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Let zines keep you warm this winter

By Lee Pepper on December 17, 2013

When the days are short and the world outdoors is frozen and inhospitable, it can be hard to get motivated to do much other than lie in bed with some insalubrious snacks and a steady stream of Netflix.

Three Toronto writers who will be reading in Ottawa on December 19th want to encourage us to try some other winter survival tactics, and talk about some of the ways that we can survive difficult times by caring for ourselves and taking part in our communities.  They also want to bring to light the ways in which practical, day-to-day survival is linked to resistance against various forms of oppression, in particular those faced by people who are queer and/or transgender, or who don’t identify as either male or female. 

To this end, they’ve launched the Winter Survival Tour, and are travelling across Ontario and Québec to share their thoughts on aspects of survival such as mental health, trauma, and creativity. 

All three writers – Maranda Elizabeth, Eric Levitt, and Eddie O, are involved in zines (self-published collections of writing and art with a DIY ethos).  The writer Sherman Alexie wrote, “I used to sleep with my books in piles all over my bed and sometimes they were the only thing keeping me warm and always the only thing keeping me alive.”  Many writers and readers would say the same of zines, a crucial aspect of whose appeal is the strong sense of community that surrounds them.  Zines welcome amateurs, cheer on the self-conscious or uncertain, and bring together self-identified outsiders. 

In Ottawa, many people have been discovering or revisiting zines lately.  In September, Pressed was thronged with people trading their self-published collections of comics, poetry, travel stories, music reviews, and diverse other content at the Ottawa Zine-Off.  In November, Jeff Miller, whose zine Ghost Pine describes, among other things, his youth growing up in Nepean, did a reading here with Aaron Cometbus, a legendary writer who’s been self-publishing his funny, elegiac tales of punk rock life since 1981. 

Maranda Elizabeth has been self-publishing zines for many years, and has recently published a collection of their zines and self-published a coming-of-age novel called Ragdoll House.  Eric Levitt and Eddie O are also zine writers, and run Toronto’s Sticks and Stones Distro, which distributes zines on queer, feminist, anti-authoritarian, and DIY themes.   Together, the three of them organized the Toronto Queer Zine Fair, which took place for the first time this fall. 

For the Ottawa stop of their tour, they will be joined by Stephanie Meunier, a local writer who publishes a zine called Take Care! about managing anxiety. 

Maranda Elizabeth's zines, Telegram.

Maranda Elizabeth’s zines, Telegram.

I spoke with Maranda Elizabeth about their thoughts on zines, survival, and building community.

Where did the idea for the Winter Survival Tour come from?

Maranda: I’ve been writing about winter survival for a few years, and every year, as my birthday and Halloween approach, I start thinking about it again, trying to come up with new ideas, re-focus on my self-care process, and embrace the inevitable cold. Winter is no longer my worst season – I feel equally hopeless and messed up in Spring, Summer, and Fall – but I do feel a certain kind of dread as it approaches, and I know that I need to plan ahead to stay alive. In winter 2009, I made my first winter survival zine; it focused mainly on crafts and cheap adventures. Soon after that, I developed a chronic pain condition and am no longer able to make things with my hands (except for words), so the next year, I made another winter survival zine that focused more on taking care of my physical pain, finding a balance between hibernation and outdoor-time, creating a winter routine, telling stories, sending snail mail, getting off the internet, and keeping a list of things I like about winter. Most of the things I wrote about were things to do alone, since I’m an unapologetic loner.

This winter, I thought I wanted to stay home and be quiet; I was exhausted after having traveled a bit more than usual over the past year. Last February, I toured the U.S. West Coast with my publishers and pals at Mend My Dress Press, and spent much of summer in Seattle, Washington. In spring, I was evicted from my home, in summer I was robbed, and in October, I was completely physically and emotionally exhausted from organizing Toronto Queer Zine Fair on top of everything else. But somehow, I started feeling wanderlust again. I told Eddie I was thinking of doing some kind of Winter Survival Tour, and they said, “Let’s go on tour together!” We started brainstorming cities we wanted to see, places we could read and places we could sleep along the way, and started making things happen.

When it’s cold, I need to give myself good reasons to leave the house, and I need to give myself dates to look forward to. Going on the road with friends, meeting new people, sharing my winter survival strategies and learning about my community members’ winter survival plans, seems like a good idea. I also think it’s important to do events throughout winter to give ourselves reasons to stay alive, organize, and get inspired.

Can you share some of your favourite winter (or general) survival tips & strategies?

I need to set dates, make plans, and find excuses to get out of the house. I also try my best to surround myself in colours and textures that make me feel cozy and happy. As a broke-femme and recovering goth, cultivating an aesthetic is one of my year-round methods of self-care; in Winter, I wear colourful thrift store coats (fuchsia and lavender are my favourites), scarves in varying shades of purple and black, fleece-lined tights, felt-lined mittens, and a purple hat with a giant pompom.

I also spend a lot of time at the library, and this winter, one of my plans is to try to visit every branch of the Toronto Public Library, or at least as many as possible. I just learned that there are ninety-eight of them, so I think it’ll take a few winters to do that project! I’ve only hung out at 3 of them so far. If you’re in Toronto, tell me about your favourite branch! Now that I’m living in the city, I’m also trying to attend as many literary events, book and zine launches, and free talks at the library, as I can. Also, since I have a P.O. box, I have to leave the house and walk a few blocks to pick up my mail, so that gets me out of the house.

I drink every kind of tea I can find, and all the silly seasonal- and holiday-flavoured lattés; I burn candles, write write write, listen to Jazz FM, and set my alarm early so I can get as much daylight as possible. I take Vitamin D and B12, take my meds as regularly as possible, hide under many layers of blankets, snuggle with my cats, paint my nails every shade of purple I can find… And I talk to my pals near and far about winter survival, mental health, and self-care!

Through your work with the Toronto Queer Zine Fair, which had its inaugural year this fall, it seemed to me that you placed a lot of value on accountability and accessibility.  These are values that a lot of people and organizations pay lip service to, but you did a lot to live by them.  For example, you chose to cancel a reading that was part of the fair because you had ended up with a line-up of mostly white performers and presenters, while your goal was to “prioritize voices in the queer community who are shut out due to intersecting oppressions”.  Can you talk more about how and why you try to make your events safer spaces?

I don’t think a space that is 100% safe and accessible is possible, but I do believe in making my best effort to create and participate in spaces that strive for better accessibility, communication, equity, and inclusion. […]

When I organize events, my goal is to create a space that is as accessible as possible: physically, emotionally, and financially. Also, I like to provide clear definitions on what this means to me. Unfortunately, many folks seem to think that simply renting a ramp for the evening will make their space accessible; and many people don’t even want to do that much, don’t even want to consider the possibility of accessibility taking priority over some of their other organizing goals.

I think it’s crucial to provide a space that is accessible to people with chronic pain and people who use mobility aids; it’s necessary to provide a gender-neutral bathroom so trans* & non-binary folks can feel as safe as possible; and it’s necessary to make it clear that oppressive language & behaviours will not be tolerated (it’s also important to define what “oppressive language & behaviours” means). The space also needs to be scent-free and cigarette smoke-free, for those of us with multiple chemical sensitivity. Sadly, I’m not sure if I’ve ever even been in such a space. But we need to keep on trying.

Where do zines fit into your survival strategy?

If it weren’t for zines, I’d be dead. I feel like, as someone who has a history of suicide attempts and a chronic depression that often keeps me trapped indoors, I need to take concrete and specific actions to get through winter, and to even just feel content with my days; I can’t take it for granted that I’ll live through the season and see the snow melt once again. I dropped out of high school before finishing my first year, and eventually developed agoraphobia, so I didn’t have many friends in my teens and early twenties, and didn’t know that meaningful, healthy friendships were a possibility; I didn’t have friends, but I had zines. Writing has been my primary method of communication for over a decade, and it’s absolutely what keeps me going.

How do you survive as a self-published writer?

Financially, I don’t. Self-publishing often costs more money than it makes, and it’s a disability cheque that pays my rent. But writing keeps me alive and I know I’ll never quit. Although there are countless traditionally published books that I love, when it came time to turn my own stories into perfectbound books, I wanted to have as much control over my own work as possible; submitting my manuscript to publishers felt like asking for permission for my stories to exist; I was also pre-emptively fearful of publishers who might not use my correct pronoun in my bio, as I’ve been misgendered in traditional and alternative press many times, and have seen my non-binary and trans* pals’ identities erased by the press as well. Self-publishing felt like the safest route for me to simply be me.

Do you feel there is, or can be, a tension between self-care and community support?  For example, people who put a lot of energy into activism or building community in other ways often experience burnout. How do you work on projects you believe in while also seeing to your own survival?

Yes! I’ve noticed a tendency to talk more about self-care than to actually take a step back and do it; it’s one of my own bad habits, too. It’s a struggle and I have not at all found a balance yet. Self-care and community organizing often feel in direct conflict with one another for me. And unfortunately, the hard work of organizing triggers some of the symptoms of my mental illnesses, and creating an event, attempting to create a safer space, is much more anxiety-inducing and vulnerable than just staying home and writing from my own quiet little corner, which is often what I prefer to do anyway. I have a strong difficulty balancing self-care and community support, and I’ve wanted to give up many times. Community organizing has given me many sleepless nights, panic attacks, and bitterness, but it’s also given me hope and inspiration and it feels foolish to quit.

I feel like, within the radical communities I participate in, there is a great emphasis placed on talking about mental health and talking about self-care, but little action taken to learn how to make our boundaries clear, and to respect one another’s boundaries. I also feel like there’s lip service given to creating various kinds of accessibility, but not enough care given toward actually making it happen; I also see certain forms of accessibility prioritized over others. I’m sure these problems have existed within organizing since forever, and I don’t claim to have all the solutions, but I do think it’s important to discuss these things and do better work (and to take breaks from discussions and organizing to take care of ourselves as well).

Maranda, Eddie, Eric, and local guests will be bringing their Winter Survival Tour to Pressed (750 Gladstone) on December 19th, at 8PM.  For more information, please see the Facebook event.