Cut & Paste: Five Black Zine Lives

Cut & Paste

Cut & Paste is a new column highlighting zines and small press publications.

As the founding zine librarian at Barnard College, I have probably read about 7,000 zines in the past twelve years. As I select and catalogue zines for our collection, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them—including a lot about race and racism. 

In much of zine writing and culture, creators share thoughts and knowledge from an unabashedly personal perspective. Most of my favorite zines are personal zines, or "perzines." There is little to no claim to being unbiased or apolitical. Zine makers often preface their work with personal identifiers—race, sexuality, class, gender, pronouns, etc. For example, I'm a white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-aged, middle class woman who uses she/her/hers.

In an attempt to be intentional about inclusivity in zine communities, in this column I'll be taking a look at zines by Black people, which seems especially essential in the aftermath of an initial failure to be so at the Brooklyn Zine Fest (BZF) this past spring: Zine Fest panel coordinator Jordan Alam wrote a blog post about her proposal for a #BlackLivesMatter-themed panel being rejected. The zine fest organizers' responded with their own statement. (I also wrote a post on the matter, as did Tim Nicholas and Annie Soga.) The BZF organizers claimed the zine fest was meant to be apolitical, which I don't think is possible. I think it's also impossible to be apersonal, which is why I've taken a minute to let you know who I am and where I'm coming from, especially since I'm a person from a dominant culture writing about the work of people who are marginalized in our greater pop culture.

Alright! Here are five zines I love from Black zinesters.

Secondhand Emotion: a Zine About Love, Anxiety, Gender, Race, and Feelings 

First up: first-time zine maker Cassandra L., who published Secondhand Emotion: a Zine About Love, Anxiety, Gender, Race, and Feelings in time for this year's NYC Feminist Zine Fest. Cassandra's writing style is a blend of personal, political, and academic. One her more political essays contain the observation that "White people weaponize both the concepts of individuality and equality in order to deny that they constantly perpetrate patterns of abuse by denying the specificity of marginalized experiences and pain (which, in itself is a form of abuse)."

But just as often, she ruminates on love and relationships. She's in her mid-20s and experiencing the kind of romantic despair I clearly recall. She wonders how she could ever be loved and whether or not romance is possible for her. Cassandra's self-doubt, while universal, is also heartbreakingly tied to her race, "How could I delude myself into thinking, as a black woman, I could be loved, even for a moment?" She also wasn't well prepared for intimacy by her Haitian-American parents, whose version of "The Talk" was showing her photos of diseased female genitalia and to whom she was "an unreliable narrator" of her own emotions.

A zine maker of her time, Cassandra aka @feministrevenge has strong presences on various social media. Her zine is particularly informed by conversations she has on Twitter. She addresses topical issues like #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter. Her essays embody the complex rage and depth of Tina Turner's What's Love Got to Do With It that inspired the zine's title.

It's half-size, 38 pages long, and costs $5. You can buy it from her by emailing [email protected]. It's also available for purchase from Bluestockings and Brown Recluse Zine Distro. It's held by the Barnard Zine Library.

Shotgun Seamstress

I could not possibly write a review of zines by Black women without including Osa Atoe's Shotgun Seamstress. Osa's zine, launched in 2006 "by, for and about black punks, queers, feminists, outsider artists and musicians" is perhaps the most identifiable 21st century punk zine by a Black woman (as Ramdasha Bikceem's GUNK is for the 20th century). 

I appreciate when zine makers question their own political assumptions, as well as those of others. In this zine, Osa wonders whether or not there is a punk or LGBTQ scene in Nigeria, the country where her parents were born and raised. She contemplates that she's "obviously looking for the American version of what I think that means… I'm might not even recognize 'Nigerian subculture' if it slapped me across the face." She does find one figure that might embody both subcultures—Charly Boy, Nigeria's "allegedly not gay" Boy George, who lives in a mansion he calls "Punk Palace."

Osa is not overtly focused on herself and her own experience, the way many zine makers are. She's more concerned with facilitating other Black artists and weirdos' stories. To that end, her interview questions like, "What does Afrofuturism mean to you?" elicit more substantive responses than you are likely to see in other media outlets. I love how she's specific, rather than asking "Who are your influences?" she wonders, "What do you think of Björk's new record?"

Other highlights: Osa's back-and-forth about her interview with Taquila Mockingbird, a Neil deGrasse Tyson tribute collage, a response to the police murders and non-indictments along with her feelings about Twelve Years a Slave abuse porn, and her profile of Marsha P. Johnson. But it's time for you to read the zine yourself, if you haven't already.

You can buy Shotgun Seamstress #8 from Mend My Dress and Antiquated Future for $5.50, and some of the 40 pages of the half size are published online. Issues of Shotgun Seamstress are held by libraries at Barnard College, Brooklyn College, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Ontario College of Art and Design, Papercut Zine Library, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, the University of Connecticut, Wellesley College and others. 

Mad Mulatta

Mad Mulatta: a Per Zine About Glasses, Food, Feminism, Insomnia, Milk, Hair, Mixed Ethnicity and Angry Feelings by Brittany Couch was the only new-to-me zine maker in this group, and I was glad to be introduced to her. The cover, a self-portrait on different colors of cardstock (with heart-laden snaky Medusa locs), along with the lengthy subtitle, signals the zine's diverse content. Mad Mulatta starts with a list of Brittany's anthropomorphic afro's hobbies, like eating bobby pins, attracting creepy people, kids, and creepy kids; and making her look like a mermaid. Continuing her examination of her physical attributes and accessories, Brittany tells us about the glasses she's been wearing since her blindness was diagnosed when she was six and advises us what not to do when approaching someone with glasses. Basically: hands off! Also, lensless hipster glasses: not okay—would you use crutches to look cool?

Throughout the zine are self-portraits of Brittany, mostly in teacups, but also as an ice cream cone, lying in bed with insomnia, and with a flower growing out of her mouth. Is she boiling? Trying to be calm? Or showing her dainty side, as indicated by a Portrait of a Lady quote below the first teacup drawing?

Brittany is playful about her visual disability—and about her lactose intolerance, which is common among people of African and Asian descent. She questions why given that a majority of humans are lactose intolerant, milk is served with "ALL school lunches." (Because kids can tolerate milk better than adults can, which doesn't mean they don't miss it. This is where Brittany draws herself as an ice cream cone.) She uses silliness to mask or offset anger, which she exposes when she shares her experiences with "Facebook Feminism." People respond to her womanist posts by reducing her to the "angry black woman" stereotype and giving other ignorant responses. 

The zine, often light in treatment, is about serious topics and informed by extensive reading, as evidenced by quotations from heterogeneous sources like Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, Henry James, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marilyn vos Savant, and Oprah Winfrey. On the last page, Brittany is at her most serious, this time drawing a self-portrait with a mass of hair on one side of her face, and a tendril peeking out on the other side, which otherwise has either very short hair, or hair aggressively tamped down. She questions her "mud blood" racial identity and poignantly asks if she can "please be enough."

Mad Mulatta #1 is available from her shop and Brown Recluse Zine Distro for $3. Get the 20-page half-size zine from a library like Hampshire College, the New Orleans Public Library Alvar Branch,  UCLA, or Western Wyoming Community College.

Mid-Life Isis

Albuquerque Zine Librarian Marya Errin Jones embraces her crone-itude in Mid-Life Isis. Jones published this zine on Valentine's Day 2014, two weeks before her 44th birthday. Marya is a late-onset zine maker, having debuted with Electric Voyager. Volume #1 (Jedna), Prague: a Fucked-Up Travelogue in 2011, but unlike many zinesters (myself included), she burst onto the scene with a fully mature zine that was smart, funny, and pretty—everything you could want in a zine or a friend.

In the first issue of Mid-Life Isis, with its blood-red cover, Marya's crone explores aging and witchiness. Marya laments still "having to BLEED every month," but celebrates her youthful appearance, "BLACK DON'T CRACK, folks." She evidences no shame about aging, just curiosity. Well, it's not all a hot fudge sundae; Marya admits to having panic attacks and claims to have purchased a fainting couch. (I hope that's true!) As one of a minority of zine makers in Marya 's age demographic, I value her sharing of experiences, including her "Signs you are having a mid life crisis" list, including "Get tattoos for the first time… after the age of 40." Check!

With "333,101 hours, more or less to kill," Marya turns to witchcraft. She decides to become Isis, because the goddess of wisdom is a more attainable aspiration to her than becoming Shirley Temple. Background photos of ancient ruins enhance the feeling of the zine that you are in a race, tumbling up, rather than down a massive set of ancient stairs.

Significant space in the second half of the zine is given to the study of automatic writing, which is additionally chronicled on a blog called Saint Oran Speaks. Marya shares her own techniques and experiences (like channeling Lord Byron!) and a how-to. The zine ends with a promise for a second volume, subtitled The Mark of Cassiopeia. I hope Marya delivers it soon.

You can buy Mid-Life Isis from her Etsy shop and for $3. It's on the shelf at the Barnard Zine Library, too. 

Thinks About the Bubbles

I saved the homebody-themed 13th issue of Think About the Bubbles by Joyce Hatton, not because I love it the most but because it is the one that I relate to in the most personal way. Joyce writes statements like, "My mom had spent a lot of time saying she loved me, but not a lot of time showing love by listening, spending time with me, allowing me to have boundaries." Joyce is a talented visual artist, as you'll see from her drawings, and she extends that creativity to her written typography, using color, size and emphasis to further drive home what she's saying.

She brings her art and handwriting skills to drawing a sort of map of Toni Morrison's "The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction" quotation. Joyce has a loving self-awareness and sensitivity toward others. I appreciate the understanding she shows her mentally ill mother whose "resistance to going to therapy 'She didn't want to pay some white [therapist] to microaggress, invalidate, and say racist shit to her...'"

I wrote earlier that Brittany anthropomorphizes her hair in Mad Mulatta. Joyce does that, overidentifying with her cancer as it calls her traitorous breast passive-aggressive and "Minnesota nice." She observes, "Sometimes the cause of DNA damage is something obvious like cigarette smoking, sun exposure, or the transatlantic slave trade." She makes other comments on Blackness, talking about the "purse-clutching" white ladies do around her. At least there's a nice antidote for the purse clutching and Joyce's symptoms of depression, in the form of a touch by a fat Black yoga instructor. I always feel touched when I read Joyce's zines.

This zine is half-legal size, in color, and 20 pages. You can buy it from Joyce for $4. It's also at the Barnard Zine Library and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Also Check Out:

I'd like to note that there are a few zines I had intended to cover and didn't: Angry Black-White Girl by the celebrated QPOC interviews podcaster Nia King, because it's out of print, and I'd hate to tease you like that; and Black Women Matter, for which I wrote a review, but pulled after reading the collective's account of mistakes they made in publishing the zine. The observant observer will also notice that the zines I reviewed are all by ciswomen. We do have zines in our collection at Barnard by Toi Scott, who identifies as Afrogenderqueer, but I was unable to process and read them in time to include them in this column. Another highlight are Jonas's zines, including Cheer the Eff Up #6. He's a really sweet and thoughtful guy, who I would identify as a feminist. There are many other spectacular zines by Black women, but a lot of them are no longer available. Get thee to a zine library to find mind-blowing zines by Kisha HopeLaMesha MeltonAdee Roberson and many others. You can also check out the Women of Color series, edited primarily by Tonya L. Jones, who kept things real in lily-white Portland, Oregon for as long as she could, which I didn't review here because the majority of the contributors are not Black.

Jenna Freedman is the zine librarian at Barnard College and has been making her own zines, including Lower East Side Librarian, since 2001. Her latest is An Hour Ago/An Hour From Now, a joint zine with long-time zine BFF Celia C. Perez.S he tweets for Barnard Library @barnlib.

Photo of white woman with purple hair with rainbow background and tabby cats all around her
by Jenna Freedman
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Jenna Freedman is a zine librarian and librarian zinester. She is the Associate Director of Communications at the Barnard Library in NYC. She has published articles on zine librarianship and presented around the United States and in France on that topic as well as on other themes of library activism.

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