The Legacy of Zines

Eds. note: Please welcome activist, storyteller, politico and Love InshAllah anthology contributor Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed as our newest columnist! Her column “Radical Love” will be published the first Tuesday of every month and will explore the connections between social justice & intentional love.

Photo credit: Les Talusan, lestalusanphoto.com

Photo credit: Les Talusan, lestalusanphoto.com

We thought we were doing something new. Something fresh and cutting edge. But something old too, building on “our” punk DIY roots. At one of the first meetings in my Oakland apartment two years ago, sitting around the dining table covered with fruits and dates, we passed around our collections of zines. These were those black and white zines. Those hand written zines. Those photocopied zines that were stapled zines.  These were zines that would magically appear in our postal mailbox, and how you got on the distro list you had no clue. That feeling of a personalized note slipped in to your envelope was nothing short of special. We too would create a DIY Zine that would combat Islamophobia in the most revolutionary way – through poetry and prose infused with love from the untold Muslims on the margins. That was our vision for the zines we would create from the Totally Radical Muslims.

This summer, at Los Angeles’ bimonthly bi-monthly Asian American poetry spot Tuesday Night Café. the Gidras made an appearance and it was the first time I heard about this collective driven publication. A short documentary was shown telling the story of the radical newspaper Gidra created by a group of students out of the University of California, Los Angeles. They dubbed themselves “the voice of the Asian American movement” and published monthly from April 1969 to April 1974. The only month they missed was the month when Cambodia was being bombed and they were out busy protesting. Their artists created political images to go with the pieces and they talked about how the art was just as important as the essay. They used lightboxes and had to physically cut and paste words. Gidra was, as described by one of the writers Robert Nakamura was not “about art, it wasn’t about self-expression, it wasn’t even about breaking stereotypes to the majority society. We wanted to break stereotypes to ourselves.”

Three of the activists were there – they are older now, leaders in the community that I’ve worked with but I never knew this about their past. It was heartening to see that their trajectory from student organizers to community leaders still had those radical roots. As they talked about their collective process and the difficulty of creating a newsletter without hierarchy, I laughed. It was just like the collective process of many of the groups I worked with, including in the Totally Radical Muslims zines.

As I sat there, my mind wandered to the founding of the Indian American revolutionary space of the Ghadar Party, now 100 years since their inception in 1913. Back then, the Ghadar Party movement of South Asian individuals building to free the Indian subcontinent of British colonization while living abroad in San Francisco started with a newsletter. Just like Gidra. “The Ghadar: An Enemy of the British Rule” had a secular message to stir up rebellion in India and was first published in San Francisco November 1, 1913. With members internationally placed in the South Asian diaspora, the distribution of the newsletter was so radical that their delivery method wasn’t just on paper, it was aural. Ghadar activists would memorize the words of the newsletter,  memorize the addresses of where it was to be delivered, and rewrite the newsletter – all to avoid being caught and persecuted. This radical newsletter was simply a modern day version of a zine, radical and DIY through and through.

That got me thinking to UC Berkeley-based The Bridge, a publication from the 1970s for and by the Indian students, full of news, poetry and art. And that led my thoughts to the Black Panther Party’s newspaper The Black Panther, started in 1967, which often featured beautiful cover artwork by Oakland-based Emory Douglas. Then, I thought of the Punjabi poetry carved into the walls of Angel Island in San Francisco, which from 1910-1940 served as the main processing center for Asian immigrants. The walls are covered with layers upon layers of poetry carved into the walls in various Asian languages as they waited for months on end. The Bridges, The Black Panther, the poetry on walls – those were all versions of zines, forms of written radical expression.

Rewind 1,400 years – The Quran? Well, shit. That was a radical zine too. So radical it couldn’t even be written – it had to be memorized lyrically and passed from person to person. They’d “perform” in spoken word spaces, spreading the gospel, projecting The Words like poets on open mics with dim lights. So radical it was poetic, literally. The Quran was the first radical Muslim zine.

Fast forward to the present day – I thought of the ethnic/religion specific blogs I had written on such as Sepia Mutiny, Taqwacore Webzine or Racialicious and of course, our new print zine project. This isn’t something totally new. As Totally Radical Muslims, we are not just creating words for ourselves – we are building on a legacy of radical zine culture of people of color seeded in California. We are building on a legacy of using arts, prose and poetry to shift the culture – in using arts as a tool of resistance and community. We aren’t letting the mainstream media define our words for us – we are voicing ourselves from the margins and recentering our words in this movement. Sure back then they called it “newsletters” or “magazines,” but blogs and zines are simply the modern day DIY way to  spread counternarratives. It was a rush empowerment, synapsis firing gone crazed, when these connections were made.

As I sat that night watching the Gidra activists speak, I had the first draft of the Totally Radical Muslims Zine volume #2 on my lap. I was planning on editing it later that night and had printed up a copy to do so. I found it symbolically important to be holding these words of radical activists of 2013 in my hand as radical activists of 1969 spoke. “Other people at the time were saying, ‘Power to the People!’” one of the Gidra activists said. “But we? We weren’t using that. Our driving force to the creation of the newsletter was ‘Power to the Imagination!'”

As I personally move forward on my journey to not just be a civic engagement organizer but to also be a counterculture arts activist and counternarrative storyteller – essentially, reimagining radical activism for me – I will hold these legacies close to my heart. They are my histories that were once taken away from me. But may they inspire my imagination from here on forward.

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Please visit www.totallyradicalmuslims.com to order your copy of Zine Volume #2: Karbala Fired Resistance Stories today!

Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles currently working as the Voter Engagement Manager at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. She was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny, and was recently published in the anthology Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women and both zines from Totally Radical Muslims. Her personal projects include curating images for Mutinous Mind State and writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she just co-produced Beats for Bangladesh: A Benefit Album in Solidarity with the Garment Workers of Rana Plaza. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar.


3 Comments on “The Legacy of Zines”

  1. YankeeMuslim says:

    “The Quran was the first radical Muslim zine.” – That’s classic.

  2. “Rewind 1,400 years – The Quran? Well, shit. That was a radical zine too. So radical it couldn’t even be written – it had to be memorized lyrically and passed from person to person. They’d “perform” in spoken word spaces, spreading the gospel, projecting The Words like poets on open mics with dim lights. So radical it was poetic, literally. The Quran was the first radical Muslim zine.”

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this paragraph! Just attended a class on Uloom al-Qur’an yesterday, with an explanation of how it was preserved, compiled, etc… this totally hit the nail on the head!