Imagine Otherwise: Mimi Khúc and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis on Asian American Mental Health Activism

Imagine Otherwise: Mimi Khúc and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis on Asian American Mental Health Activism

December 14, 2016

Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis wearing a black suit and black tie, and Mimi Khúc wearing a purple shirt


What does wellness and unwellness look like in the context of Asian America? In the context of academia? How can we transform our spaces to allow for more interpretations of healing practices? What role can students play in reforming how we discuss mental health in the academy?

In episode 26 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach chats with guests Mimi Khúc and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis about how academia can better address parenting, mental health, and wellness, as well as the forthcoming special issue of the Asian American Literary Review.

Guests: Mimi Khúc and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis

Mimi Khúc is a queer Vietnamese American scholar, teacher, and writer, as well as a visiting assistant professor in Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park.

Her research and writing interests span Vietnam War memory, race and religion, mental health, queer of color feminist critique, Asian American motherhood, and second-generation Asian American life.

Her writings have appeared in Black Girl DangerousBriarpatch Magazine, and Powerlines.

Lawrence-Minnh Bùi Davis is founding director and co-editor-in-chief of the Asian American Literary Review. He is also the curator of Asian Pacific American studies for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Since 2005 he has taught Asian American literature, Asian American film, and mixed race studies for the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland.

His fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in PloughsharesMcSweeney’s Quarterly ConcernGastronomicaKenyon ReviewAGNI, and Fiction International.

Mimi and Lawrence are the co-editors of a forthcoming special issue of the Asian American Literary Review called Open in Emergency: A Special Issue on Asian American Mental Health, which is coming out in January 2017.

Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis wearing a black suit and black tie. Text redas: For mental health in academia, make it part of your daily practice—not only in self-care but in teaching. Turn your classroom into a space for thinking and feeling your way through it.

We chatted about

  • Understanding mental health in the context of race, motherhood, and careers (3:19)
  • Tarot as a wellness practice, a meaning-making practice, and a creative platform for distilling Asian American cultural work (9:40)
  • How notions of mental health and mental capacity that are embedded in academia prevent productive discussions of mental health and unwellness (15:15)
  • Strategically tapping into students’ readiness to talk about mental health to transform academia (18:32)
  • Vulnerability as pedagogy / politics (19:35)
  • Imagining otherwise (27:00)


Contextualizing mental health

Mimi: Mental health became less about my individual experience and more about the context of social forces, of history, of structural violence that I was facing.

Reclaiming traditional non-Western forms of meaning-making

Lawrence: Ghost practices or other nonrational forces [that] guide our lives or offer us care or wisdom become an easy reading in a Western context as madness and become delegitimized. We want to look at that violence that presses down on our communities and tells them that certain ways of knowing are illegitimate, but also to try and restore them as wellness practices and as meaning-making practices.

Empowering our students to transform mental health in academia

Lawrence: Students across the country are reaching out and telling us they’re more ready than ever to talk about mental health and want spaces to do that. They don’t want guidance or license, they just want us to be part of their conversation.

Making structural vulnerability visible within the academy

Mimi: Choosing to be vulnerable looks different for those who are already so structurally vulnerable in the university. It’s most risky for contingent faculty to reveal things about themselves. To me, it feels important to model that kind of vulnerability in order to make visible the structural vulnerability.

Imagining otherwise

Lawrence: All of this process is important, and the end-product of the book isn’t just the world that we want. What we’ve created in the process as we’re going is the world. This is the world that we want, where we are caring and we are asking us to be accountable to each other and responsible to one another.

Mimi: I want a world in which [my daughter] is free to be well and to be unwell as she navigates the world. That means figuring out what those things look like and giving her the tools to do that. I can’t fix the world, but I can imagine a world in which we develop together and use tools to craft and cultivate communities of care and relationships with each other that are founded on care, accountability, and love. This project, for me, is trying to gift the beginnings of that to my daughter.

More from Mimi and Lawrence

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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