Author and “zinestress extraordinaire” China Martens was on campus Oct. 7, 2019, to share her experience creating zines in the early 1990s, being a single mother, and as an author/editor of three books. The speech, presented as part of Niagara University’s 2019-20 Social Justice Speaker and Discussion Series, was coordinated in conjunction with the Women’s Studies Committee.
For the uninitiated, the term “zine” refers to a type of small-print, self-published work that flourished in underground communities throughout the 1980s and 90s. The tradition often is attributed back to certain 1940s and 50s sci-fi fan communities; however, political leaflets have existed for much longer. Zines, in their current form, rose to prominence among punk rock and hardcore communities that embraced a do-it-yourself ethos. Therein, a generation of unheard voices took it upon themselves to publish the type of content that appealed to them and their peers.
During that time, zine culture helped foster and spread awareness of movements that were ignored in the mainstream press, particularly feminist and LBGTQ issues. After feeling ostracized by her own community, Martens chose to focus her zine, “The Future Generation,” on being a single mother in the punk scene.
“I'd seen a lot of zines around me, but I didn't see any zines made by parents,” Martens said. “It was even something that people would laugh at when you said you were going to do it. (Punk rock) was my community, and if you were punk rock and a mom, it was kind of like ‘ha ha,’ like that doesn't exist or something. So, I started my zine to talk about issues that I had in my life and to network with other people.”
Martens, like other zine authors, filled her pages with a combination of original or appropriated essays, political messages, poetry, and artwork. “The Future Generation” contained essays from Martens and other contributors detailing both the struggles and the joys of parenting.
During her speech, Martens showed some selections from the zine. Some of the materials included messages about welfare reform, a feature story about a lesbian mother whose daughter was taken from her custody, and a hand-drawn political cartoon from cartoonist R. Cobb. Martens described her experience contacting Cobb to ask about reprinting the cartoon. Although by that point Cobb was a successful film production designer, he was enthusiastic about the work Martens was doing, and he discussed with her at length about his experience writing for the counterculture newspaper the “Underground Press Syndicate” in the 1960s.
In recent years, Martens has authored and co-authored three books. The first was a compendium of selected issues of “The Future Generation,” released in 2017. The book serves as an anthology of her experience raising her daughter through the first 16 years of her life and received a second edition in 2017.
In 2012, Martens helped author “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind,” which details ways to support parents, children, and caregivers involved in social movements. The book was conceived after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in order to help foster and promote accessibility and inclusion within local activist communities. She went on to describe the profound effect the shooting had on the trajectory of her work
“After the shooting, it was like ‘I need to work in some kind of anti-racist capacity.’ Sometimes we’ll talk about social justice, or anarchism, feminism, blah blah blah. But if you don’t address each component, you’ll often keep replicating the same kind of oppression,” Martens said. She would go on to co-author 2016’s “Radical Mothering,” which looks at motherhood as a revolutionary act in its own right, and examines the marginalization of mothers of color.
Near the end of the discussion, Martens was asked what the impact of social media has been on zine culture. She admitted to initially being confused and apprehensive about the trend toward digital mediums, saying that, even today, she’s still “zines forever.” However, she pointed to her experience at an L.A Media conference as reshaping her thinking about blogger culture. It was there Martens met a collective of bloggers called “Speak,” who focused on issues surrounding women of color. That experience allowed Martens to understand that the medium is not as important as the expression.
“It's really any way you express yourself is good, and I don't think one way takes away from the other way. I think that we are dynamic beings. Find where you feel comfortable expressing yourself and do that,” Martens said. “We are creative, we are the expression. These are just tools.”