Sara Marcus is the author of the facemelting Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, a brilliantly written and insightful history of Riot Grrrl drawn from fanzines, video footage, and hundreds of hours of interviews with the women who made up the movement. It's both a love letter to a revolution and an honest assessment of the ways in which Riot Grrrl failed to address the needs of young women not represented by its largely white, middle-class base. Vivid, ambitious, and fiery, it's a fabulous account of an extraordinary moment in history. Sara Marcus has written for Slate.com, The Philadelphia Enquirer , Time Out New York , and The Forward . She was politics editor for Heeb magazine for five years. Her poetry has been published widely, and she has twice been a MacDowell Colony fellow. Also, she rocks.
You write in the introduction that you approached this project as someone who had had an "epiphanic" experience with Riot Grrrl as an adolescent. Did your feelings about the movement change as you wrote the book?
Certainly I had an overwhelmingly positive, somewhat idealized experience as a riot grrrl when I was in high school. But by the time I started writing the book, that starry-eyed adolescent mindset was long gone. During the ten years that passed between when I wrote my last zine and when I started to write this book in earnest, it had become easy for me to be critical, to see the shortcomings and limitations of what we’d done; additionally, I assumed Riot Grrrl–type things were happening all the time, that there had been a thousand revolutionary youth movements since the ’90s, that what I’d been part of felt special to me only because it was what I had been part of, not because it really was a special combination of things.
In writing the book, I was surprised by how well so much of this stuff had held up, how prescient and spot-on so much of it was. Through working to flesh out the context and legacy of the movement, I became more and more impressed with how we all had done so much with so little.
Though the ideas of Riot Grrrl started with a handful of girls, the movement rapidly spread into something much more amorphous, without any kind of central organization. How did you decide which stories to focus on and which to leave out? Was it challenging trying to structure the book into a coherent narrative?
Two great questions that cut to the heart of my process. One of the main objections girls had to the media coverage of Riot Grrrl during the ’90s was that journalists would often present one or two girls as representative or typical of the movement—thereby devaluing, the girls felt, anyone who was different from this “representative.” But of course nonfiction writers do this all the time: We make large stories relatable by telling them via the smaller stories of individual people. And even if we never use the r-word, the metonymic function is implicit.
To try to convey the plurality of voices and experiences in the book, I tried a bunch of formal experiments along the way. Some were more successful than others, and several—most notably, a whole half-chapter (inspired by this William Carlos Williams essay about Christopher Columbus in which Williams just drops out halfway through and transcribes, ostensibly, a ship log from one of Columbus’s ships) rendered simply as a choral reading–type oral history transcription—didn’t make it into the final version of the book. My editor felt it was important to not hinder the overall momentum of the story, and it was true that when I took out the parts that were most egregiously trying to trip the reader up, suddenly there appeared a coherent narrative that had been hanging out in there all along. So without realizing it, I had been writing a coherent narrative, even though consciously I had been fighting against it.
In deciding which stories to include, I prioritized those that took place in specific locations that I was able to render with some level of visual detail, stories that carried a particular person over a period of at least a year (since I wanted as many people as possible to appear in multiple chapters, to make the book feel continuous), the stories that had motion in them that differed from the other stories’ motions: Even though everybody’s feminist epiphany is unique, it can be hard to make those stories not feel repetitive.
How do you feel about the current wave of nostalgia for the nineties in general and Riot Grrrl in particular?
Of course nostalgia is a tricky emotion. I don’t think a simple wistfulness for the past is very productive. The important thing, in my opinion, is to take a good look at what values and priorities define the era that we are getting nostalgic for, and then ask ourselves how we can bring those values and priorities into the present.
A wave of nostalgia suggests that parts of the long-ago era are lacking today and that people are missing them, and I think a major thing people are missing about the nineties is the range of potential femalenesses that were available then as viable options. Femininity is so cookie-cutter these days. Additionally, there’s a hunger for a mode of talking about culture in a way that’s unafraid to bring normative political distinctions into the mix, as was common in the nineties in general and in Riot Grrrl particularly. I see that happening more and more now, and it’s gratifying.
Some books you've read lately and enjoyed?
Since beginning to write my book, I’ve had this problem—at least I’ve committed, for some reason, to thinking of it as a problem—wherein I rarely finish reading any books. I get about 50 pages in, think “Oh, I know what they’re doing here,” and then have a great deal of difficulty motivating myself to read any further. When I was inside the writing process, which is to say for the past five years, I wanted to learn the lessons that every author had to teach me, but I didn’t want to get so deep inside a particular person’s voice or vision that that voice or vision would turn up in my own work as anything more intense than a slight influence.
For this reason, I quit several books in the middle that I’ve really been looking forward to reentering—principally Moby Dick, which was at one point threatening to stove my entire book but from which I garnered important lessons about plot, and also William Carlos Williams’s extraordinary book of history essays In the American Grain and Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City along with his new one, The Ticking is the Bomb —and abandoned several others I feel I really ought to finish, such as The Savage Detectives , which according to a very unscientific study I’ve conducted annoys about half its female readers and roughly none of its male readers. Lots of male authors on that list.
Interestingly, the three books I can remember reading to the very end in the past year—for another problem, this one lifelong, is that my recall of read books is nothing short of abysmal—are all by women: Lorrie Moore’s stellar-sentenced The Gate at the Stairs, Patti Smith’s strangely delicate memoir Just Kids, and Lucinella, a really incredible novella by Lore Segal about being at a writing residency and being in the literary milieu in New York. Melville House just reissued it last year as part of its “Art of the Novella” series. I’d like to also get in a plug for Aleksandar Hemon’s story collection Love and Obstacles, which I read over a year ago but has stuck with me.
What gives you hope for the future?
Girls rock camps. Badass feminist blogs and bloggers like Double X, Jezebel, Feministing, Amanda Hess, Moe Tkacik. The forthcoming books by my friends Meehan Crist, Daria Vaisman, Meghan O’Rourke, Tupelo Hassman. Amazing feminist art by A. K. Burns, A. L. Steiner, Amie Siegel, Sharon Hayes, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, and Dara Greenwald. The bands Grass Widow and Mountain Man—and the fact that the Raincoats and Kathleen Hanna can sell out an event at MoMA.
The fact that both Spin and Rolling Stone reviewed Girls to the Front without a shred of snark or condescension—which is far better than, say, Bikini Kill fared in those pages in the nineties. I do think things are changing—not on their own, but because of the sincere efforts of many, many people.