Had enough of my Lip

Struggling in print, feminist magazine Lip was saved by the internet and by Zoya Patel - who'd like to hand the reins to a fired-up young successor, writes Sally Pryor.

It's tough out there for a feminist wunderkind. For starters, you've hit your straps so early that by your mid-20s, you've got the world-weariness of a 30-something, and a voice hoarse from fighting the patriarchy. In fact, if you're an enfant terrible of the feminist world, you're probably over the patriarchy and wish everyone would just shut up about it. Or, at least, stop accusing you of being the "wrong kind" of feminist.

Don't tell Zoya Patel she's the wrong kind. At just 24, she's been carrying the feminism banner since her early teens, back when she was met with baffled looks from her friends when she tried to bring up feminist issues.

Zoya Patel, editor of online feminist magazine <em>Lip</em>.
Zoya Patel, editor of online feminist magazine LipPhoto: Katherine Griffiths

Patel was 15 or 16 when she learnt that being a feminist wasn't quite the norm, not in her circles, anyway. She had started writing for the fledgling feminist magazine Lip, which was founded in Canberra in 2003 by Rachel Funari, an American who was studying at the ANU at the time. With the help of a grant from ArtsACT, Lip published smart, thought-provoking writing by hip young Australian feminists, and Patel was right on board.

"When I was a teenager walking around and making people take the quiz in Lip about what kind of feminist are you, all of my friends were like, 'I don't consider myself a feminist'," she says.

Rachel Funari, <em>Lip</em>'s founding editor.
Rachel Funari, Lip's founding editor. 

"I wrote a column about it at the time for Lip, saying, 'I don't understand why my friends don't want to call themselves feminists. We're 16 - surely people should be thinking about these issues?' I was also a vegetarian by then, I was a very in-your-face kind of activist teenager."

Sitting across from her over coffee at Tilley's, this isn't hard to imagine. Patel is articulate and opinionated, self-deprecating and prone to eye-rolling when it comes to the vagaries of the undeniably reinvigorated feminist debate currently raging online. Even among sisters, it's an unforgiving world out there, and Patel is almost over it.

It's a decade since she first landed at Lip, and for the past four years, she's been the editor-in-chief of the same magazine that so inspired her. These days, it's her turn to be baffled at how things have changed since her day.

Wait. ''Her day''? Patel became the magazine's editor at the age of 20, when the publication was floundering and everyone was tired. The funding had dried up by 2005, the founding editor had moved on, and the second editor, Rachel Longhurst, was struggling to keep it afloat.

"I had been with the magazine since I was 15 - I did some work experience and I started writing," says Patel. "I was fiction editor and a columnist and editorial assistant … and Rachel Longhurst got in touch with me at the end of 2009 and said, 'I don't want to do this any more and unless you want it, we'll probably just kill it.' We just weren't really getting anywhere with it."

Patel recalls how excited she was to be handed the opportunity. When Funari had conceived the magazine in the early 2000s, it was aimed at teens and very young women as an alternative to magazines like Dolly and Girlfriend. It had a decent-sized print run and was stocked in newsagencies mainly in Canberra, but also in Sydney and Melbourne. By the time Patel came on board, the editorial team had literally been selling chocolates to fund a vastly diminished print run. But Patel wasn't fazed.

The first thing she did was get the magazine's website up and running, and scaled back the print operations to just one or two print editions a year. She and her team began posting articles online each week, and watching with interest as the numbers of hits rose each month.

"I was really excited. I thought, do I have 20 friends? Maybe these are strangers!" she said.

"Then we started getting more submissions and people were a bit interested, and just over the course of that year it grew and grew and grew and at the end of 2010 we were probably getting 500 hits a day."

These days, the magazine publishes three to five articles a day, with about 2000 daily hits, and the content has changed dramatically, catering to a different demographic, and with a broader range of subject matter. Patel is also the only staff member left in Canberra, with the majority of writers based in Melbourne and Sydney.

"It's grown a lot but it's a niche project because it's a feminist magazine," Patel says.

"So ultimately, we're never going to be Frankie, we're never going to be Cleo, and that's not really the point. The readers are very loyal, and our writers seem to come to us young, cut their teeth and then often they seem to move on to paid jobs or other things. It's this rotating door of people gaining experience and trying out new things and then moving on, and I really like that. It's kind of a place for emerging feminist writers."

But for all her youthful enthusiasm, Patel admits it's her turn to be feeling tired. Like all of the magazine's staff, she works on a volunteer basis, clocking in between three and five hours a day on top of her regular job as communications manager at Craft ACT, and completing her Masters in Communications.

From a Fijian-Indian family, she moved to Canberra at 11, studied at Narrabundah College and ANU, where she did gender studies, before heading to Melbourne, where the feminist intelligentsia awaited with open arms.

She returned to Canberra with her partner when she couldn't find regular work, and now runs the magazine from home, with a team of about 30 volunteer writers, and an editorial team of seven. The magazine is a registered not-for-profit funded mainly through donations.

"None of us get paid - we make money but all kind of agree that that money is better spent going into projects," she says. One of these she is particularly proud of, the establishment of the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction, in memory of Lip's founder, who tragically went missing in 2011 while hiking in Tasmania. Her body was never recovered.

"Lip was her baby and she was my first editor, it was the first place I got published," Patel says.

"It's very different now from what it was with Rachel. But I stay in touch with her parents, and every time I do a new thing I like to let them know and see what their thoughts are. And when we launched the prize I asked their permission, obviously, so it's the Rachel Funari prize."

The prize attracted more than 120 entries last year, with a host of sponsors and a suite of decent prizes. Patel has just learnt that Penguin will be sponsoring this year's prize. Lip also hosts readings and publishes a yearbook, and Patel has found that word has spread in the last year to the point that Lip events have become parties worth going to.

"From being in Canberra, I've managed to rejuvenate a Canberra audience as well," she says. Just this week, she hosted Lip Readings at Smiths Alternative, an event designed to showcase local women from different walks of life.

But despite the magazine's growing prominence as a feminist voice, Patel is already thinking about her next step. Having launched the website, established the fiction prize and started up some events, she says she's pretty much achieved everything she set out to do.

"This will be my fifth year editing and I'm kind of feeling as if somebody else should have a go or I should try something new," she says.

"I feel as if, if I stay, it's very much my 'baby' … The team are strong enough that they can continue to do them or there'll always be new people who can come on board who are energetic and excited, and my energy is kind of running out, and I'm worried that I'll just let it go into a bit of a rut."

She points out that it has been energy all along that has kept Lip going.

"The reason why Lip survived after Rachel left was because I came on board and I was super excited. Rachel Longhurst was amazing as well, she really kept it going when there was no money. Both [Rachels] were a little bit older than me, they were in their 30s when they left, and the motivation was, 'I'm not a young woman any more who reads this, so it needs to be done by someone for those people'. And although I'm only 24, I kind of feel now I'm not really the target demographic for Lip in that my feminism has kind of grown and moved on.

''I publish everything that is good writing, essentially. I'll read it and if I don't agree with it personally, and it's well-written and if it's well-argued, of course I'll publish it, but there are so many times where I just don't think about things that way. It's almost disingenuous for me to keep doing it."

Having entered the fray so young, she is finding herself increasingly stymied by what she sees as counter-productive debates about things that don't really matter.

"Feminism has had a real resurgence over the past year or so, which is great, but at the same time, I have an issue with what I call 'internet feminism', which isn't that dissimilar from what we do with Lip," she says.

"I did a degree in gender studies when I was at ANU, so I come at feminism from a very theoretical background … I guess my feminism is very driven by theorists and history and that side of things, and I just don't care when Beyonce writes an essay about feminism. I think it's counter-intuitive and bad for the movement, and things like that just happen all the time."

In other words, she says, getting all upset about the fact that many women still choose to take on their husband's name upon marriage is naive.

"When it's a choice between your father's name, your husband's name or your mother's father's name, the game's rigged, you can't win anyway, and frankly I just want women to get galvanised about childcare, and no one cares," she says.

"It's great that you're finding out about these issues, young women, and I'm glad that you're getting into it. I'm sorry if I'm being super patronising, but you'll get to a point where you want to actually do real things with that."

And as a woman of colour, she has even less time for the recent debate about the fact that Vogue magazine featured the American comedian Mindy Kaling on its cover, but chose to crop her face in black-and-white.

"Didn't Mindy Kaling herself put out a statement saying, 'I love my Vogue cover'?'" she says, exasperated.

"That I kind of hated, because I always think to myself, if I was on the cover of Vogue as an Indian girl - it would never happen - and they did a close-up shot, I'd probably just be like, isn't that great that so much of my face is in that shot. And then if a bunch of people told me that I should feel offended by that … I hate being made a victim when I don't feel like one."

Patel could talk all day about minutiae of life on the internet, where she's constantly being "called out for being the wrong kind of feminist". But in the meantime, she has dreams of setting up a website based on the fictional feminist nightclub, Club Skunk, that appeared in the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You.

"A haven of cool hipster women dancing to female music or whatever - I thought this should really exist in real life but I don't have the money to set up a feminist nightclub, and I don't think anyone would come to it. So I thought I'd set up a Club Skunk online," she says.

"What it's going to be is art, literature, pop culture, music, monthly to a theme. It won't even be close to the same thing [as Lip] … To supplement it, I'd have Club Skunk nights. I think there's definitely a market for that in Canberra."

Feminists in the capital, stay tuned.