In this six-part series about the study of zines in the medical humanities, Lea Cooper starts in the bedroom, where many zines begin their lives.
Most good zine titles involve a pun. This title is a spin on Carmen Maria Machado’s book In The Dream House (2019), in which a house is the holder of fragmented memory, the archive of an abusive same-sex relationship. Like all good zine puns, this one draws from the many layers of its inspiration.
Zines have an entwined relationship with archives, trauma, memory, narrative, queerness, the domestic, and home. This series of blog posts is intended to take you on a tour of ‘The Zine House’, using its rooms to structure and explore zines around health, illness, disability, neurodivergence and madness. In doing so, I hope to illustrate some of the potential and complexities of zines in the medical humanities. I’m not going to define zines, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about check out Zines 101 on my website.
For the first post in this series, we’re going to start in the bedroom. The bedroom is where many zines start, and where I read zines, make zines, and write about zines. Often, the bedroom of The Zine House is imagined as the bedroom of a teenage girl. Instead, this bedroom is my bedroom – the back bedroom of a two-bed terrace house in a small New Town on the Fife Coast, shared with my wife. Most of the room is a king-sized bed, with bookcases on either side and a small bureau tucked into a nook opposite. The walls are millennial pink and patchy in places because we only bought two tins of the Wilko paint before they discontinued it. There’s a swatch of a deeper pink above the light switch where we considered going for a more grown-up colour.
Zines vs. small presses: bedrooms vs. spare rooms?
I joked once with some fellow zine makers at an event dominated by small presses: “You can tell they aren’t zines because they work out of their spare room, not their bedroom.” This isn’t some universal rule; zinesters have spare rooms and small presses operate out of bedrooms. Rather it was a blunt observation of the ways that some of the differences between small presses and zines could be characterised through the site of production. Zines come from the bedroom in a way that feels meaningful. Unlike small presses, which will often obscure the domestic sites of production, zines embrace the bed(room), (re)produce it, and linger on its particular qualities, objects, and affects.
Like small presses, academic research and writing tends to hide any relationship to bed and bedrooms. Reading research papers in bed there isn’t the same immediate link to a network of bedrooms as when I read a zine, but I know it’s there, under the surface, submerged or purposefully obscured. Reading academic writing, especially from the last two years, sometimes feels like watching someone present on Teams with their background blurred – the shapes of domestic space visible but not quite discernible.
Existing work on zines and bedrooms centres on the bedrooms of young people, and specifically young women, and has built on and contributed to wider work in feminist youth studies, which has recognised bedrooms as sites of political participation and cultural production. Alison Piepmeier, in her study of ‘Grrl Zines’ identifies the bedroom as a significant site of political engagement for young women (2009). Anna Poletti, from the field of life writing, locates their chapter on the bedroom amongst studies in feminist youth culture which ‘(re)figure the bedroom as a vital site of young women’s cultural participation’ (Poletti 2008, 105). The perzines by young people that Poletti engages with mostly constitute the bedroom in terms of privacy, safety and solitude. They ground their writing on bedrooms in historical work on the development of the modern house in the West, and how the division of space was shaped by ideologies of family and childhood. But the bedroom in The Zine House, my bedroom, is not the bedroom of a teenager. It invokes another history of beds and bedrooms: that of the sickbed. In Bedrooms: An Intimate History (2018) Michelle Perrot charts ‘the multiple genealogies’ (16) of a Western (and specifically French) bedroom. Whilst the deathbed ‘took up the entire stage and was abundantly represented in medieval iconography’ (199), medical progress (alongside other social and cultural changes) created the sickbed and ‘gave the sickroom a much more pronounced material and literary existence’ (205), which Perrot charts.
‘Many sick rooms are creative places’
Whilst genealogies of zines often identify them as the descendants of political pamphlets, perhaps an alternative history can be found in the cultural or creative products of bedrooms and sick rooms. Zinesters making from bed(rooms) certainly create lineages for themselves through this – although where Perrot references Proust, Georg Groddeck, and Joe Basquet, it is Frida Kahlo, Gloria Anzaldúa and Tracey Emin that zine writers such as ET Russian (2014), Emmett Shoemaker (King (ed.) 2020) and Jennifer Brough (Spring 2020, 11) draw connections with.
It is in Perrot’s reflections on Alice James that I glimpse the relationship between her assertion that ‘many sick rooms are creative places’ (Perrot 2018, 332) and the work of crip, sick and disabled zinesters. The sister of both the famous psychoanalyst William James and the writer Henry James, Alice James was ‘sick’ her whole life. In her final three years she kept a journal recording her life in her room and her everyday experiences. Its publication was contested and complex, and both brothers opposed it in their lifetimes. Henry James described how ‘she simplified too much, shut up in her sick room, exercised her wondrous vigour of judgment on too small a scrap of what really surrounded her’ (Edel (ed.) 1890, cited in Perrrot 2018, 338). Henry didn’t doubt Alice’s abilities as a writer; it was the location she wrote of, and from, that was the issue, an echo of some more contemporary critiques of the political ‘work’ of zines – as if real politics cannot happen at home, from bedrooms, from beds.
Zines explicitly made from beds
Poletti and Piepmeier do not pay much attention to the bed itself as a location but my bed takes up most of my bedroom, and despite endless internet advice not to work from bed, I often do. Alongside many zines made from bedrooms, there are some made explicitly from bed. Sick Days (Woodward 2017) is a small, irregularly shaped zine. It is irregular in the sense that the regular shape of zines is the shape easiest to reproduce (a number of complete folds of an A4 or A3 sheet). But this one is a third of the height of an A5 zine, but the same width, which gives it the feeling of being landscape, or horizontal. In the first spread, text reads: ‘Can’t move… I’m stuck / Rest isn’t always relaxing’ opposite a line illustration of an unshaded lightbulb hanging from the ceiling at a slant angle, boxed in a rectangular frame. The materiality of the zine and the illustrations inside communicate Woodward’s orientation: lying down, horizontal, in her bed.
Little Single Bed (Amber is Blue 2017) is in a more traditional A5 zine format, but the illustrations which fill every page locate us in bed and orientate us lying down; several of the pages are drawn as if we are the ones in bed, looking down to our legs, feet, the TV show at the end of it.
Lying down, as inclination or orientation, has often been the concern of people writing about sickness or illness – consider, for example, Virginia Woolf writing about the ‘army of the upright’ in contrast to her prone position (Woolf 1930, 37). Emmett Shoemaker, in their contribution to Bed Zine Issue 1, describes bed as ‘a space/duration (horizontality)’, an orientation of bodies in time and space, in contrast to ‘the upright’ (King (ed) 2021, no page number). Both Woodward and Amber is Blue, in Sick Days and Little Single Bed, create the zines from their beds, and the visual and material effects of these zines orientate the reader horizontally. If there is a divide, between those horizontal and those upright, then these zines offer a unique insight into the experience of being horizontal, of being in bed.
Bed Zine is a zine about beds and what editor Tash King describes as ‘the messy feelings disabled people have about our beds’ (2021). It was following @bed_zine on Instagram that crystallised my thinking about zines and bed. Alongside showcasing work from the zine that compiles art and writing by disabled folks about bed, the account collects images of/in beds across mediums, locating itself in a broader visual and cultural context, in a history of bed(rooms). The zine’s collected accounts of medical intervention, community care, and working from bed trouble the delineation between bedroom/outside and between private/public. Bed, as materialised in Bed Zine’s three issues, is a site of contradictions. There is the ‘simple contradiction’ (King (ed) 2021, no page number) between softness (safe, protected) and hardness (miserable, confined) powerfully illustrated by the contribution by Akissi Nzambi (pictured). Bed is both a space of safety, of rest and recovery, of communion and work, and a space which confines, constricts, of private pain.
Whilst there is much to be said of the ways that these zines explore and communicate the experience of being confined, restricted or bound to bed I want to end this short exploration of the bedroom of The Zine House by considering its converse. We don’t use the term ‘wheelchair bound’ anymore, in recognition of the ways that using a wheelchair can be freeing, can aid movement and mobility rather than restrict. There hasn’t been a similar linguistic shift in terms of beds and bedrooms. We are bedbound, or housebound, tied to our beds, our homes. Yet zines made of and from bed suggest otherwise. Bed becomes a space of communion and community, an aid to participation, an assistive technology. In ‘So Much Time Spent in Bed’ (2020) Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes to Gloria Anzaldúa. Though Piepzna-Samarasinha notes Anzaldúa never described herself as disabled, in fact ‘every inch of evidence [she] left resisted that label’ (2020 182), it is in ‘the chronically ill sickbed heaped with pillows’ (ibid.) where they meet, and it is ‘this place of bodily difference’ (ibid.) that allows them both to write.
Sitting or lying in bed, reading zines that write of and from bed and bedrooms, I feel an intimate connection. The bedroom of The Zine House is not a single room, but countless beds or bedrooms, connected, threaded together in real and imagined ways.
Where to find these zines?
Sick Days (Woodward 2017), Little Single Bed (Amber is Blue 2017) and Bed Zine Issue 1 (King (ed) 2020) are all in the Wellcome Collection’s zine collection. The ring of fire anthology (Russian 2014) is also in the Wellcome Collection library. Other issues of Bed Zine can be found on their website: https://bedzine.bigcartel.com/. Sick Magazine is available at https://sickmagazine.co.uk/. The work of Akissi Nzambi can be found via their Instagram @akissi_nzambi. The work of Hollie Woodward can be found at @hollie_woodward.
Read the full In the Zine House series.
Amber is Blue. 2017. Little Single Bed. Zine.
King, Tash (ed). 2020. Bed Zine Issue One. Zine.
King, Tash (ed). 2021. Bed Zine Issue Two. Zine.
King, Tash (ed). 2022. Bed Zine Issue Three. Zine.
Machado, Carmen Maria. 2019. In the Dream House. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press
Poletti, Anna. 2008. Intimate Ephemera: Reading Young Lives in Australian Zine Culture. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press.
Piepmeier, Alison. 2009. Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. New York: NYU Press.
Perrot, Michelle. 2018. The Bedroom: An Intimate History. Translated by Lauren Elkin. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. 2018. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Russian, ET. 2014. The ring of fire anthology. Seattle, WA: Left Bank Books.
Spring, Olivia (ed). 2020. Sick Magazine Issue 2. Zine.
Woodward, Hollie. 2017. Sick Days. Zine.
Woolf, Virginia. 1930. On Being Ill. London: The Hogarth Press.
About the author
Lilith (Lea, as in sea) Cooper is a PhD researcher at the University of Kent working on a collaborative project looking at the zines at Wellcome Collection. They balance their PhD research with zine and comics making, zine librarianship at the Edinburgh Zine Library and an arts practice. Find them at www.zinejam.com or on twitter at @lilithjcooper.