Open In Emergency:

An Interview with 

Mimi Khúc 

Discussions about mental health can be difficult, but Open In Emergency, a new work of book art published by the Asian American Literary Review, aims to open up the conversation. This unique issue of the review features tarot cards, a special "version" of the DSM, an annotated brochure on postpartum depression, and more. In this interview our web editor Kristin Henley talks with Mimi Khúc, scholar, writer and guest editor of Open In Emergency. 

Can you speak to the complex issues surrounding mental health for Asian Americans? How do you feel that Open in Emergency helps the dialogue surrounding mental health?


I’ve come to realize that mental health is part of the human condition—everyone deals with mental health issues. But the forces that weigh down upon, that shape or constrain, our mental health look different across differential experiences. And the stakes look different.


I’ve lost count of how many Asian American college students have disclosed to me their devastation, their suffering. And how many have told me that my class, with its focus on mental health, saved their lives. The cumulative effect over the years is a horrific realization that we are in a crisis. The stats support this—Asian Americans have the highest rates of suicidal ideation among all college students by race, they say. But we shouldn’t have to have the highest rates to matter. The crisis is real because the pain is out there, acute, asking desperately to be seen.


Open in Emergency starts at this place. Asking us to recognize deep suffering, and asking us to think about that suffering differently. Asking us to locate that suffering within historical and social structures, like racism, war, misogyny. Asking us to expand what we think counts as wellness and unwellness. What hurts? And how do we go on living while it hurts?


How did you get involved in creating this special issue for The Asian American Literary Review? How did you choose what kind of materials you'd include?


I started dreaming this project after I diagnosed myself with postpartum depression five years ago and began questioning the frameworks available to me for understanding my own experiences of suffering. I was deeply wary of narratives of individual pathology and instead wanted to contextualize the pressures, anxieties, and despair I felt within larger cultural narratives of American motherhood, of Asian American model minoritization, of Vietnamese American post-war resilience. At the same time, I started teaching a college course on second-generation Asian American experiences, placing Asian American suicide at the forefront and finding students desperate for this kind of conversation. Over the next few years, we hosted several public dreaming sessions at the annual conference for the Association for Asian American Studies, pulling in like-minded collaborators and developing the interventions we wanted the project to make. AALR, as an arts organization, wanted expressly to think formally: how we could make those interventions not simply through content but also through innovative forms? Hence, a hacked mock DSM, a deck of tarot cards, a tapestry, an annotated info pamphlet, a stack of hand-written letters. Each form chosen to highlight particular conditions and particular ways of expanding wellness and unwellness.


The tarot deck is such an interesting way to approach talking about mental health, and the images and text you use for each one are moving. I don't know if it's just me, but tarot seems to be having a 'moment' right now—how did this part of the project evolve?


Tarot does seem to be entering public consciousness more now—which is part of how we encountered it and decided to use its form. A friend of mine, a co-curator on the project, was giving tarot readings to friends, a group of Asian American studies scholars. And lightning struck for me and AALR’s editor, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, as we watched and participated. Here was a magical practice that was providing meaning for those involved, but one that wasn’t attuned to the particularities of their experiences and one that didn’t engage their expertise on those experiences as scholars. And so we thought, what if we created a tarot deck that brought together Asian American studies, arts, and magic? A meaning-making, wellness practice created by Asian Americans, attuned to the complexity of Asian American histories and experiences, with the critical lenses coming out of our community of scholars and artists. I think we managed to create our own powerful magic.


I love that this project stretches beyond the issue, but also includes a way to use Open in Emergency in the classroom. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed it as curriculum and for anyone interested in the program, the benefits of using it?


My journey into mental health, as I said, began not just with my own experiences, but also with that of my students. For me, the work to be done is there. And so from the start we envisioned Open in Emergency to be a resource that could be used in the classroom. A way to engage issues of mental health, to think about Asian American experience, to expand what counts as cultural critique, to explore the role of the arts in negotiating the struggles of our times. And, because of its innovative genre-bending forms, a way to radically shift pedagogy towards the interactive, the reflective—the classroom as generative, as life-giving. Students as “stakeholders” in this process in new ways.


Many different classrooms have begun adopting the issue, in whole or in part, and we’re really excited to see how these teachers and students engage the ideas and practices therein. We’re seeing courses on literature, film, political thought, disability, cultural critique, religion, art—the range is truly exciting.


What's next for AALR? Any other big projects on the horizon?


Yes! I don’t want to divulge too much about our next project yet, but I will say that it will again be an exciting collaborative effort to engage the suffering of our communities—and again through innovative forms that work to develop practices to intervene in, to engage with, to survive this incredibly hard thing we call life. Some hints: the theme is revenge. There will be curses. And more magic.


Coming soon—spring 2018!









Mimi Khúc is a Vietnamese American scholar, teacher, and writer on race and religion, queer of color politics, mental health, and Asian American motherhood. She is the guest editor of Open in Emergency: A Special Issue on Asian American Mental Health.