Interview Highlight: East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest

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KALX volunteer Elie Katzenson had the opportunity to interview East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest (EBABZ) organizers Maira McDermott and June Hong on Method to the Madness before the event took place. Get the scoop on their discussion of the importance of zines and zine-making, inclusive art events, and the ins and outs of organizing the festival.

This is Elie Katzenson and I am here with the organizers of EBABZ which stands for the East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest, coming up this Saturday, December 8th, in Oakland, from 11 to 5. The venue, Omni Commons, is located at 4799 Shattuck Avenue which is super close to the Macarthur BART station, and there’s a drop-off on the 6 bus line in addition to other bus lines. For now, I am here with Gill, June, and Maira.

Let’s start by talking about what a zine is.
Maira McDermott:
A zine, in my opinion, is anything you want it to be. It doesn’t even have to be printed, you can have online zines, digital zines, but it’s anything that you feel really passionate about or interested in that you want to share with other people and you put together this little book. It doesn’t have to be a traditional book shape, it can be any shape you want. Staple it, copy a bunch of pages, hand it out, and that’s a zine.

Zines are interesting because, as I understand it, historically they have been, and continue to be, underground publications used a lot by activists, artists, and writers who are looking for the ability to self-publish which affords them total freedom. There’s a lot of identity exploration that maybe traditional publishing houses wouldn’t allow for that space and so you have lesser-represented communities exploring their identities. With this, I’m thinking queer people, there’s a lot of diasporic exploration, mixed identities, mixed ethnic identities, anarchist groups, a lot of unique politics are getting space, and then non-traditional relationship models so I’ve seen some polyamory and non-monogamy zines. Really valuable information that isn’t able to get exposure elsewhere, in zines, gets massive exposure. These fests, which take place across the country, are really hubs, and this is a big word to say, of revolutionary information sometimes. It all starts on a small scale but this work can have major repercussions, in a positive sense, for a lot of people.
Maira: In my personal experience it has been revolutionary because through zines, that’s how I found the words to work through my own gender identity and that was revolutionary for me.

That is proof of why zines are so important and in your experience, why are zines so special?
June Hong: I think the beauty of the zine, as Maira said, is the total freedom and creative control you can have over your publication. And because you don’t have to go through the process with a publishing house and you self-publish, you can make it anything you want it to be.

Gillian Dreher: I also love the element of speed and spontaneity. An event can happen and you can make a zine about it immediately. It’s so great for activism and current events because you can react and share your ideas, any idea, super quickly.

When I think of something like writer’s block or the fear of showing your work, zines, in this punk way, emphasize the naturalness and the power of your first response and your first thoughts. How do you let go enough to say I am going to put myself out there, I’m going to put my work out there? How do people do that? I’m so impressed by that with zines that I’ve seen. They’re so thoughtful but they’re not over-thought, they’re not manicured to the point of perfection.
June: I feel like that’s such a classic problem with creative work. At what point do I feel comfortable enough to share my work? With zines, there’s such a spectrum. Some look more spur-of-the-moment, first draft, made photo copies, and published versus zines that look more like traditional books. I feel like the answer to when you feel comfortable, when do you get over that hump, this getting over your own perfectionism to publish, is something that zines help with because they’re so easy to make and it’s one less barrier for you to put your content out there.

Zines have been seen more in the mainstream and you’re talking about the “first draft” zine which is a little more, not less marketable, and then you have commercialized zines that maybe are a little less substance-oriented, a little less political, a little less extreme, a bit more surface-level. I’ve been curious about what the dynamic is within the zine community in regards to content. Is there more collaboration in the zine community? There seems to be a little bit more friendship, I know that trading your zines is a big part of what you do when you table.
Maira: I’ve had really good experiences making friends through zines. Making friends through zines on Facebook groups, and then travelling to those peoples’ fests who let me stay at their house and there’s just a level of trust that comes in when you are sharing your work that is really personal. You get to know someone who says “I’ve never met you but I think you’re not going to murder me so come stay at my house for a weekend.” I’m thinking specifically of when I went to Omaha Zine Fest and the organizers of that fest were super sweet and I think there is a lot of camaraderie in the zine community because we are all doing the same thing. Not the same exact thing but we all have the same passion for this art form.

This is the ninth year of EBABZ. The fest was borne out of people enjoying Portland Zine Fest and San Francisco Zine Fest and thinking that there were enough artists and creators in the East Bay to have a fest here. Even the organizers nine years ago are different than y’all, and Maira I know that you had a sub-EBABZ zine fest, the Bay Area Queer Zine Fest. The space that EBABZ creates, not only at the fest, but the work that you’re championing and really helping proliferate... How can people and the community of the East Bay in general help EBABZ thrive and help zinesters thrive? How can we support the creation of this work?
Maira: Volunteer.
Gill: Yeah!
Maira: And show up day of, that’s really important still.
Gill: Please volunteer! It’s crazy. My boyfriend especially lately has been in awe of all of the work that we’ve been doing. With events like this, you always think someone’s in charge, but no one’s in charge. We’re just making all this up as we go and working together and figuring out how to get stuff done. I’ll come home from our working sessions and he’ll ask what we did, and he’s like, “What, you’re doing so much stuff that’s so cool.” It would be great for people to get involved.

What kind of things can people do?
Gill: So much. All year long we have different events. Maira and June are both great at planning fundraising events, getting in touch with different organizations, figuring out how we can work together, teaching people how to make zines, workshops like that. We also do planning stuff throughout the year. We have to send out applications and we have to figure out what our mission statement is.

There’s administrative work but all the way to full poster making.
Gill: Yeah make a flyer!

Follow their Instagram y’all (@ebabzinefest)! Volunteering looks fun if you follow the Insta. I think a lot of people are afraid to volunteer because putting yourself out there is always really scary, but also, maybe in capitalist society in general, there’s the concept that you have to pay a lot of time in a place before you have any power or say, and so you think that you shouldn’t be there helping or deciding how things are run because you are new but EBABZ is a democracy, as far as I can tell. People are really welcome, the structure is radically inclusive.
Gill: A friend of mine reached out to me and said that they were too busy to volunteer but they know this person who’s in high school who was looking for some way to get involved with zines so we brought them on. They have gone for it and they reached out to all the different high schools in the area to ask for people to get involved and share their zines. Any level of effort is appreciated.
June: That can happen in such different ways too. As we said, there are many different capacities in which you can volunteer but also we each started volunteering at the same time three years ago and how I showed up was I saw a volunteer meeting on Facebook and I just showed up without knowing much about the zine fest. I had gone the previous year but my friend posted the meeting invite online and I continued to stick with it for the past three years so you never know how it’s gonna go.

Tomas is one of the organizers who is not strictly active anymore and he was talking about the idea that a zine, more than maybe certain other mediums, is really a one-on-one interaction between the creator and the reader. What makes a zine a one-on-one interaction? What makes that one-on-one interaction really essential, especially when you are talking about subject matter that is frequently very intimate and life-changing? So much of reading zines is related to identity and people find a sense of belonging that maybe they aren’t experiencing as frequently elsewhere.
Maira: In my experience, it’s been like handing someone my diary and they happen to be standing right in front of me, sometimes making really awkward eye contact. And it’s terrifying, but that’s just what it is. It’s really cool to have these one-on-one interactions with people even if it’s not in-person and then have them give you feedback or tell you, “Oh, this zine meant a lot to me because X, Y, or Z”. They realize, “Oh, I’m not alone in what I’m feeling, wow, this feels great.” There’s solidarity with other people over stuff that you maybe felt you were alone in.
Gill: There’s those kinds of zines. I feel like that with a lot of Maira’s zines, and a lot of per-zines, diary-type zines, but there’s also zines where it’s more communal. I feel like rather than a one-on-one production, it’s this feeling of entering into a group through reading a zine. I’m thinking of ones that are collaborative that a community produces or ones that maybe share a history of a place or a thing that you weren’t familiar with. It’s like you’re entering into this world, more of a shared space rather than a one-to-one, it’s one-to-a-bunch, even if you’ve never met those people or seen those people.

When people think about getting involved in community, it seems like you have to be a people person, and really enjoy being extroverted all the time etc… but what’s interesting about zines is that there’s space for everyone and there’s sensitivity to whoever you are. You are radically accepted and loved and that respect is so special. I don’t think that’s really a question but it’s something that I want people who are not familiar with zines or who haven’t participated in an event where zines are shared to know that that is really the environment that is created at a fest. It’s like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. You are going to find the level that you want. Maybe you find the blueberry early and you get rolled away or you make it to the end and you get your Gobstopper.
June: Totally. That reminds me of earlier when we were talking about how to support zine communities and we talked about volunteering. Also what I’ve found that has been really important to me in zine organizing and the Oakland art community in general is that people are so supportive and welcoming and down to help you out with your projects. People’s generosity and acceptance has really blown my mind. It’s super inspiring to see people making things and helping other people make things and being able to express themselves in creative projects through helping each other out. That’s another way to support: help a friend make something.

Totally. I read this newsletter called The Creative Independent, I’ll have to send you a link cause it’s really great. They interview an artist every day and sometimes they talk about, in different art worlds there’s more competition than others, but one of the pieces of advice that I read today was about being confident in charging for your work. People can pay for your work. I don’t know why that seems so radical to me because it can seem so hard to say, “No, that costs money” or “Yeah, that zine’s ten bucks.” You have really made something and that’s a sacred exchange.
Maira: It’s hard sometimes but I feel that the time that I’m most able to stick up for myself and my work is when people try to take it off the table like it’s free. That’s the only time I’m really adamant [and say,] “No, I put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this.” That happened at a zine event that I was tabling at. It’s hard to put a price on something that you’ve created but sometimes it’s necessary because you have to break even or you have to pay your bills.

Even beyond breaking even, it shouldn’t be just paying for your materials. It’s OK for me to make money off a work that I made.
June: Totally.

But why does it feel so hard to do that?
June: It can be hard to do because money obviously is not the end-all be-all of the world but you also need it to survive and pay the bills so it’s something that I do think about. Why do we not hesitate to buy a five dollar coffee but you have a problem buying a five dollar zine or something like that? Not that it’s always necessarily like that but I think it is important to keep in mind value and the effort that people put into making creative work that isn’t necessarily sold in a store and for some reason (store-sold works) seems more official and OK to give money to.
Gill: As organizers charging for a space and on the zinesters side of the table, charging for these things filled with ideas, we’ve been conflicted with anti-capitalist sentiment too while charging for things. If I’m making something that is against consumerism and then I’m charging for it, “Whaaa, what is happening?!” But yeah it’s all about valuing yourself and your ideas.

Yeah, you still have to function in the environment that you exist in.
June: Not that we like money but…

But give me my monies.
Gill: Yeah, personally I feel like that’s been really hard to do.

It’s so interesting to me because the price that you are charging zinesters is quite fair in my opinion. I think it’s what, 50 bucks if you’re accepted?
Maira: Not even that. It’s less.
June: For a half table, we have a sliding scale of 20 to 40 dollars. If you have a full table, it’s 50 to 75. We have always employed a sliding scale and if people have financial struggles they can email us and we’ll waive the fee.

Maira: Some zine fests are not like that so it’s really nice to be able be a part of one that is like that.

I want to talk about the fest schedule in general. The East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest is free to get in, no admission, all these tables with zines for you to peruse and purchase. I know that there are some workshops happening, can you tell me about those?
Gill: We have three different workshops and they are each about an hour long. We have Writing From the Margins: Creativity and Embodiment for Artists of Color with Fatima Nasiyr. This one sounds awesome. It’s a writing workshop with meditative practices, brainstorming, and sharing stories. That’s at noon. At 1:30 we have Mixed Media Sticker Making with Raphael Tapia III and will be extremely fun. You use a bunch of stuff to make stickers, very DIY. You can stop by anytime between 1:30 and 2:30, it’s an in-and-out situation or you can stay the whole time. At three we have Letterpress Basics with Kristie Hollihan. She is going to show how this tabletop letterpress works and then everyone is going to get a chance to make a thing. They will choose a phrase and then everyone will letterpress that phrase. Those will all be in the Omni entry room towards the back.

I was reading online that you are doing something new this year, called a Zine Store?
June: The Zine Shop is something new that we’re trying out this year in response to feeling that we wanted to include as many people as possible. There are a limited number of tables but we do get a lot of applications so for people who didn’t get to table or who just have one or two zines and don’t feel like they can fill a table, they can drop off their zines at E.M. Wolfman through Friday and the organizers will manage the Zine Store tables.
Gill: Another thing we are trying different this year are ‘Island Tables’. An organizer noticed that at all these fests it’s always a person behind a table and it can be super weird, people who have gone to fests and craft fairs know, walking around and not knowing if you should make eye contact or not, I want to look the stuff but I don’t want them to feel offended if I don’t buy the stuff. It’s a kind of tense relationship sometimes and sometimes it’s really fun and you make good connections and you have a great time. Still, sometimes different personalities, some people feel awkward. One of our organizers was like what if we move these zinesters out from behind the table so it creates a more open layout and visitors can file through and peruse without having to have these tense eye contact moments. The tabler will still be there but off to the side and it creates more opportunities for organic conversations.

That’s interesting.
Gill: It’s our first year doing it so we’ll see.

I’m really excited to see that because I’m totally used to the awkward dynamic. I just put that Mona Lisa smile on my face for like an hour.
Gill: Same. It’s part of the thing. We still have tables like that so you’ll get the opportunity to show your Mona Lisa smile but yeah it’ll be cool.

I sometimes want to engage in conversation but I am conscious of taking up too much space or think that the person needs to spend more time with other people and I’m scared of taking too much attention but it sounds like people are more open to speaking than I think they are.
Maira: We should mention that we are only using the wheelchair accessible rooms and it’s kid-friendly. We have the childcare room but we do not have child care. B-Y-O-Care, you can use the room.

It’s wheelchair accessible and you can bring your kids. But you can’t bring your dogs?
Maira: No.

Life is not fair dude.
Gill: You can’t have it all.

You really can’t.
June: After the fest there’s an EBABZ After Party that’s happening from 6 to 10 at Classic Cars West slash Hella Vegan Eats so come through.
Gill: There’s gonna be like 10 DJs.
June: I think it’s like six.
Gill: Six to ten.

If you each had one last sentiment or thought to put out into the world as an EBABZ organizer, something that you’d like to put out there for the end of this interview-
June: Every year I am so grateful for the zine community and the applications that we receive and the care that is taken in those applications. I’m super grateful for my fellow organizers because everyone really tries their hardest and puts a lot of effort into it and also I’m eternally grateful to Ara for introducing me to this community. I think of her.
Gill: I went to Cal and I was like super DIY and in highschool I was super punk and into all this stuff and then you grow up and have to get a job and make money and I have a mortgage now? I start to get out
of touch with my roots and this happy community and what matters in life so coming to zine fests and volunteering reminds me of all that stuff and keeps me connected and grounded in reality and what’s good.
Maira: To echo what both of you are saying, organizing EBABZ has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done and for that I’m eternally grateful to Ara for getting me involved. Also, if you come to the fest, please bring caffeine for the organizers.
Gill: Yes!

The East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest is happening Saturday, December 8th, in Oakland, from 11am to 5pm. The venue, Omni Commons, is located at 4799 Shattuck Avenue and is wheelchair-accessible and kid-friendly.