Pictured on the cover of the The Riot Grrrl Collection, the book I’ve been reading recently, is a filing cabinet covered in stickers. It took me a few days to realise that my new book, Ninety9, has a similar, sticker-covered object on it, a suitcase. Things covered in stickers are a good aesthetic shorthand for underground culture in the 1990s and the ephemera and objects through which that time is remembered.
The book is comprised of reproductions of items from The Riot Grrrl Collection, held at NYU’s Fales Library: zines, flyers, song lyrics and printed ephemera. The collection was started by the book’s author, Lisa Darms, to document the evolution of the punk feminist Riot Grrrl movement between 1989 and 1996. While the movement was somewhat dispersed, Riot Grrrl is mostly associated with Olympia, Washington, and bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile.
In the early 1990s I was a teenager and heard about Riot Grrrl through reading music magazines: in some reports it was a revolutionary force, in others it was a clique of man-hating girl punks. I felt drawn to Riot Grrrl and had a strong desire to read a Riot Grrrl zine for myself: a challenge for a teenage girl in Sydney in 1992. I was reliant on the bits and pieces that came through record stores and what was played on the radio.
Now having these once-much-desired texts collected together in a book makes for an odd reading experience. Some of the texts are familiar, as I did eventually come across Australian Riot Grrrl zines. These sometimes reprinted excerpts from the original American zines, such as the Riot Grrrl Manifesto written by Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. It takes the form of a list of reasons: ‘BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.’ I craved more than I could find—many of the texts in The Riot Grrrl Collection are ones I had so desired reading as a teenager but I knew of them only in traces.
The texts still work a degree of magic upon me, yet I know I’m now reading them at a remove, of time and of medium. The pages show reproductions of the originals: typewritten, collaged, handwritten and photocopied, in some cases stained or crumpled, staples rusty, paper discoloured. Their mess and sprawl has been bound into a book, the least ephemeral of texts.
I’m an eclectic reader, and switch between novels, short story collections, zines, blogs, literary magazines and secondhand oddities (The Mystic Mandrake, a history of the plant once thought to be half human; the Penrith Pink Pages from 1979—yes, I’ll read a phone book), often within the one reading session. The Riot Grrrl Collection crosses some of these boundaries between DIY projects and the curated and edited writing approved by publishers. The zines, notes, lyrics and flyers chosen for the collection have now become historical documents, a punk literature.
Books are useful tools to think with. They consecrate ideas and create histories. Yet while this book creates a Riot Grrrl canon of sorts, it can still be read as a call to action. There has been a recent resurgence of interest in Riot Grrrl, both from people who were there at the time and younger people taking inspiration, in time-honoured tradition, from a period of cultural history they just missed out on.
As a teenager in the 1990s I too had the feeling of having just missed out on a more exciting era. I obsessed over punk bands from the 1970s and that time in history took on a kind of inaccessible mystique. I could only experience it through artifacts and imagination. The 1990s at the time seemed of indistinct character, even with movements such Riot Grrrl.
One of the zines I read at this time was the American zine Ben is Dead, which dubbed the 1990s the decade of ‘Retro Hell’. This became the name of a book which collected together an alphabetical index of Ben is Dead readers’ memories of 1970s objects and phenomena. A few days ago I pulled it out of my bookshelf to read over it again, while I was thinking about the twenty year ‘nostalgia cycle’.
When I read the entries in Retro Hell a cumulative picture forms. I imagine a world with everyone wearing flares, driving cars covered in bumper stickers, skating at roller rinks. The Riot Grrrl Collection similarly allows me to re-imagine the past, girls in boots with their hair in angry pigtails staying up late to write manifestos on typewriters.
My Riot Grrrl mental picture is far more distinct. When I started to make zines in the 1990s I became one of these girls. In fact my early zine, Psychobabble, has become something of a collector’s item, although not of the status of the items in the Riot Grrrl Collection. The idea of something I wrote as an eighteen year old being collected as a historic document of a time and a scene seems slightly unreal: zines are of-the-moment, and making them in the 1990s I didn’t expect my work, and those I was reading, to have a life beyond that decade.
Riot Grrrl was all about activity and immediacy as a way to confront sexism and disempowerment. These pages still make me want to get up and do something, make something. It’s the same feeling I had as a teenager when I listened to songs by Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear. When the singers screamed out lines of the songs I felt like they were screaming for me and every other suburban misfit in their teenage bedroom who was yet to find their voice.
Vanessa Berry is a writer, artist and zine-maker whose memoir of being a teenage music fan in the 1990s, Ninety9, has recently been released by Giramondo Publishing. View some of the ephemera that inspired Ninety9 at Ninety9 Notes. Vanessa is also the author of the memoir Strawberry Hills Forever, the zines I am a Camera and Disposable Camera, and the blog Mirror Sydney.