Taking the Lane with Elly Blue
Shortly thereafter another common thread emerged: We both decided to quit facebook, independently and at around the same time. But what's more, is that right before I quit I noticed with amazement that Elly Blue appeared to be a "friend" of one of my real-world friends. How could they know each other? My very good friend L. has nothing to do with cycling, activism, or Portland. She does not read bicycle blogs (and, like most of my friends, has no idea that Lovely Bicycle exists). So how were they connected? I didn't feel comfortable asking at the time, but found myself paying closer attention to Elly Blue as a result of this discovery. When she announced the publication of Taking the Lane Volume 5: "Our Bodies Our Bikes," I bought one with intent to review it. She then included a couple of other volumes, so that I could get a better feel for the zine as a whole. I will be distributing those locally once I am done with them.
"A zine is like a small book or a large pamphlet, but with extra magic," explains the editor. And that it is. The compact format and eye-catching cover design make each zine inviting, pick-up-and-readable. My first thought: Is this a subversive tactic? Are these zines essentially vehicles for political agitation, which the attractive exterior and diminutive size are meant to ease the unseasoned reader into? But the Taking the Lane zines (a quarterly publication "about women and bicycling") are not quite that.
If I had to choose two words to describe my impression of the Taking the Lane zine, they would be "feminine" and "folkloric." Feminine because the various pieces of writing come across very strongly as being written by female authors and for a female audience. And folkloric, because the tone of each piece is narrative and subjective. The authors do not attempt to speak for everyone, and they do not attempt to convince; they simply share their own experiences and thoughts - in a manner that is almost alarmingly unguarded in an era of self-conscious and self-defensive blog writing we are all growing increasingly used to. It is essentially lots of stories, told in lots of individual voices. In each zine, a theme emerges - and this emergence is organic, not forced. Reading a zine is like seeing the pattern reveal itself in a woven tapestry or piece of knitting, which comes back to the "feminine" feeling again. While I realise that associating femininity with folklore and traditional craft is loaded, nonetheless it is what went through my mind when reading the zines - I had the sense that I was listening to stories told in a knitting circle of contemporary-minded women.
"Our Bodies Our Bikes" (volume 5) contains snippets of personal experience as diverse as surviving cancer, worrying about body image, and having orgasms while cycling downhill. "Unsung Heros" (volume 3) contains some of the most compelling and disarming descriptions of bicycle activism I have ever read, precisely because it focuses on human experiences and not on the activism itself. "Sexy on the Inside" (volume 4) is an entire issue dedicated to the analysis of the bicycle dance troupe the Sprockettes that goes off on interesting tangents about the history of punk culture and various types of feminism. To explain the content of the zines in any more detail than this seems impossible, because by its very nature the content is resistant to summary. When there is no one succinct point, the writing is unskimmable, and the reader ends up reading everything. The message in Taking the Lane sinks in slowly and stays with you - even if you're not sure what that message is.
Whether these descriptions are making the zine seem good or bad, interesting or dull, I am not sure. It is a unique publication and reactions to it are bound to differ. Most if not all of the contributing writers seem to be from Portland, OR and the surrounding areas, which gives the zine a local feel, and as an East-coast resident I find myself not always sure that I "belong" in the audience. If this is something the editor wishes to change, she could invite writers from other regions to contribute. Based on the subject matter covered and on the glimpses we see of the writers' background, there is also a distinct sense of cycling being portrayed as a fringe subculture, which some readers may find difficult to relate to. As someone who feels passionate about cycling and bicycles, but whose style of dress, social life, and political views do not revolve around cycling, I sense that I am different from the zine's writers and intended audience. If this is not intentional, then perhaps some diversity on that end could be introduced into future issues as well. [Edited to add: East-coasters and non-cycling-subbaculturalists are welcome to email submission inquiries to "elly[at]takingthelane[dot]com"]
Publishing content in the form of a zine in itself signals that the content is of an "alternative" nature, and there are so many ways to play with that idea - which Elly very much does. How she develops the zine in the future depends mainly on what type, and how large of an audience she seeks.
As I read through the volumes of the Taking the Lane, the final question for me was whether these publications "needed" to exist in printed format. Can the same not be said online, in a blog? What would compel the reader to pay $3 per pamphlet when there is so much free content around covering many of the same topics? In the end my impression is that this writing would not in fact exist in an online format, simply because the internet discourages it. Whereas print was once a means to disseminate information as widely as possible, it can now function as a means of limiting our audience. In that context, the writers feel safe to express themselves in a manner they perhaps would not in a blog post, and the reader benefits from thoughtful, unself-conscious writing offering new perspectives on cycling, women and activism.
When I read Elly Blue's blog and twitter feed I disagree with her as often as I agree, but I am also fascinated with the way she expresses herself. Who knows, maybe one day we will meet and will either get along or not. Until then, I enjoy her writing online and in print.