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A Study of Publishing in Malaysia, by OOMK magazine

Posted by Grace Wang on Monday, January 30 2017

We speak to OOMK about their latest magazine, which looks at mag-making in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh

We love OOMK, the feminist title that is “especially keen to be inclusive of Muslim women”. Each issue sees contributions from women of diverse ethnic and spiritual backgrounds, and earlier this year they made a trip to Malaysia for a collaborative project with the team at Odd One Out magazine.

“Everyone we met in Malaysia was exceptionally skilled in their side hustle,” says founder Sofia Niazi, about the magazine makers they met on their travels. A Study of Publishing in Malaysia, which launches this Thursday 2 February at the magCulture shop, is packed with the things they learned while working with locals in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh, and we spoke to them to find out more.

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Why did OOMK want to explore zine culture beyond London, Portland or Berlin?

Zine cultures and overlapping print scenes exist outside of these cities, but we don’t hear about them very much. You hear about London, Portland and Berlin but not Karachi or Dar es Salaam or Buenos Aires. We run our DIY Cultures fair annually and we’re increasingly connected with artists and self-publishers internationally, so we were looking to broaden our outlook and learn from what was happening in cities less commonly associated with underground subcultures.

We were just as interested in the content being explored through Malaysian publications as we were with the publishing and distribution practices. We wanted to ensure that we were making the effort to not only learn but to engage with designers, artists, illustrators and printers internationally and resist the eventual homogeneity of content and style that comes from following only two or three Eurocentric scenes. A lot of people have asked us why Malaysia, but why not? There’s a really unique design scene with its own reference points that is just hustling away.

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Plus, Odd One Out is based there…

Hamizah Adenan from the Odd One Out visited us in London ahead of the launch of her first issue back in 2014. She was there to interview us for a feature but it turned into hours of discussion about how we got started in self publishing, our motivations, the learning curve and experience. The practicalities and challenges of running and distributing a magazine differed based on our cultural landscapes but there were also similarities and overlaps in our aims and experiences. Where do you print? What is your design process? How many of you are on the team? What are your expenses like? What is your business model? We were both figuring it out as we went along but in doing so had also created something that filled a gap and had instant appeal to many people (and each other).

We’ve been friends since and Hamizah usually meets up with us in London during the DIY Cultures fair — Odd One Out’s workshop also sold out almost every time. We’d always talked about going to Malaysia for a holiday, but decided instead on a structured research trip with Odd One Out as a partner. There were so many fantastic studios like Rumah Amok, The Alphabet Press, Raksasa Print Studio, and Run Amok, which we followed online, all based in Malaysia, and it was a great opportunity to meet all of them in one go.

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Could you tell us about meeting Rumah Amok, the DIY home studio in Kuala Lumpur?
Nik Adam and Shafiq of Rumah Amok were great. We met up in a mall in Kuala Lumpur and they brought a box of books they had handmade. Shafiq taught himself how to print and book bind from online tutorials and his print runs go into the 100s. He takes the work of artists and writers he knows, whose work he loves, and custom makes orders for them by hand. Obviously, he does this as a side hustle. Everyone we met in Malaysia was exceptionally skilled in their side hustle. A standard of excellence seemed to be the norm.

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What were some insights about publishing gained from working with publishers in Malaysia?
A common thread amongst the people we spoke to was that they are either the first or one of the few in their field to be doing what they’re doing in Malaysia, so they have had to carve their own path. For many there wasn’t existing research or a current model they could draw on. They’ve had to start from scratch. We were told numerous times how the arts are not a viable route for many and those starting their own full-time print projects have a passion that matches the risk factor of leaving behind what they know. The team behind Musotrees magazine, for example, are all scientists by day. Many talk about their audience being small — their work is relatively niche in Malaysia, so they are having to do twice the work of growing an audience with their practice. The hard work is apparent and the quality of work is amazing.

Because the arts are not as viable locally, many have studied abroad in Australia or the US and returned with new skills to apply at home. The Alphabet Press, a letterpress design studio in Bangsar, were really inspiring in their dedication to making letterpress relevant to a contemporary audience, and to specifically incorporate content and design inspired by Malaysia that is directly reflective of local cultures. We seemed to keep encountering a certain nonchalance about all the hard work. It’s like, “Yeah, so I spent two years staying up till 3am after my day job to get this done. How else could I do it?”

The publication features most if not all of the interviews with the people and studios we held in Malaysia, along with their accompanying publications. There is a whole spectrum of observation and insights from KL to Penang from various points of the print/zine scene, from illustrators to distributors, educators to printers.

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How were the editorial directions of zines different or similar to those of London magazines?

There is a strong legacy of underground Malaysian heavy metal/punk music and skate zines from the 90s. Nizang (Nizamuddin) of Mosh Zine is a veteran zine-maker who provided a lot of insight into that period. Poetry is exceptionally popular, and a lot of indie publishing is immediately associated with Malay language ‘novellas’ for teens rather than zines.

In terms of the variety of zines available there are some similarities; Malaysian zines cover a range of familiar genres or topics from political activism, perzines, illustrations and comics and so on and in terms of production range from photocopied handwritten stapled zines to publications with a higher production value. Many of the people we interviewed expressed a level of frustration that the scene could still be developed to be more experimental, homegrown and less reflective of US/European zine styles. Distributors like Biawak Gemok, however, essentially act as an archive of zines made locally, and were really well placed to display the diverse range of content, language and styles of zines and speak on the politics of that.

You’re also gearing up to release the next issue of OOMK…

The theme of OOMK issue six is food, and the submissions have been amazing so far. You can expect original snack-sized work from some of our favourite illustrators, interviews with a range of fantastic black/women of colour chefs, supper clubs, a look at graphic design for food packaging, and essays ranging from food sovereignty to food in film. A belly-full, if you will.

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