In (Virtual) Conversation with Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: Punk, Zines, and Politics

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen is a(n) artist, zinester, punk, and professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies and the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Nguyen’s research is broadly based in transnational feminist cultural studies with a focus on aesthetics, war, and empire. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and on the eve of the 2020 presidential election, I sat down with Dr. Nguyen to talk about punk, zines, and politics.

WPGU: When and how did you get into punk?

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: I got into punk when I was 15 or 16, I think. I can’t remember how old I was, but I had been an alternateen beforehand, so at the time I was listening to a lot of The Cure and Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, a lot of post-punk bands that were in the punk scene at the time when they first started in the 70s. But I didn’t realize that there was still a punk scene until I went to an alternative clothing store. Before Hot Topic there were these independent clothing stores where that’s where you went to get your tee shirts and striped tights. And I had my dad take me to this store because I wanted to go shopping. And they were giving away copies of a magazine called Maximum RocknRoll, and so I picked up a few issues and then that’s how I found out that punk was still a thing, and that was it. That was it. That’s how I got into it. The magazine was… it only just closed last year, so it was the longest running punk magazine – published since the early 80s. And that’s how I found out about zines. That’s how I found out about a lot of politics that I still have. It was through reading those issues of Maximum RocknRoll.  

WPGU: Was there a big punk scene where you grew up?

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: So, I was a teenager in San Diego, and like I said there were the weirdo kids at my high school – like the goth kids and the alternateen kids and then there were definitely punk kids. But I guess I didn’t realize that… I knew that there were pockets of weirdo kids, but I didn’t always necessarily know what they were in to. So, I definitely had the goth skater friends, but I didn’t know that there was this other weirdo group that was punk kids until I realized that there was a punk scene. And there was a huge punk scene in San Diego. I just didn’t know about it at the time until I started reading Maximum [RocknRoll]. But yeah there was a huge punk scene in San Diego at the time, there was a lot of all age venues and things like that, which I just didn’t know about because San Diego is a huge sprawling city, and I was out in the suburb without a car. So, while there wasn’t really a scene in my suburb, there was a scene in San Diego proper for sure. 

WPGU: What was it like moving to the Midwest after growing up and going to college in California?

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: When I first moved here, I felt like I finally understood what it was to be a punk in a small town because that was not an experience I had before. Prior to moving here, I lived in San Diego. I lived in the Bay Area, and I lived in New York City. And in all of those places – of course they are big cities – they all have huge punk scenes with a lot of different factions and groups – smaller scenes within the scene, and I had never experienced what it was like to be a punk in a small town until I moved here, and then I felt like I finally understood many of my friends’ stories [laughs] growing up – weirdo in a small town. So yeah it was a bit of an adjustment, and it was very weird because, you know, what punks there were in this town were all my students, so then I couldn’t… you can’t hang out with your students because that’s wrong. [laughs] So it was interesting. I had the feeling of being a punk in a small town, but I also had the feeling of not being able to participate in the punk scene because I was a professor and not a student [laughs]. 

WPGU: I really appreciate that response because I can definitely relate to it. We didn’t have a super accessible music scene where I grew up, but my two best friends and I used to share music on a USB drive. It was our own little community which I am happy to say still lives on today.

What first attracted you to punk?

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: I came to the United States as a refugee when I was one, so I don’t remember not being here. But I definitely grew up very conscious of the fact that I was a refugee. We were sponsored out of the refugee camps to a catholic family in Minnesota. So, all of a sudden, you know, my family was in Minnesota. We had no money. We had no stuff. My parents both had French, but they didn’t necessarily have that much English, and so all of a sudden, I was in a small Minnesotan suburb where there were no people of color. At all. Except I think at one point in time there was one other Asian kid who was a transnational adoptee, but otherwise it was just me and my brother and my family. So, we definitely felt like outsiders. People would try to blow up our mailbox every once in a while, with cherry bombs and stuff like that, so I definitely very viscerally felt that I was an outsider, and that made me very interested in others who seemed like outsiders. So, in the 80s the punks were often the bad guys in TV shows and movies, and I appreciated that they were. I appreciated the kind of trickle-down aesthetic of punk that was in pop music in some places like Cyndi Lauper and Boy George. I appreciated their kind of… very self-conscious embrace of non-normative aesthetics because I felt like that was already me in the body that I was in and the clothes I was able to wear because all of our clothes were second-hand. So, that really made sense to me, and then also I have to say that my neighbors across the street were metal kids, and they were the nice kids in my neighborhood. Right, like these weirdo metal kids who were adopted… you know, white kids, but they were metal, and they were the ones who were super nice to me and my brother. One was much older. They were in high school at the time, but also, I was like nine, so what do I know? [laughs] He might have just been in eighth grade or something, but he didn’t go to school with us. He was always looking out for us and helping us out. So, I feel like I have always had an affinity to the people who were the weirdo kids who defied conventions of dress and behavior. That made a lot of sense to me, so that’s how I became an alternateen when I was old enough to make those kinds of decisions for myself. But then I didn’t know that punk was still a thing. I just thought it was on TV, and that moment had passed. And I didn’t know there was an entire infrastructure for that scene until I read Maximum [RocknRoll].

WPGU: What was it like going to punk shows? 

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: It was amazing because I actually… I never… I actually have never gone to a regular concert until very recently because my parents didn’t take us to concerts or anything. So, I’d never seen live music until I went to a punk show except for a band playing at a pep rally, but that doesn’t really count. So, I had never actually seen live music that I had chosen to go to until I became a part of the punk scene, and it was amazing. It was like… It was like the best, you know… I don’t… I still don’t even really know how to describe it. I remember one of my first shows in San Francisco was in a storage space, and the idea that we could take these spaces that were not bars or regular venues and turn them into spaces of community and music and all that comes with including conflict [laughs]… that we could make those spaces on our own was really exciting for me. I love densely packed shows in basements still. There is something about it that is really, really moving to me. 

WPGU: I miss shows.  

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: I miss shows too.

WPGU: Do you have a favorite show that you have attended?

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: I mean there have definitely been shows where I have started crying because I was so excited to see the band. I remember the first time I saw my favorite anarchist punk band which is called the Ex from the Netherlands. I saw them at a venue in… I am trying to remember the name… a venue in San Francisco, and I literally did start crying. I was so excited to see them, but I also worked at a not for profit record store in the mission district called Epicenter Zone, and we had a lot of shows there, and so I just remember how fun it was to… during the day, we would have these record bins out and couches, and then when we would prepare for the show, we would just shove everything into the back room to make space for the band, and just… I loved setting up the shows. I loved hanging out behind the counter while the shows were happening. Yeah, I mean one of the shows that I went to most recently was a few years ago, before COVID. It was a basement show in Chicago, and I was with my friends and it was packed, and it was great. It was so packed. We had to claim our space and make sure we didn’t drink any water, so we didn’t have to go to the bathroom [laughs] and lose our spot. And it was great because the bands were great, but then also in between sets somebody was playing freestyle from the 80s which is one of my other favorite genres. We were all just dancing and having fun. 

WPGU: That actually leads into my next question. Who are your favorite musical artists (punk or not punk) and what are your favorite music genres outside of punk?  

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: Definitely my favorite bands from when I first started getting into punk are a lot of the British and European anarchist bands like the Ex and Crass. One of the reasons I wanted to move to the Bay area from San Diego was to go to college at Berkeley – because I did my undergraduate at Berkeley as well – was that there is such a huge punk scene. There was all this infrastructure, and then one of my favorite bands was from Berkeley named Blatz, like the beer, so those are some of the bands that were the first, most formative bands for me. I like a lot of bands. I like a lot of punk bands. I will have to send you a list because I am like where does my brain begin [laughs]. I pretty exclusively listened to punk for a very long time, so there is this whole period of my life where I was too punk to care about pop music, so I don’t know any of it. I don’t know the 90s at all, and I have only begun to recently learn about the 90s [laughs] when I do karaoke with my friends because they will do these songs that sound vaguely familiar, like I heard them in a store, but I don’t know them. I had a whole blackout period of time, so I am still learning about other genres. But musically otherwise I listen to a lot of 60s girl group stuff like the Ronettes and the Shrangri-las. A lot of early garage music like the Sonics, and then I really love dance music from the 80s, and I like a lot of freestyle from the late 80s and early 90s like Exposé and Stevie B.   

WPGU: When did you start making zines? 

 Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: I mean I remember doing a newsletter with a friend in sixth grade, and I wouldn’t call it a zine, but I remember doing it – being excited to do my own writing for this newsletter that we put together on very early computers with clip art and dot matrix printers. And so I knew that there were people who put out… who wrote and made copies of their thoughts before I knew what a zine was properly, but I didn’t know how anybody got a hold of it or how they distributed it or how you found other people’s zines until Maximum [RocknRoll]. I realized that there was a whole zine exchange that was happening through the mail and that Maximum [RocknRoll] had this section in the back that did zine reviews and included how much money to hide in an envelope, so that the money didn’t get stolen somehow – how to carefully hide your money and send it off in an envelope with the stamp that had glue on it so that it could get used again by another person to exchange zines. And I didn’t know that that existed, that international network of zines was a reality, until I read Maximum [RocknRoll], and then it was just so exciting to me. So that’s how I got my first zines and how I started writing my first zine as well to participate in this because I felt like I had a lot of thoughts, and I wrote for the school newspaper which is very funny to me now as I look back on the things that I wrote. But yeah… writing for the school newspaper and having to tone it down or run it past somebody else or hit a certain word count was so different than just being able to do exactly what I wanted to do in a zine. 

WPGU: How does it make you feel when you are making a zine?   

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: I like writing… I feel like it is my only skill [laughs]. I probably have other skills, but I feel like writing is my one actual skill, and so I love writing because I love having to think very consciously about how to put words together to make a sentence and then from there to make an argument with your sentences. And so… and just the craft of writing is really exciting to me. Being able to play with my words is very exciting in a different way than academic writing allows. I mean a lot of times my zines were certainly informed by the academic side of my life because my zines were very political. They weren’t personal zines at all. If I talked about myself, it was in the context of making a political argument, but I really feel like zines were the place that made it possible for me to use writing to do thinking that I don’t know if I would have been able to do otherwise. To put together, to make connections, to think about topics and questions that I didn’t otherwise have a venue for. I mean I learned about Reagan’s secret wars in Central America from Maximum [RocknRoll], and all of a sudden, I had a framework for understanding the war in Vietnam in a way that I didn’t get from history class in high school. And then reading the lyrics of the bands… I got a lot of my radical political education from punk, so zines were a space for me to work out my thoughts about these things that I hadn’t previously had in some of my classes until I became a women’s studies major as an undergrad. Before that, I was writing papers about Augustine’s Confessions or whatever. And I also really love the process of cutting and pasting. That is really satisfying for me. The process of composition and aesthetics is grounding for me as well. So yeah. I like the whole thing. All the parts of it are engaging to me. 

WPGU: Do you have a favorite zine that you have made? 

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: Yes. So, my favorite zine that I have ever made and probably my favorite thing that I will ever do was the compilation zine that I made called Race Riot that was by and for people of color in punk and punk adjacent scenes to talk about race and racism in our scenes, which was a conversation that hadn’t previously been staged in punk. So, this was soon after Riot Grrrl happened in punk, but there was not necessarily a conversation about race, and I needed to have that because I was dealing with a lot of racism that was in disguise as humor in the punk scene and… and it made me want to quit punk, but before I went I wanted to have that conversation with other punks of color, so I put together this compilation zine on race and racism in punk and punk adjacent scenes, and it has been… it went all over the place. I still run into people who are like, “Oh I read my sister’s copy that was a copy of someone else’s copy when I was a kid, and it was… it blew my mind.” So, I like to think that is probably the most exciting thing I will ever do – to have been able to start that conversation. 

WPGU: How has zine making changed with technology, and why do you think people should still make zines? 

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: People are still making zines. There are still a lot of zinesters. There are a lot of zine fests which didn’t exist when I was younger, and there’s such a variety of independent publishing that happens at zine fests. There are a lot of independent comics. There are personal zines. There are other kinds of zines – fanzines and stuff. So, I think that has been really interesting. I like that there are still people who are trying… that zines are still this medium for people to practice thinking and making and in conversation with other people in a way that has a tactile component, which I think is obviously so different from so many of the other ways that we have to communicate with each other. And there’s something about a zine where you have to take the time to do it, which I appreciate but also is why it takes me forever to make a zine now because I have less time. So, I still think that’s important – to think about what making a zine makes you do is to have to think about how you are going to frame this entry into a conversation that you want to have with others and how you are going to engage others with your entry into this conversation. And so, I think that brings up a lot of questions that I don’t think people necessarily have about other formats or mediums that have made it much easier for us to not reflect on the process. Because there is so much emphasis in zine making on the process because you are in charge of all parts of it, in a way that you aren’t with social media. 

WPGU: I read your piece “It’s (Not) a White World, Looking for Race in Punk” in White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, and I wanted to ask a few questions about it. First, tell me about the “whitestraightboy” hegemony that organizes punk.   

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: [Laughs] You know it is still very prevalent today but less so. But at the time there were… while there have always been women, queers, people of color involved in punk, there was a way in which the story of it that circulated both in mainstream venues – in popular culture – but also within the scene broadly construed that the most valorized and recognized figures who were shaping the conversation were usually whitestraightboys. And just as Riot Grrrl was trying to challenge what that meant and to carve out an argument that women in punk were more punk than these boring straight white boys, I was also interested in thinking about what it meant to think about punk through people of color. Because one of the things I remember is you know – people wouldn’t ask me this now – but back in the olden days people would be like, “But isn’t being punk selling out being a person of color?” Because there was this understanding that punk was this white space, and so I found myself having to argue all the time that how I got to punk was absolutely informed by my being a refugee, like the story I told you earlier. I mean my affinity for it was through an outsider sensibility that was absolutely about the body that I am in. And yet, even though I understood punk that way, and I understood punk to be this space of political critique and non-normativity, there were within punk a set of conventions and norms and stories about itself that again produces a kind of hegemony in the scene. And then when I challenged a columnist in Maximum RocknRoll on his very racialized misogyny – even though the magazine had an official policy of no racism, no sexism, no homophobia – they let him attack me. They let him write the original column that was very racist and sexist, and then they let him attack me in his subsequent column in the response to my letter to the magazine, and I really… And that’s when I really felt that there was… there needed to be a conversation about race and racism and anti-racism that was more complicated than simply stomping Nazis – which there were tons of Nazis around the punk scene at the time, so definitely stomping Nazis is not a bad thing – but it is also not the culmination of anti-racist practice or self-reflection.    

WPGU: In “It’s (Not) a White World, Looking for Race in Punk”, you describe race in punk as outer space: “this distant constellation of ‘issues’ clustered way, way out there”. What implications does this have for punk music? The punk scene?  

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: It was just so interesting to me that I didn’t know for the longest time – which everyone knows now – but I didn’t know that Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex, which was one of the original punk bands from the British scene, was helmed by a woman of color. I just didn’t know. I just didn’t know that there was this history of women and queers and people of color in punk, and I… at the time – this was the early 90s – I didn’t understand why these weren’t also stories that I… why was it that I didn’t know these things? And even though I knew X-Ray Spex, I didn’t know she [Poly Styrene] was a woman of color for the longest time. Because we didn’t have the same kind of access that everyone has now to images and all of that other stuff. I was really frustrated by that kind of historical absence within the scene and the way in which conversations about race and racism in punk were sort of held at a distance – that it was difficult to get beyond a conversation about racism equals Nazis, and anti-racism equals stomping them. But there were all these other ways in which race and racism appeared in the scene as provocation, as irony, as humor, as racist cool, as a part of a nihilistic stance, and yet never accounted for what that meant for people of color who were already around you in that scene. Like the way that a lot of punk houses are in neighborhoods of color or that the fact that a lot of the early venues in California for punk bands were run by people of color in Chinese and Filipino restaurants or in Texas in Mexican American bars. Right, what does that mean? How did that happen? We just didn’t have those kinds of conversations, and I thought that was a weird absence that was being held at a distance. 

WPGU: Do you feel like that changed with some of the things that you and your fellow zinesters of color started to write?   

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: I feel like it definitely changed a lot, and now there are zine fests, zine distros, music fests that are all POC focused, in all parts of the country. And the internet also makes a lot of information easier to access. It is much, much, much easier to find other punks of color. Whereas back in the early 90s, you know, you had to read all of the reviews very closely – of album reviews or zine reviews – to see if the reviewer mentioned if somebody was of color or not. So, when I was collecting contributions to the first Race Riot zine in the early 90s, I relied a lot on word of mouth. I relied on sending fliers to the independent punk stores around the country. I relied on friends to ask other friends to find other punks of color to write for this compilation, and so it is very different now for sure. 

WPGU: In “It’s (Not) a White World, Looking for Race in Punk”, you state that Riot Grrrl is one of the best things to happen to punk. Why do you think that?

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: I mean I was not a Riot Grrrl because… for a lot of reasons. But I felt that I appreciated Riot Grrrl at the time, and still do, for the confrontation with punk’s masculinist hegemony in its aesthetic and in its social hierarchy. I very much appreciated the way in which Riot Grrrl, and then later to a different degree, queercore and homocore, challenged the conventions that punk reiterated for all, things like “We’re anti-social. We’re against the norms, the normies.” They still obviously brought a lot of that into the scene through misogyny, through sexism, through all of those things that are still a huge part of the scene that the rest of us have to deal with. So, that’s why I said that. 

WPGU:  Tell me a little bit about your piece “Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival”. What was it like incorporating punk in your academic work?

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: I just never really wanted to write about punk as an academic, but my friends who were editing that special issue for Women & Performance asked me to write something, and so I did because they were my friends, and it was sort of a weird… it was a formalization of a column that I had previously written in Punk Planet which was the independent punk magazine out of Chicago. And just seeing all of the scholarship that was being written about Riot Grrrl and being concerned about the way that race was getting talked about in these studies. So, it is in a lot of ways the last thing I ever want to write about punk ever in my own scholarship, and I felt like it was okay because it was basically just formalizing what I had previously written. And I did feel like there needed to be some kind of intervention into the way that Riot Grrrl was being narrated in scholarship and especially how its engagement with race and racism looked in this academic scholarship. So, it came from that kind of a place of being like, “Well my friends asked me to do this, so I guess I will.” And then really just wanting to challenge the scholarship that I had seen up until that point in how they did or did not talk about race and racism, which I felt has broader implications than just for punk studies. It had broader implications for thinking about feminist historiography. So, that’s how I justify writing that piece to myself because I never want to write about punk [laughs] for my academic work. 

WPGU: How do you think punk can be a space for coalition politics for new futures?  

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: Well, I mean I think that everything I learned about mutual aid and coalition building, I first encountered in punk. I remember even learning about Food Not Bombs through punk in San Diego which was a big revelation to me – that we could find ways to take care of each other because the state was never going to do it. That was one of my first lessons from punk that I still carry with me. So, I still think that there are lessons here for me in terms of how to conduct myself in the world: ethically and politically. A lot of my commitments still follow from my history in punk. Again, this idea that we can break things, and we can make things ourselves. We can break the things that don’t work for us, and we can make the things that will. So, I think that is what I take away from punk for this moment.

WPGU: If all of your needs were met and you didn’t have to work, what would you be doing?

Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen: What I love about this question is that everyone is like, “It’s so hard [to answer]!” The way that we are made to think that our lives are about working and labor, and everything gets organized around our paid work. But I think that if I didn’t have to work, I would probably spend a lot of time reading… drawing… I think I would still write because I love writing, but I would just do it for fun and not as much for this other stuff that I am meant to do. Yeah and just having conversations with people. I love having conversations and having ideas with people. That is my favorite part of teaching – having ideas in conversation, in engagement with others. So, I do feel lucky that I have this job because it does let me do some of the things that I like most, but I would rather not have to have a job, so that I could do it on my own time and the way that I want to without grading. So, I guess my answer is if I didn’t have to do work and all my needs were met, I would not grade. That is my answer [laughs].

Check out the playlist that Dr. Mimi Thi Nguyen curated for WPGU below.

Crass, “Where Next, Columbus?”

The Ex, “Blueprints for a Blackout”

Blatz, “Fuk Shit Up”

CCTV, “Anxiety”

Slant 6, “What Kind of Monster Are You?”

GSP, “Life Eraser”

In School, “Cement, Fucker”

Patsy, “Heathen”

Priests, “Doctor”

Vexx, “Stress”

Baja Blatz, “Fuck Street Harassment”

Ivy Green, “I’m Sure We’re Gonna Make It” 

Kleenex, “Hedi’s Head”

Mo-Dettes, “White Mice”

Vulpas, “Me Gusta Ser Una Zorra”

Zero Boys, “Civilization’s Dying”

Sheer Mag, “Fan the Flames”

The Pleasure Seekers, “What A Way To Die”

Delta 5, “Mind Your Own Business”

Bush Tetras, “Too Many Creeps”

Agent Orange, “Bloodstains”

The Wipers, “Youth of America

About Emily Guske

Emily (she/her) is a first-year graduate student researching energy governance with a specific focus on the politics of the Dakota Access Pipeline in Illinois and Iowa. You can catch her browsing the record store, plugging away at her never ending to-be-read list, or dreaming about running through the streets of New York to David Bowie’s “Modern Love”.

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