- Words Laviea Thomas
- Photography Bethan Elford
Lu Williams discusses the foundations of their new ‘Queer Utopias’ zine, throwing a launch party at Dalston Superstore and lots more.
There’s something so incredibly personal about zine making. From the creative process all the way through to the distribution, zines stand out as an authentic and DIY spin on commercial magazines. Inspired by the Riot Grrrl culture of the 1990s, writer, activist and editor Lu Williams is the creative founder and editor of Grrrl Zine Fair and Grrrl Zine Library. Building this platform from the ground up, throughout each project Lu continues to build spaces and communities for like-minded creatives to showcase their work.
A library home to over 600 Queer, feminist zines, Lu’s Grrrl Zine Library is a project they’ve been developing since 2017 and has successfully showcased and celebrated a range of work from creative writers, illustrators and more in the Queer scene throughout the years. This spring Lu is launching Issue five of Grrrl in Print, titled, Queer Utopias. The first zine they’ve made with an official running theme, Queer Utopias is hand-crafted by Lu with the help of 20 contributors from across the globe. A project spread across 80+ pages, throughout this new issue Lu encourages readers to dream big and escape into a collection of personal essays, comics, photography and more.
With a knack for creating, Lu’s unconditional love for zine-making joined with their ambition to manage platforms for queer and marginalised communities to flourish, are just a few factors that hold these projects together so well. Identifying as Queer, whilst simultaneously coming from a working-class background and diagnosed with ADHD and autism, it’s fair to say Lu’s access to the industry and support from it hasn’t always been the easiest journey for the creative. With an eagerness to provide safe spaces and opportunities for those in similar positions, Lu continues to provide the systematic change they desired but never received.
Now several years in, Grrrl Zine Fair has since grown to accumulate 17,000 Instagram followers, and expanded its horizons to festivals and publishing. In the run-up to Issue five, we had a chat with the creator about the beginnings of Grrrl Zine Fair, planning launch parties and tips for self-funding your own zine.
Hey, how are things?
Hey Notion. Things are very busy. I’m very much in ‘ADHD chaos mode’ – which on one hand is an incredibly energetic and creative mindset, but on the other, I’m constantly losing my phone and wallet. My very small team and I (plus my dog Poly and our friend’s dog who we’re dog-sitting) are prepping for our zine launch next week, so this weekend is full-on. I’m currently sat in a pile of King Bags, which we’re customising as goodie bags with patches and charms, and piles of Issue Fives – which I’m sewing hand-embossed bookmarks onto.
Congratulations on the launch of Issue five of Grrrl in Print, entitled ‘Queer Utopias’. Let’s dive into this project a bit. How does this issue stand out from your last four?
Thank you! It’s been a long time coming. Every Grrrl In Print so far has been incredibly varied, with the general theme of DIY feminism. Asking questions such as, ‘What’s happening in the DIY scene? What are the intersections between creativity and campaigning? How can we empower others to start things themselves?’ This new issue is the first with an actual theme: Queer Utopias. So much of what artists and activists do is create things themselves, trying to fix things, collectivise, and campaign for change – and that’s what those previous issues reflect. But we’ve reached this hyper-capitalist, neoliberal state where many of us have stepped back and felt frustrated at the lack of systematic change.
It’s quite tiring to be doing stuff yourself all the time, so this issue focuses on dreaming. Utopia is an imagined state. Allowing ourselves to dream is not only healthy for the mind, but dreaming keeps us hopeful.
I read that this issue is inspired by how queer people are consistently forging new worlds and spaces. Are there any queer spaces that you’ve recently discovered and were really inspired by, or that you’d like to give a shout out?
100%. Queer people have always been unapologetic and authentic people. Even through persecution, sacred spaces were created and networks formed. Heteronormative society has barred us for so long that we’ve had to build our own spaces, so imagining a better world comes naturally.
I recently discovered Spectrum Events, which feature in the new issue – they’re a night dedicated to neurodiverse people. As someone with autism and ADHD, night clubs haven’t been the most accessible spaces for me. In fact, I run festival spaces, and I ran a club night for years and learnt to DJ because I preferred to be the one behind the booth or marching around in a headset rather than being in the middle of a dance floor. Spectrum has pretty much written a manifesto, in which they make sure their events are accessible.
‘Queer Utopias’ features an abundance of creativity, ranging from poetry to illustration, manifestos, essays, recipes, fiction and photography. That’s a great selection. Is there a particular one that you can resonate with the most on a personal level?
I wrote a piece called ‘Trektopia: Ideas for the Future’, which comes from a personal love of Star Trek, and thinking about ways utopian sci-fi is needed right now and can carry quite radical ideas despite it being a very popular format. I started making zines because the publishing industry is so hard to get into, so I wrote and published myself.
Some features which resonate include Nicole Mcloughlin’s ‘Survival Kits for the Future’, which looks at Mcloughlin’s work on customisation and design of fashion that is multipurpose. It’s very camp and comical but actually carries an underlying message about waste and sustainability. Nicole donated her contributor’s fee to ‘Brown Girls Climb’ which is a great not-for-profit organisation which provides experiences, mentorship and leadership opportunities celebrating outdoors and climbing for ‘People Of The Global Majority’.
Some other favourites are DJ and writer Areola Grande Latte (aka Grace Goslin)’s love letter to her partner and how their relationship blossomed over food and David Reynolds’s fictional dreamscape of writing and 3D rendered illustrations.
Let’s take it back to the beginning. Forming Grrrl Zine Fair in 2015, what were some of your initial steps to bringing this platform to life? How did you intend on creating a space for marginalised communities to have their voices heard and their work seen?
The funny thing is there was no specific business plan for Grrrl Zine Fair, it has been an entirely holistic and natural growth of basically wanting to bring feminist zine-makers together and have my friends’ bands play, and buy lots of zines. Zines are notoriously difficult to source, you either pick them up at a zine fair or you know someone who makes them who might have a few on Etsy.
Grrrl started as an event and expanded to festivals, a library and now the Grrrl In Print zine. Behind events are always the goals of A) having a good time (a lot of social activist work is exhausting). B) A way for zine makers to meet, share ideas, and collaborate; and C) Provide a place for people to discover zines and the artists and writers behind them.
You created Grrrl Zine Library two years later. What sparked this idea? Were there any similar projects around when you created Grrrl Zine Library? Or did you feel there was a gap in the market?
There was definitely a gap in institutional support of zines. In fact, I had publications in a show around that time and only a couple of zines were returned to me, pretty much all damaged and many irreplaceable. It showed me that institutions don’t value zines as much as artworks. The Grrrl Zine Library is a collection of over 600 feminist zines, from the 80s to now, that are both cared for, archived for future generations, and go on tour to not only platform the work but also show an important collection of feminist art and writing that is a direct reflection of our world.
I’m aware that the zine is self-funded. I can imagine this is quite challenging from time to time. How do you maintain running this zine? Do you have any tips on how to successfully run an independent company that’s mostly self-funded?
Yes, very. The zine is something that comes together over a longer period than, say, organising an event. Grrrl In Print is always on the back burner, with me saving artists I’ve come across online or IRL in hopes of publishing them when there’s some spare cash. Working slowly this way means each issue is really thoughtful and can shift and change in reaction to our times.
As a working-class artist I don’t have disposable income or a trust fund to constantly make issues so when an issue is released it’s really worth celebrating. Tips for keeping your own zine running would be to take your time, and make it at your own pace. For the first few issues you probably won’t be able to afford to pay contributors but ask your friends and artists you admire to contribute or put out an interesting call out – the more niche the better, as people will resonate with it. Have it as an intention to pay people when you can, or swap labour – offer to give something in return. You can also print pretty cheaply these days, especially if printing yourself on a risograph or photocopier.
Going back to Grrrl in Print, ‘Queer Utopias’ issue, it features 80 pages worth of content and 20 contributors. What’s the commissioning process like? How do you finalise what ends up in the zine?
I have a good relationship with other zine makers now so they’re often my first port of call for contributions, and sharing a call out is really important. A good tip is to be specific with your call-out, what file types do you need, what themes are there, etc.
For Queer Utopias, in our call-out, we only asked for pitches about what you’d like to make or write about. That means people aren’t spending loads of time on a submission that might not be accepted. If we liked the sound of the idea we then got back to each artist and asked them if they’d like to take our offer, which is £50 per page, up to £200 for 4 pages.
That means we work directly with contributors to shape the piece, providing editorial feedback if it’s writing. I always want to be generous with our contributors, for some, it might be the first time they’re being published.
Given that this is your fifth issue, what lessons have you learnt in relation to producing and distributing a zine?
To make a spreadsheet of contributors. It can feel like herding cats, some contributors might be in different time zones, and most have other work or caring responsibilities, but it helps. Also, be really specific with what you need from people and how you want files to be sent. The last thing you need is a 200KB JPEG that ends up pixelated. Make a lot more time for the admin that you anticipate and work with a printer you trust. I have an account with my printer, so give them a ring and get a discount instead of uploading and paying online.
You’ll also want to think about social media assets for sharing the zine online, so get artist bios, social media handles, and other work examples, and add them to your spreadsheet.
This March you’re throwing a launch party at Dalston Superstore in association with Issue five. Do you throw launch parties for each issue? If so, what’s the reception like?
Yes, I have done. The first two were launched at my zine fairs – Issue one at our zine fest, where the zines made up pavilion walls. Issue three was a weird, in-between lockdowns launch at my studio in Southend, and ussue four just had an online launch as part of an online fair over lockdown too. So Issue five is getting a proper party. The reception is usually pretty good. About half of the publications end up finding homes at the launch.
For your launch party you’re hosting live performances from a range of DJs. What’s your main platform for discovering new talent by queer artists, DJs and producers? Are there any playlists that you take inspiration from?
We have a Spotify playlist called ‘Riot Grrrl Revisited’ where I save new music that has a feminist feel. We’ll be joined by Gin and Areola Grande Latte this time.
Looking at when you formed Grrrl Zine Fair in 2015 and Grrrl Zine Library in 2017 to now, what do you think a young Lu Williams would have to say about the progress you’ve made with both these incredible projects now?
To be honest, I think they’d be gassed that I’m making all of my income from working in the arts. It was never not an option for me though.
And lastly, what does the future have in store for both Grrrl Zine Fair and Grrrl Zine Library?
The Grrrl Zine Library has a new structure that I’m excited to exhibit this year and take on tour. We’re launching an online archive in the coming months and have built the code from scratch so it’s taken a while. I’m hoping to run another fair later in the summer too.