Quaranzines Will Keep Us Connected: An Interview with Jenna Freedman

Zines from the Barnard Zine Library COVID-19 collection, image from Jenna Freedman.

When I first started working on this project in those wild, precious, before-the-Pandemic times, I visited several zine libraries in person and online, and talked to the librarians, barefoot and degree-d alike, who run them. During this process, I quickly began hearing familiar names come up in conversation. Zine communities can often be niche and tight-knit, and zine librarianship even moreso. The archivists and radical thinkers who run these spaces always seem to be swapping their own zines about their pets, starting projects together and planning festival adjacent hangouts. The more I worked on this series – the first two installments of which feature the Queer Zine Archive Project and the DePaul University Zine Archive – the more I heard the about Jenna Freedman.

Freedman runs the Barnard Zine Library at Barnard College in New York. Like many others who work in zine librarianship and archiving, she discovered zines in the 90s, when the community was experiencing a huge period of growth thanks to political activism and the Riot Grrrl movement. Freedman had contributed to some literary zines, but it wasn’t until she befriended Celia Perez (now the author of two books including First Rule of Punk, which heavily feature zines) that she truly fell in love with the medium. At the time, Perez was making “perzines” – personal zines, usually told in first person and relating personal experiences. These raw, emotional works hooked Freedman. She began making her own zines, and in January of 2003 took a job at Barnard College. By May of that same year she was putting together the initial proposal for the zine library (seventeen years later, that proposal is still viewable on the Barnard website, to help out anyone interested in starting their own collection.

A month or so ago – what is time in a pandemic? – I started to see Freedman tweeting out a call for quarantine-themed zines (aka “quaranzines”), for a new Barnard collection. In a time of uncertainty and fear, this idea felt, to me, like a light. There is no better person to collect and care for personal stories from this era, and Barnard Zine Library itself feels like a perfect home for these zines. The collection’s scope and purpose is stated front and center on the main page of the website:

“Barnard’s zines are created by womxn and non-binary people, a collection emphasis on zines by womxn of color and a new (2019) effort to acquire more zines by transwomen. We collect zines on feminism and femme identity by people of all genders. The zines are personal and political publications on activism, anarchism, body image, gender, parenting, queer community, riot grrrl, sexual assault, trans feminisms, and other topics.”

Reinforcing this mission is another statement titled COVID-19 Zines: “Who Better to Document This Experience Than Everyone?”

The cover of the first issue in Freedman’s own quaranzine series, Unprecedented.

Many of the zine libraries and collections I’ve learned about have a local focus, but Barnard is a bit unique. Freedman does encourage local zinesters to donate, especially Barnard students, and takes all kinds of zines, as long as they’re from creators speaking from these marginalized identities. However, her goal for the collection benefits from this wider scope. In a college setting where students often encounter syllabi full of old cis white men, Freedman has been cultivating a collection of work that preserves the voices of women and nonbinary people of color, and encouraging students and professors to include those voices in their work. When we first spoke three years ago, she told me such stories – about a professor discovering tons of Jewish zines about punk and dedicating a chapter of his book to them, or an illustrator who started making zines in high school and whose artistic evolution can be studied simply by pulling her zines from the archive.

My own growing interest in zine libraries is based in the fact that zines are ephemeral creations, often meant to be traded and passed from hand to hand only a few times before getting ripped or coffee stained or lost. By nature they feel precious, because they’re not protected by tough covers or plastic coatings. What does it mean to care for something that was not necessarily designed to last? During my first conversation with Freedman in 2017, I saw that care take two forms: first, putting detailed consideration into shelving, a topic best covered in this wonderful article on zinelibraries.info by the incredible Violet Fox. Second, an effort close to my heart: running hands-on workshops and working with students and zines – which includes supporting the student-run Barnard zine club. While many zinesters prefer to create work that won’t last forever, many also want to, but are shunned by traditional worlds of publishing, and the care provided by a zine library like Barnard and a librarian like Freedman can rebel against that exclusion.

Three years after our first interview about Barnard Zine Library, I reached out to Jenna Freedman again to talk to her about the new quaranzine collection. While my library was still closed, I found a lot of solace in perzines. When I returned to our first interview and remembered that it was the power of perzines that had brought Freedman to zines and zine librarianship in the first place, I knew I wanted to show zinesters that their quaranzines were in good hands.

We chatted via Zoom (as is the current norm) about Freedman’s decision to collect quaranzines, the changing nature of zine-making in the midst of the pandemic, and the effect the pandemic has had on her own work.

Quaranzines from Barnard’s COVID-19 zine collection.

When did you first decide to collect people’s quarantine zines, or “quaranzines,” and why did you decide to do it?

It occurred to me when a colleague, Karl-Mary Akre from the instructional media and technology services department, said that she was going to support documentary media making, right around the same time as the Quaranzine Fest weekend. I think I just had this snap decision like, oh, I should collect quaranzines!

I hadn’t been super interested in that before. I’m primarily focused on print content, but I realized that people were making print zines, and we could try to figure out how to either get them from people, download them and print them, or get people to mail them to me.

Have you mostly had people mail things to you or has it been more printing?

People want to mail them to me, which I love! I’m still getting mail every day. I also keep an ephemera collection at Barnard – all of the stickers and the little notes; all of the things that come in envelopes with zines will also go into my ephemera collection.  I am currently purchasing and trading zines for the collection. As both a librarian and a zine maker I want to compensate people, but I also really appreciate people that want to trade.

Has there been a big upswing in lots of new people who have never made zines before? Like, “I just learned about this because I went to a workshop!” Or maybe because it seems like we’re getting a good amount of online zine making resources?

In the zines that I’ve collected so far the majority of makers are probably new to zines. Some of that may be the channels I’m using to reach out, and some zine makers have said that they heard about zines from Malaka Gharib’s workshops (which you can view recordings of here and here). She’s like a one-person zine booster! Some are from the Quaranzine Fest. I’m not entirely positive because I’ve got two student assistants doing the outreach on social media for me, but I had them following the quaranzine hashtag (#quaranzine).

A lot of the zines are one page folding zines, maybe because that’s what Malaka Gharib taught, and a one page folding zine has broader strokes, as opposed to getting into the nitty gritty. They’re a great snapshot – and that’s not to say there aren’t any one page folding zines that are powerful. I read one by a student that was really moving to me. She describes the meals that her family left by her sister’s door every night, because their sister was self-quarantining after coming home from study abroad. It puts the work in the mind of the reader to realize, oh, this girl got sent home from study abroad. How does that feel? She’s in a room for 14 days! This zine was watercolor painted, and real care went into it.

I think making the one page folding zines is more about the act of creation than about the act of sharing, and that’s legit. Maybe it’s a form of therapy. The thing I’ll often talk about that separates zines from other self publications is the community driven focus of them, and maybe some of the quaranzines are more self-focused. I think I even said “self-documentation” in my call for zines, and that it is more about the act of creation than about the act of sharing.

Also, I’ve asked, “can I have your zine, how much does it cost?” and a lot of them don’t know what to charge. They might equate zines with books, or maybe it’s more mathematical, like someone wants to charge $10 for a PDF of a one page folding zine, because one piece of paper and an hour of labor is $10 an hour.

You get this sense at a zine fest, because you can talk to people face to face, that they are making zines because they want them to be widely accessible to their audience. That’s why they’re cheap on purpose, because they’re coming from this audience focused accessibility angle. But now we can’t have those interactions in the same way, and people are getting furloughed and laid off. It’s very scary. It feels a bit more zine-maker focused and like, I’m in need, and I’m not used to putting my voice out there.

That’s a really important tension to explore. People want to charge more for their zines, and I think that’s really warranted. There’s much more of a movement in zine communities for zines to be sustaining and more accessible. For zines to be more accessible to people beyond the white middle class, you might need to not be constantly losing money on your zines. There’s a dual desire within the zine community to be more inclusive, but also not to change.

I think the same goes for online events. You get a bigger reach, you may reach a more racially, ethnically, and economically diverse audience. But, you know, if you change one thing, other things are going to also have to change. We just have to explore how to be.

Thinking about the audience, what are the perspectives of the zine makers in the collection that you’ve been getting? Are there themes that have emerged?

DIY zines, political zines and personal zines are the majority. The DIY can be anything from urban farming to face mask making to tarot in the time of apocalypse. In the personal zines there’s definitely been people talking about stuff like anti-Asian racism, but that is also in the political zines. There are a lot of zines just about people being frustrated with being home.

Bianca Mabute-Louie is an example of someone writing on lots of topics, like how migrant farm workers are being affected and lots of other political issues. I think she’s making a new zine every day.

Do you feel like there are any voices that are missing from the zines you’ve been collecting? Is there anything you’re looking for that you don’t feel like you have right now?

The zines that I’m really interested in right now would be zines about what observing Ramadan was like, under lock down. I just think that would be such a really important thing to record for anyone out there.

The Barnard Zine Library always has an emphasis on zines by women of color. I’m guessing that the Barnard Zine Library main collection, to date, probably hovers at just about 10% of zines created by people of color, and that’s even with our mission statement of trying to collect zines by people of color. I think that this collection has a higher percentage of zines by people of color, but close to 50% of the population is of the US people of color – although I just said the US, but the quaranzine collection has zine from Canada, Turkey, Germany, India, and the UK. I haven’t used metadata yet to really identify it.

What is it like working on the zine library right now? Is it more stressful?

It’s given me something to focus on. I think, until I had this, I was not really sure how I could plug in or what I could do, because you feel like you want to do something. Everyday I’m so conscious of my privilege and how little I’m affected by this virus so far compared to so many other people. I wanted to find something that I could contribute.

This is going to be an amazing collection for someone to look at in five years, 50 years, or even 100 years, so I do feel good about doing this work. On the other hand, though, my job was really full time before, and now it’s even moreso! I’m printing zines too, which as you probably know can be really complex, especially if you have a single sided printer, so there’s been some frustration in having to figure it out.

Do you have people reaching out to you asking for tips on how to start making their own zines? Or do you have tips if people want to start making their own zines right now?

I have a research guide on the Barnard website. In a zine workshop, one of the things I say about making a zine is “you do you.” There are some classes at Barnard that have zines as projects. It’s really kind of funny; that there was a grad class recently where the students were not being as playful with it as the professors were hoping, so I had to really counsel those students on what the options were and how to make something zine-y. What they were making would look more like a brochure. They did eventually come up with a zine-y zine, and it was cute!

What would make a zine-y zine? Like, what’s the concept of zine-y-ness?

Everyone will have their own definition of what is “zine-y-ness,” but I’m most touched by personal zines, so having an “I” voice is really useful to me, or having hand drawings instead of graphics. There are also a lot of incredible “zine-y” zines that are made using InDesign, but there are a lot of brochure looking zines that can be made using InDesign.

This class, their topic is inherently political – it’s a climate science class. To me, the thing that I always like to come back to with zines is an anarchopunk ethos. There are a lot of self publications that employ a lot of the same creativity as zines, but for me, zines really have that community aspect. They’re just inherently about mutual aid.

Logo designed by Diane Zhou.

I was actually thinking back about the interview we did three years ago, because we talked about this a little bit – the rawness of 90s zines. In one of my zine workshops with kids, we did the Monster Jam exercise from Lynda Barry’s new book Making Comics. All of her prompts are timed, and it makes you just take what’s in your head and keep it raw and keep your pen moving and not dig into that self-consciousness that I think makes us make brochures and pamphlets and straight lines. I feel like that’s something zine makers can just do that all the time, and I don’t know how they do it.

Every time I read a zine by Julia Eff I’m astonished because their work is so raw but so beautiful and they’re such a good writer! It’d be wild to see a brochure designed by Julia. When I did my design workshop, I didn’t have topical prompts but we decided to have different page prompts. For the cover, we recommended you do a self-portrait or a mind map. For the first page we talked about an introduction and author title, publication location, copyright Fair Use statement. Then, on one page, we directed people to write a rant, and on the next page, we directed people to draw something whether or not you’re comfortable drawing or not. On one page, do some kind of pencil book game activity and have reviews on another. That was cool. That’s something that I would use again, to get people thinking.

In my zine workshops, I always give people time with zines. I worked with high school students recently and I chose five zines for them; I think two coronavirus zines and three zines from the QZAP archive, just so you can really be exposed to all the different styles. It helps to see that some zines, like the Asian American Feminist Antibodies zine are super professional, or there’s Yell, which was a nineties AIDS activism-for-youth zine and has a lot stick figures in the margins and stuff.

It’s easy to think of zine making right now as very solitary, because most of us are stuck. Even in groups, we’re supposed to social distance and we’re required to be very solitary. Have you seen instances of people making connections with zines?

I think the connections on Instagram are real. For me, exchanging mail is so intimate, and even if it’s fleeting there’s still just the thrill of opening a letter and seeing what’s going to be inside. The quaranzines have definitely done that for me in expanding who I am talking to and connecting with. Doing this kind of work always connects people, and whether it’s the same now as before or not, I don’t know. I can only speak from my own perspective, and I feel connected to zine makers, and quaranzine makers.

It’s the personal zines especially for me that make me feel like, ok, other people feel these things, too. We’re still all struggling, we’re still all here, we just can’t see each other.

How do people submit zines to the quaranzine collection?

Best thing is to just reach out to me at zines (at) barnard.edu. There was a pause in paid collecting due to a college-wide spending freeze, with trades sent to zine makers who were up for it, but we’re back now! You can also reach out to barnlib on twitter, facebook or instagram. It’s a collection of zines by women and non-binary people, and the word “women” is gender expansive.

Jenna’s own quaranzine series is also available for purchase, through her online store.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka is a queer librarian and intense cat parent. They spends their days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts @alenkafiga.