Imagine Otherwise: Mimi Nguyen on Punk of Color Politics

Imagine Otherwise: Mimi Nguyen on Punk of Color Politics

November 30, 2016

Mimi Nguyen wearing a blue sweater and gold hoop earrings


What strings are attached to the “gift of freedom” that the United States grants refugees? How can zines, punk, and tarot serve as methods and mediums for social justice work? And what do movie stars and Buddhist nuns have in common?

In episode 25 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach chats with Mimi Nguyen about the imperialist US discourse of debt and freedom repeatedly attached to refugees, how Mimi is drawing unexpected artistic encounters between actor Keanu Reeves and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, and why communities of color are turning to tarot for activist inspiration and to imagine other ways of being in the world.

Guest: Mimi Nguyen

Mimi is an associate professor of gender and women’s studies and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Her first book is called The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Duke University Press, 2012).

Mimi has made zines since 1991, including Slander and the compilation zine Race Riot. She is a former Punk Planet columnist and Maximumrocknroll volunteer.

In June 2013, Sarah McCarry’s series Guillotine, a series of erratically published chapbooks focused on revolutionary non-fiction, released PUNK, a conversation between Nguyen and Golnar Nikpour.

We chatted about

  • Mimi’s work around “the gift of freedom” that the liberal empire offers to Vietnamese refugees (1:50)
  • Repetitive discourses of gratitude and indebtedness that surround refugees in the United States (4:30)
  • How punk as a methodology and zines as media can be useful for social justice projects (6:40)
  • How punk influenced Mimi’s political sensibilities (8:13)
  • Tarot cards as a medium that queer women and women of color have reclaimed (10:54)
  • Mimi’s new book project, The Promise of Beauty (14:20)
  • Imagining otherwise (15:50)

Mimi Nguyen wearing a blue sweater and gold hoop earrings. Text reads: What would a politics look like that didn’t require recognizing another’s pain as similar to one’s own? What if we didn’t need to have that sense of likeness to act on others’ behalf?


The indebtedness and gratitude that shape US refugee discourse

I wanted to theorize the idea that the familiar phrase “the gift of freedom” wasn’t just a rhetorical ploy but it is actually how liberal rule unfolds through war-making, peace keeping, and other forms of liberal empire.

Punk as political education

My own radical education came through punk. I don’t know that punk necessarily lends itself to social justice projects all the time, all over, but it definitely did in my life. I can easily trace my intellectual and political genealogies through a punk story.

The popularity of tarot cards among queer people of color

I think that tarot cards are so present because they offer a very non-religious set of rituals and meaning-making tools that rely on personal openness to reading them. It’s connected to witches and psychics and persons who don’t have an official institution behind them. It’s accessible; it has this mysterious connection to freaks and weirdos who have often been persecuted by institutions, policed by institutions. At the same time, it offers guidance without institutional authority.

Mimi’s new book project, The Promise of Beauty

I’m interested in how and when beauty come into play narratively as a wedge. It started to solidify for me when I was working on the first book doing a lot of reading on refugees and refugee camps, and I often encountered beauty as a thing that was named that endures or helps people to endure the absence of freedom.

Imagining otherwise

What would a politics look like that didn’t require clarity, coherence and the kinds of closeness that’s imagined to unfold from recognizing another’s pain as similar to one’s own? What if we didn’t need to have that sense of correspondence or likeness for a politics to act on others’ behalf?

More from Mimi

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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