From archives to action: zines, participatory culture, and community engagement in Asian America.

Author:Honma, Todd



Zines are currently experiencing a resurgence across the country. The proliferation of zine fests, zine distros, and zine makers (or zinesters) point to a rejuvenation in zine culture not seen since the 1990s. For those unfamiliar with zines, R. Seth Friedman, publisher of the now defunct Factsheet Five, defines a zine as a "small handmade amateur publication done purely out of passion, rarely making any money or breaking even" (quoted in Chu, 1997). Stephen Duncombe, author of the seminal zine text Notes from the Underground, provides this definition: "zines are noncommercial, nonprofessional, small-circulation magazines which their creators produce, publish, and distribute by themselves" (Duncombe, 2008). In addition to the renewed interest in the production of zines, a concerted effort to archive zines has also been growing. Zine archivists (both professional and DIY, or do-it-yourself) have established institutional archives (e.g., Bernard College Zine Collection), community based archives (e.g., Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, Zine Archive & Publishing Project in Seattle) and digital archives (e.g., Queer Zine Archive Project, POC Zine Project, Digital Fanzine Preservation Society). These zine archives have not only helped to preserve this ephemeral form of material culture, they have also created new pathways for learning about marginalized histories by increasing accessibility to these once obscure documents.

Zines are often used in the classroom to promote alternative pedagogies and forms of creative self-expression that are unencumbered by the need for technological skill or pressures to conform to particular aesthetics or abilities. Because of their do-it-yourself ethos, zines are often embraced by those from marginalized backgrounds because of their freedom to experiment with different modes of writing, expression, and presentation. Previous studies about zines in the classroom emphasize their effectiveness in bolstering individual agency and self-actualization (Chu, 1997; Guzzetti & Gamboa, 2004). In a way, this makes sense given how zines are often framed in mainstream discourse as a DIY project geared toward self-expression and individuality (Duncombe, 2008). Less attention has been devoted to the ways in which zines can be used to foster off-campus community partnerships and community engagement. The aim of this article is to highlight the latter approach to zine creation, or what Piepmeier refers to as the "embodied community" of zine culture (Piepmeier, 2008). The community aspects of zines include resource sharing, skills development, and the promotion of participatory culture, in which everyone is encouraged to contribute according to their own capacities towards a shared collective experience. Shifting from the individualistic focus of zines to their role in community building entails establishing a counter-narrative that frames zine-making within a history of political activism. Presenting zines as part of a larger archive of social movement history is key in this regard. Such a reframing is particularly important when teaching about the topic of Asian American zines and their relationship to community mobilization and social transformation.

I teach in the Asian American Studies department at a private liberal arts college in Los Angeles county where I regularly offer a course about Asian American zines and community engagement. The college has a longstanding history of emphasizing social justice and intercultural understanding within its curriculum, and the course contributes to the social responsibility praxis breadth requirement at the college. The course, entitled Zines, Creativity, Community, examines different forms of zine-making and DIY politics and the relationship of zines to community collaboration and social transformation. The guiding question we consider throughout the course is: how can we combine our labor, creativity, and available materials to come up with forms of individual and collective expression and empowerment (vis-a-vis zines) for use in community building and social change? One of the key aspects of this course is understanding how zines embody a form of participatory culture, mindful of the political and ethical concerns that such participation entails. In other words, the course is designed to create a space in which students enact a praxis (theory and practice) of participatory action and empowerment in communities beyond the college campus.

Because the college attracts a population of students who are already motivated to pursue critical inquiry around issues of social justice, the students who enroll in my class are usually quite enthusiastic about making the linkages between art and activism using zines. The racial demographics of the students are usually mixed, with varying degrees of familiarity with Asian American studies, as a discipline, and Asian American experiences, in general. In order to create a common base of knowledge, the first few class sessions involve contextualizing zines within a history of independent publishing, grassroots movements, and community activism. In particular, this entails understanding how independent publishing was a pivotal aspect of the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 1970s in constructing a shared racial identity and a forum for mobilizing communities against social injustice.

One publication in particular stands out during this time period: the radical grassroots newspaper Gidra, which is known as the premier Asian American movement periodical (Maeda, 2009). Gidra occupies an important place in the history of Asian American zines. It was founded by UCLA students who desired an alternative publication that was accountable to the communities where they came from. Gidra is often credited for galvanizing an entire generation of Asian Americans to take action against social injustice, racial discrimination, and oppression. Eric Nakamura, the founder of the highly influential zine turned-magazine Giant Robot, has cited Gidra as being one of the inspirations for his own work. Nakamura views Gidra as launching the first wave of Asian American zines in the 1970s. This history is important to our understanding of zines because it establishes zines as a community-based endeavor, built on collaboration, radical politics, and social change.

Recently, the online Densho Archives ( has worked with one of the founders of Gidra, Mike Murase, to digitize the entire run of the periodical (1969-1974). Densho's mission is to make accessible primary sources that "document the Japanese American experience from immigration in the early 1900s through redress in the 1980s with a strong focus on the World War II mass incarceration." According to their website, "Densho is a Japanese term meaning 'to pass on to the next generation,' or to leave a legacy." Densho's Gidra archive serves an important function in making this part of the Asian American experience widely accessible to those seeking to understand a history that often goes unnoticed.

As a pedagogical tool, zines exist at the intersection of radical history, analog creativity, participatory culture, and community involvement. By situating zine culture within a genealogy of resistance and community mobilization, students are encouraged to see themselves as a part of this history and to continue this legacy in their own class projects. As Schwartz and Cook point out, "Archives validate our experiences, our perceptions, our narratives, our stories" (Schwartz & Cook, 2002). Using archives in the classroom enables students to make the connection between their work and the struggles that have come before them. This article presents one example of how to make the connection between community archives and community action. The first half of this article discusses the use of Densho's online archive of the complete print run of Gidra as a way to teach students about community experiences, perceptions, narratives, and stories through the examination of histories of Asian American independent publishing, racial formation, and grassroots activism. The second part of this article moves from archives to action, illustrating how students can use the skills and knowledge that they learn from these archival materials and apply them to current events and community-based projects.

Learning from Gidra

During its five year print run, Gidra covered a wide spectrum of topics, ranging from anti-war protests to the prison industrial complex to Asian American fashion to how to fix a toilet. Today, it is mostly remembered for its influence in Asian American community politics, and its role in establishing a radical pan-Asian political consciousness (Lopez, 2011; Maeda, 2009). Gidra also...

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