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Zine Making as a Method for Family Life History Research.


A zine is a self-produced print publication that can be any size--as small as a credit card or the size of an 8.5x11 piece of paper folded in half. Derivative of the term magazine, (2) zines can be on any subject ranging from political manifestos, to vegan recipes, to featuring personal photographs and diary entries. They can be made individually or collectively. Zines have a cover and a back page, can be stapled together or sewn together to create a book bind. They can consist of text, pictures, illustrations, popup pictures or a combination of multiple images. While zine-making is a complex practice dating back to the 1930s (3) and intersects with many different subcultures--from punks, to comic book fans, to graffiti artists and more (4)--what I want to focus on is how the medium can be used as a method for family research. By reflecting on a zine-making project I completed with my mother (see appendix for excerpts from the zine), I offer examples on how this practice can facilitate in breaking down silences one may meet when engaging with family research by creating a tactile site which draws in the researcher and research participant(s) in dialogue as they assemble the zine together.

Negotiating the life history project

The zine my mother and I created features a poem she wrote about her migration experience to Canada from Iran as a political asylum seeker. In the first year of my doctoral studies I enrolled in a Life History methods course where for our final project we were given the option to interview a family member about their migration experience. When I first asked my mother to participate in a life history interview about her migration experience, she declined. Her migration story is one I have personally romanticized as a great political escape from Iran. Her saying no to an interview forced me to take a step back as a researcher and reflect on her experiences not only as a possible research participant but also as my mother. This experience demonstrated to me, as a new researcher, the importance of negotiation and respecting participant boundaries. While I found her migration experience exciting, for the first time I began to understand that her story has many layers of personal experience, family history, and difficult memories.

In the introduction to Country School Women: Teaching in Rural California, 1850-1950, author Kathleen Weiler draws the reader's attention to the inspiration of her research and lifelong work: her mother. In her work, Weiler notes that her project on developing life histories of women teachers was a way for her to understand and connect to her "mother's world." (5) While Weiler's mother was a teacher, Weiler admits to knowing "very little about that earlier life," when her mother worked and taught. (6) When my mother declined to participate in the life history interview, I felt: perhaps I do not know her as well as I originally thought. And while Weiler's mother was the inspiration for her project and my mother's migration story is the site of this project, I connect with Weiler's work because, like her, I came to use methods of life history/narrative construction to better connect to my mother's world. It is the curiosity to know the unknown and unsaid, a desire for a deeper understanding and connection with our mothers which prompts this kind of research. In the end, my mother and I re-focused the life history project to be about a poem she wrote about her migration experience, an aspect of the project I have written about elsewhere, (7) and I suggested we use the poem to create a zine.

In our interview about the project, I asked her why she originally declined to participate and she said, "Talking about immigration, to me, it's not just about the procedure; more than anything, it's about the feeling I had to leave behind [when I came] here. All the feelings all the connections, my family, all the supports I had--it's not easy for me to speak about it." Her point on how immigration is not just about procedure really struck me--it made me think about how our project was also not just a procedure. It was not just about a one-sided interview; this project was a co-creation between the two of us. The life history project is about my mother's poem and migration experience but how we got to it, how we did it, why we did it, was through co-creation; our relationship as mother and daughter is interwoven within the project. The zine-making, while facilitated by me, was stylized by her. We both wrote a letter to the reader outlining our personal and collective goals with making the zine (see appendix), and there are fragments of each of us with our artwork placed throughout the zine. When I asked my mother why she agreed to participate in the project, she said:
Ronak, you [grew] up here right? Even though we are so close, letting
you into a part of me I always kept to myself, it was [the] beginning
of [an] opening. It's like you are in a house and all the doors are
closed and there's only one window you can open. So, I'm letting you
inside my life, from the past. I'm letting you to feel all the painful
feelings I had [when I was] removed from everything I loved.

As Barndt notes, "Whether the modes are verbal or non-verbal, art making that ignites people's creativity recovers repressed histories, builds community and strengthens social movements is in itself a holistic form of action." (8) Making the zine became a site to process these painful moments of family trauma we had never talked about. The zine became a site where my mother could represent her story, where she had agency over how it was told and shown. The zine also became a site where we were, for the first time, as mother-and-daughter sharing our skills, her poetry, my knowledge of zine making, to work together; it became a holistic form of action as we created something which will last for generations in our family. Through this project I came to not only better understand my mother, but also better understand myself as a daughter and as a researcher. As Laub writes, when one is interviewing a person who has survived a traumatic experience and comes to know the interview participant, "one really comes to know oneself and that is not a simple task." (9)

What are zines?

Before discussing the project in more detail, it is important to have a greater understanding about the zine medium, its political potential and how it embodies fragments of the zine-maker in a material way. As Poletti argues, zine-making "facilitates sites of cultural practice and engagement which are self-defining and empowering." (10) The practice of zinemaking works to create a space and place to independently publish one's work, an aim which stems from a long-existing tradition of political self-publishing dating back to eighteenth century U.S. radical pamphleteering. (11) Most zines are assembled by hand with every-day materials like blank paper, glue, tape, scissors and staplers; the visual aesthetics can be full of messy handwriting, illustrations, or just plain text. (12) Zines are not sold for-profit and are generally distributed through local music and book stores, at political and cultural / arts events, mail, and through zine catalogues called "distros." (13) While many zine-makers do exchange their publications with one another for free, when they are sold, zines usually cost a few dollars. (14) Payment for zines is meant to cover costs of printing and distribution. Zines are non-commercial publications and the practice asserts that readers can also be producers.

Zines, like all texts, are created for specific purposes. Used as either a personal outlet or a way to disseminate political thoughts and theories, zines are highly-personalized modes of communication. Zines are sites where people can construct identities, communities, and their own narratives, using "materials that comprise their cultural moment: discourses, media representations, ideologies, stereotypes and even physical detritus." (15) Zine-makers have agency over the medium they work with because they are creating it themselves--from soliciting contributions, to assembling the pages by hand, to deciding how many issues to print.

In her research, Piepmeier refers to zines as "paper artifacts" because they "register the connection of bodies and the passage of time more fully than digital technologies" by physically aging. (16) To further elaborate this point, Piepmeier looks to zine-maker Lauren Jade Martin who explains why she decided to take an essay off of her blog which had originally appeared in her zine. Martin notes:
Zines are tangible, are material. The writing is contained in an object
that physically ages. Ink fades. Paper yellows. Holding a zine from
even just ten years ago feels like holding an historical document. It's
easier to place it, the writing inside, and the person who wrote it, in
a particular moment in time, to contextualize it. Words appearing on a
computer screen, even if they are date-stamped, seem the opposite;
decontextualized, ahistorical, atemporal. (17)

It is this element of embodiment and the practice and empowerment of self-publishing which piqued my mother's interest in zine-making--she gets to represent her story in a way that she sees is best fit. The element of embodiment also allows the zine-maker to create a mark, an imprint of themselves, as they choose where to put the text, images, illustrations, etc. As a reader, you get engage with the vision of the zine-maker and a part of them travels with you as the zine travels with you.

Making the zine: Collaboration, agency and voice

For my mother, refocusing the life history project on her creative works, her poetry and creating the zine together, was an entry-point into discussing her immigration experience. In our zine-making process, I took on the role of facilitator. My mom gathered the scrapbook paper and other materials she wanted to use for the zine. When we met to make it, we first printed her poem, and then broke it up into segments. She told me where to put the words and I would paste them. As a research method, the zine provided a material element, a gathering point for both of us to focus on. Having the zine to work on was also a way to not speak about her migration at length. It broke up the research process into three segments: translating the poem, conducting the interview, then making the zine. Through making the zine we saw the life history project physically manifesting. As discussed earlier, zine researchers such as Piepmeier argue that the act of zine making, which involves the maker putting in their physical effort, assembling things by hand, really embodies their story in print. The act of physically making a publication that embodies their story creates a sense of agency. There are also some elements of control over who gets to engage with your story as zine-makers decide how many copies of the publication to make and where to distribute it (18); although circulation can never be fully controlled as sharing and trading zines is part of zine culture. (19) Making the zine also pushed me to move from a distanced researcher into the role of participant.

In Cole and Knowles' Lives in Context: The Art of Life History Research, they emphasize that researchers are participating in life history projects and must engage in self-reflective practices. They write "any research project is an expression of elements of a researcher's life history" which as a result breaks the researcher-subject hierarchy. (20) In situations of family research which can have elements of great intimacy, I wanted to approach my research with great delicacy. Keeping in mind what Measor and Sikes note, there is a selection, presentation and interpretation process in life history making which involves "both interviewer and interviewee." (21) For life history projects on family members, the zine can become a place to involve the interviewer and interviewee in an engaged and material way--not only are our lives involved in each other's stories, but together we create a physical representation of the life history. For example, fragments of both of us are embodied in the text. In the section featuring our letters to the reader, the background is a marble painting I had created. The zine also features a hand-drawing my mother had created representing intergenerational connection and the building of voice (see appendix for examples).

For my mother, zines also have an important political potential in creating access for women to publish their stories and have their voices heard. In our interview, my mother said:
As a writer, especially coming from another country, as an immigrant
woman, it's not that easy to publish something that you write. We're
living in a society where everything is a power struggle. [Zines are]
self-publishing [and] as I said before, you don't have to explain to
anybody why you are writing. You don't need to explain to anyone [why]
my work is worth it. You can share with whoever you like; to share your
part of being in a zine.

Similarly, for Parin Dossa, author of Politics and Poetics of Migration: Narratives of Iranian Women from the Diaspora, the circulation of personal narratives is extremely important as immigrant women's stories are not the stories which are likely to get published in the market industry. Dossa argues immigrant women's "unauthored texts are grounded in every day experiences, which are informed by larger socio-political forces that exclude and marginalize women in the first place." (22) Acknowledging that there are many barriers to having immigrant women's voices published, pursuing personal narrative research is a way to get their stories circulating in "national and social landscapes of the society in question." (23) By producing a zine, my mother and I are attempting to do this; we are taking my mother's poem, her personal narrative, and self-publishing it so we can circulate it and have others read it. This aspect of sharing her poetry and her story was an important element in my mother's participation in the research project.

Conclusion: Embodied family history

In her work, Australian zine scholar Anna Poletti argues that zines can be "viewed as a mode of life narratives which seeks to most closely resemble the problems associated with trying to represent the experience of being in the world by tacitly intervening and manipulating the reading experience." (24) Through the zine-maker's selections of what to share, they invite readers into their worlds on their terms--i.e. they are choosing how to represent their perspectives and experiences. This invitation, in many ways, grants the reader, what life history researcher Akemi Kikumura calls, "insider status." Meaning we are given "special insight into matters (otherwise obscure to others) based on one's knowledge of the language and one's intuitive sensitivity and empathy and understanding of the culture and its people." (25) Through its tactility and fragments of personal embodiment through text/photos/illustrations etc., the zine medium offers itself as a way in-to a person's language, culture, insights, and experiences. By publishing her poem through a zine, my mother is welcoming readers she has never met into her life. Similarly, as this was a collaborative effort, the zine has fragments of our story as mother-and-daughter and we are inviting readers to interact with our relationship but it is represented in a way which upholds each other's boundaries. For example, I shared my letter to the reader with my mom and asked for feedback before I included it in the zine as it references parts of her life.

For me, the zine not only became a site of research, it not only became a way to practice breaking down the dichotomies between researcher/participant, but it also became a space which holds my family history. To conclude, in our interview my mother identified this project process as not only connecting with me as her daughter, but also her practicing her storytelling abilities:
R: I've been wanting to make a zine with you for a long time, you know.
M: Mhm.
R: And so just being able to do something creative with you and knowing
it has a really big purpose feels really good to me as well.
M: Can I say something?
R: Yeah
M: You's like I feel I am a storyteller now. I'm telling you
a story, like [in] your childhood. If you remember, every night I used
to either read [to] you or just create a story (laughs) in my mind. And
then [I was] basically not just reading a story with you, I was also
playing a story to you. Do you remember?
R: Yeah (laughs)
M: So I feel it's like that moment again but you grew up and I'm older,
I'm 50 now. I feel like I'm a storyteller.


Excerpts from our zine


(1) My mother and I (the author of this article) created this 'zine and my mother created the illustrations. We own the artwork and copyright to it. For this essay, we are giving permission to Vitae Scholasticae: The Journal of Educational Biography to publish representations of the artwork.

(2) Stephen Duncombe. Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. (New York: Verso, 1997), 6.

(3) One of the earliest self-made publications to be called a "zine" was The Comet. Published in 1930, The Comet was a fanzine based out of the U.S. made by the Sci-Fi Correspondence Club that featured sci-fi fan fiction (see: Todd and Watson 2006).

(4) Mark Todd and Esther Watson. Whatcha mean, what's a zine?: the art of making zines and minicomics. (Boston: Graphia, 2006), 19.

Anna Poletti. "Self-Publishing in the Global and Local: Situating Life Writing in Zines." Biography 28.1 (Winter 2005): 185.

(5) Kathleen Weiler. Country Schoolwomen: Teaching in Rural California. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998), 2.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Forthcoming: "She 'came from faraway, farther than the furthest': A Mother's Life History of Revolution, Migration, and Resettlement Through Poetry," in Voices of the Ancestors Calling from Our Motherline: An Anthology, eds. Karen Nelson Villanueva and Annette Lyn Williams. (Bradford, ON: Demeter Press, TBA).

(8) Deborah Barnett, "Playing with Wild Fire: Art as Activism," in Wild Fire: Art

as Activism, ed. Deborah Barnett (Toronto: Sumach Press 2006), 18.

(9) Dori Laub, "Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitude of Listening," in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (New York: Routledge, 1992), 72.

(10) Anna Poletti, "Self-Publishing in the Global and Local: Situating Life Writing in Zines." Biography 28.1 (Winter 2005): 186; for materiality, see Bailey, Epistolary Hauntings: Working with and on Family Letters," Education's Histories 3, no. 2 (2016): 1-10.

(11) Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (New York: Verso, 1997), 15.

(12) Ibid, 11.

(13) Ibid, 2.

(14) Anna Poletti, "Auto/Assemblage: Reading the Zine." Biography 32.2 (2008): 85.

(15) Alison Piepmeier, Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009), 2.

(16) Ibid, 14.

(17) Ibid, 17.

(18) Duncombe, Notes from Underground, 12.

(19) Duncombe, Notes from Underground.

(20) Adra L. Cole and J. Gary Knowles, "What is life history research?" In Lives in Context: The Art of Life History Research, eds. Adra L. Cole and Gary Knowles, (New York: Altamira Press, 2001), 10, 14.

(21) Lynda Measor and Patricia Sikes, "Visiting Lives: Ethics and Methodology in Life History," in Studying Teachers' Lives, ed. Ivor Goodson (London: Routledge, 1992), 223.

(22) Parin Dossa, Politics and Poetics of Migration: Narratives of Iranian Women from the Diaspora, (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press Inc., 2004), 27.

(23) Ibid.

(24) Poletti, "Auto/ Assemblage: Reading the Zine," 95.

(25) Akemi Kikumura, "Family Life Histories: A Collaborative Venture," in The Oral History Reader, eds. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (London: Routledge, 1998), 141.

Ronak Ghorbani

York University
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Author:Ghorbani, Ronak
Publication:Vitae Scholasticae
Article Type:Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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