Decolonizing Mental Health with The Asian American Tarot

By Maya Acharya


A brand new Tarot deck is raising awareness of mental health struggles among Asian American communities. Each re-imagined card has been designed by a different Asian American artist, with original text to follow. Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, founding director of the arts nonprofit Asian American Literary Review, told us more about the newly-released project.


The Asian American Tarot deck is part of a larger special issue on Asian American Mental Health, published as of this month. Could you tell us a little about the issue, and the topics it aims to highlight? 

About three years ago, at the annual Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) conference, we held a dreaming session for what would become Open in Emergency: A Special Issue on Asian American Mental Health, gathering a group of mostly Asian American religious studies scholars to think together about the mental health crisis in Asian American communities. We held a similar convening the next year at the conference, and the next, and the group grew in size and shape each year. One year, I remember, in a room with only about ten chairs, everyone sat on the floor, filling the entire space up to the walls, sitting back to back to back, the physical closeness amplifying the urgency of the conversation, the room humming with grief and outrage and sorrow, and we were crying and arguing and, sometimes, laughing, together.

We’ve - [guest editor] Mimi and I have - been thinking about the mental health crisis in our communities seemingly all of our lives, if you conceive of mental health broadly enough. But these sessions at AAAS seem like a good introduction to the project because they were the first big doors we walked through to produce it, and importantly, the sessions were communal, defined by questions, storytelling, listening, shared vulnerability, shared commitment. They started with received mental health, and all the failures and violences of existing approaches and resources, and the need to imagine other ways, to bare witness to Asian American woundedness, to look at actual Asian American lives and knowledge-making rather than prescribing limited and limiting classifications and solutions.

The issue is about decolonizing mental health through collective thinking, feeling and action. It aims to highlight notions of wellness and unwellness and care already circulating in our communities but frequently given other names, and frequently delegitimized by dominant understandings of mental health. It aims to illuminate those processes of delegitimation, to shine a light on the ways the mental health industry has been a colonizing force defined by white supremacist, misogynist, ableist, consumerist, and anti-queer and trans logics. If the point of racism, to roughly paraphrase Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, is to kill us, how do we think about mental health within systems that are undeniably - and, here in the US under a Trump administration, unabashedly - racist?

It struck me as unusual see this intersection of academia, mental health, arts and magic in one project. Why and how did you interweave these different aspects? 

From the start we figured this project would have to be unusual! The usual isn’t working. What counts as “normal” and “healthy” fits inside such a tiny circle, one that’s viciously policed. A fuller approach to mental health has to open up, has to combine scholarly work, practitioner experience, arts and magic because we need all these resources, every resource we can get, and because it’s so important to recognize the knowledge production happening across these spectrums of experience, particularly given the brutal histories of invalidating them.

In addition to the tarot deck, the special issue includes a mock DSM [Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], which we’re using to call into question the categories of the official DSM, hacking it by replacing those classifications with a very different vocabulary of possibility for understanding un/wellness, drawing upon everything from a queer self-care kit by Erin O’Brien to a personal essay/theory piece by Kai Cheng Thom to a play excerpt on demons and shamanism by Saymoukda Vongsay. Erin is a queer mixed race food performance artist, chef, teacher and scholar, and filmmaker; Kai Cheng is a trans poet, writer, clinical social worker, therapist, and community organizer; Saymoukda is a playwright, poet, arts organizer, entrepreneur, and scholar. Their lives are already inextricably intersectional, a confluence of many disciplines, communities, investments, approaches, and resources. So I think making the issue representative of that reality has not been a challenge in the sense that those intersections are inescapably all around us, but yes, it has been a challenge in terms of finding forms and creating platforms that allow us to activate that fullest humanity; that allow folks to be many (especially unsanctioned) things, and put folks in productive conversation. Thankfully the contributors to the issue have been so generous of spirit and at once pushed us to expand our sense of what the issue could and should be.

By using a Tarot Deck, the project echoes fortune telling practices that are common among Asian communities. At the same time, the element of magic along with representation through otherworldly figures seems, to me, to represent transformation and a reclaiming of identity. Is this something that resonates with the aims of the project? 

Definitely. We wanted to honor the kinds of care practices - practices that generally fall outside the bounds of what Western medicine recognizes as care - you frequently find circulating in Asian diasporic communities: fortune telling, yes, and traditional healing, energy manipulation, meditation, herbal practice. We wanted to see them anew, specifically as under siege, and as tools of decolonization. Taking them seriously is an act of refusing a colonial, modernity-levied mandate to banish them to some primitive past.

Another kind of reclaiming is that we’re interweaving fortune-telling with some of the central theoretical underpinnings of Asian American studies: model minoritization, migration and diaspora, the “perpetual foreigner” phenomenon. The hybrid product is hopefully ground for developing new interpretive practices. If X is a central figure or force in the lives of many Asian Americans, how can we understand the nature of its influence; how can we reconceive of our wellness in relation to its gravitational pull? This is taking the existing tarot and sharpening its figures, attuning them to Asian American history and experience. At the same time, it’s pulling Asian American studies out of its standard axes, to somewhere more nebulous, and hazy, and for us, a productively ambiguous space for critical interpretation.

It’s a difficult balance. On the one hand, it means steering clear of parody or making light of tarot reading and fortune-telling, since we’re tinkering with them, adapting them. On the other hand, it means not romanticizing them, either; recognizing that these traditions often carry with them seeds of misogyny and queer-phobia, immigrant exceptionalism, in some cases settler logics.

You have previously referred to the Tarot Deck is a form of self care. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

“Asian American” is something always coming into being, shifting and growing, a space of continual transformation and reclaiming, and our tarot can be the same way, and through it, our mental health practices. We’re hoping that folks find the deck both familiar and unfamiliar. We’re hoping folks use the deck as a resource and a means to build new practices for reading the forces shaping our lives. To keep in sight the violences levelled against us. The Adoptee card, for instance, points us to forced inheritance and aspirational whiteness, the Refugee card to the “gift” of resettlement as a kind of imposed debt, the Desecrated Temple card to the post-9/11 invasion of our holy spaces. Cultivating this awareness, in tandem readings, in groups, collectively, is care. Building communities of accountability, of shared commitment to seeing and working against racial violence, social injustice, is building communities of care.

You have replaced the 22 archetypes of the traditional major arcana with figures such as ‘The Shopkeeper’, ‘The Refugee’, and ‘The Adoptee.’ Why did you select these specific figures to represent the Asian American experience? What were the crucial elements in the process of creating and choosing them? 

As I mentioned earlier, some of the process was simply cribbing from Asian American studies 101. And some of it was looking critically at the gaps in that framework, what scholarly work hasn’t always been able to grapple with adequately enough, or has been slowly catching up to: quieter layers and textures, hidden moments, invisibilized communities. What art and literature have sometimes shown us, that history and scholarship haven’t. The Ghost card, for instance. Maxine Hong Kingston was writing novels about ghosts in Asian diasporic life in 1975, and ghosts are everywhere in Asian American literature of the last 40 years, but for the most part, Asian American studies, like mainstream America, has reduced the ghost to metaphor and psychological projection and superstition, rather than seeing it as a constituent and vitally meaning-making node in Asian diasporic life.

What I guess I’m working up to is that the process of choosing cards has been a deliberate political reorientation. I’m remembering another conference presentation from about a year ago where we were asked, about an early edition of the tarot deck, "Where are the fathers and sons? You’ve got the Mother and the Daughter cards." 

"Well, they’ve gotten plenty of time", was our response. We’re centering women and queer and trans folks.

You say on your Kickstarter page that the aim of the project is to “start a larger conversation” about Asian American mental health.  The campaign received overwhelming support - do you interpret this as a signal that this conversation is sorely needed? If so, why do you think that is? 

The support has been overwhelming: support in the form of time and energy, social media buzz, press coverage, people sending us words of encouragement, and plenty of donations and pre-sales. And it’s come from all across the United States, from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam.

I’m happy that we’re offering something vitally necessary at the right time, maybe at the opening cusp of the right time. Something has been shifting. “Self-care” is a thing, and today many of us can talk openly about needing it in a way we couldn’t five years ago. There’s differential access, to be sure: we can’t all ask for care, and can’t all signal disability in the same ways, with the same license. But I’m finding college students of color in particular are demanding conversations about mental health. They’re not afraid in the ways other generations have been to say they’re fucked up, to claim being fucked up, to demand to be allowed to be fucked up but at the same time want better resources, to want spaces to talk about how and why they’re fucked up and what’s to be done about it. That shift seems to me like a crucial strategic opportunity, a chance to let young people lead us into conversations we all need to be having. What starts in classrooms and on campuses can hopefully bleed, or be bled, beyond. Hence our push to put Open in Emergency in college classrooms as a course text.

I won’t claim to know why the shift is happening. It does seem to coincide with the rise in social justice consciousness, the rise of campus protests and student demands of American higher education institutions since Ferguson. Maybe, hopefully, they are seeing that our collective unwellness is a register, the canary in the coal mine of our subjection, of gross social inequity and structural violence. Community organizers more than ever are seeing self-care as a necessary component of advocacy work and protest.

Why is it so important to acknowledge and address forces such as discrimination, racism and immigration as linked to mental health struggles? 

We open the special issue’s mock DSM with these lines from Lisa Park’s “A Letter to my Sister”:

Why would you want to place yourself in the hands of an institution that seeks to resocialize you into the environment that made a mess of you in the first place? Our inclusion into the American process turned out to be our worst form of oppression. Most people are proud to call themselves Americans, but why would you want to become a productive, well-adjusted citizen when the primary requisite of American-ness is racism? Isn’t our madness often the only evidence we have at all to show for this civilizing terror?

Everything’s here in these lines. The primary requisite of American-ness is racism. Being American requires both being subject to it and participating in it. Racism is encoded in our every institution - slaves were traded on the grounds of my home institution, the University of Maryland, and so many U.S. universities owned slaves or drew endowments from monies produced by slavery. Unsurprisingly, they remain implicitly bent on preserving and privileging whiteness even as they do their best to hide these histories. Our “madness,” our individual and collective unwellness, is often, as Lisa Park writes, the only evidence we have to show for the terror of white supremacy, the terror of being a person of color alive in a world that simultaneously, as James Baldwin wrote in Price of the Ticket, demands we be white and blames us for not being white when of course we can never be white.

What are your hopes or concerns for the future, particularly in the era of Trump, in terms of mental health awareness among migratory/minority communities in America?  

I hope the support for Open in Emergency means we’re not only ready to talk about our collective un/wellness, but ready to talk about it expressly in terms of the larger systems created to produce it. In the early days of the Trump administration, those systems are operating more nakedly than ever. Trump just signed an executive order targeting some of our most vulnerable populations, immigrant Muslims, and we know a raft of anti-queer, anti-trans, anti-woman legislation is sure to follow. Care in these times can mean a lot of things, but for any possibility of liberation, care has to include understanding our subjection, and our healing, in relation to the larger structures of violence in place.


To place an order of the Special Issue, support and read more about the project, check out The Asian American Literary Review website and Kickstarter page.