Six years ago at a feminist student conference (the Network of Women Students in Australia, NOWSA, held at QUT, Brisbane in 1997) I came across a little photocopied booklet called Feel the Word. It was by a woman from South Australia and it included her descriptions and opinions of feminism, activism, the world and her life. On the cover were hand drawings of a punk-looking young woman with a NOWSA shirt and Lisa Simpson holding a grenade. The price was “$1 or trade”. Inside it said: “I am a writer with a need to express myself. I love zines because they are inexpensive and wonderful. I love to share”. Further down the page it said “WHY DO THIS? Why not? Like I said, I love to share. Welcome to Feel the Word. And please, feel free to write to me.”
This was my introduction to the world of zines. Since then I have acquired over one hundred zines, I have produced nine of my own, I have met many people involved with making zines, distributing zines, studying zines and the “zine scene” (if such a thing exists), I’ve spoken on panels at arts festivals about zines and I’ve even done a university cultural studies essay on zines. But why do I do it? And do I achieve anything?
I love the personal nature of zines. As they’re usually done by one person, they are an expression of the editor/writer/zinester’s opinions, beliefs and life experience. I have read so many interesting points of view in zines, opinions that are often ignored in mass media. I’ve always liked political zines: zines made with the express intent of changing the world – or at least spreading information about an issue – I definitely would like to think that Ugly Duckling falls into this category. But where do zines fit in the broader scheme of things? Can we really change the world? And what about those ziners who have no wish to change the world? And when does your publication stop being a zine? When you start taking advertising? When (and if) you start making a profit? When you go full-colour-glossy?
For my essay on zines I read a really interesting book by an American, Stephen Duncombe. His book, Notes from Underground studied zines in the USA. I liked a lot of what he had to say though I did disagree with some of it. Duncombe said zines are usually done by outsiders; through the zines they create and share, they form communities on the margins of society. These communities advocate a different way of living but, Duncombe says, they do not advocate the political action necessary to bring about the social change they desire. In regards to my knowledge of zines in Australia I agree with all of Duncombe’s points except the last one.
Duncombe says zinesters are losers and outsiders but unlike the outsiders represented in mainstream media, zinesters are not trying to be let back in, that is, to fit into mainstream culture. They just want to communicate with other outsiders. They are usually trying to communicate with others who feel ostracized for similar reasons to them. He says “zines…allow people, if only for a short time, to escape the identity they are born into and circumscribed by and to become someone else. Zine writers use their zines as a means to assemble the different bits and pieces of their lives and interest into a formula that they believe represents who they really are”. By representing their own identities, in a distinctly personal way, outside of the usual mainstream representations, they are able to overcome what they believe are misrepresentations of themselves and those like them.
Zines like the Alien Invader, Sweet Valley Zine, I Can’t Use Chopsticks and Let Them Eat Cake all tell, in different ways, the stories of Asian Australians. Some are more blatantly political than others but they all provide a space for their editors/writers to construct their own identities free of the mediation that happens in other media.
Most of the material I have read about zines says that community is important to zinesters. I think this may be true of zinesters trying to communicate with people similar to them. When I first started making zines I gave/sold them mostly to friends and acquaintances and eventually started swapping with other zinesters. The “zining community” wasn’t all that important to start with. For me, I wanted to communicate with other people with similar politics to me as well as people who may not necessarily agree with me. I think the communities created by zinesters are often based to some extent on identity, providing a way of affirming their usually marginalized position (whether that be as a young, working class woman, an Asian Australian, a queer punk, or whatever).
Duncombe says that by pitching themselves against mainstream society zinesters’ identities will always be negative and they will remain tied to the society that they rebel against. While I do think zines critique society and speak to outsiders I do not think these identities are necessarily represented as negative. Zines like the Alien Invader exist because their editors’ identity as Asian Australian should not be a negative one but is because we live in a racist society. Zines like the Alien Invader and feminist and queer zines acknowledge the negativity directed towards their communities but question this along with celebrating the positive things their communities have to offer (for example by reviewing art/books/films/zines/events/etc by people who fit into their respective communities).
Some zines by women are reaching out, searching for a feminist community. Others position themselves as already existing within such a community. My friend Kylie does two zines. Personality Liberation Front is about the hardcore punk scene and positions herself clearly within that. Her other zine, Ladies Liberation Handbook, positions her as part of a women’s movement who goes to women’s events. The Village Bike and IN TREE CUNT both place themselves within a large-scale, mass, women’s movement. Which moves me onto Duncombe’s point that zines will never reach their true underground potential because even though zinesters want to change the world they never advocate the political organizing and activity necessary to do this. He obviously is not familiar with the many political zines in Australia that often position themselves within activist communities or at least encourage political activity of one kind or another.
While many zines are not political, there are many that are part of a broader political movement. They connect people to those movements, inform them and rally others to join them. For each zine containing personal public transport stories (which could be seen as political for being pro-public transport), diary entries about what someone ate today or reviews of popular culture, there are zines covering political action of some kind, encouraging high school students to know their rights, urging people to be environmental, feminist, or anarchist activists and more.
So there are heaps of zinesters out there like me: making zines with political content, wanting to change the world. Do we achieve anything? Sometimes I really do wonder. I make 100, maybe 200 copies of my zines, hand them out/send them to people/swap them/sell them. Then what? I know my humble little zine on its own can’t start a revolution but it does make me feel good when a friend or someone I know says that my zines made them think about class for the first time, or maybe it got them thinking about sexuality. That does make me feel good. If I can help make people think about the world around them and how it is structured, maybe I am having the desired political impact that helped inspire my zining in the first place.
Stephen Duncombe. Notes From Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. London: Verso, 1997.
The web address for the fabulous, Sydney-based zine distro Vox Populis. And I’m not just saying that because they distro Ugly Duckling! Oh no, they distro heaps of way cool zines. [unfortunately, since the publication of Ugly Duckling #7, Vox Populis have gone into hibernation. Here’s hoping that one day, they come back to us *sniff sniff*]
The site for the fabulous Grrrl Zine Network. This site, put together by Elke in California is full of heaps of info, resources, contacts about zines by and for women. And there’s no biologically-determined bullshit going on here, trans ladies are more than welcome! The site explains: With “Grrrl and ladies” I think of rebellious, resistant “girls” (which does not mean you have be born a woman!) who are not afraid to call themselves feminists! The term also refers to the riot Grrrl movement and builds up on one of its many accomplishments – zines! The terms “grrrl” and “lady” are not meant to be exclusive, this project is definitely boy-friendly and open to all non-sexist, non-discriminatory, anti-racist/homophobic contributions and includes transgender issues, (indicated in queer and trans zines).
*Me, My Zines and Why was the name given to a zine put together at This Is Not Art in Newcastle in October 2003 and in true zining style, I’ve stolen the name for this here article.