Episode 2: Contra*DSM with Mimi Khuc

In Episode two, Vanderbilt graduate student and Critical Design Lab member Maggie Mang interviews Mimi Khuc about her curation and design of Open in Emergency, a special issue of the Asian American Literary Review focused on mental health. 

Show Notes and Transcript


  • Critical design and hacking 

  • Race and mental health / Asian-American mental health 

  • Material form and materiality 

  • Authority and expertise beyond psy-disciplines  

  • Critical ethnic studies 

  • Meaning-making tools

  • States of unwellness and the forces that contribute to that 

  • Self-care and care (commercialized, individualized versus collective) 

  • Pedagogy

  • Arts- and humanities-based interventions 

  • Illness, disability studies, trauma, and suffering 


Other scholars mentioned in the interview: 


Introduction Description:

The podcast introductory segment is composed to evoke friction. It begins with sounds of a wheelchair rhythmically banging down metal steps, the putter of an elevator arriving at a person’s level, and an elevator voice saying “Floor two, Floor three.” Voices begin to define Contra*. Layered voices say “Contra is friction…Contra is…Contra is nuanced…Contra is transgressive…Contra is good trouble…Contra is collaborative…Contra is a podcast!…Contra is a space for thinking about design critically…Contra is subversive…Contra is texture…”

An electric guitar plays a single note to blend out the sound. 

The rhythmic beat of an electronic drum begins and fades into the podcast introduction. 

Credit: Kevin Gotkin

Music excerpt: “Tumbling Lights” by The Acid



Episode Introduction: 

Welcome to Contra*: the podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. This show is about the politics of accessible and critical design—broadly conceived—and how accessibility can be more than just functional or assistive. It can be conceptual, artful, and world-changing. 

I’m your host, Aimi Hamraie .  I am a professor at Vanderbilt University, a designer and design researcher, and the director of the Critical Design Lab, a multi-institution collaborative focused on disability, technology, and critical theory.  Members of the lab collaborate on a number of projects focused on hacking ableism, speaking back to inaccessible public infrastructures, and redesigning the methods of participatory design—all using a disability culture framework. This podcast provides a window into the kinds of discussions we have within the lab, as well as the conversations we are interested in putting into motion. So in coming episodes, you’ll also hear from myself and the other designers and researchers in the lab, and we encourage you to get in touch with us via our website, www.mapping-access.com or on Twitter at @criticaldesignl 

In Episode two, Vanderbilt graduate student and Critical Design Lab member Maggie Mang interviews Mimi Khuc about her curation and design of Open in Emergency, a special issue of the Asian American Literary Review focused on mental health. 

This episode is about hacking as a design methodology for disabled people to speak against dominant biomedical frameworks, including psychiatry. Maggie and Mimi discuss what it means to “hack” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (or DSM) with Asian American perspectives, and how the methodology of hacking leads to other forms of cultural production. In the case of Open in Emergency, this results in a Tarot deck, a poster, an annotated pamphlet, and an envelope of letters. So this work is also asking the question of what it means to produce literary and academic work, what material forms that can take, and how to crip and query material forms as a way of getting at different kinds of content. So here are Maggie and Mimi. 


Maggie Mang:               Hi, my name is Maggie Mang, and I am so excited to be here with Dr. Mimi Khuc, a queer Vietnamese American writer, scholar, and teacher of things unwell, to speak about Open in Emergency, a special issue on Asian-American mental health.

Maggie Mang:               Mimi, as guest editor for Open in Emergency has researched interest in race and mental health, queer of color feminist critique, religion and magic, and Asian-American motherhood. Mimi, I am really looking forward to speaking with you today on a project that carries resonance for so many people.

Mimi Khuc:                   Hi Maggie, thank you so much for having me. This is super exciting to get to talk about Open in Emergency, and mental health more broadly with you.

Maggie Mang:               Yeah, absolutely. A quick prefatory question, I think for our listeners who might not be familiar with the project, could you just perhaps talk a little about what Open in Emergency is?

Mimi Khuc:                   Sure. So Open in Emergency is my collaborative Arts and Humanity intervention into mental health. It's a special issue of the Asian-American Literary Review, which is a DC-based Arts Nonprofit End Journal. I published it in late 2016. It's not what you normally think of as a journal, or as a book. It's a box, and it has five components in it. A DSM, Asian-American edition, a deck of personal tarot cards, Asian-American tarot cards, a stack of hand written letters from daughter to mothers, a tapestry of testimonials around mental health and suffering, and a pamphlet on post-partum depression that's been annotated and treated. So it has lots of fun parts, and they are intervening and thinking about mental health from an Arts and Humanities perspective.

Maggie Mang:               So what does hacking mean to you, and working with these collaborators in Open in Emergency, and why did you decide to use the language of hacking? What about it was really effective, but also was able to draw one's attention to what the message of Open in Emergency is? Why hacking that allows it to be really provocative, or draw your attention to, I guess like the politics of everything that we've been talking about?

Mimi Khuc:                   Yeah. That's a great question. I know there's theoretical work done on hacking, which I actually do not know about, and have not directly engaged in. But I can talk a little bit about my process, Lawrence and I, in thinking about the project. And this just sort of contextualizes an AALR, Asian American Literary Review, whose approach to literary work, and creative work, and contextual work, has always been do things that we think people need, and not what they want. Because what people want is often just what they already know.

Mimi Khuc:                   And so, just trying to figure out what people need, requires stepping outside of what people know, and what they'll expect. So AALR has been very playful in that way, trying to play with forms in order to do a little bit of bait and switch. I consider hacking a little bit of bait and switch, right? We're going to give you a DSM, but it's not the DSM you thought you knew.

Mimi Khuc:                   But it's in that act of bait and switch that you actually get to directly intervene and engage. We could have done not a DSM, just done something else. And doing something else does provide an alternative. And providing alternatives are really important. But when you hack, you're directly engaging the thing that you're trying to intervene in, and it grounds it in a certain way. And it makes that alternative speak directly to what it's pushing against, and what it's opening up.

Mimi Khuc:                   So, we were like, we need people to write essays, we need people to give us all kinds of ways of engaging mental health. Well what form could that take? Sure it could be an anthology. That's pretty boring. Right? A collection of essays. But, if it's a DSM, suddenly now we have a way of holding these things together, that now speak directly to dominant ways of thinking about mental health. Totally opens up these categories and takes authority back from the psychiatric industry, and world.

Mimi Khuc:                   And then the tarot cards are another form right? Hacking the tarot cards is a way to ... well first just even using tarot cards for mental health is already a kind of hacking. Already kind of weird and strange because you don't think of divination practices as mental health practices. Also because magic is unscientific. And of course, you can only do science when you're doing mental health.

Mimi Khuc:                   That's a kind of stepping outside already. Then taking tarot cards that are originally medieval Italian playing cards that are white as fuck and have nothing to do with Asian American; to say hey what if we made mini making tools that actually draw from Asian American experience, and Asian American studies framework that we already used to try to help ourselves understand in a [inaudible 00:06:18] way about our lives. What if we informed divination practices with that same kind of knowledge? So that it can help people make meaning using this new form.

Mimi Khuc:                   So we love playing with form, thinking about how generative it can be to engage a form that exists, and do something funky to it. Or generate an entire new form, that then also makes you think about things differently.

Maggie Mang:               I think what I love, I think most about Open in Emergency, is exactly this playing with form that you're talking about. But I love that part of Open in Emergency is that the materials are themselves so varied. So I can rip out pages from the DSM into self care cards. And there is like a poster that I physically have to unfold.

Maggie Mang:               It's really amazing, just the playing with form from a more theoretical standpoint, but also from a material standpoint. And feeling this, and doing different things with paper. That was really cool. I think it's part of the effectiveness of exactly what you're talking about here.

Mimi Khuc:                   The part of that is, like as far as the letters, when I came up with that idea, I knew that I wanted to engage dynamic in immigrant families. Right? That kind of power dynamics, but also circuits of love and pain that exists. This is again inspired by Erin Ninh's work.

Mimi Khuc:                   What is a way that we can engage those kind of circuits? We were like what about letters? What about letter writing between daughters and mothers? Well if we're going to print letters, why would you put it in a book? Letters aren't meant to be in a book. They're meant to be on paper and then mailed. Right? And so okay that means we have to print them on paper and then may of our writers actually chose to use notebook paper, which I love that they did that. We let the writers choose what kind of materials they wanted to use. Many used notebook paper. So they really ran with the form. And then we're like well they have to be folded up in an envelope, that's how you get a letter.

Mimi Khuc:                   So we had kind of two step there, right? Thinking about the form as a letter, conceptually. But then the materiality of it, like you said. It creates a different experience when you have to take it out of an envelope, open it up. There's a kind of intimacy that happens when you feel like you're actually reading somebody's intimate writing that they had sent.

Maggie Mang:               I'm really interested in the narratives of like compulsory wellness that kind of gets circulated around campus with the student health, mental health outreach programs, and even wellness programs with corporatizations. And how that puts forth kind of like a bracketed idea of what wellness should look like. But it's not actually the full picture, and I think the really revolutionary part of Open in Emergency is that it breaks that open, and says these are not the only narratives that should be circulated.

Mimi Khuc:                   Exactly! And the kinds of wellness promoted, like you were talking about campus wellness, right? And things that the university promotes, that kind of wellness is deeply neo-liberal in that it puts responsibility on the individual. The individual needs to get well here are ways that you can get well. You can do self care for yourself, but implied in that is that you're responsible for your wellness. So if you are not well, then somehow you're the one that's failing. You didn't do what it takes to be well.

Mimi Khuc:                   There is no kind of responsibility on any other communities or structures. And no implication of the university, in how it contributes to unwellness, because it's just additive. It's just like here are some things that we can add on, to help you deal with your unwellness individually on a case by case basis. And not thinking about the overall state of unwellness at a university, and the kinds of forces that are shaping it.

Maggie Mang:               So I've been thinking a lot about self care, and what forms of care are, again, attached to these narratives of wellness, and how self care when it came out, I think in the 80s, out of a lot of feminist movements, was really radical. And since then it's been really A-politicized and so what kind of self care methods are these universities putting out that maybe doesn't actually address the root cause of the issue?

Mimi Khuc:                   I was just at the National [inaudible 00:10:37] conference. I was on the panel thinking about what survival looks like in the academy, and university for disability studies scholars, and for disabled folks. And somebody asked about how we think about self care. And yeah, I talked about what kinds of self care ... I believe in taking care of myself. I want resources to take care of myself, for sure. But, this movement to self care as commercialized, right? Consumerist, buying things that will help you. And then individualized, right? That care shouldn't ever be collective, or communal responsibility.

Mimi Khuc:                   And then, Sami Schalk was on the panel with me, and she brought up exactly what you're saying. That for marginalized folk, for folks of color, especially women of color, queer folks of color, the way Audre Lorde framed self care right? As revolutionary, as surviving as revolutionary, because we are told that we don't deserve to live, to be here. So taking care of ourselves, instead of constantly taking care of other people is actually quite a radical act. I totally agree with that.

Mimi Khuc:                   So taking care of ourselves, needs to be expanded beyond like baths and meditation. And actually, one addressing the kind of structural issues that are killing us, but also thinking about it collectively in community, a kind of communal care, and communal accountability to each other.

Maggie Mang:               So it's been about two years since Open in Emergency has come out. How is it you [inaudible 00:12:07] in different spaces, and what can you do with the project itself?

Mimi Khuc:                   Yeah, yes, yes! So okay, Open in Emergency came with a teaching program that I've been running. That teaching program sort of exists on Facebook, as a Facebook group in one form, but also it is listed as me trying to develop a certain kind of pedagogy, and developing particular ... just experimenting with different assignments, different ways of approaching the parts of the work. Different kinds of classrooms, and topics, as a way to get to mental health, and to engage the text. And so, the Facebook group has been awesome in sharing some of these ideas. I've been sharing, but then also other instructors and faculty, who have been teaching share or pose questions, but then also share their assignments. And then share with permission, student work responses to it.

Mimi Khuc:                   And that's been so mind blowing for me to kind of see the way that students engage the work, and the question of mental health, and really taking the time to think, and think creatively about their own wellbeing. That's been super inspiring to see.

Mimi Khuc:                   As we are moving to another phase in Open in Emergency's life, so it sold out, we're doing the reprint, right? And thinking about trying to expand it a little bit in the reprint. I also want to think about what is the next iteration of its teaching life as well. Think about ways of digitizing the teaching and learning experiences as a part of their course, and then that can exist online and other people can either access it to see it, but also can add to it, and communally put together right? Communal collaboration.

Mimi Khuc:                   And I'm all about getting as many people to participate as possible, or to make it both accessible, but also to really get a sense of what the community needs, and is doing, thinking about. So it's been taught in probably over two dozen classrooms now, which is awesome, and it's reaching hundreds of students that way. And then I've been on my book tour, the last almost two years now, and I've been to maybe like three dozen, we've done three dozen talks or something between different universities. And we meet students there. And it's been wonderful.

Mimi Khuc:                   But it does feel a little bit one off sometimes. I can interact with only a limited number of students. And engage in workshops, and thinking, and being together for a very short amount of time that feels very fulfilling, and feels productive, and generative for the people who are involved. But again, it's just kind of one moment. And even in the classroom, maybe it's a semester, but it's still just kind of one moment, and it's still only a handful of students.

Mimi Khuc:                   So, yeah I would love to think about bringing that classroom experience, and the talks, and workshop experience, and community building experiences that I've had over the last two years, into the digital space, so that more people can access it, and more people can connect with each other. So that's kind of where I'm thinking. And I'm working actually with Erin Ninh, who was a part of the project. She's a professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara, who's a literary scholar and does work on Asian American women and suicide.

Mimi Khuc:                   So yeah, we're actually actively right now thinking about how to both digitize and expand the reach of Open in Emergency, through a [inaudible 00:15:21] program model.

Maggie Mang:               I love just how collective this entire process of the entire project is. Not only in original narration of Open in Emergency. You have dozens and dozens of artists, and skilled collaborators, but now you're also thinking about how do we collaborate on teaching, and working with the material.

Mimi Khuc:                   So Open in Emergency, the original project had over 75 contributors. And that was massive. I did have a few editors who helped manage it a little bit. But I filled most parts. I and my partner Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, the editor of AALR, managed most of that. And that was my first editorial project, taking on 75 contributors is a big thing. I would not recommend it at that scale, except, I was able to build with that scale. So logistically very challenging, but I'm really committed to a kind of communal practice that yes the editor's looking to have this vision, but who brings it to live? You have to give the community the access and the space to bring it to life. I could not have done it on my own without all the people with their brilliance, contributing to it.

Mimi Khuc:                   And so yeah, the teaching program, and now working with other faculty, and thinking about creating this online resource, is all about continuing to grow, and continuing to ... not just its reach, but it's collaborative potential, right? Everyone contributing, the community contributing as much as they can. This is for the community. Who else is it for?

Maggie Mang:               How does one sustain or build this type of community? How did you find these 75 different collaborators? And how are you now sustaining these ties that you're making?

Mimi Khuc:                   We found folks in two ways. So, my partner Lawrence has been editor of AALR for ... now we're coming up on 10 years. And so, he has deep connection with the literary community, Asian American poets, and writers, and artists. Both of us are a part of Asian American Studies. We're both Asian American Studies scholars, and participate actively in that field. We have lots of connections with the scholarly side of doing Asian American work.

Mimi Khuc:                   And so, we had those relationships, but as we were envisioning Open in Emergency, as a mental health project from an Arts and Humanities perspective, and not from a dominant psychological, or psychiatric approach, a medical approach, okay, well who's doing mental health work? Because it's not ... when you first ask that question, most people look to psychology and psychiatry. And we're like we're not going to look there because we actually think that there are artists, and writers, and Humanities scholars who are doing the work who may not call it that. So can we be more expansive? Thinking about what mental health is, and what the work likes like.

Mimi Khuc:                   The question becomes more about who's doing work on suffering, and pain, and meaning-making, and survival, and trauma. Other ways of thinking about mental health. Then there's tons of people doing that work, and doing it in really amazing ways. So, we saw our job as providing this vision, and this structure, and then just pulling in amazing people doing amazing things. Once you pull them in, and you kind of ask them to do their thing, then I don't have to be the expert on everything. And they don't have to be the expert on everything either.

Mimi Khuc:                   I just have a vision for what it could look like to bring in all these amazing people together. And create something that is creative, and artistic, and intervenes, and kind of steps sideways away from the usual ways we talk about mental health from the medical model.

Mimi Khuc:                   And so, as we were envisioning Open in Emergency, Lawrence and I came up with the idea of the DSM, and the tarot cards, but then it became more who could contribute? Whose work right now is really awesome, and would really help us rethink the DSM? Who's doing work that could give us a tarot card, on say adoption from a political perspective? Or refugee experiences.

Mimi Khuc:                   And then, the other part of this is that we did community dreaming questions as we were envisioning the project. So we would host a series of sessions where we brought in scholars, writers, to just have conversations about mental health. And they were sort of unstructured, but they were amazingly feelingful.

Mimi Khuc:                   There was one time when we were all at the Asian American Studies conference, AAAS, somehow got assigned to a room that was a tiny bedroom. It was so small, and there was like 40 of us trapped like sardines in there, because we were sitting on the floor. There was basically no room to move. We were all sitting right up against each other. And there was just so much weeping during the entire session. And the conversation was just about mental health, and meaning, and what does it look like to suffer?

Mimi Khuc:                   I had gathered for the panel, several scholars whose work ... Like Erin Ninh, Eliza No, who does work on Asian American women and suicide, Ginny Lee who's been doing illness and disability studies. I'm thinking about wounded-ness, and so, having kind of different perspectives we suddenly realized this is a similar set of questions. And we suddenly realized so much need. Apparently there had not been a space for this. Just the weight of that, just kind of breaking open all these feelings. We did that several times over the course of a few years. And that's really what got people to buy into the project, and helped me and Lawrence, envision a project that could be intellectually responsible for those community needs.

Maggie Mang:               I have one last question, because I want to be respectful of your time, what do you hope for in terms of how we navigate things like suffering, trauma, in teaching, and care; both with ourselves, and with our loved ones, and with our students, and with our faculty?

Mimi Khuc:                   Some days, I think you're catching me on a better day, some days I'm not feeling so hopeful about the state of things. But there are other days, where I actually, when I engage students, and see both how hungry they are for resources, and for ways of talking about their suffering, and their mental health, I'm like, you know what? The future is fucking fine. These students, they know what's up. They know what questions to ask, and they are demanding answers. And they're smart as fuck. And so, those days feel really good. Then there's days where I encounter my colleagues, and I'm like, y'all are annoying as fuck. Like you ... like [inaudible 00:21:52] to ask the right questions sometimes. And won't ask it in their work, won't ask it of themselves, and definitely won't ask it with their students. That feels really frustrating to me.

Mimi Khuc:                   So my hope, as I've been traveling around the country and talking to folks, I see students really pushing for this, but I see definitely some resistance amongst faculty, and amongst university administrations. But it does feel like it's shifting. It just feels like universities can not continue to pretend that mental health really doesn't matter.

Mimi Khuc:                   Now the ways that they are pretending it matters is challenging, because they're willing to say it matters, and then they do some fluffy ass shit around it. That's challenging. But that doesn't mean that there is a shift, if that makes sense right? And so I'm really hopeful that the students continue to succeed in their push for asking for what they need. And then the kind of reception of Open in Emergency has also been really hope making, in that when we made the project, we had ... we knew it was some good stuff, but we didn't really know until people were like, this is what we needed.

Mimi Khuc:                   That was so validating to hear from folks that this was what they needed, and this is saving their lives. That was the goal, but I never dreamed it would reach the people that it's reached, and had the kind of success that it has. So I do want to say that I think it has shifted the conversation already. I see it shifting in Asian American studies. I see it shifting in disability studies, which are the two fields that I'm engaging in the most right now. And things shifting in academia are always a slow process, glacial process. But I do see it shifting, so I'm hoping that that continues, and I'm hoping that on the way we burn some shit down. That's always necessary, and we build new things. And my hope is that Open in Emergency helps give us some tools to start doing both the burning and the building.


You’ve been listening to Contra*: a podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. Contra* is a production of the Critical Design Lab, Kevin Gotkin, Aimi Hamraie, Cassandra Hartblay, Maggie Mang, Jarah Moesch, Leah Samples, and Rebecca Rahimi. Kevin Gotkin created our intro and Cassandra Hartblay designed the logo. Follow us on Twitter at @criticaldesignl and learn more about our projects at http://www.mapping-access.com

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