In Part Two of Lea Cooper’s six-part series about the study of zines in the medical humanities, we move from the bedroom to the living room, where we encounter zines about trauma and memory.
Most good zine titles involve a pun. This title is a spin on Carmen Maria Machado’s 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 posts takes 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.
Zines that help us meet the demand to keep on living
Ann Cvetkovich opens her book on lesbian trauma cultures An Archive of Feelings (2003) with a song by Riot Grrl band Le Tigre. She describes lead singer Kathleen Hanna’s call of ‘you gotta keep on’ and the response of the chorus ‘keep on livin!’. Hanna is making what Cvetkovich describes as ‘an impossible demand for survival’ in the face of trauma, while the chorus’s response ‘affirms the many kinds of survival’ that bring band and audience together (1).
In the Living Room are zines that help us meet Hanna’s demand to keep on living. These are the many zines that offer practical guidance and information, and share knowledges, about trauma, C-PTSD, and staying alive, and those that add their voices to the defiant, joyous, unapologetic chorus. But the song’s refrain also describes an essential problem following trauma: we are still alive afterwards. And it is the zines in the living room that grapple with the lived experience of trauma, its effects and affects, that I will briefly explore here.
Since the end of August I’ve been on a placement at Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL), slowly working through the 12 duck-egg blue archival boxes of zines that live on the shelves there. I sit on the mezzanine, bookshelves opposite me stacked with lesbian literature, surrounded by boxes, many containing the history of GWL itself, with my laptop open, headphones on playing one of my comfort shows, or off so I can listen to the bustle of the library below. Sometimes there are other researchers working on the long wooden tables, sometimes the GWL archivists are at work around the corner, and sometimes I am alone.
I read zines about the music scene in Glasgow and beyond, about food, about Gilmore Girls and feminism and comics. I merrily work away, recording meta-data, making notes, until I open a zine and it screams at me and swallows me, chews me up, spits me out, ears ringing. Sometimes I might anticipate it, from the title or some other clue of what’s inside, and sometimes it comes out of the blue. Afterwards, I often need to step away for a moment, talk nonsense with someone, take a breath of fresh air. Sometimes I put the zine aside or away when I get back, swap to something else, settle myself, get back to work. Sometimes I don’t bounce back, I dislocate, find myself on the train home hours later having switched on autopilot.
Materiality and texturality in the zine medium
From the relative comfort of my own living room, reorientated to the present, I reflect on encountering these zines in the archive. Zines, more obviously than books for example, aren’t just straightforward text. They are multi-dimensional, with material, visual and textual elements: zine scholars have described these elements as architectural (Licona and Brouwer 2016) or sculptural (Piepmeier 2009); Su Cui in her description of a ‘zineic history’ of reading, argues: “there are two properties at work in reading the zine medium: materiality and texturality” (Cui 2012, 444); and Anna Poletti (2008) develops ‘autographics’ in order to read what she calls the ‘constructedness’ of zines, how they are physically assembled and reproduced. When I am absorbed by a zine that, through the material, textual, textural, visual and sensual, summons the lived experience of its maker, I am not so much reading these zines as experiencing them. When the experiences summoned are the after-effects (or after-affects) of trauma, they can be particularly disorientating.
Many of the zines created as part of the Take It Back project, on which I was lead artist, were concerned with trauma. Mudlarking (Dahl 2021) is an A6 eight-page zine. It is a riot of coloured collage combining images and text from various undisclosed sources. On the back page, a handwritten note on torn lined paper acts as a blurb. It reads: “My therapist told me that she thinks that I have unrecovered memories. I know even the concept of repressed memories is contentious, but there are things that I only remember in part. I carry them with me, but only in fragments” (Dahl 2021). Dahl’s title of ‘Mudlarking’ refers to a practice of scavenging in the muddy banks of a river, historically an occupation of London’s poorest but now a hobby. There is a sense that Dahl is capturing not just what they are doing in the zine, but what they are asking of the zine’s reader; reading as sifting, as wading through thick mud, as collecting fragments.
In Trauma’s Visit to the Dentist (Walker 2021) we are thrust into the present, as the zinester explores the ongoing impact of trauma in their everyday life – in this case, a visit to the dentist. Again we are submerged in muddy waters, with masked faces looming towards us. It ends with the dentist’s instruction: “You can go now. I’ll see you in six months.”
From dense mud to the vacuum of space, Traumanaut: C-PTSD in Outer Space (Spence 2021) was also made as part of Take It Back. Where Mudlarking is visually dense, Traumanaut is sparse, the blank white page punctuated by thin handwritten text and space-themed stickers, the glittery shimmer of the original flattened by the photocopier.
Traumanaut also reflects on memory: “Star Gazing / is like looking back in time / Light takes so long / to travel so far / the past has a way of reaching us / some memories have their own gravitational pull” (Spence 2021, no page numbers). Where other zines might be concerned with offering advice, information and resources for trauma survivors, and indeed Traumanaut suggests that its creator has found ‘whole other ways to live’, these three zines are concerned with sensation, with feeling.
Zinesters making comics also explore lived experience and memory, often through subverting this typically sequential and narrative medium. In Misremembering Sarah Kane Through My Own Suicide Attempts (Fraser 2019) neuroqueer artist Steven Fraser explores his own personal history of suicide and the plays of Sarah Kane, examining the experience of theatre, comics, and problems of memory, self-representation and performance. Fraser intercuts (mis)rememberings of Sarah Kane’s plays with (mis)rememberings of his own suicide attempts.
Fraser doesn’t use the word trauma in the zine, and while certainly many of the events of Sarah Kane’s plays are traumatic, I bring it into the room because it explicitly deals with memory and with reading as experience. In the introduction Fraser writes of the zine: “It’s not a play, but could be seen as a performance if you can imagine the topics as being real and in the moment you are living right now. When I read something it unfurls in my head and feels very much alive. When I read a story it feels like a performance. When the text has pictures (like a comic book does) this performance feels even more real.” (Fraser 2019, no page numbers).
(Re)focusing on what zines offer to their makers and readers
Zines that summon lived experience in their texturality and materiality, especially when that is a lived experience shaped by trauma, are often disorientating, chaotic, and hard to make narrative sense of. These zines offer a provocation for a medical humanities that often falls back onto narrative to understand, describe and make use of non-narrative creative expressions. Returning to the inspiration of this series title, Machado’s In The Dream House (2019),the living room holds fragments and episodes. While the bedroom of The Zine House was part of a wider sprawling constellation or network of rooms, the living room becomes a vessel (after Ursula K. Le. Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (2019)) which carries and contains, without demanding order, coherence or completeness or a story that heads straight to its point.
In the introduction to this series, I describe wanting to demonstrate some of the complexities and potentials of zines in the medical humanities. The demands of PhD research mean sometimes I find myself focusing too much on the question of what zines can offer to the medical humanities and to academic research more generally. But in the Living Room, I want to (re)focus on what zines offer to their makers and readers, what they offer to the chorus of people who have survived trauma, who have to keep on living. Zines don’t require structure or order, the ability to make narrative sense, to experience time in normative ways, or memory as coherent, original, reliable. In offering what it is to keep on living, what it is to live through and live beyond trauma, they help keep us alive.
Where to find these zines?
Mudlarking (Dahl 2021), Trauma’s Visit to the Dentist (Walker 2021) and Traumanaut: C-PTSD In Outer Space (Spence 2021) are among other zines in the Take It Back Zine Library. Misremembering Sarah Kane (Fraser 2019) can be found in the Wellcome Collection, and Stephen Fraser’s work can be found via his website.
Read the full In the Zine House series.
Brouwer, Daniel C. & Licona, Adela C. 2016. “Trans(affective)mediation: feeling our way from paper to digitized zines and back again”. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 33:1, 70-83.
Cvetkovich, Ann. 2003. Archives of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Dahl, Mona. 2021. Mudlarking. Zine.
Fraser, Stephen. 2019. Misremembering Sarah Kane Through My Own Suicide Attempts. Zine.
Le Guin, Ursula K. 2019. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Ignota Books. First published 1986.
Machado, Carmen Maria. 2019. In the Dream House. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press
Piepmeier, Alison. 2009. Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. New York: NYU Press.
Poletti, Anna. 2008. “Auto/assemblage: Reading the Zine. Biography, 2008; Vol. 31, No. 1. 85-102.
Spence, Fred. 2021. Traumanaut: C-PTSD In Outer Space. Zine.
Su, Cui. 2012. “Printed Matter or, Towards a Zineic History of Reading” in On Reading: Form, Fictionality, Friendshipedited by Jeremy Fernando. New York: Atropos Press.
Walker, Tamsin. 2021. Trauma’s Visit to the Dentist. Zine.
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.