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.

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