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)
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.
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 Nguyen
- Mimi’s website
- Mimi’s book, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages
- Mimi’s zines
- Mimi on Twitter
Projects and people discussed
- Resources for Intervention and Deescalation
- I Stand With All Those Targeted By State Violence posters (printable)
- Camp Pendleton refugee camp
- The Patriot Act
- Maximumrocknroll Magazine
- Next World Tarot by Cristy Road
- Page of Wands
- Asian American Tarot
- Keanu Reeves
- Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
- River’s Edge
- Pema Chödrön
- Patrick Swayze
- Point Break
- BBC Radio’s coverage of “Beauty Day” at the Women & Children’s center at Calais encampment in France
- Imagine Otherwise interview with Eric Tang, episode 6
- Imagine Otherwise interview with Margaret Rhee, episode 4
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 ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. 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.
Cathy Hannabach (00:03):
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the 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 otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach (00:23):
Welcome to the Imagine Otherwise podcast, which is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency, helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars write awesome texts, enliven public conversations and create more just worlds. This is episode 25 and my guest today is Mimi Nguyen. Mimi is an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her first book, which was published by Duke University Press in 2012 is called The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt and Other Refugee Passages.
Cathy Hannabach (00:58):
Mimi has made zines since 1991 including Slander and the compilation zine Race Riot. She’s a former Punk Planet Columnist and a Maximumrocknroll volunteer. In June 2013, Sarah McCarry’s series Guillotine, which is a series of erratically published chapbooks focused on revolutionary nonfiction, released PUNK, a conversation between Mimi and Golnar Nikpour. In this interview we discuss the imperialist US discourse of debt and freedom that repeatedly attaches to refugees. How Mimi is drawing unexpected and delightful artistic encounters between actor Keanu Reeves and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, and why communities of color are turning to tarot for activist inspiration and to imagine other ways of being in the world. Thanks so much for being with us, Mimi.
Mimi Nguyen (01:50):
Thank you for having me.
Cathy Hannabach (01:51):
So let’s just jump right in. You’re the author of The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt and Other Refugees Passages, which is just a fantastic book. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what you argue in that book?
Mimi Nguyen (02:04):
It came from thinking about sense that there was some kind of obligatory display of gratitude that was expected from refugees. And this comes from, of course, I came here as a refugee to the United States. My family and I were in the refugee camp at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base camp in San Diego. I had grown up around seeing these seemingly obligatory displays of like love for the United States and in that kind of like sense of indebtedness at like community events. And at this 20 year camp commemoration I went to at camp Pendleton, which was like in 1995 and I really wanted to sort of figure out what that was about. So that become, so the book comes from trying to figure out that sense of indebtedness, its display, this kind of obligation to feel and to carry this debt towards the United States for this imagined to give to freedom.
Mimi Nguyen (03:08):
So it started from there. And from there I wanted to really then theorize this idea, that familiar phrase, the gift of freedom wasn’t just a sort of a rhetorical ploy, but it is actually how liberal rule unfold through warmaking, peacekeeping, and other forms of sort of liberal empire. So I wanted to really think about the United States, sort of geopolitical interventions of the last century that have so many of which have been involved in granting a “freedom” through violence to others who are imagined to be benighted without these freedoms that the United States can then give them. So I wanted to think about how both liberal war and liberal peace constitute each other by targeting the same populations for like control and interference. And I did it through thinking through a series of political and cultural encounters with disfigure, the Vietnamese refugee.
Cathy Hannabach (04:04):
It seems really necessary today. I mean it certainly has a historical precedent but necessary today because this discourse of debt or of kind of forced gratitude is so rampant, particularly with every new wave of refugee discourse, every new wave of refugees fleeing spaces that largely the US has produced violence in. And it just seems so repetitive, this discourse.
Mimi Nguyen (04:34):
Yes, it really is. I mean that’s so much of the power of the discourses is the seeming transparency of that feeling. That gratitude and indebtedness necessarily go together as not just affective compulsion’s but political ones as well.
Cathy Hannabach (04:54):
It also reminds me of one of the previous episodes we had on Eric Tang, who writes about Cambodian refugees in particular and how they were framed in this cold war discourse as people needing to be saved, right? People need to be saved from the evils of communism, which fit very well into the US cold war discourse. And of course what happens when waves of Cambodian refugees get resettled? He particularly looks at Cambodian refugees resettled in New York City. What happens when they’re plopped into this space, this nation that on the one hand loves the figure of the refugee as you know, your book points out as well as this figure needing to be saved, that serves ultimately serves us interest. But also as this figure that is deeply racialized in the way that US discourses, politics, and economic policies have racialized people of color, in general.
Mimi Nguyen (05:49):
It is really interesting and it is really interesting when and where and how the sort of refugee exceptionalism does appear. Like in my book I talk about how one of the architects of the Patriot Act, this assistant attorney general is a Vietnamese refugee and how that narrative about his refugeeness and his indebtedness to the United States and how this writing the Patriot Act is his form of giving back to this country that has given him so much, like this idea of securing those freedoms that he’s been given by this country. How he circulated so much in the aftermath of 9/11 very strategically, very instrumentally.
Cathy Hannabach (06:32):
I’d like to shift gears a little bit to your work with zines and that this dovetails actually kind of nicely into your scholarship and we can talk about the relationship between those. But you are a long time zine author and a punk enthusiastic and a lot of your work shows kind of how punk as methodology, how zines as medium can be really useful for various kinds of social justice projects. And I’d love to hear a little bit about why you think that is. Is there something about punk as a method or a medium or zines as a method or a medium that lend themselves particularly well to social justice activism?
Mimi Nguyen (07:10):
My own sort of 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 didn’t in my life. I can easily trace my intellectual and political genealogies through like a punk story. So like it was my first issue of a maximumrocknroll, which is the longest running punk magazine based out of San Francisco, I think started publishing in 1981 or 1982. So it was my first issue of maximumrocknroll that I discovered when I was like alternateen in San Diego that introduced me to the [inaudible 00:07:53] Wars of the United States in Central and South America. Right? All these Wars that were engaged on behalf of freedom men against communism and by way of a calmness in the magazine. I remember being hooked on this kind of suburban daydream of punks rioting on behalf of anything really.
Mimi Nguyen (08:16):
So you know, this was like the late 80’s, early 90’s so then I started reading maximum when I was 15 or 16 regularly and I would see like there was always this presence in the magazine of like punks riding against the Persian Gulf War and punks riding against the Rodney King verdict, which was all unfolding at the time. And then in my local scene there are always punks who were involved, like doing a lot of anti racist work. That’s what I thought punk was for sure, right. I mean, I definitely thought that punk was a revolutionary anti-authoritarian project. That’s definitely why I was drawn it. There are a lot of regressive aspects of punk too, and when I had to deal with them, that’s what pushed me to do a lot of the scenes that people remember me for. Like the Race Riot compilation scenes, which were about collecting very itinerant history and archive of punks of color or people of color in adjacent scenes like riot girl or goth or whatever. I do attribute a lot of my own political sensibilities to punk even as I know that I’ve had to push back against some of its shittier aspects.
Cathy Hannabach (09:32):
So one of the other genres that you’ve been featured a lot in lately is tarot and I think this has an interesting, there’s a lot to talk about this. I’m so excited about this, but it also is one of those genres as mediums that has complicated histories and that people of color and that queer women of color in particular seem to be reclaiming more and more. The two decks that you’re featured in or that you have work in coming out soon is one called The Next World Taro by Cristy Road and I’m so excited for that to come out. It’s a deck that foregrounds collective healing, smashing systemic oppression, social justice. You’re depicted in that deck as the page of wands, a figure that’s often associated with the element of fire, with the kind of spark of creativity, new beginnings, social change, and social justice. And then you’re also working on another social justice tarot deck called The Asian-American Tarot and we’re going to have in a future episode more on that deck. But what’s interesting about tarot for you?
Mimi Nguyen (10:40):
I love tarot art, I feel like tarot card art. I’ve never been a tarot card reader, but definitely in high school during my witchy goth phase, which immediately preceded my punk phase, which is ongoing, I was completely into tarot card art. I didn’t know how to read the cards, but I did start a project of drawing some of the card because it’s such a good prompt for a series of illustrations or drawings that has both really clear parameters but also a lot of possibility for creative interpretation. So it’s been really funny to see tarot come back into my life in these ways.
Mimi Nguyen (11:14):
I love Cristy’s deck. She’s drawing a lot of grooves of color, punks of color and punks in general for this deck. I love that she decided to draw me as the page of wands and as that figure, like you said, that’s associated with creativity and new beginnings and all that. I think it’s interesting that she places me in the Bay area and then she puts like the Race Riots scenes around me. I think that tarot cards are so present because they do offer this very non-religious set of rituals and meaning making tools that rely on sort of personal openness to reading them that is connected to witches and psychics and you know, persons who don’t have an official institution behind them. So it’s accessible, it has this history of connection to freaks and weirdos who often been persecuted by institutions, police by institutions. And at the same time it offers guidance without institutional authority.
Cathy Hannabach (12:11):
The other deck that you’re part of, The Asian-American tarot, in a future episode, we’re going to have Mimi Khuc and Lawrence Davis on the show to talk more about that deck. I know Margaret Rhee, who we’ve also had on a previous episode, has some work in there, but you have drawings in there, right? Tell us a little bit about those.
Mimi Nguyen (12:31):
Well, I wrote the text for the refugee card in the deck, but I also contributed a set of drawings to the Kickstarter project. The drawings I contributed are a series of drawings that are called Keanu Cares. So it’s Keanu Reeves. It’s images of Keanu Reeves that are hopefully recognizable from some of his movies. And then they’re captioned with things that say not just be excellent to each other, of course obvious from Bill and Ted. But there’s like be gentle with yourself and it’s like a picture of him that I’ve drawn from River’s Edge and things like that.
Mimi Nguyen (13:03):
So Mimi asked me to do them because she knows I’ve been working on this series of drawings where I’m drawing the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, who’s written a bunch of self help books into movie scenes from Keanu Reeves oeuvre. And then captioning them with either Pema quotes or Keanu quotes cause I really feel like they would get along really well in real life where they’d actually know each other. I’ve been working very slowly on this project of drawing Pema and Keanu together in scenes like she’s like skydiving with him. Allah Patrick Swayze in Point Break and Mimi who is a friend of mine in life as well, has been following this project on Facebook. So then she asked me to contribute some drawings to the Kickstarter. I need to jump on the adult coloring book.
Cathy Hannabach (13:53):
Mimi Nguyen (13:56):
And release it as an adult coloring book.
Cathy Hannabach (13:58):
Cathy Hannabach (14:01):
I think a lot of people would buy that.
Mimi Nguyen (14:02):
I think so too.
Cathy Hannabach (14:04):
Well I look forward to that coloring book, our listeners can keep an eye out. But in addition to creating these cards and to doing this work on these tarot decks, you’re also working on a new academic book project, right? Called The Promise of Beauty. What’s that project about?
Mimi Nguyen (14:21):
The Promise of Beauty is thinking about beauty as a politics for intervening in history and life itself, right? The conditions under which beauty endures and also what meaning beauty supposedly lends to life. So I’m interested in thinking about how a concept of beauty is often posited as fundamental to an idea of life and of living on, especially when this promise narrates a particular kind of historical consciousness or demands a particular set of actions in a context of sort of either every day despair or spectacular disaster. So I’m really interested in how and when beauty comes 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 the thing that was named that endures or helps people to endure the absence of freedom. And this continues in the present of course with all the refugee camps that are erected all the time, like makeshift beauty parlors at refugee camps that are described as sort of interrupting this ongoing state of deprivation.
Mimi Nguyen (15:31):
Like BBC radio, recently covered beauty day at the women and children’s center at the Calais encampment in France where volunteers offer massages and nail treatments to refugees so they can “keep feeling human”. And Syrian camps where refugees set up their own beauty parlors and things like that.
Cathy Hannabach (15:50):
So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask people, which is their version of a better world, that world that they’re working towards when they create the stuff that they create in the universe. So I’ll ask you, what’s the world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?
Mimi Nguyen (16:05):
Right now we’re seeing so many things unfolding that are horrible. So I would want a world where the police are abolished. The state monopoly on violence no longer applies and is no longer legitimate. I’m also just in terms of thinking about how we get there, one of the things I really don’t like in our politics and I want to be able to think about a politics that can do without them is sort of prescriptions and imperatives, right? So we hear all the time and we definitely are hearing this for right now, that our sort of moment of ongoing crisis requires very practical action and very straightforward pros, clear reasoning, hard facts, and common sense. And we hear this from both sort of a reform free formists and also like revolutionary premises, right? So I’m not against any of these things, but I am against arguments that these are the things, these are the only things through which we can understand how activism or politics can unfold.
Mimi Nguyen (17:03):
And I really feel like imagination is what makes it possible for us to not to succumb to these kinds of directives and demands that haven’t yet gotten us out of this mess. So I’m really interested in sort of in terms of like imagining otherwise, what would a politics look like that didn’t require clarity and coherent and even the kind of closeness that’s imagined to unfold from recognizing another’s pain as similar to one’s own, right. Like what if we didn’t need to have that sense of correspondence or likeness for our politics to act on other’s behalf.
Cathy Hannabach (17:39):
I think that’s a pretty great vision.
Mimi Nguyen (17:41):
Cathy Hannabach (17:42):
Thanks so much for being with us today.
Mimi Nguyen (17:45):
Thank you for having me.
Cathy Hannabach (17:50):
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