All Zines are Mental Health Zines
Hamja Ahsan has been actively involved in zine subcultures since the mid 1990’s. Hel interviewed him about his reflections on zine cultures and radical mental health zines.
Hel: Can you tell us a bit about your own introduction to zines?
Hamja: I started collecting zines when I was 13. I started collecting Manic Street Preachers fanzines from the 1990s, during the Holy Bible era and the cult following of Richie James Edwards. Edwards was a bit like a Britain’s Kurt Cobain, and he spoke very openly about his hospitalisation, anorexia and addiction issues and depression and stuff. This provided points of discussion about mental health and created forms of identity, community and belonging for many early teens.
I made my first zine then too, nausea. As well as 1990’s zines, and football zines, I’m also interested in autism and neurodiversity zines, prisoner zines, Muslim zines and Indonesian zines.
Hel: At the Bradford zine fair in June 2019, you gave a talk about all zines being mental health zines. What did you mean by that? And do you think it’s still true?
Hamja: There are several aspects to this. I think it’s about what zines do for communities. Mental health zines aren’t just about identification with a diagnosis, it’s about finding people who are like you. They can bring together what you might call a neurotribe – Star Trek fans for example – or people who have abject disorders. In some ways, being a very intense Manic Street Preachers fan in the early 90s was almost a form of self-diagnosis or self ID.
Without framing the activity as occupational therapy, zines can channel people’s intense enthusiasm for their subject – whether its dogs and cats, or nothing, scribble and doodles, rest and laziness or whatever – which can be good for mental health. I remember seeing a zine about someone walking her dog and I thought that’s a mental health zine too.
The creation of a zine, or involvement in a zine fair, can also create a form of belonging, motivation and self-affirmation. That can positively impact on mental health. There is another aspect of that too. As well as connecting people to community, zine culture can provide a break from digital fatigue, digital addiction, digital dependability, and digital co-dependence.
A lot of people use Riso printing these days and home printing, but I’m from the Xerox generation, so that’s my preferred thing. When I started making zines, we’d use (or mis-use) office photocopiers, and turn them into something else. It was like transforming the means of production. In some ways, that’s like an act of radical mental health.
Zines don’t fit into conventional capitalist patterns of employment. And neither is zine culture like a charity model or pity model or NGO development model. Zines are circulated hand-to-hand and offer a space of care, or even care-lessness, a space where you can just be a loser, and you’re not aspiring to mass success or mass appeal. A lot of the zine scene is made up of people who did illustration MAs and have nowhere to go.
Another example of zines being mental health zines is about the way they can validate the truth of people’s experiences. For example, during Thatcherism, football supporters were seen as ‘The Enemy Within’. Fans who had suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome after the Hillsborough events had been demonized and lied about in the mainstream media and politicians were complicit in this. DIY Cultures commissioned a film about how Hillsborough fanzines helped people survive their experiences of post-traumatic stress syndrome, helped people find community and develop grassroots resistance. It was made with survivors from the Hillsborough justice campaign and involved interviews with original zine makers from the 1980s.
So, yeah, I still think that all zines are mental health zines. Having said all this, it is important not to romanticise zine economies. They can be self-exploitative, exhausting, loss making and economically suicidal. So zines can be bad for mental health as well.
Hel: How do you think zines relate to wider communities and political cultures?
Hamja: Zines aren’t separate from other cultural worlds, they’re sometimes attached, not always consciously, to wider cultures, like punk or sometimes anarchist or leftist politics, or even Muslim subcultures. People have also connected zine culture to decolonial movements. However, in the academic literature, I think there’s an overemphasis on its connection with social movements, like feminism or anarchism, where they preserve particular types of zines. I saw one anarchist zine at the last Bradford zine fair I attended (in 2022) but that’s actually quite rare. I don’t think people in the zine community necessarily self-identify as part of these movements.
For example, people might just draw pictures of cats and are quite disinterested in these bigger socio-political questions. However, I don’t see them as non-political because they’re demanding a type of leisure, a type of rest and a type of non-instrumentality, which I still regard as political in terms of the idea that being useless is deeply subversive to the affirmation of humans. For example, there’s a zine called ‘Bedspread’ which is just someone like lying in bed and pictures of beds, so it’s like demanding and showing rest. That’s political in terms of its critique of time and work. This links to Bob Black’s critique of work in The Abolition of Work (1985).
I’ve gone to a lot of Zine fairs across the UK, and abroad too. They all have their own character and demographic. There are many different types of zine fairs and what you see now is subgroups of zine fairs. Some are focused on illustration, where there are lot of people are people who have professional illustration MAs where people tend to have very good technical knowledge or printing methods, like Riso printing and screen printing and things like Adobe software. Then you have Comic Zine Fairs like South London Zine and Comic Fair which is heavily dominated by people into comic books. Then you got other zine fairs like Hate zine fair, that’s quite a political zine fair, bridging relationships to activist spaces. DIY Cultures did that too.
Some are connected to certain activist bases. For example, Leeds zine fair is run by Footprinters (Footprint Workers’ Coop), which is a sort of like an anarchist cooperative which has a printing studio in its basement and it’s like a communal house. They collectively own the house somehow, and they collectively work in it, like a squat sort of thing. They have a relationship to the anarchist activist base too. Other zine fairs are in public libraries, like Bradford Zine fair. Sometimes they have more of a relationship to the art world. For example, Glasgow zine fest is inside the Glasgow Centre of Contemporary Art and has the exhibition space. Then you have this thing called the Satanic flea market, which is like death metal, subcultures, Goths, horror, black metal, that type of stuff. There’s an interesting mental health component to all this too.
There are so many different zine communities and there’s new ones being made all the time. I recently did a SWANA zine fair (meaning Southwest Asia and North Africa, or what used to be called Middle Eastern). That was part of a Middle Eastern Arab World zine fair. It was the first time I’ve seen a SWANA or Arab world zine fair, but it was for only three hours which isn’t very long for a zine fair. Then there’s an East Asia zine fair and a London Spanish zine fair.
Hel: So, if all zines are mental health zines, do you think all mental health zines are madzines too?
Hamja: I find this a bit of a strange and abstract question to be honest. I think a lot of people identify with mental health zines. There are zines from OCD to manic depression, zines about experiences of hospitalisations. There are also perzines – personal autobiographical, confessional type zines – and there are also many zines which try to be self-help guides. There are also zines that have a more punky attitude towards diagnosis. Punk is about reclaiming stigmatised identities and stuff. Being Mad can be a compliment in certain subcultures and zines are part of underground subcultures.
However, I don’t know anyone who identifies with madzines outside of those you’ve catalogued in your academic research. Turning them into this catch-all umbrella category is something that I only really came across through your academic project. In my lived experience of doing zine fairs, like every week or every month, I generally don’t come across anyone who identifies with madzines. I meet the odd person who identifies as mad and refers to things like Mad Studies, but they tend to be entrenched in higher echelons of academia. It’s not something I hear in the vernacular, in the slang in the community, or in people’s self-identification or descriptions of themselves. I might be wrong, I guess maybe Rachel Rowan Olive sees her zines as madzines. But it’s not a term that I see circulated a lot in the zine community. There aren’t that many mental health zines in an average zine fair. If I see one, I usually spot it and collect it.
So I think the broader question is the relationship between academia, academics and zine subcultures. Academia is a highly formalized field. You have to do your Harvard referencing, type set your articles in a certain way, speak in a dry and sober tone, and so on. Zines are messier. Although I know some academics make zines too. For example, there was a zine called Race Revolt which was created by leftist academic types. There was also this a bunch of academics from the University of Manchester who were inspired by my book Shy Radicals and set up the Academics against Networking zine series.
Hel: You joined the Asylum magazine editorial group a few years back. How do you think Asylum fits into the wider zine community?
Hamja: I think that’s a really interesting question. I’m the most active member of the Asylum group in the zine community. I first discovered Asylum at one of the Anarchist Book Fairs, I think in 2014. And then I invited Asylum to my DIY Cultures festival, in 2016 I think. I take it to the many zine fairs I go to and I enjoy taking to people about it. I’ve taken it to Rotterdam Zine Fair and they bought a lot of old vintage issues for their collection. I find it fits in quite well and I think Asylum belongs in the zine world.
Maybe that’s because it’s not mainstream, and it never aspired to be. There’s something amateur about Asylum, and I mean that in a positive way. So it’s not so intimidating to have a go at writing about your own perspective. Sometimes the illustrations in Asylum look quite professional and sometimes they look quite scrappy and we give equal weight to them both. I suppose that’s all part of its charm and its identity.
Its impressive that Asylum is still going after all these years. It’s not easy and this shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s a very unique product and there’s a lot of very unique stuff in there which I’ve learned a lot from. I remember reading the article about Heavy Metal Music as therapy. My mom even reads it and likes it, and she doesn’t appreciate anything I do artistically.
So, to answer your question, I think I’m helping to develop that connection, through my practice. I’m helping to expand the radical mental health community through taking Asylum with me to all these zine fairs, inviting new communities of people to contribute to the magazine. I think that’s a good thing. It expands the readership and the contributor base, and Asylum is now seen at zine fairs everywhere. I’m actively making the trail, forging connections and building bridges, helping to shape the landscape and build new communities.
Hamja Ahsan is an artist and independent curator based in London. He founded DIY Cultures and is the author of Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert (Book Works), originally published in 2017 and now in its third edition.
Instagram/Twitter/X: @hamjaahsan@shyradicals @diyzinebank
email: [email protected]