Words: Minni Moody
Meet the feminist rock journalist and a zine maker who has interviewed The Pixies, Sonic Youth and The Cranberries. To name a few. Now she’s made a fierce and thought-provoking music novel called Revolution On The Rock. We talked about Karren’s role in a riot grrrl movement, representation, autism, gatekeepers and the crushing feeling of imposter syndrome. And how despite all of this, her ethos remains: if you want to create something, you should do it.
Karren Ablaze! is a woman with thousand stories. A familiar name in the UK’s fanzine world, based in Leeds she founded Ablaze!! Music fanzine in 1987, at only age of seventeen.
During her active music journalism years Karren was interviewing countless bands in the late 80s and early 90s.
The Pixies, The Cranberries, Sonic Youth, to name a few.
In the process she also managed to piss off some huge bands with her critics. For those interested in those mad post punk and grunge times, Karren has a book ‘The City is Ablaze!: The Story of a Post-Punk Popzine, 1984-1994’, a compilation of her fanzines from those times, published back in 2012.
However, now, in 2022, the life is different. The rock writer has made something completely new. Her debut novel was published on 27th of September, 2022 (reviewed by Ngaire Ruth for LOUD WOMEN, here).
“I didn’t know what I was doing. It is a totally different craft. I’ve always written non-fiction, writing about music.”
Revolution On The Rock happened, as all the best things in life, by accident. In a way.
“Writing a novel wasn’t a strong ambition for me”, Karren reveals.
The story takes place in Gibraltar in 2016 at the time when Britain voted LEAVE from the EU.
Karren calls her book historical fiction. “It was a horrible time.”
Karren used to live in Southern Spain, and her initial plan was to make a fanzine of Gibraltar. Instead she ended up writing a novel based in Gibraltar.
“It is such a strange place, unusual and there are lots of contradictory things going on”.
The main character was inspired by her friend, who was indeed a sound engineer from Leeds, who needed work and took on a job on a cruise ship.
“It was such a horrible experience for him so I invited him to Southern Spain.“
Obviously the main character changed along the way.
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one, wrote famous fantasy writer George R.R. Martin. Obviously this also applies to writers. Karren had to reach out of her everyday reality when she started crafting her main character, Bunty Maguire.
“I wanted to explore the experience of a young British woman with dual heritage – Jamaican and Irish – in the DIY music scene and on her travels – how she relates to the world and how she deals with ignorance and everyday racism,” Karren shares.
The skewed representation in popular culture
Perhaps one of the reasons why she is passionate about representation is her own experiences of marginalisation. It took quite a few years for Karren to understand herself better.
”Now I’ve discovered that I’m autistic. That wasn’t something I or anybody recognised at the time. It would have been great to know when I was in education. Autism manifests very differently in women compared to men.”
”When a TV show tries to portray an autistic character, they’re never going to get it right because every autistic person is so different. And if they choose to portray the character as having savant syndrome that’s going to alienate most autistic people as most of us don’t have that.”
As an example of a good product of popular culture Karren shares a series called ‘Extraordinary Attorney Woo’, that portraits an autistic woman as a main character.
”She does reveal different aspects and experiences that I’ve found useful. I would like to see more autistic women represented in popular culture. Also I want to see more representation of disabled people in popular culture in general and that’s not happening yet.”
Riot Grrrl times
In the 90s the whole riot grrrl movement started in the US and soon enough landed to the UK. This was a pivotal moment also for Karren.
”I was very privileged to be part of that. When the news came over to UK, we were like whoa, we can do this, too! Before that it was quite alienating on the gender front. It was more difficult being female and being involved in the music scene. You had to be a little bit tough and there was a lot of discouragement, I think. Music felt like something I couldn’t get into. It was like a guarded kind of guy thing. Back then most bands were four guys and that was just normal. Of course there was always women doing music, but I have this feeling that it was never easy for them.”
This is how Karren puts the original riot grrrl ethos in a nutshell:
”We got together as women, we did what we wanted. We had this massive energy, we encouraged each other to do things. From that, various bands and fanzines happened. It was very exciting.”
One could admire Karren Ablaze!’s continuous drive to create. Not everyone would have the energy to keep publishing ten years straight. She’s modest though about her past, how her zine making and writing originally started.
“I was quite strange and obsessive. I was just a weirdo doing my thing, that meant that I would just go out by myself and do whatever I wanted to do. I didn’t feel the need to be in a group of people. That’s why it worked, I was able to do my fanzines. After a while my friends joined and wanted to do the same thing. Riot grrrl movement brought this arena of collectivity. ”
The gatekeepers and debilitating Imposter Syndrome
Everything about Karren Ablaze! is very DIY.
The self-publishing route was the most natural for Karren Ablaze!. She founded her one-woman publishing house back in 2012 when she self-published her first book. With her latest novel she started writing before pandemic, educating herself in novel writing, and taking online courses at writing schools based in New York. “Now I actually know how to write a novel“, Karren laughs. “It was such an interesting experience.“
But she wasn’t going to wait for gatekeepers to publish her new novel, either.
”It was very similar to zine making: I’ve got this idea, I want to write about it, and I’m going to publish it.”
However the lack of gatekeepers also affected her. She had to push through the fear of nobody telling her if it was ok to do it or not.
“I had this massive sense of imposter syndrome. Suddenly you are there saying, ok, this is my novel, I’m putting it out. It’s only now that I’ve published it and people are telling me that they like the book when I can actually be like ok! But my general ethos is that if you want to create something, you should do it. And I don’t have the patience of sitting around and wait for a mainstream publisher to publish it.
Imposter syndrome, according to Karren, is a visible manifestation of power structures. The people who are in the strongest position in a society won’t have to face such an internalised opposition.
“The rest of us are more marginalised, for example being a working class disabled woman… I’ve received an awful lot of feedback from the world that I’m not valuable in any way, even to a point that do I deserve to have a life. We’ve got to be brave, stick our necks out and support each other, which I see Loud Women doing. I’m so happy to see the work that you are doing now, carrying on from Riot grrrl and feminism, keeping it alive.“
Currently Karren’s life is looking completely different compared to her music zine making years. No more meeting bands for interviews in bars. On the contrary.
“I’ve been in the music scene since my early teens. It doesn’t go away. It is still alive in me. Nowadays I’m just watching it from afar. I’ve seen most of the bands I wanted to see.”
“I’m actually living very quiet life”, Karren reveals. “And I enjoy it. I love the freedom of having a solitary life and being able to do what I want. Now not travelling much gives me more space to create.
A big part of this is her Buddhist practice, which Karren has been doing for over 20 years. This year has been an important year for Karren: she received ordination as a Buddhist nun.
”For me, again, it is a freedom, no-one can tell me that I’m doing too much meditation. Like what do you expect, I’m a nun”, she laughs.
This woman writes and lives countless lives. And what comes to writing, this won’t be the end.
“I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface and would like to explore more Bunty adventures in future.”
Apparently there’s also a comedy story brewing somewhere deep in her writer’s mind.
But first, let’s enjoy the debut novel.
Get your copy from www.mittenson.co.uk