When Sheila Heti, the author of How Should a Person Be?, was a Sassy-reading teenager in Toronto, she was commissioned to edit an anthology of young women’s writing. She was discovered by Naomi Wolf, whose 1991 book The Beauty Myth was one of Heti’s first introductions to feminism, and whom she had met at a lecture. During the Q&A session afterward, Heti had told Wolf about how her school’s authorities confiscated her zine, Iron Maiden, and then given Wolf an envelope containing copies of the D.I.Y. publication. Soon after, Wolf’s publisher, Random House, invited Heti to come in for a meeting. For a year and a half, Heti solicited writing and art from young women across North America, exchanging her newest zine, Brillantine (produced when was she was 18 and republished here in its entirety in our accompanying slideshow with Heti’s permission), for their submissions, only to have the book’s first draft rejected because the material was too controversial.
The zines, poetry, artwork, and letters Heti received during that time, until recently languishing in a box in her mother’s basement, comprise her donation last month to the Riot Grrrl Collection at New York University’s Fales Library. (She didn’t donate Brillantine, her own zine, though Zan Gibbs — who was active in riot grrl scenes in Washington, D.C., Portland, and Vancouver — sent in her copy.)
Started in 2009 by senior archivist Lisa Darms, the collection includes the personal papers of fifteen people “identifying with or reacting against” the feminist punk and D.I.Y. movement, including artwork, journals, letters, photographs, flyers, news clippings, set lists, and more. Though never a self-identified riot grrrl, Darms told the Cut that a personal connection to the movement — living and going to shows in Olympia, Washington, in the nineties — inspired the collection, which includes the personal papers of Le Tigre bandmates Johanna Fatemen and Kathleen Hanna. “Hanna was the first person I talked to about the idea,” Darms said. “She’s someone who has worried a lot about the erasure of feminist history, and she had been keeping her own archive.”
Almost twenty years after Heti’s book was rejected, Darms is resurrecting her project, in a way, with The Riot Grrrl Collection, a volume containing 340 pieces from the Fales archive, due in June from the Feminist Press. Unlike many zine exhibitions, which are limited to covers and design, Darms said the volume does justice to their content and context. “Because I’m working on my own book, it was interesting to see Sheila going through that process as a teenager,” Darms said. “One of the reasons that Random House chose not to publish the book, she said, was that they didn’t think there was an audience for it. The existence of all these zines is proof of the audience. They wanted it so badly they created it for themselves.” Indeed, the rise of the Internet and desktop publishing, which ought to have made zines obsolete, seems only to have whet the appetite of a generation of digital native nineties nostalgists. “There’s an intimacy to zines,” Darms said. “A lot of them just didn’t make that many copies. Johanna Fateman made five copies of some of her zines. They’re extremely rare.”
The Riot Grrrrl Collection (The Feminist Press, $24.95), comes out June 14. Signed copies are available for preorder here.