Friday, 7 April 2017

Typography and Trauma: Conversations on Doll Hospital Journal, Writefest 2017

I was so lucky to skype with the folks at Writefest about all things Doll Hospital Journal. Here's a rough transcript of what we chatted about :)

What is Doll Hospital and why did you start it?

Doll Hospital is an art and literature journal on mental health (though it’s of course great if people beyond that frame of experience enjoy and appreciate our work too!) We consider both I suppose ‘traditional’ notions of ‘mental illness’, by which I mean individuals such as myself who might consider themselves as ‘mentally ill’ as well as broader questions of survival and self-love within a hostile world.

I’m not going to say we’re the final word on mental health or anything ridiculous like that. It’s easy for small press publications to set unachievable and arrogant goals, it’s a little bubble so it can be tempting to see yourself as fancier than you are. However, with any publishing project on marginalised narratives I think it’s better to see yourself as part of a wider conversation and constellation of publishing and creative projects.

I started Doll Hospital from a space of my own mental health struggles and of wanting to find a platform to explore themes of trauma and stigmatised mental illness beyond online magazines, where I found myself to self-censor, to rebrand myself as more appealing, more sane in order to appeal to both comment sections and a performative politics of respectability and also beyond me live tweeting my suicidal ideation at 3am on my Twitter.

How many people work on each issue?

On average we have around sixty contributors per issue, with each issue spanning around 150 to 170 pages. Behind the scenes, I manage and edit submissions, seeking editorial and proofing help from, on average around half a dozen editors and proofers. Though I may have an editor credential on my mast head I have complex learning difficulties, an element that is rarely considered within publishing. So while I think I have a pretty good eye for exploring and curating mental health narratives, I struggle so much with practical issues such as spelling, formatting and some other quite ‘basic’ tasks. I remember in issue one before we got proofing help I spelt the word ‘depression’ wrong in the contents, I was so embarrassed so I’m so grateful for that side of the Doll Hospital team!

Beyond editing I work chiefly alongside Maggie, our amazing graphic designer, this is definitely my favourite part of working on Doll Hospital! We work on unique spreads for each and every piece to do each story justice within a print medium and to provide a visual narrative to our readers. We do all kinds of fun stuff like scanning cute fabrics for backgrounds, sourcing interesting illustrations, handwriting titles and poems (though that’s Maggie’s speciality-my handwriting is rubbish!), choosing cover art and so on. Visually we are definitely inspired by the beauty and texture of the Rookie Yearbook series and I’m so grateful for the support of their editor Tavi Gevinson gave us when we were starting off.

What do you look for in submissions?

I don’t have any pre-set notions of what a ‘submission’ should be, I hate the idea that a work does not have ‘value’ because it does not match some pre-set aesthetic credentials set by an editorial team, which itself turns so called inclusive spaces into weird cliques.  There’s a worrying history of this within feminist publishing history, whether that’s Sassy magazine’s alternative cool girl mentality or the trauma anthology genre of the 1980s, where personal stories were rejected because a survivor’s story was not written ‘sophisticatedly’ enough (which is a issue that Kali Tal, an amazing trauma theorist and an inspiration of mine, interestingly critiques in her book World’s of Hurt). Really I want our contributors to guide this process not me, if they have a story they want to tell I just want to be here to help facilitate the process.

What challenges have you run into when either finding pieces to publish or publishing the journal itself?

Funding a print journal if you don’t have disposable income is super tough! We fund printing costs for our hard copy issues issues through hard copy pre-orders, whilst we sell digital copies of our journals on a pay as you wish basis, which helps us pay for things like postage so we can send free hard copies of our journals to our staff and contributors.  It’s a shoestring budget but I try to make it work. For instance, we launch digital copies of our issues before the print version goes out and once print versions have sold out, people can still access the digital copy.

We’re very lucky that we’ve never been short of amazing pieces to publish, we’ve had so many incredible submissions across all mediums, whilst my own interest in mental health and wider self-advocacy work for marginalised folks means I always have an endless list of people I’m keen to reach out to. In this sense I think submission wise the most frustrating part is lack of time and resources! We actually had to close our submissions for writing works as I just couldn’t keep up and that kind of sucked. I need a time machine and a pot of gold or something!

What role do you think literature and art plays in one’s mental health?

That’s a tricky one, and something I think all creative folk with mental health struggles circle around this endlessly. We are taught that literature and art gives our struggles ‘value’ which is a structure I would query, it feels like a scam, mental illness isn’t a coupon you can exchange for a prize winning novel or something! I think this artificial heritage of ‘the tortured genius’ can limit our creative freedom, it’s easy to find yourself comparing yourself to tragic characters in movies and feel like these totally ficticious individuals carry more weight, more credentials than our actual lives!

However, I don’t think it’s as simple to say that to engage with this history is to ‘romaticise’ it or even that to ‘romanticise’ something is always a bad thing, the people who adore this work are often mentally ill themselves, especially mentally ill young women, teenage girls. It’s meaning and role is reinterpreted and reinvented by the viewer to create a world that is a little bit more beautiful for those who are far too lonely to find the ‘real world’ to be enough. And yes I am partly talking about myself here! I’m a total pop culture geek! Even with corny things like the Suicide Squad movie I love watching them and thinking about them and what they mean to people.

There are a number of issues related to mental health that are included in the magazine. How do you decide which ones to include? In other words, do you try to include pieces that cover a whole slew of mental health issues, or do you aim to publish the best of what you receive, regardless of which issues are covered (or not covered) in each issue?

I don’t have a pre-set idea of what mental health (or broader oppression experiences) should and ‘will’ be included, our submitters guide that, I don’t start with certain pre-set ideas that seems weird to me, you can’t theme this stuff, you just give people the space and the platform to tell the stories they need to tell. The range happens naturally because everyone has different experiences, different intersecting oppressions, different struggles. You can’t force that to happen.

When it comes to submissions I actually have a ‘no rejection’ rule, I mean right now we can’t look at writing subs as we simply don’t have the space, but when submissions are open whoever reaches out to us is going to be in Doll Hospital. Maybe that’s not ‘practical’ or whatever but I don’t care. If someone wants to be in the journal then they’re in! If a piece is not quite developed or suitable for publication straight away then we’ll work with them until it is, even bringing in different artists for cross collaboration to support them in their storytelling. If the original piece submitted is not quite right then we will ask to see additional work. We live in a disposable culture where we judge someone by one email, one draft, it’s a case of taking time to collaborate and connect with each of our contributors. I know what it’s like to get rejection after rejection, how crushing it is, to enforce that kind of mentality in a journal which works within anti-ableism advocacy….well that would be messed up and nonsensical!

How do you think the magazine addresses issues of helping people to understand mental health versus sensationalizing it? And connected to that, do you feel like the magazine is aimed more for people who have a mental health issue or is it to educate/bring awareness to those who do not have a mental health issue?

Doll Hospital is created for those struggling with mental health and the psychological impacts of intersecting oppressions, it’s not so much an ‘awareness tools’ for able-minded people, for people who are not struggling, though if individuals outside of mental health and survival struggles, appreciate and our educated by the work in Doll Hospital that’s great.

The ‘awareness’ model of mental health often feels a little strange, like I am altogether aware I’m mentally ill (!) but how are we going to use this *awareness* to change the world around us to make it more liveable? Awareness without action is not sustainable support for those who need it most.

One of the most common models of this is these ‘talk about mental health day’ iniatives, I can’t help but find these sanctioned mental health awareness days a little frustrating, to me it feels like those who are struggling *are* talking, not just 1 day but all 365 days a year, it’s just that our needs are not necessarily being listened to, ask anyone in Britain who is struggling to access mental health care via the NHS, mentally ill individuals are reaching out, seeking to bring awareness to the struggles they face, but due to profound cuts to disability support these voices are not being recognised or can’t be addressed without the resources needed. Jade, a doll hospital contributor, actually wrote an amazing essay on this issue in Doll Hospital Issue Four.

But in regards to the question of sensationalising mental health, like I said before, I personally don’t think a mentally ill person looking to express their experiences needs to be shut down under the lines of sensationalisation, or romanticsation, that’s an able minded issue, that romanticsation of mental illness as like a tragic super power or whatever. Yes, those of us are isolated may gravitate towards certain aesthetic models of expression, certain pop cultural symbols, but that’s a question of making life a little more bearable. I think people who get mad at mentally ill teenage girls for being to into like…Winona Ryder or Courtney Love or… whatever need to get their priorities in order.

 What do you think about using humor when writing about serious subjects?

Humour is a subject I think about constantly in regards to mental health and trauma, I’m actually writing my entire PhD on it as it happens! I also wrote an entire essay for Doll Hospital on navigating trauma and cultivating survivordom through comedy characters like Bernard Black in Black Books, Mordecai in the Regular Show and Charlie Kelly in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Though I should say I’ve recently got pretty disillusioned with It’s Always Sunny I stopped watching after the first episode of the most recent season as it fell into that ‘say anything as long as it’s presented as a joke’ model, not only is this just lazy writing, I think this does the power of comedy a disservice! Because the whole point in humour is that it *does* have power to both enforce and subvert existing belief systems, to topple the powerful and belittle the already vulnerable, to dismiss something as ‘just a joke’ (which is so often the standard trademark of a school bully) fails to realise how powerful humour really is.

One of the reason I became drawn to humor was through the act of nervous laughter, I effectively got ‘told off’ in therapy as I nervously laughed when describing an traumatic event. I was told that I was not taking my childhood sexual abuse background seriously enough! Like what the fuck does that mean? What’s the correct way of dealing with such a difficult thing?

I love comedy and humour because I hate the politics of respectability that tells us there’s one ‘right’ way, one ‘respectable’ way to address such a deeply personal issue.  

How do you organize each issue?

Each issue has certain standard features, at least two or more interviews, a mental health themed playlist, a roundtable discussion that discusses a marginalised mental health experience, an editor’s letter and of course as much awesome art, comics, poetry and essays on mental health and survival experiences that we can fit in!

I always try and balance text with the visuals, not everyone likes to read, not everyone as a result of mental health can concentrate on a long form text piece, or a result of associated learning or developmental disabilities finds reading a lengthy essay a realistic feat, so for every essay we include I make sure we also have a range of comics, paintings and illustrations that tell a story too.
However, in terms of accessibility for improving our issues we’re working on translating our issues into screen reader form so Doll Hospital readers who are blind or visually impaired can enjoy the artwork too. This is a longer process than I would like though, I wish I’d translated it all already by now! I’d also be so interested in translating Doll Hospital into different languages however my translation skills are non-existent sadly!

What do you hope Doll Hospital will accomplish (or continues to accomplish) in the future?

Oh gosh, honestly when I started Doll Hospital in 2014, nearly three years ago, I had no expectations it was just a tweet asking if anyone wanted to make a mental health zine with me, I didn’t realise it was going to materialise in such beautiful and unexpected ways. Similarly I have no expectations with what and how Doll Hospital will develop or divulge in the future, I’m just happy to be here.

Follicle: Thoughts on Racialised Hair Pulling, Doll Hospital Issue 4 Essay

Doll Hospital Issue 4 is live! Yay! Read a preview, find out more here or grab the whole thing for pay as you wish!

I wrote two essay for this one! Here's the second:

FOLLICLE:  Thoughts on Racialized Hair Pulling
cw-trichotillomania, internalised racism, childhood sexual abuse, self-harm, anorexia, suicidal ideation

"For breakfast I ordered a poached egg on a piece of toast. When the dish arrived – and I tell you, it makes my stomach curdle just to write about it – there was a gleaming, curly, jet-black human hair, three inches long, lying diagonally across the yolk of my poached egg.
Whose hair was it that had lain embedded in the slimy yolk of my egg at breakfast? Undoubtedly it was the cook’s hair. And when, pray, had the cook last washed his head? He had probably never washed his head. Very well, then. He was almost certainly verminous. But that in itself would not cause a hair to fall out. What did cause the cook’s hair, then, to fall out on to my poached egg this morning as he transferred the egg from the pan to the plate. There is a reason for all things, and in this case the reason was obvious. The cook’s scalp was infested with purulent seborrhoeic impetigo. And the hair itself, the long black hair that I might so easily have swallowed had I been less alert, was therefore swarming with millions and millions of loving pathogenic cocci whose exact scientific name I have, happily, forgotten."
                -The Visitor, Roald Dahl
A ball of black hair down a silver shower drain in a white bath. Dark hair is disgust, nothing is nastier than pulling out a medium sized mammal from the shower drain, a space of cleanliness turned dirty by the passing presence of a racialized body. It is the embodiment of filth. It is pubic and obscene. It is coarsely crawling around on its snake-y belly with an afterlife of its own.
I starved myself, to de-sex, because I was molested and I was swarthy, because the two felt connected somehow, because I was molested, I was not blonde, and I was not a child, was never a child, could never be a child, no one would do that to a child so I was not a child. I starved myself to torch myself, my hair fell out, my hair fell out.
My thoughts are weeds each hair is a weed, I pull out the intrusive thoughts that pop out of my parting. All my thoughts are bad because I am bad. I am so bad and so ugly. I am out of control and so is my hair.
On the internet it says Arab girls are so ugly (read-so hairy) that they cover themselves not out of devotion but out of shame.
I started cutting when I started shaving.
Dark hair absorbs warmth, it heats my head, makes it glow like a halo. This is good as England is cold and cruel in both temperature and temperament.
When I was 15 I stood in front of the classroom projector and my dark curls projected on the whiteboard and the GHD girls laughed with their blue eyes and stable homes and said 'thank god that's not me'.
When I was 10 I was told I could not have a Jennifer Anniston hair cut because it did not work on 'ethnic hair', when I was 19 I was told I could not have a fringe because it did not work on 'ethnic' hair.
When I was 19 I stopped going to the hairdressers as no one wanted to cut my 'ethnic' hair. My black hair split from salon neglect. I pulled out the split ends, twisted off the breakages to keep it neat. I pulled high to the heaven until I pulled it out at the root. Pulling out my hair in public as a form of public apology for the space I occupy.
A failed apology though. Each hair I pull I am shedding more of myself though I am also sharing more of myself. Who wants to find long black hair on their seat. That's gross. That's dirty. I'm gross. I'm dirty.
I shave my back. I shave my hands. I shave my arms. I shave my face because there is too much to pluck.
'You can shave your back now Jason' says Regina George in Mean Girls! I am Jason! I am a monster!
I want to die but my hair is dead already. A dead thing, a foul thing.
My boyfriend finds a skull shaped box filled with my hair, he asks me what it means but it doesn't mean anything, I'm not that deep, I'm not deep at all. 

'She Devil': On the Demonization of Sexual Abuse Survivors, Doll Hospital Issue Four Essay

Doll Hospital Issue 4 is live! Yay! Read a preview, find out more here or grab the whole thing for pay as you wish!

I wrote two essay for this one! Here's the first:

'She Devil': On the Demonization of Sexual Abuse Survivors

cw-rape, childhood sexual abuse, internalised victim blaming, misogyny

Sexual violence survivordom is satanic worship and psychosis is magic demon power so either way I am going to Hell. No! I am not going to Hell. What a silly thing to say. I am Hell. You are going to me. When you die I'll carry you inside me. I will cradle you in my belly like the wooden crotch of a big oak tree in an Enid Blyton book where the little dormice live with their straw bonnets and scarves eating apple pie and talking magic.
I am not an Evil person, I am Evil itself. I am not Eve, I am the Apple. I am not Sméagol, turned monstrous in his addiction, I am the one Ring that made the poor fellow that way. The Instigator not the Embodier. She Devil.  It is much worse to be the whisper in the ear making the poor person do the bad thing than the innocent oaf that gets sucked along for the ride. Those piddly paedophiles with their magazine columns and their Hollywood movies are the victims I am not. Calling him a rapist really hurt his feelings and don't you know a court case will look bad on his CV? I am a bully. I am petty. I am increasingly realising that my function in life is to comfort the happy childhood-ed fangirls when their favourite rapist celebrity dies.
The survivor is the bad thing.  The original evil. The one that made him like this.
The She Devil on his shoulder.
It is all my fault.
The satanic survivor is amongst the living dead. Reanimator. A zombie in a pink cardigan who can write uncomfortable think pieces and might click maybe on your birthday party but won't actually ever turn up. She hasn't eaten one bit of breakfast but has reserved seats in the quiet carriage of the train station so that is something. The Satanic Survivor is a big success! She is wearing shoes and under eye concealer!
Being a survivor does not feel like surviving it feels like a living death. 'I AM AWAKE IN THE PLACE WHERE WOMEN DIE' shouts Jenny Holzer. But I do not wish to be awake, to be imbedded in this death space. My body is both war crime and war memorial. Surviving should equate to success, to escape, so why am I like this?
I am fascinated by Female Evil. The two-faced witch, whose crone-y crime is the aged ugliness she hides from the men who want to fuck her, her secret smelly face that shows only when alone and naked in bed. Snow White, The Shining, Game of Thrones, memes of girls with and without make up, a movie monster with as many incarnations as Michael Myers. Take her swimming on the first date, see if she has her devil face beneath the skin. Ugliness is evil, it is a betrayal. Beauty is evil too of course, though explanations differ on the what and why. Some say it makes people crazy, turns family men into neighbourhood child molesters. The child rape victim is not a child she is a Beautiful Nymphet, outside of innocence and outside of accountability.
The She Devil on the sex offender's shoulder strikes again.
It is all my fault, again.
And it is becoming increasingly clear that the female serial killer, the female evil, She Devil incarnate, is less Hannibal Lecter and more a countless list of working class women who have been sexually abused across infancy and adolescence, spit out from society and shut out from sympathy, only to be obviously and inevitably swallowed into abusive relationship of extraordinary damage.
These are women (some fictitious, Mallory Knox some altogether real, Aileen Wuornos) who are serial killer sex abuse survivors.
When I am told I am Evil for experiencing the worst things warm blooded murder is perhaps an outcome that would be convenient to ignore. The violence not of turning into your abuser but of becoming so scared that everyone is your abuser that you will punch out at anyone who presses too deep. When the crimes of our abusers are welcomed with a smile, whilst we are pushed out of heaven for being nasty little holes, it is understandable we want to rebrand ourselves as Saints and not She Devils. Those this and that outlines which press against the hipbones of overtly unwell women until they eventually draw blood. The hyper vigilance of post-traumatic stress disorder is a saucepan to smash the skulls of those around us.
Always on. Always Evil. Always tired. That curious mix of cruelty and creepiness that embodies the enduring fascination with childhood sexual abuse. The time lapse of the body. The endless rape. I Spit on Your Grave is a movie made in 1978 that has been playing on loop ever since its consummation. You think it’s about to end but it never does. They all keep coming back. The infinite gang rape swells across time, stretches over breakfast, lunch and dinner, before being clipped like a pigeon’s wing into a YouTube masturbatory montages and rewarded with a remake. This trauma never ends!
But they want that sweet, sweet She Devil, they need her. They need me. (Or me if I was not so greasy and so ugly and so ethnic). There’s a reason Harley Quinn is the Halloween costume of choice and not the Joker. They need the She Devil, to beat and to fuck, and on very special occasion even to be. Whether in a dress up show costume or a coveted movie role. A very special mask to pass around the dinner table.
I am a necessary evil, a warning, a dress up box, a ghost story. A She Devil.