for LA Zine Fest.
Emily Van Der Harten was one of the primary organizers at the ZAPP zine archiving project for several years, and helped created the ongoing anthology zine Xenographic based our of Seattle.
How did you get involved with zines? What were the first zines you ever read?
Marya Errin Jones: I can’t remember the names, but the very first zines I saw were made by the junior and senior punks I was advised not to hang out with at my high school in North Florida. They rented rehearsal spaces in storage places, wore homemade patches on their ripped-up denim jackets, and were always getting into political skirmishes with school authority and tagging the school with anarchist symbols. If I could be back in time, I’d be one of them. But I was a shy band nerd.
Vanessa X: The first zines I ever read were Tales of Blarg by Janelle Hessig and Cometbus. I found them both at Comic Relief in Berkeley [California] as a teen and thought they were so cool. Years later, I moved to L.A. to live with my friend Marna in a tiny garage and whenever she went to work, I would go through her zine collection. She dragged me to L.A. Zine Fest in 2012, and after meeting and getting inspired by so many zine makers, I created Asswipe a few months later.
Emily Van Der Harten: I got involved with zines through an independent study I was doing because I wanted to do music writing but wasn’t interested in big publishing or even internet publishing, necessarily. A friend of mine suggested I look at zines. There was an archive in Seattle, where I lived at the time, called ZAPP, at a literary center called Richard Hugo House. I read my first zine there called Psycho #1 fan. I was enchanted by the zealotry over Donny Osmond and diary entries about how much these kids loved their zits. The rest is history. I got involved with ZAPP and became sort of an unofficial zine librarian for about 6 years.
Rhea Tepp: I was first exposed to zines growing up in Seattle, and being shown zines made from bands out of the Riot Grrrl scene in Olympia while in my teens. I think the first actual zine I ever read was an anarchist zine during the WTO riots in Seattle in 1999. I went to a couple of protests and got passed something that I didn’t even realize was a zine at the time.
Shannon Connor: I got involved with zines when I did an internship with the Queer Zine Archive Project in 2010. Several of the projects were making zines. The first zine I made was a one-page mini zine that was a how-to zine about hosting house shows. I made the first issue of the contribution-based zine I put out called Basements and Living Rooms: A Zine about DIY Music and House Shows. I’m not sure specifically what the first zines I read were, but they were queer zines!
Aleeya Wilson: I was around 14 or so when I found my first zine on the punk scene in Denver. I lucked out because I really started to explore more of the music community within Denver, and, soon after that, I began to play more of my own music.
What’s your favorite thing about tabling/hosting zine fests? What’s your least favorite thing?
SC: My favorite thing about tabling and hosting zine fests is meeting people who put out rad zines and trading zines! My least favorite thing is getting overwhelmed.
AW: I really enjoy the entire process of making zines. For me that starts off with writing and developing the content that I want for the zine, and then I go on to add the artwork that I think will fit the scene in the best way that it can. Then when I have everything done, I like to hold the finished zine in my hands and think about how amazing it is to have a finished product. I guess I should say that there is something about a zine that social media just can’t do. It is probably the most intimate art form that there is. I feel like zines are the ultimate form of connection. Something that you make with your own hands ends up in someone else’s own hands, and they (hopefully) connect with it in a personal way.
EH: One of my favorite things about tabling zine fests is making sure we have a zine to sell. The prep of making a zine is incredible. Since I have lately done mostly submission-based zines to garner awareness for ZAPP and our pursuit of a new place to house the archive, it’s a great way to get the community involved. Another thing I like about tabling is meeting people and seeing what everyone else is up to. It’s truly inspiring. My least favorite thing is having to sit for hours. I’m not a very good sitter.
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RT: Tabling at fests is an amazing opportunity to meet like-minded people. When I first tabled at fests I was very nervous to interact with people, particularly related to really personal work, often work that was being shared for the first time. Over time I met people whose work I admire and through those interactions was able to empower myself through the collective energy of vulnerability in a shared space. Hosting a fest is a completely different experience and a much longer conversation because it is an ongoing learning experience that I constantly re-define. I love reaching out to pre-existing zine communities to create a platform that allows people to connect with each other face-to-face. I dislike having to work with people, mainly venues, whose only incentive to work with me is based on money, or having conversations where I know the person is trying to determine how they can monetize the experience we are having together.
VX: Tabling at a zine fest is the only time I make any money off of my zine, but it’s also a chance to expose many people to the zine and connect with them on a more intimate level. The best compliments I get are at zine fests, like when people tell me that my zine inspired them to make one. It makes it all worth it. A lot of my friends who create zines go to the same zine fests, so it’s fun to travel with them and experience it together. Zine fests are really chaotic and anyone who has tabled and prepared for them knows how exhausting it can be to have hundreds of people coming up to you all day and asking you about your project, staring at you, etc. At the end of a zine fest, I’m usually braindead, and need to unwind by myself and/or with friends.
MJ: My favorite thing about tabling at zine fests is spending the day with good friends I only get to see at festivals — it’s like a mini reunion, and we pick up where we left off. The time is so short, it’s great to enjoy some good laughs with them. My least favorite thing is that I’m always scrambling to get my shit together: money to cover the printing, actually getting the printing DONE, always wanting to make ONE MORE ZINE before I leave for the fest, and failing miserably. I have yet to get to a zine fest where all of my zine chores are done and I’m not folding and stapling furiously the night before. Hosting zine fests is insane. Forms. Emails. Request. Events. All the decorating. You spend six months building a machine with thousands of moving parts that, on zine fest day, simply gets up and runs on its own. Will it be a beautiful dream, or Frankenstein’s monster? You never know, and that’s part of the fun of it!
What can zines do that other mediums can’t?
SC: My favorite thing about zines is that they can be widely distributed and don’t have to be on the internet! I love that zines can be about absolutely anything.
VX: You can actually interact with them, which gives them a lasting effect. There are so many moments in zines that are forever etched in my brain because I got a really powerful emotion from them. Whether it be a funny comic that made me laugh til I cried (I’m looking at you, Janelle Hessig!) or something traumatic that the author is bravely sharing, these stories are a way of expressing yourself and letting it all out. Plus, all the work that’s put into brainstorming, writing it down, carefully editing the zine, printing it, and then folding it is really special, and you can just tell when someone poured their heart into it. Just like films, all of this work goes into telling a story and it’s so much work! When you can relate to a story in someone’s zine, you instantly feel bonded to that person. Trading zines with people and connecting that way feels good, also. The funny thing is that zines are usually read once or twice and then put aside, so you sometimes question if it’s worth it to make one, but you never know who will go through your zine collection or someone else’s collection and be inspired. Zines definitely have a snowball effect.
EH: I’ve always been fascinated with the obsessive nature of the content in zines. Fandom in its rawest form. I guess other mediums can do that, too, but zines seem to be a medium that bring interests, stories, and activism to a completely new level, possibly because it is a format that champions uncensored material and encourages autonomous creation from conception to execution. And that’s another idea that’s important — you have a lot of control over your medium, and you can produce it really quickly and share it with others readily. There’s a whole community out there across the globe!
MJ: Zines bypass the editor in your brain. Or, maybe that editor is a Buddhist. A BRAIN Buddhist — the zine is a flexible, forgiving form. Some people look at zine-making as a launching place to become a novelist. I don’t think that is necessarily so. I think zine-making gets you closer to knowing YOU, what you think and how you let the world in. Or not. Flexible. Forgiving. Breathe through the typo. Keep making.
How has zine culture changed since you got involved with it?
MJ: I don’t have a comprehensive view of zine culture. It’s a stream that you jump in, and the water keeps moving. Maybe zine culture has changed in that more conventional media is noticing that zine culture never died. Oh! Also — I think more people of color are finding their way to zine-making. I think that’s great.
RT: I think the first L.A. Zine Fest that we organized gave people assurance that there is a desire for more zine fests throughout the year. It’s been great to be able to participate in at least one zine fest every month, and also to see zine sections in local public libraries — that is incredible!
EH: Well . . . Kanye is making zines now and telling people how to pronounce the word so that’s pretty shocking.
Where do you see zine culture going in the next 50 or 100 years?
AW: I feel like zines could become a “hyper-digitized” experience. You won’t even have to hold it, it will just appear in front of your eye.
EH: I think we are going to be thinking a lot about digitization in zine libraries so that we can preserve what has already happened without compromising the physical material. Of course, I’m thinking about this from a librarian standpoint.
MJ: I predict that, when the power goes out, the printing press will be queen again. We’ll handmake our books again. We’ll develop writer’s bumps on our fingers again (I still have one). In 50 years, we will write zines for each other — just that one copy that we never see again — like sailing across the sea, never to return. We’ll make that zine, give it away, and keep sailing. Maybe some of us do that now.
VX: I’d like to think that in addition to having people still creating zines in the year 2116, they will be archiving them online for people to read, although I’m a little hesitant to put my zines online. I’d like them to be more accessible for people, but I’d also like people to not be so lazy that they can’t send me a letter asking for my zine. I think zines will still be around and maybe there will be more advancements in how we connect with each other and maybe we’ll all be able to Kickstart our zine anthologies so we can have everyone’s zines in our libraries.
RT: I’m sure there will be a robot zine fest which will be pretty tight, and I hope that I’m still alive to attend. Maybe I can host a panel discussing old-school human zine fests for robots to get some perspective on what it was like back in the day.
What’s a zine you’ve recently connected with and why?
AW: I think that every zine moves me, and that is very cliché to say, but it’s relevant to the statement I said earlier. As long as I have a zine in my hands, I am connecting to someone else and understanding their viewpoint for at least a little while.
SC: Big Mouth Volume One: Sex because the writer is so honest and I can relate to it. I know you said one zine but also Never Grow Up! because it’s super cute and also super relatable.
EH: I can’t stop thinking about this zine I read about diabetes. It was written from two points of view — a mother, and her child. It works to dispel the myths of people who suffer from diabetes and provide facts about different types of diabetes as they affect different age groups. I can’t for the life of me remember who it was by.
RT: I taught a zine workshop recently in a small town in New Mexico, and there were several zines that came out of it that moved me. The average age of participants was 65 and most everyone was being introduced to the concept for the very first time. I gave them two options: create a fanzine or a zine about food. One person made a local foraging guide, another made a fanzine for millennials providing advice from a baby boomer, another was created by a cartoonist featuring instructions on how to make his mother’s famous meatloaf. Sometimes I’m moved reading a zine because I know that person approached the creation of it with a willingness to be open to the moment, which is what these ones communicated to me.
MJ: I have a zine crush on Bijou Karman. That’s all I can say.
Who are some new zinesters to watch out for?
SC: Emily Bee, Gender Fail Publishing, Brown and Proud Press, Jenny Janzer . . .
RT: I’m really excited for the Zine Queens fest in Long Beach, hosted by Darcy Crash Distro. I’m drawn toward discovering new work by exploring collectives and distros. Tiny Splendor, CoolWorld, Snatchpower, Writ Large Press . . . these are the names that come to mind for me first, but there’s plenty more. Once you start exploring individual zine-makers, you can quickly learn who they’re friends with, and within these collectives you can be opened up to worlds of music, film, and social justice within communities you can connect with. It’s exciting to read a zine you really like, and then find out that zine-maker is in a band that’s really cool and volunteers for causes that teach you things, and maybe even lives in your neighborhood!
EH: Elizabeth Spenst — she is 19 years old and the editor in chief of a zine called Down; it calls out institutional racism in universities and is published by students of color at Yale. They’ve already made amazing changes by putting the word out there and creating a forum for others to discuss justice and what a truly inclusive school looks like.
MJ: I’m still discovering zinesters from years ago! Zine-making is so fluid, so fast, so present that honestly I’m mostly too busy trying to make my own shit to be watching out for the up and coming — I’m UP AND COMING. I don’t follow zinemakers as much as I am trying to keep up with the production of my own thoughts — just trying to get them out of my head and onto the page. I know that my zine-making in my community has spawned new zinesters — that’s what it’s all about.