Going behind the zines

Indie publishers Megan Flores and Gantala Press speak of the importance of community in art-making

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From the more structured comics to the loose, experimental pieces of art and poetry, zines have always been rooted on political matters. In the Philippines, we have witnessed its rise to fame through art expos such as Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX), first organized by renowned poet Conchitina Cruz and artist Adam David in 2010. Such events paved the way for local collectives to start their own series of art gatherings for sellers and enthusiasts alike. Today, art fairs are everywhere, thanks to indie presses such as Gantala Press and Magpies Press. Newer bookstores have also begun to specialize in showcasing zines to a larger audience, with Kwago and Studio Soup Zine Library taking the lead.

We chatted with women artists respected in the field of indie publishing about zines and what they think of indie publishing in relation to the dying (is it really?) art of mainstream publishing.

“A personal act of shedding”

Megan Flores’s involvement in independent publishing began when she joined Pantas UPLB, an undergraduate writing organization in the University of the Philippines Los Baños. She later became a member of The Cabinet, a group of individual artists and writers also based in Laguna. Megan noted how members of both groups were always encouraged toward the experimental and alternative in terms of form and production. “Because of that, I think self-publishing was always an eventual, logical step.”

Her first try at producing and publishing a zine was “a sort of exercise” for herself, “which came at an apt time because I was struggling with writing, and then it helped me ease back into it.” Her inaugural zine tackled the concept of omission, and she likes to think of it like “a personal act of shedding.”

Megan has only been involved in a few, but notably successful collaborative projects, most recently with fellow The Cabinet member and literature professor Christian Tablazon. Megan describes the process of collaborating for zines as “involv[ing] a lot of dialogue and self-editing. I like collaborations as you get to be hands-on creating something that feels much bigger, because you’re not doing it alone. It’s always interesting to see how a project will turn out with your combined efforts.”

Megan adds: “Being part of a collective has definitely informed what I produce and how I read as well. Most of us who are active in The Cabinet also came from Pantas, wherein we would workshop texts heavily, so I know we all work with a similar critical voice by default. I definitely also think that our works influence each other. I suppose it can be a little harder to find or keep your own voice in a collaborative setting, especially if you have similar styles. But in the collective’s case, for example, there’s freedom for us to explore our work on our own.”

Megan personally enjoys the aspect of creating by herself and calls it “empowering”. She explains, “Everything is straightforward and immediate—essentially, it is as simple as making something and putting it out. It really gives us full creative control which allows us to stay true to the work we want to make. Mainstream publishing doesn’t afford us the same.”

While she acknowledges how “zines in general have [recently] been improving in terms of quality,” she still thinks that “what I’ve been doing so far through self-publishing would be possible through mainstream publishing companies. It’s also really important to note that this has always been the point, to subvert the existing practices and conditions.”

“Genuinely collaborative”

The feminist-oriented, indie publishing group Gantala Press was founded in 2015. Today, the press is comprised of women artists, editors, and writers who volunteer their time and efforts into publishing books and holding activities that tackle important subjects such as violence against women, state repression of activists and farmers, food production and land reform, war and internal displacement, lesbian invisibility, migrant work, and workers’ rights. Most of their recent works have focused on engaging with communities that “do not have the means nor the inclination (because they never thought it was an option) to write their own stories and have their stories heard.”

The collective explains, “We believe that everyone has a story to tell and that sharing this story is a valuable contribution to the collective action of speaking out, of claiming better living and working conditions, of demanding for justice and accountability, etc.”

Through these community writing projects, where they immerse in communities to conduct workshops and collate literary outputs directly from community members, they hope “to document the lives of ordinary Filipina women in their own words” and “encourage more women to speak out against everyday forms of oppression and violence”. They add: “We hope that these texts would serve as a valuable resource for students, so that the scholarship on women, land, and history would grow and more Filipinos would have access to local knowledge and wisdom which will inform our collective pursuit for a better life.”

Gantala Press is more interested in publishing “genuinely collaborative, truly collectively written work rather than individually authored”. They explain, “The more writers there are, the more issues are discussed, or the more perspectives are offered if there is only one issue at hand.”

In what ways did independent publishing aid in your artistic growth?

Megan Flores (MF): It introduced me to the ever-growing independent publishing community. It has helped me recognize that if you’re involved in any kind of art, you can’t remain in a vacuum, and that art-making is senseless without community. Because of this, I’m always challenged to look outside the self, in terms of what I produce.

Gantala Press (GP): I (Faye Cura) write poetry, and since with my work in Gantala I had met peasant women who also write poetry, I have become increasingly skeptical of my work which, although written in Tagalog, is still so far from the reality that surrounds most Filipinos. I wish I had read more poetry in the vernacular, poetry written by ordinary nameless people, when I was a student of Creative Writing. I am challenged to produce poetry that is meaningful, that fellow poets like Ka Tess and Ka Miriam, who are farmers, would be pleased to read; poetry that would move them in the same way that I was moved when reading their poems.

I think I can speak for the others when I say that our work in Gantala has truly widened our perspective of the world because that world has also grown and widened, that our own “artistic growth” is not anymore as much of a concern as it was when we were younger and thought that the world revolved around us and our “art.” What is important for us now is to enable as many women as possible to contribute to memory-making and history-setting through writing and publishing.

What would you say is the downside to it?

MF: I think that the only downside to small press is that, while you welcome its growth, it also becomes easier to forget that it’s an alternative movement. But with more zines–and more discussion and critique–I think it will be more faithful to its roots.

GP: The lack of funds and a regular production staff can get really frustrating and tiring. Lack of funds and staff means a small print run of books and a nonexistent marketing infrastructure, which also means that only a minuscule part of our population can access our works. A small print run also makes it challenging for us to keep the price of our books low and affordable.

What does independent publishing offer that cannot be provided by mainstream publishing?

MF: At the end of the day, mainstream publishing is a business that relies on a market. It’s always going to be geared toward making profit. Small press gives writers and artists the space to make the work they want to make. In that sense, independent publishing is inclusive because there’s no one way to do it–in fact, it’s an exciting thing to see the different ways zines have been evolving these last few years. It’s even a little harder to describe to people now, because there’s no way to strictly define a zine. Anything can be a zine, and anyone can make a zine.

GP: As an independent press, we can afford to engage with and publish “political” issues, especially current issues. This is because we can move faster than commercial publishers — all we need is a word processor. Some small presses are even more old-school and just have their handwritten zines photocopied. We are realistic enough to know that we cannot compete with commercial publishers (and we do not, in fact, and we never will) in terms of having a streamlined production process, their volume of publications, their selling capacity, their big-name authors, etc. But by not making our books available in large commercial spaces like National Bookstore (not that we can afford it), by having to sell the books ourselves, we are able to cultivate a relationship with our readers and followers. We are also forced to find more creative ways of making and selling our books, and so we get to meet more people and project partners in the process.

Because of our limited resources, we don’t follow a formal production system and we end up handling all aspects of publishing, down to the nitty-gritty like issuing invoices, etc. A lot more is at stake for us because we are investing personal time, money, energy, and passion in our work, and do not earn anything out of this at all. Thus, independent publishers, or at least we in Gantala, tend to be more engaged and collaborative with the writers that we work with, refusing to simply serve as a mere source of funds (which we don’t have anyway). More and more, we believe so much in collective working and writing.

Last month, Visprint, Inc. officially announced that they will be closing the company in 2021 and will stop publishing new material beginning this year. While this is not the first indicator of developments in the state of local mainstream publishing, it certainly was a major index which opened several discussions concerning its implications on contemporary Philippine literature per se. What are your own thoughts on this matter? What do you think does the current state of local mainstream publishing say about Philippine contemporary literature?

MF: It’s disheartening to hear about print publishers folding up. With Visprint, it was particularly sad because they’re responsible for putting so many alternative works in the mainstream, and because they already had a substantial following. I think it’s definitely telling of the landscape in general. There are even fewer good options in the mainstream available to a contemporary reader, with publishers like Visprint closing shop. The lack of market is a huge factor, but I really don’t believe that Filipinos aren’t reading anymore. With a lot of content migrating to the Internet, I think we’re just reading from alternative sources.

GP: Local mainstream publishing is actually alive and well. It is still prolific, very healthily producing both books by bourgeoise writers or academics and the more popular, “low-brow” varieties. Local mainstream publishers are also quick to capitalize on new authors, which is great for the authors if that’s what they want. It’s great too for the readers who can afford to buy their books. In short, mainstream publishers still reach their target audiences, it seems.

On literature: we know that mainstream publishers have the capacity (and interest) to help establish Philippine literary canons, which in the long run are what prove to be profitable. Thus, contemporary Philippine literature that is published by mainstream publishers remains to be in a great position indeed. The system has not changed. But as independent publishing shows, there are more options now for creation/production for writers who could not have their works published by the big ones.

Alternatively, there is significant progress in the underground movement that is independent publishing. Do you think that this rise in interest on independent publishing among younger creators affect the industry of mainstream publishing? If so, in what ways?

MF: Independent publishing is almost a direct criticism of mainstream publishing, so I definitely think that there is an effect. For one, it democratizes the craft of art-making and writing, ensuring that it belongs to established writers and rookies alike. More events and gatherings among the community have been keeping it alive. I think it has also been reviving interest in tangible, print-based work (albeit produced digitally). I believe that there’s been growing interest in general toward literature and art, but especially for younger generations, there’s less faith in mainstream institutions. I think that eventually creators will veer toward their own platforms for publishing their work, whether through print or digital. I think that alternative publishing is still on the rise.

GP: The interest in independent publishing only strengthens mainstream publishing, which always grabs the opportunity to co-opt what is new and interesting and transform it into capital. Mainstream publishing is helped in this task by institutions like universities and cultural institutions, seducing independent creators with funding, awards, recognition and validation, promotion, etc. [Gandang-Ganda Sa Sariling Gawa 2] (Gantala Press’s own all-women art fair) itself is co-presented by the Cultural Center of the Philippines; our “compromise” is that the event is free to both sellers and visitors. And the Silangan Hall is really a large, safe, comfortable space for women creators and readers to meet. Likewise, we would like to think that holding an all-women small press fair at the CCP is a way for women to reclaim and assert their position in the shaping and defining of “Art and Culture”, even if only metaphorically.

What projects do you have lined up that we can we look forward to? How can we support you and your collective?

MF: I would like to try making comics soon. I’m also looking forward to working on more collaborations. You can support The Cabinet (as well as several other local collectives and individual artists) by keeping the community alive: go to events, buy from the artists, tell your friends about it. Make your own zines, collaborate with people, keep creating.

GP: We are publishing the collected poems of the feminist-activist Aida F. Santos, to make her work accessible to this generation of young women. Aside from the briefer for the Cavite farmers, we are also working on a Manual on Activism for young readers. We are co-publishing a series of manifestos on motherhood with Alam-am, another independent publisher. And we are closely working with Amihan in collecting the literature of peasant women all over the country.

Any financial support will go a long way. Please buy our books! Discuss them in your classes! If you are an artist or book designer, you can donate your work or services like we do with ours, especially for books that are produced with/for marginalized groups. You may also volunteer as writers, artists, or teachers for Amihan. If you are a printer, you can help by printing our books at a discount. If you own a store, please consider selling our books at the lowest consignment fee possible. You may also invite us to sell in your events, or hold writing workshops in your community.

Interview by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro for Kanto Magazine

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