How to Create a Feminist Reading Series Where Everyone Gets Ice Cream

Austin’s I Scream Social is a lesson in building a diverse literary community

I f you’re lucky enough to be in Austin on the last Friday of any month, you’ll find something special among the shelves of Malvern Books: a warm room full of women and non-binary writers and several cold buckets of ice cream. I Scream Social is a feminist reading series that began in June 2015, and it has grown into a loving, open community of writers that come together every month to share their work, support each other, and eat ice cream. The event begins with an open mic (women-identified and non-binary readers only) and is followed by a set of featured readers — mixed in with plenty of ice cream-fueled conversation and friendship. Now the series is entering a new chapter with an anthology (released October 26) that features work by 45 of the women writers who have read at the series — you can (and should!) buy it here.

I Scream Social was started by Annar Veröld and Schandra Madha, two staffers at the indie bookstore Malvern Books who didn’t see their identities reflected in the literary events they attended. “There were a lot of really great events being held at Malvern, but we didn’t really see ourselves in the people that were attending, we didn’t really see ourselves in the events that were being held there. And by ‘ourselves,’ I mean young women of color and writers that were not on an MFA-track or had published their fifth book,” says Annar Veröld in a phone interview. “Just chill women that were part of a literary community. We wanted to know: where were these badass people that we were inspired to be and befriend hanging out, and how can we bring that to Malvern?”

“It was all about, and still is about, creating a literary community. We knew there was a really diverse literary community, and just by nature of who was approaching the store to ask for events, we weren’t seeing that diversity, and we wanted people to know that that space was for everyone,” adds Schandra Madha. “That it was for anyone who calls themselves a writer, no matter what that term means to them.”

“We wanted people to know that that space was for anyone who calls themselves a writer, no matter what that term means to them.”

Veröld and Madha knew that the audience they had in mind was out there already: the young women they had seen coming into the store during their day shift, people in their creative writing classes, local writers around town. “We knew that there were cool women that were interested in literature that we were a little too shy to befriend or approach,” says Veröld.

They knew from the start that the series would include free ice cream, but the vision for the community they were building really came together when Madha drew the image that became the icon for the poster: a woman using an ice cream cone as a microphone. “The right person is going to see that poster and connect with it and want to be a part of that,” says Veröld.

They began I Scream Social as a summer reading series, but by the time the summer ended, they had packed the house with “badass folks who were ready for more.”

“Women and femme writers are a cosmos as they step to the mic and show up on the page,” writes Kimberly Alidio in the I Scream Social anthology’s introductory poem. There is a raw power behind I Scream Social. In today’s world — when women so frequently feel like they’re screaming into a void — providing a microphone and a space for the full “cosmos” of women’s voices is a meaningful act.

“We wanted to amplify marginalized voices,” says Madha. “So we wanted to take these voices that were being silenced and make them super loud.”

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There is something uniquely special about being at I Scream Social: a warm, welcoming energy that makes you feel like you and your writing belong there. “That room is just love, and everyone’s welcome,” says Veröld. “We get tons of first time open-micers and poets. It’s just a very safe space where you can have ice cream and hang out with us.”

“It’s like my church. It’s my once-a-month time to have communion with people,” adds Madha. “I always feel like I go into I Scream Social needing it, and feeling like I got what I needed afterward…it’s very re-invigorating when I’m feeling really hopeless.”

There is something uniquely special about being at I Scream Social: a warm, welcoming energy that makes you feel like you and your writing belong there.

At I Scream Social, Veröld and Madha have seen countless writers share their vulnerabilities and find the space to explore. “[One surprising thing] most recently is seeing audience members that have a love for literature but never really identified as writers, after many I Screams kind of re-committing themselves to the craft and trying to write their very first poem, and it being a stunner. I think always the thrill is that our audience never ceases to amaze us, and I think that’s definitely a moment of pride and joy,” says Veröld. “Another surprising thing was just writers who haven’t written in years being inspired by the series, and bringing something to the open mic. And then seeing their lives kind of change gears or shift because of that.”

The I Scream Social anthology takes the spirit of the reading series and channels it onto the page. The book organizes the contributors by which month they were featured, so reading each section is sort of like being there that night. Just like the events, the anthology contains a diverse array of voices and content, including poetry, fiction, lyrics, and even a play. Plus, the book begins with an innovative poem by Kimberly Alidio, which integrates lines from every piece in the anthology, each marked with a footnote to help readers navigate to the piece that contains whichever line has struck them.

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But the anthology is just one of the many initiatives that have grown out of I Scream Social. The anthology’s publication has helped re-awaken Host Publications, a small press dedicated to publishing emerging writers. In January, Malvern Books is teaming up with Barrio Writers to host a kids’ version of I Scream Social. Additionally, Veröld and Madha are working to expand I Scream Social’s online presence.

The I Scream Social story is really a testament to how a community — a community of women, a community of writers — can be built from scratch in a way that is inclusive, thoughtful, and uplifting. All it takes to find a home with I Scream Social is to step into the room, or open up the pages of the anthology. There, you’ll find a congregation of women eager to listen to you, to share with you, and to welcome you as one of their own. The dedication in the book encapsulates this spirit perfectly: “For us, and you, for you are now one of us.”

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