Para liberar nuestras fronteras: Seeing, Feeling, and Finding Community ‘at the Race Riot’
I remember, in fine detail, the exact moment during Meet Me at the Race Riot (editor’s note: read this rad report back) when I finally managed to relax.
I tend to be a nervous public speaker. I’ve gotten compliments on how ‘natural’ and comfortable I seem at readings, and I think that I’ve managed to accept them gracefully. But whatever confidence I seem to project is a mere illusion, and I didn’t even seem to have that on this particular evening. I went to ‘the race riot’ with more than my usual portion of anxiety, carried it right up to the front of the room when I sat down with the other readers, and clung to it for over an hour.
(Jamie’s portion begins at 19:49 into this video.)
Before the last presentation, moderator Daniela Capistrano opened up a general Q&A session by asking if anyone in attendance knew of or was working on zines about the Occupy Movement. Someone in the audience shared that they had been involved in documenting the feminist and queer experience at Occupy Wall Street, and also that they had somehow managed to scam photocopies of this from a major corporation. This was met with murmurs of approval and appreciation, including fellow reader Mariam Bastani’s quiet, but affirmative, “Haaaaii…!”
It was small, but that was the moment. I turned to look at her, and I cracked up. I thought that her response was entirely valid, as I too support any and all conning of corporate entities out of paper and ink. But it was also funny, so I laughed. For the first time that day my shoulders loosened up, I took a deep breath, and I forgot about my anxiety. I stopped wondering what I, who have done ‘basically nothing’ for zine culture, was doing up there with a panel of ‘legit’ readers and started to enjoy being there.
If only I’d let myself enjoy more of it. Jordan Alam, Osa Atoe, and Mariam told us how they had come to zine culture and also how they had become conscious of issues of race, class, gender, and identity, and Mariam and Osa spoke at length about their experiences with punk and hardcore. All three were genuine, thoughtful, and entertaining. Jordan spoke with candor about the therapeutic value of talking to herself, and using those conversations to write zines. Mariam read to us from a piece that addresses the issue of white punks’ aversion to the “expression” ‘people/persons of color’, and explains “what’s really up” with punk and race with her uniquely goofy, yet tough voice. Osa read an unpublished zine contribution from artist and veteran punk Vaginal Creme Davis about her mother’s involvement with a criminal lesbian separatist organization.
But I listened to all of this as if from just outside the classroom’s door, and watched as if through a window: straining to hear and see all of it, and distracted by my longing to be in the room with everyone. I sat there wanting to be and feel present, wanting to forget the personal problems I had tried to leave at home when I frantically ran out the door and to the train station earlier that day. But it isn’t always so easy to do that.
My anxiety about this event began before I even agreed to participate. Co-organizer and respected colleague Kate Wadkins e-mailed me a month in advance to ask I’d like to read at an event about zinesters of color, with the likes of Osa Atoe and Mimi Thi Nguyen. Fully aware of their work and their impact, I almost declined. I didn’t feel like I belonged on the bill. The idea of reading with them scared me.
So I told Kate that I would be happy to read. If something scares you, that means you should do it, right? And if someone offers you this type of opportunity, you should take it as a compliment, and trust her judgment, right? I accepted Kate’s invitation, and decided that this would be just the motivation I needed to help me finish the zine that I’d been planning all summer. I spent the next month hard at work on writing, layout, and ultimately unsuccessful ‘anxiety management’.
I’m pretty sure that I utterly failed to manage my anxiety because I didn’t know its source, and didn’t recognize its until the night of the reading. When the event began, I looked out into the audience and realized that none of the friends I’d asked to be there had arrived. I saw about 100 attentive, engaged faces (…as well as some great hair and really cute tops), but few of them were familiar. I’d struggled to think of people to invite to the event, and then struggled some more with feeling guilty for asking them to take time out of their lives to support me. When the few people I did ask didn’t show, it made me feel incredibly alone.
To fully understand this, you need to know that my parents, who were very supportive of everything I did, are both dead. One of them died less than 18 months ago. I have no siblings, and no family nearby, and I’ve been busy with grief and being the executor of an estate, and I’ve felt distant and removed from most of my friends. I’ve needed them and their help, but some have made it clear that they can’t or don’t want to, and it’s made it hard for me to trust everyone around me. Feeling ‘really alone’, and afraid that I will always feel that way, has been my central issue for the past year. Wishing I could talk to my parents, and missing their reassurances, is something that I have to deal with regularly.
Grief is isolating. It draws borders around you, and it can make you feel like you aren’t capable of moving forward or liberating yourself. It can colonize you, and convinced you of your inferiority. Isolated, and occupied by those intense, miserable emotions, is how I felt when the reading started.
Fortunately, it’s not how I felt afterwards. Some of my friends did make it in time to hear me read, and I will forever be grateful to them for it. I read about my misadventures in teaching, and what I’d learned from trying to incorporate my post-colonial politics into my interactions with my students. I managed to get through my reading without fainting, and I couldn’t help but feel grateful for that, as well.
It clicked into place during that fateful Q&A, though. The people who had come to listen to us asked questions about the work we do, the identities we perform, and the obstacles we’ve faced, and told us their stories about their experiences with punk, zine culture, oppression and resistance. Listening and watching as these dialogues opened up and progressed around me made the zine community feel tangible. The consistent use of conscientiously feminist, anti-racist, anti-classist language made the space feel positive and safe. Being able to listen to this, and feeling free to laugh with Mariam in the middle of all of this made me feel safe.
Mimi Thi Nguyen’s final presentation closed the evening, appropriately enough, with her ideas on people of color and their place within punk, zining, and activist communities. She read from a critique of recent Riot Grrrl nostalgia and inquiry, which notes how women of color are framed as a “big downer” within these narratives. Women of color are so often reduced to just that — they are asked to provide a sort of ‘women of color’ commentary, and rarely treated as full participants and creators. Women of color are an ‘intervention,’ rather than a legitimate part of the thing itself.
Which might not sound terribly uplifting, but I know that it inspired me to take more control of my own narrative. It reminded me that in both my shaky personal life and my uneven life as a zinester of color, I am more than an intervention or a ‘downer’, that I’m an active contributor to something bigger, to a culture and community that matters to me.
Participating at Meet Me at the Race Riot: People of Color in Zines from 1990 — Today didn’t solve my problems or fix my life. I won’t pretend that ‘community’ is a substitute for family, friends, or other close relationships, because it isn’t. Community’s value is distinct and not easily quantified. It has a unique way of assuaging feelings of loneliness — if you seek it out, and if you let it.
Editor’s note: Jamie Varriale Vélez was on the first “Meet Me At The Race Riot: People of Color in zines from 1990-Today" panel held in collaboration with POC Zine Project, Barnard Zine Library and For the Birds Collective in November of 2011.