Concluding the three part series on my experience with riot grrrl, I talk with Sara Marcus, author of the recently released book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.
This book is necessary in so many ways. It’s necessary to me so that I could get a full picture of a “movement” that I was tangentially part of and remind me of my teenage passion, longing and adoration. It’s necessary for my family so that they can understand a bit of the angst I experienced as well as the happiness I sought. This book is necessary for all the young girls, boys and in-betweens - the freaks, geeks and dorks - still struggling with the same issues of misplaced emotion and frustration. And most of all it’s necessary as a documentation of a time and a fair account of a feminist history.
Here’s what Kathleen Hanna had to say about it at the book release party in Brooklyn, New York in early October 2010:
Sara was one of the many penpals I had throughout the mid 1990s. We exchanged zines - one of her Out of the Vortex for one of my Beri-Beri’s - and traded banter between Gaithersburg, Maryland and Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. Now, fifteen years later I wanted to check in with her and find out about this whole book thing…
JW: What a gift you have given us by telling the story of the U.S. riot grrrl movement in a thoughtful, cohesive text. How did you end up writing this story? What made you think you could do it?
SM: My idea from the beginning was to write about Riot Grrrl as a whole—which is to say, people’s grassroots experiences of it, nonmusicians as well as musicians—before those histories got lost forever. Because they were already getting terribly attenuated, and I had this urgent feeling that some rock critic somewhere was about to write a history of Riot Grrrl that cast the young women as fans, consumers, and followers—as I had already seen in countless minor accounts of the movement—instead of as human beings acting with political agency against a backdrop of important historical and political forces. So that was the very polemical précis I started out with, and as I continued working on the book and grappled with feelings of personal grandiosity (e.g., how dare I be excited that a book written with the blood of hundreds of girls was going to be A Good Book and make me finally feel like A Good Writer), I kept regrounding myself in this mission.
As for what made me think I could do it, it was a combination of three facts:
a) I was already working as a writer writing for magazines about pop culture, rock music, feminism, and activism, so this fit—I knew that people, including me, would believe I was qualified to do it.
b) I was determined enough to write a book, and to write this book, that I was willing to devote my life to it for five years.
c) Perhaps most important, between my history in the movement, my experiences touring in bands, and my involvement in feminist art communities, I realized that I had a friend in common with nearly everybody I would need to interview for the book.
So I suppose you could say it was a crime both of passion and of opportunity.
JW: The Author’s Note was a sweet and touching introduction - I could absolutely relate to the awe and delight you experienced when you first discovered riot grrrl. However, the book then proceeds to document the rocky journey and ultimate downfall of the movement. This was difficult for me as a reader how was this for you as the researcher and writer?
SM: A year or two before starting to work on this book, before I even knew I would write it, I saw the great fiction writer Grace Paley speak, and I asked her during the Q&A how she dealt with writing about her activist communities and saying things people in those circles might not want to see written down. She said, “If you’re a writer—and I think that you are—you have to tell the truth.” I thought of that moment many times while writing this book. It’s a tactical fudge, of course—what is “The Truth,” anyway?—but giving myself license to access that sort of moral rectitude and fealty to What Really Happened was quite an empowering and freeing move. My experience of Riot Grrrl was pretty halcyon, so I wasn’t quite expecting all the tales of rancor and bitterness and mistreatment that I encountered. At first I felt a little protective of this movement that had, after all, really changed my life for the better; I wished I could just accentuate the positive. But the difficult aspects formed a part of the story that I couldn’t ignore or wish away—that “truth” thing again—and additionally, they presented a cautionary tale. If people read the book and drew inspiration from it to start new feminist revolutions, but then fell prey to the same tensions and shortsightednesses as in the ’90s because I had been too wimpy to say “Look, here are some of the pitfalls that come along with this kind of work,” that would be a marker of failure on my part.
JW: Sadly, I have seen many well-intentioned riot grrrl related projects fall flat due to a lack of interest, motivation and/or resources. What kept you going?
SM: I interviewed about 150 people for this book. But by the time I had interviewed the first two people, just those two people made me feel like I had made a commitment to see this through to the end. The more people I interviewed, the more people I owed a finished product to.
I have an old friend who never tells people what he’s working on until it’s done, so that if he abandons it halfway through nobody will be asking him about it. I’m the exact opposite: I always mouth off to my friends about projects I’m planning, in order to block off any escape hatch. There’s no shame in that game; in fact, that process of talking yourself up and then having your community say “Put your money where your mouth is” played a key role in the formation of both Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy, as I relate in the book. It’s a very punk rock/Riot Grrrl tactic: recognizing how important a supportive community is in supporting creative production.
But it feels a little disingenuous to credit my production entirely to the support of others. It’s just as accurate to say that I was completely, fanatically, unwaveringly determined to make this thing happen, and I sought out whatever supports I felt would be helpful to me, while cutting out any detrimental influences. Lining up support for yourself is a creative act. Asking the right people for advice, recognizing good advice when you get it, and doing what it takes to follow that advice are all acts of intelligence and discernment.
What else helped? I feel it’s important to talk about the material conditions of production, because so often these things get mystified—like the boy who once told me “Don’t get a full-time job, your writing will suffer” while neglecting to mention that he was paying his rent by selling drugs. Above all, this project was made possible by a graduate program that gave me access to three extra years of federal loans, library and database (LexisNexis!) access, and health insurance after my classes had ended. Other things:
-A low-key work schedule: I work as a copy editor at monthly and bimonthly magazines, so I get weeks off at a time.
-Stints at residency programs that fed and housed me for six weeks at a time and enabled me to focus solely on the book.
-Roommates in Brooklyn who allowed me to sublet my room and move upstate for half a year, where I paid one quarter my rent in the city; generous upstate roommates who were willing to accommodate my uncertain schedule (and to lend me their car when I needed to get groceries).
These things were huge, but I also want to stress that I sought these things out; I insisted on them. They didn’t just drop into my lap. And I made compromises (e.g., $100K of student loans) and refused to settle for conditions that wouldn’t support my getting this done. I say this not to be all “I’m so great” but just to make clear that projects don’t simply happen on their own; they require great determination and, at times, a commitment to prioritize the work over everything else.
JW: The book is incredibly well-researched with loads of context and background information, obviously you know you are not speaking only to an audience of people who were there “in the moment.” So who is your ideal audience?
SM: Everybody should read this book. People our age, who were around in the ’90s and are now reassessing that period in our lives, asking ourselves what values and passions from that period are worth bringing into our current lives, albeit perhaps in adapted or updated form. People in their teens and 20s who are trying to figure out how to make things happen in their own generation. Feminists and rebels of every age and stripe. People who like music. People who care about young women. Parents of adolescents or of children who will one day be adolescents. People who were once adolescents themselves or still are. Did I leave anybody out?