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Mimi Thi Nguyen: activist, blogger, feminist scholar, punk-rocker. – Photo by Mimi Thi Nguyen Mimi Thi Nguyen: activist, blogger, feminist scholar, punk-rocker. – Photo by Mimi Thi Nguyen

Punk, Feminist, Activist and Professor

By Suey Park

Mimi Thi Nguyen: activist, blogger, feminist scholar, punk-rocker. – Photo by Mimi Thi Nguyen

One of my biggest regrets about attending the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign is missing out on the opportunity to take a class with the transnational feminist punk scholar, zinester, and critical fashionista Mimi Thi Nguyen. Lucky for me, Mimi is on twitter (@lnzombia) and is always showing her support for the youth and downtrodden students like myself. Mimi has a book called The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages, which has influenced a lot of my own understanding of the US empire. She will be touring with the POC Zine Project (@POCZineProject) throughout the year and speaking on an art panel during the Queer Dreams and Non-Profit Blues Conference October 4-5th

Don’t miss out on a chance to connect with and learn from some amazing people who are surviving, thriving, and have paved us a way. Not only is Mimi a badass academic, but she supports the rabble-rousing students that just need some love. Like myself, Mimi also cuts her own hair and has quit a Master’s program, which makes me think I might be okay, too. 

How would you describe your young adult self? Would you offer any advice or words of comfort for your young adult self?

My punk rock young adult self did not always stop to reflect before acting! I was impetuous, self-righteous, and did not pick my battles – instead I fought them all, and I blamed myself for any failures to change minds, to make change. I felt all my feelings so intensely, but without patience, or contemplation. I would tell my younger self to breathe, and be kind and compassionate to myself.

What inspires you to continue working and fighting against oppressive systems?

Pretty much, I’m inspired by the fact that shit is fucked up, and we need to figure out how to un-fuck it up. But it is a huge knot of myriad threads, so I also am aware now that it requires patience and imagination to deal with the terrible nature of our present moment of political urgency. It might sound like a contradiction – to have patience and imagination during a moment of crisis – but I believe that we can’t let ourselves believe that we know ahead of time what the future will look like, or how to get there. Patience is that moment of stillness that allows us to be present, and to remember why we fight, and imagination is that which makes it possible for us not to succumb to the already-known directives and demands (be practical, be straightforward) that haven’t yet gotten us out of this mess.

Have you ever experienced burnout? If so, how do you deal with it? As an educator, do you ever feel triggered by the ignorance of others? If so, how do you deal with triggers?

I definitely experienced burnout after my third year as a clinic defense organizer in the Bay Area, in the early 1990s. It was difficult to face so much violence on a regular basis. This was the hey-day of Operation Rescue California, a radicalized offshoot of Operation Rescue National. ORC produced “WANTED” posters of abortion providers with their home addresses and the addresses of their children’s schools. They left bullets carved with clinic workers’ names on doorsteps and picketed in front of clinics, but also in front of providers and nurses’ homes. They often made common cause with white supremacists and other Christian fundamentalists, so we were dealing with this quite dangerous web of multitudinous violence. My reproductive freedom group was composed of a radical bunch of queers, punks, freaks, and our allies, so we weren’t afraid to mix it up – but that fighting energy is hard to sustain. I felt so overwhelmed, a lot of the time. I was twenty, twenty-one years old, and I held nothing back for myself, so it’s no wonder I burned out.

As an educator, I have learned to be much more generous with others with regard to their critical capacities and base of knowledge, especially students. We are in a moment with regard to higher education in which students who come to a public university, even a flagship university, are not necessarily prepared. The standardizing testing regime of No Child Left Behind has had a real, palpable impact: students seem to be more comfortable with Scantron than with argumentation. And we also are in such an anti-intellectual milieu, one that boasts of American pragmatism over speculative inquiry and wild theorizing, that students often confuse “opinion” for fact, or truth. I can’t blame them, look at the state of journalism right now. It is my job to try to meet them where they are at while throwing open the possibilities for other paths.

I also recognize that I have students’ attention for only three hours a week (plus whatever time they spend on the readings, which varies of course), and there’s only so much I can do in that time. I am not ultimately responsible for whether or not a student is receptive to the critical labor, and I am also not ultimately responsible for whether or not a student is hostile. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t bother me when students access racist, misogynist, homophobic, et cetera, discourses as common sense – and they do it quite often – in my classroom. But I do my best to recognize the histories that have put them there in those seats, saying those things because it has never occurred to them that other possibilities are sayable, let alone thinkable.

As someone who teaches in both Asian American Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies, I wonder if you can share any insight you have on intersectional identities. I know I have been marginalized for being a feminist in the APIA world. Why is it important for POC to understand feminism?

It is important because the institutions and intuitions that inform racial commonsense are also gendered institutions and intuitions, yet forms of gender and sexuality often seem to be understood as more “natural,” more “biological,” than racial knowledge, such that persons who might be well aware of, say, certain fallacies of racial discourse (for instance, the correlation of race and IQ) might still believe that young boys and girls “naturally” gravitate toward distinct forms of play. Feminist theories seem so frightening because they strike the center of what so many imagine is the human heart – romantic love, family, intimacy, beauty, and other imagined social goods. Of course, regimes of racial knowledge are not somehow divorced from forms of gender and sexuality, and deeply inform how we conceive these things, but certainly, these things are often held out as above or beyond the realm of the political.

Nonetheless, gender is a central organizing principle of relations of power and knowledge, and gender informs those philosophical assumptions underlying our interpretations of the nature and meaning of social processes, aesthetic movements, and political exercises. So one of the most important tasks of feminist theories has been to challenge conventional ways of knowing, of accumulating and codifying or institutionalizing or affirming knowledge in order to make more clear, more obvious, that these are not necessarily the only ways of knowing. This also requires understandings of power other than as boot on the neck. It can feel like a caress, or a pleasure, and still act on us powerfully. As I like to tell students, you may not believe in gender, but gender believes in you.

Did you always want to be a professor? How has your career transformed over the years?

I had no plan in mind when I decided to go to graduate school, at all! I knew that I didn’t want to work at a nonprofit, which seemed the most likely scenario for an undergraduate women’s studies major with an activist sensibility, even in 1995. I went to graduate school because of the aforementioned burnout; I wanted to make sense of it, and why it seemed difficult to make any headway against the rhetorical politics and aesthetics of the antiabortion movement. I never thought of it as a career: at twenty-one I had just come to grips with the fact that my conviction that the one thing I would choose to be always and forever – punk – was shaken by incidents of both racism and racist cool, and of course misogyny! I just wanted to understand more.

I did always mean to be a writer. As a little kid, I wanted to be a science fiction and fantasy novelist, but I was a terrible hack. My dialogue was so stilted, and all my plot points and characters were totally variations on those I found in books and TV shows. (No one gets to read my 21 Jump Street fan fiction!) Once I discovered punk and politics, I bent my writing energies toward both those scenes.

Eventually, in graduate school for the second time at Berkeley (I quit at the Master’s the first time), I realized that I wanted to be not just a writer, but also a scholar. I wanted to be able to sit with and study a confounding object in depth, at length. I like to say that all my scholarship is fueled by my encounters with objects that make me say, “What the fuck is going on?!” I also found that the impulses that inform my writing could also be turned toward teaching. Doing one or the other, I want to be able to inspire others to be curious about the shape of their lives and the lives of others in the world, to ask, “So what?” and know that the answer (however complicated) must matter somehow.

Many argue about “the right way to do activism.” How do you define activism? What are ways in which young people and college students can become activists? Are there multiple roles and definitions we can use?

As someone who has a critique of reform-minded, ameliorative campaigns and yet also recognizes that what I do in the classroom might be understood as such, and as someone who has been inspired by revolutionary movements and yet also knows that these can foster authoritarianism and arrogance, I hate prescriptions and imperatives! We hear all the time that our moment of ongoing crisis requires practical action, straightforward prose, clear reasoning, hard facts, common sense, and so forth, and we hear this from both reformist and revolutionary corners. I am not against these things; I am just against arguments that these things are the only forms through which we might define “activism” or politics now.

So yes, I believe there are multiple forms through which we might pursue activism and politics now, and we can and should debate their benefit or failure in a given moment, all the time. As I said before, the nature of the urgency is such that we can’t rule out punk rock disruption, or idle speculation, or even complicated theories as possible seeds for the something more we are looking for, though we might not know it for a seed of the something more until later.

Follow Mimi on Twitter @Inzombia

Follow Suey on Twitter @Suey_Park

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Suey Park

Writer & Activist | #NotYourAsianSidekick |

Catch up with me @suey_park.



higher education


culture creators


September 16, 2013

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