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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Punk Parenting: The Future Generation Interview by Jeff Bagato (2003)

by Jeff Bagato

As with other aspects of underground culture, “punk parenting” has caught on as a hot topic, most prominently in Bust’s motherhood issues, Ayun Holliday’s East Village Inky, and the print and web zine Hip Mama. But back in 1990, these resources weren’t available to a young, single welfare mom named China – if they had been, she never would have started her own zine, The Future Generation (TFG), to create a network of like-minded parents. She couldn’t have known back then that her need to document her own experiences as a mother and to share parenting resources would lead her on such a long run through the underground press – an accomplishment that makes her a kind of grandmother to lots of new punk mommies.

When I first found The Future Generation in Normals Bookstore in Baltimore, I was initially attracted by its crayon-colored cover. As with LPs, zines with handmade touches seem to be made with an extra bit of love and commitment that nearly always shows up in the quality of their contents. TFG was no exception. When I flipped thru it, I was blown away by the dense offerings of personal experience, excerpts from alternative childcare sources, photos, children’s drawings and poems – articles focused on raising a child from a punk or anarchist perspective. China’s writing went well beyond platitudes, ideological ranting, self-pity or dogma; instead of bullshit, her writing was always honest, reflecting her struggles to raise a daughter on her own while keeping her ideals intact. Because she was so honest, you found out what worked and what didn’t, where compromises were made (like when she enrolled her daughter in public school) and the delicate issues of being responsible for a child’s safety while allowing them freedom to explore.

As a new stay-at-home dad trying to balance my show-going nightlife with a freelance writing “career” and changing diapers, TFG was just what I needed. I immediately struck up a correspondence with China, visited her at her home in the Stony Run neighborhood near BWI airport which she would document in TFG, contributed to her zine, and shared the stage with her at readings in Baltimore, where she now lives. From my perspective, TFG is one of the most committed, radical and inspiring zines ever produced, anywhere.

China started TFG in 1989 and has produced 11 issues to date. In a departure from the standard size of earlier issues, #11 is digest sized to make it cheaper to produce and distribute. That’s not the only difference: while earlier issues collected photocopied articles and personal pieces in a free wheeling blend that reflected the immediacy of China’s engagement with her parenting experience, the new issue has a cleaner layout and no reprints. With her daughter now in her teens, China has pulled back a bit to
explore her life and parenting from a broader perspective. While TFG’s content changes reflect China’s other interests as a photographer and writer, she’s open to the zine continuing to function as a networking tool for other punk parents.

China has also produced several chapbooks: “Zen Dream Bride Doll” included a real photo; “I was a Student Nurse” is about her brief career in the medical profession; and “Little Book of Monster Stories” featured real horror stories and was published by Shattered Wig Press. Since 1998 she’s contributed the column “The Future Generation” for Slug and Lettuce. And she recently had a story published in Breeder: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers, edited by Ariel and Bee and printed by Seal Press. Through all her projects, China’s creativity is a natural part of her life, flowing from her lived experience. You can buy TFG #11 for $2.00 from China, P.O. Box 4803, Baltimore, MD 21211.

When and why did you start TFG?

The first issue came out in April of 1990, when my daughter was two years old. But I had been working on the idea for a while. I remember getting inspired in the daycare room of the Without Borders anarchist gathering in San Francisco in July of 1989. I met parents from all over the country: Amy of Nausea was there and this dad gave me his zine Punk Parent. We all traded addresses and wanted to create a support network.

I definitely wanted to start a zine as a resource to share information and help each other out. I was in new territory and felt a total minority group. Most punks weren't parents and most parents weren’t punks. I knew from all my best experiences in the anarcho-punk scene that we needed to work together to support each other to create change. So much seemed possible to me back then!

Let me give you some back history to explain where this zine is really coming from. I had come of age in the suburbs. The classic tale of a misfit kid. I spent my teenage years being depressed and alienated, but it had probably started even before that.

When I left home in 1984, I rapidly discovered how much was going on. The subculture held the ticket to being yourself, the information to liberate yourself. A place to stay, food to eat, protests to take place in. Things that were fresh. Seeing the autonomous squatted realms of Berlin and NYC, warehouse living in the Mission, going to the West Coast, going on the Peace March, taking road trips across America – I spent three years getting my horizons widened – in art, culture, possibility, social construction in every way. Not just hanging out with people that were into social change, but with a wide array of people. There are so many little different groups of people in the “underground.” And there was a history of counterculture, there was a whole lineage of revolution, I had no way of knowing about when I had been isolated in my suburban house as a teen.

This was the world I was prepared to live in for the rest of my life. If there was a housing problem, a class issue, a food problem, a gender/sex issue, an emotional dysfunction – we took it on as a group. Wrote a zine about it, shared information to the alternatives, and created structures to build a better and new way of doing things and protested that which we felt was wrong. “Want to be free, come panhandle with me.”

But after the birth of my daughter, I could not “keep up.” I wanted to live as radical as ever, but I found out the support I now needed as a parent was not there. I found myself slipping back to an impoverished and controlled state. There was a vacuum in the subculture where issues about children didn¹t exist while The State was fully prepared with its social workers, public indoctrination, and other mechanisms to take over. More a
freak than ever, I was unwilling and unable to navigate in the mainstream just as much as I was unsupported by the individualism in my own tribe. People in the scene were not really unfriendly to me. On the contrary, I have had many lovely experiences. But few knew what to do with a child or had any. It is a lot of work to raise a child. A lot of places where you make life decisions and a lot of ways that you are impacted in a physical way, that a child-free person could easily jump over those same hurdles.

This was my motivation for starting my zine. I had known about the existence of zines for some time. (Perhaps since I was 4 years old and my mother would cut pictures out of magazines and glue them on notebook paper to make these books for me that I loved. Perhaps since I was 15 and saw Damon Norko on the U of MD campus with Poems 4 Sale written on the back of his jacket. Definitely by 1985 – I remember seeing an amazing array in a zine library within “The Cave,” a warehouse living space shared with the zine Processed World.)

I considered myself a writer but it wasn't until I became a mother that I got the motivation for starting a zine. It was the single issue that affected me the most, and on a daily basis. There wasn¹t anything out there like what I wanted to start. I was trading notes on the playground with anyone similar to me. I was hungry for information. I might have been late to join the subculture but I felt on the cutting edge of a change in parenting values.

Having a zine on parenting was going to the next level. I didn’t feel like talking anarchy 101. We’d run that topic into the ground along with the subject of “oppression,” “revolution,” “freedom,” or how to change the world in our late night kitchen table or bonfire discussions. It was time to concentrate on a subject. Run a book store, caf(c), community center or record distribution. Form a co-op. Learn a skill, a trade. Be a roofer. An organic food farmer. Fix pipes. And if we talk anarchy, let’s talk it in the details, in the practical. We have agreed that we reject the system. Now what?

I’m interested in your thoughts on how TFG fills a need in the punk/underground community. Who needs TFG and why?

I need TFG. It is about the nitty gritty truth of life for me and my biggest problems and issues as a parent from the write-it-anyway-you-can-or-it’s-not-going-to-be-written-at-all school of writing.

This zine is for anybody who wants it, if they are a parent or not. We all need each other. There are different ways to do it and my way ain't the only way. I'm not the only one spouting kid lib and parenting stuff out there. There are probably more zines than we have even heard of out there – the same way a lot of people haven't heard of my zine.

Do you feel that a network developed around TFG like you hoped it would?

No, I didn’t make a network like I thought I would. And I am not the only one who has tried this and saw it peter out. It’s hard to keep up a sustained connection between hard working, isolated parents. But I don’t think I “failed.” I tried and I did connect – I am connecting with some people. At a certain level. Once my mama friend called to say her mother had gotten sick on her way to Mexico and was stuck in a homeless shelter in SF. I hooked her up with a place to stay, at my old roommate’s house. This was all over the phone, we were in different cities. I don’t think that was my zine per-say, I was just acting as a community member, but that was the kind of network I had wanted my zine to be.

Hip Mama zine was started as a final project in college by a welfare mom in Berkeley a few years after TFG, I think. I never heard about it until much later. I would say that Ariel was a lot more successful than me in that she created a steady, well made publication with a wide base of support and from there started creating more opportunities. Opportunities to share information, have our voices heard and network with each other. It was when I got on the internet, two years ago, and discovered HipMama.com that I was most impressed. The discussion boards were the perfect answer to what I wanted to make: a network for sharing practical, philosophical, political answers, for emotional support, for Everything! The web was instantaneous in a way zines can never be, and it was deep as crap because sometimes you have to be anonymous to ask the questions that are most troubling, and it was real. I saw what a true cobweb of mama power that exists out there. I don’t know if I can explain it to anyone who hasn’t been on it. I saw the manifestation of what I felt we radical mama’s most needed.

Those discussion boards exist no longer, but HipMama.com is still an online zine (besides being a real magazine) and wonderful resource. You can find out about events, zines and network with others in your area. So I think it is exactly as powerful as it was. We need to find a way to carry on what the discussion boards provided, in our own towns.

Has the relevance of TFG changed as your daughter has gotten older?

Sure. I was trying to make the network that I never had. I struggled through and survived parenthood on my own. That is harsh. And not totally true. But kinda. The great anarchist experiment ended in second grade when I enrolled her in public school in the suburbs where I could live free of rent at my grandmother’s house and go to college. Or maybe it ended in the beginning of kindergarten when I got a semi-abusive boyfriend. Or maybe it
really ended the year before when I was so isolated and overwhelmed, I felt I had to get her vaccinated (even though I didn’t believe in them) so she could go to kindergarten (even though I was anti-school) because she needed more than me and I needed more help with her – when I was broken down by it all. But that is really not fair to say either; my daughter isn’t actually an “experiment,” and our lives have been interesting evolutions of struggle and fate.

Now my daughter is so old, it is like “Why bother? Why have this zine?” My whole life isn’t parenting. I am free. Well kinda. But there are still issues I wonder about. I really want to write about teenage stuff, changes in her, in me. But my hands are tied, it is rude to tell too much about her now. I mean, I like to talk about the nitty gritty stuff, but I got to respect her privacy. She doesn’t care what I write as long as it's not about her love life or stuff she confides in me. But still I feel I am being a little rude to her, to use her as my subject matter in an analytical way.

How has the direction of the zine changed as your daughter has gotten older? I know you write about her development less, and there are less early childcare focused articles. What else has changed, particularly about the way you think about the zine?

I always felt the zine changed as my daughter grew, for I wrote about what was concerning me. I also reflect my environment. I can see a change with issue 10 when I wrote about my street, Stoney Run, and featured the work of local kids. I think I am getting a strong taste for photo-documenting, interviewing people, seeking out other’s art and dealing with localities.

And then with issue 11 – three years after issue 10 – I think I really gave TFG an overhaul. I finally did a smaller format which I hope will be easier to make and distribute. I had no clipped out articles about raising kids, cuz my daughter is old now. I did a photo-essay of a mom I know walking with her daughter and dogs in local endangered woods and an interview with a mom who was in a synchronized swimming play when she was
pregnant. I featured the writing of some mama’s I had just met. I only wrote one personal rant about being the mom of a teen.

I was at a point that I could have stopped doing TFG. I felt I couldn’t live up to the political nature of my zine. These things depress me, the state of the world. I kind of changed my focus in the sense that I was tired of always writing parenting stuff too.

But then I was like – “Hey this is my zine and I want to have Fun.” I can write about whatever interests me. I realized I like having a zine. I like making it and sharing it. I want to take more pictures, write about my new neighborhood and its history and just do whatever I feel. I want to print this story my 82 year old grandmother wrote. I want to take this zine in new ways, but to stay true to its history, too. I got to keep it real, even if I
fear I am being uncool, you know. Maybe I won't be as much about anarchy and child development stuff in the future, but that will always flavor how I see things. I print stuff from parents of children, and from young people, too.

Can you talk about your approach to parenting--summarize the philosophy that goes into TFG?

Emma Goldman said, “We, who pay dearly for every breath of pure, fresh air, must guard against the tendency to fetter the future.” I used that quote on the first cover of TFG and it pretty well sums it up for me. I’m pretty much into all the classic radical stuff like Home Birth, Tofu, and Echinacea, but I am not about being radical for radicalism’s sake.

I hate when something becomes a category, and then a way you must do it, and then a backlash. I am not telling anyone else what is best for them because I am not saying I know everything!

What’s it mean to be a “punk parent” or “anarchist parent”?

What is a punk? What is an anarchist? There are all kinds and all kinds of ways to take it. As for me, I just find punk a useful word to use in a loose way. And I find “anarchist parenting” as an even more interesting dilemma.

TFG #3 was about "anarchist child raising." I basically talked about how political/cultural structures were shaped in the family, school and sexuality. Some of the excerpts I pasted were: Milgram's Obedience to Authority; A. S. Neill’s Summer Hill; Frantz Fanon; Ivan Illich; Paul Goodman’s, Compulsory Miseducation; Wilhelm Reich’s Children Of The Future; Colin Turnbull's The Mountain People and a book on Congo Pygmies; Iroquois child raising from Howard Zinn's A Peoples History of the U.S., and stuff on Sioux children from Erik H. Erikson's Childhood and Society. I commented on everything and had pages written of my own thoughts and real life experiences along with photos and lots of art and stuff. I could zerox anybody a copy who wants it.

When I write about having a teenager and write about our relationship and issues, it is coming from the perspective of an anarchist parent in America, who values her daughter’s feelings and respects her as a person, but who still has some more power than her daughter and might pull a power move if she is stressed out, or if she fears that if she doesn't act like a parent somebody is gonna get hurt. Then her daughter will accept or not
accept that decree from above. It’s not easy. It is a relationship. My tendencies are to be morally against telling my daughter to do anything but to discuss and reason with her.

Has the need for TFG changed with the advent of all the web sites for hip mamas and MommyXes? Do you think TFG may have influenced those sites, or just finally picked up on a need that TFG identified years ago? How do you feel about these web sites: do they intrude on or compliment your work? Do you think they're as radical as TFG? Do you think you'll eventually start a web site with your own chatroom to fully develop the kind of community you were seeking in the early years of TFG?

I think the need for TFG hasn’t changed. Every unique person makes a unique project. I know TFG has not influenced Hip Mama, MommyX.com or any of the other parenting zines or web sites. They developed on their own – each out of their own needs. Perhaps Hip Mama has influenced some projects. Perhaps I have influenced something I don’t know about just in the way we all influence stuff everyday that we don¹t know about, just doing our little thing.

But I am a tiny project! I would like to talk about Hip Mama because I really have a lot of respect for that project. Ariel has done things that I wanted to do when I sat out, and that I am now too tired to even try. I am so glad that someone has done this for us. She is definitely one of “us” in my book. Her project created a network that many wonderful individuals have put their efforts into and has improved the communication base in America for the diversity of subculture parents.

I think Hip Mama is powerful because of every one of these woman's voices who joined in. There are more amazing projects out there—like Welfare Warriors, The Compleat Mother, and The Lesbian and Feminist Mothers Political Action Group (of Vancouver). Each of these have had publications, information, support, and action. Each of these groups have been around for at least 12 years. I know LAFMPAG’s book, Children and Feminism, was first published in 1982. It has anarchy signs galore in that book. There is kid lib stuff dating from the beginning of the punk movement. Growing Without Schooling is a magazine/resource network that started in 1977 by John Holt, out of the 1960’s school reform movement. Mothering Magazine is another long standing resource that supports parenting practices which you just don’t see around you. There have been wonderful zines like: Punk Parent, Massive Love, Ajax Maple, and La Dama (if you are still printing – please contact me), plus new zines I see listed on the zine thread of Mamaphonic.com that I haven't even checked out yet! I almost forgot to mention the Fire Fly! My favorite local/radical/personal political action zine of all time! It wasn’t a parenting zine, but the editors were parents and every issue had drawings by the kids. They home-schooled them – Jane and Jon really walked their talk. It was a vital zine with lots of letters, writers, and feedback. Always interesting. The last issue I saw was like #39 in 1998.

I love all of this stuff and I love the independent press. These are image wars in a way. The East Village Inky seems wildly popular these days. Ayun has put the image of a nursing toddler keeping the tired mom up in the night into print, and my friend reads it and goes, “That’s Me.” You have to understand we don’t get to see these images of ourselves. We don’t know that any other woman in the world exists out there, that is getting her other nipple tweaked as her toddler does gymnastics half the night and wears out the strength of "earth mama" into “bitch mama.” She has taken parenting topics and handled them with humor, which is going to further open up discussion, and break the taboo against truth and against propagation. Like it is some totally freak thing to do, to have kids – as if we already exist in the Brave New World where only the upper classes and workers are allowed to have test tube class-designated babies, and breast feeding is the freakiest thing in the world you have to go out to some indigenous native outpost to see. It’s a thing people do. They fuck, they use birth control, they get pregnant, they have abortions or have kids. If you grow older, some of these things will happen to your kids. It is not a trend anymore than wiping your ass is a trend.

Ayun has extended the interest to people who aren't parents which is great – nobody wants to be in a booby ghetto, or have to be only “girl” or “black” or whatever entertainment. It is good to cross the boundaries, to be definitely, proudly a mama, a girl, a black person etc. But also a human being, an individual whose work lets humanity glimpse your point of view through art.

I think it is important to add that the ultimate goal is not just rise up out of the underclass and get our piece of the pie as individuals, but to smash the class system for everyone. OK, whatever. I know the real point is to just make it through the day, but I had to add that.

I think the climate is more welcoming to topics on motherhood than they were 5 years ago, definitely than 10 years ago. I feel kinda weird about it sometimes. I guess it was just this topic was ignored for so long, you know, and I have worked for so long, against the odds, without recognition, with strain. (But mothers have been working like this forever; that's why when one off our voices does make it out, it is so wonderful. Unite downtrodden of the world!) I remember sending Bust my zine when I saw their first xeroxed issue and they never wrote back. I think I sent them my zine and a letter twice, asking them if they wanted to take any excerpts out. To no response. Maybe I am wrong on this, maybe my letter got lost in the mail, or I just sent them my zine once – but I felt, being a mother Was Not Cool enough for a feminist magazine to respond to me. Or my radical politics were too radical. (While motherhood was “too hippy” for Punk zines.) Now Bust has a second “Motherhood” issue. Vogue has a “Motherhood” issue of all these models with kids. Liz Hurley and baby is on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

But I am out of step again, because I don’t feel like writing stuff about new motherhood or young children; I am beyond that in my life. I didn’t invent motherhood, obviously. But it has been a big part of my life, my identity, my heart and my struggle to be a mother and a person.

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