by Jen Lue
As a writer, I’ve always been interested in working with archetypes as a way of asking questions, exploring the self, and understanding elements of character and personality. The practice of reading a birth chart or a tarot spread is akin to a certain kind of storytelling – creating a narrative out of a symbolic system, being open to multiple readings and interpretations, and relating it all back to the individual in an attempt to entertain, provide relief, or build connection.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to notice that I’m not the only writer and artist who harbors a secret (or not-so-secret) interest in tarot, astrology, and personality tests like Enneagram and Myers-Briggs. I’ve had countless discussions with writers over e-mail, at dinner, and while in residency about the minutiae of different astrological house systems or the value of Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom.
Chaya Babu, Swati Khurana, and I met at an astrology and storytelling course led by astrologer Alice Sparkly Kat at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in the fall of last year. I’ve always admired their writing and, as someone who has taken her own circuitous route towards memoir, I was drawn to their many lives—distinctly “zig-zag paths,” in the spirit of Bloom—as creatives in journalism, social organizing, and visual art before turning to fiction and personal nonfiction.
Chaya Babu’s journalism has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, VICE, and The Feminist Wire, and her culture writing has earned her fellowships from BuzzFeed Emerging Writers, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Open City program, and Vermont Studio Center. She holds an MS in journalism from Medill, an MFA in writing from Pratt Institute and her creative nonfiction has been featured in The Margins, BuzzFeed, Du-Kool Magazine and Go Home!, an anthology of Asian & Asian-American poetry and prose.
Swati Khurana started her career as a multidisciplinary visual artist, exhibiting her embroidery, drawing and installation work at the Queens Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and DUMBO Arts Festival before earning her MFA in fiction at Hunter College. She has gone on to receive writing fellowships and awards from the Center for Fiction, Kundiman, the Jerome Foundation, Vermont Studio Center and New York Foundation for the Arts. Her fiction and essays have been featured in Guernica, The Offing, and The New York Times among others. She is a founding member of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC) and she published one of her first essays “Experience Required: The End of Love (Letters)” in Bloom in 2013. She is 43-years-old.
We sat down recently to discuss how they came to their current practices and how they relate back to their writing and creative life.
Jen Lue: I wanted to start by asking when you were initially drawn to tarot and astrology and how these practices intersect with your creative life.
Chaya Babu: I’ve always been drawn to what I would categorize as alternative ways of knowing. It comes from a sense of not-belonging. I knew that I was experiencing the world in a different way and I wanted to find other ways of seeing things, beyond what was visible to me on the day-to-day. The way I put it sometimes is seeing “beyond the veil” to the higher force or energy that’s driving things.
Swati Khurana: Vedic astrology is a part of my family’s culture. I often felt that the relationship I had to it was fraught because I didn’t know how much was consensual. Certain astrological practices such as those in South Asian matrimonial websites, in business alliances and in setting wedding dates, I’ve seen used very oppressively in the culture at large, to shut things down and to quiet other peoples’ voices.
I’m still trying to figure out my relationship to astrology and consent, and taking that class at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop was a part of it. So much of what we see comes from a Western tradition, and I’m interested in working within different astrological traditions. I also wonder “Is this even scientific?” or “Is this real?”. Does it matter, if it provides meaning?
CB: Tarot and astrology have helped me reframe my whole idea of myself. Even if my understanding is rooted in one astrologer’s framework or doesn’t cover all the parts of Eastern or non-Western astrology, these practices have helped reshape my thinking around concepts like darkness, light, cycles, death and rebirth.
I agree that there are so many ways in which astrology and tarot can be oppressive, especially when we come from a culture that might call off a wedding or a partnership because the “stars” don’t align. But in terms of understanding the self or performing soul work – I feel like so much healing has happened for me because an astrologer has pointed out an aspect of my birth chart that has led me to pursue a new line of thinking and to integrate different parts of my personality.
You can have these conceptions of yourself that the world has framed as either positive or negative. Everything in tarot or astrology has a duality embedded in it, and approaching your practice that way makes the world and the creative work we do that much more nuanced. There is beauty and healing in that.
JL: One of the first tarot readings I ever received was from Alexander Chee, who writes extensively about his practice in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. In his essay “The Querent,” he makes the argument that you should never read for yourself or for someone you’re in love with because you can’t give them the unbiased type of reading that they need. Later in the book, he ties this in to writing essays and nonfiction work by noting that it’s important to be “coldly impersonal about ourselves and our state so as not to cloud what is there with what we want to see”. Do you agree or disagree?
SK: I agree with the first point because I think our wish fulfillment is really strong. My husband would not want me to read for him nor would I want to. The impulse is even stronger with my daughter because not only do I love her but I’m also her mother. I want to protect her. I want to create the world for her but I can’t. Too much would be at stake in a reading for her. Also, she can’t consent to a reading, and that is very important to me.
In terms of reading for yourself, I can see where Alex is coming from but I could never have started reading for anyone else without reading for myself first. Over time I’ve come to develop rituals for my practice. I shower before doing a reading, which is done at night or when my daughter is at school. I give myself time and so I am not disturbed. I draw at least three cards and I write down what I’m seeing. I almost always take a picture of it and I’ll make a voice note of the reading if I’m too tired to write my thoughts down. Now, the readings for myself have gotten better because I treat myself like a client.
I gather incredible value from the immediate impact of a reading. I’ll write down my initial observations on what the cards means, date it, and leave space in my notebook to go back to it. Then a few times a year, on full moons, new moons, solstices, or birthdays, I’ll go back through with a different color pen, date it and write down my thoughts after a period of time has passed. I read about half of the cards differently the second time around.
I find that time can give me that sense of distance and impartiality both in tarot and in my writing. It’s easiest for me to write about something after I’ve been far enough removed from the initial emotional state and I know how my feelings about it have shifted over time. In my nonfiction, a lot of the things I write about happened years or decades before I actually start writing about it and certainly long before I think about publishing it. There’s value in that initial feeling. But the distance then allows me to go back and think, “Oh, that situation was really present to me that day. I had a certain interpretation of it and now there’s a completely different meaning”.
CB: I question the idea that we can ever write about ourselves in a cold, impersonal way. I think a lot depends on what your intention is for a reading. We can read tarot to assess how something is going to go in the future or as a mirror for the energies present. For me, tarot has helped in working through trauma states and rewiring parts of the brain.
Like Swati, I often take photos of the cards and journal about them but I read tarot very frequently. I don’t always have the time to write extensively about every reading that I do. I tend to pull cards during moments when I’m perceiving a situation from a fear-based mindset or a trauma trigger. I pull one card to ask, “Where am I right now?” and I pull another card to ask, “What is actually going on? What do I not see?”.
If I get a card that assuages me in a certain way or calms my nervous system, to me it’s not about whether or not I’m accessing the objective or unbiased truth. It’s about caring for myself without leaning on anybody else. I’m finding a way towards another potential truth, different from what I might be seeing through the lens of woundedness. It’s a form of self-talk, of self-soothing. I have found that the question of whether the practice is partial or impartial is not really relevant to me in that sense. It’s about processing my own intuition, my own sense of things and moving towards new possibilities. That’s also a good explanation for why I write.
JL: You both have very interdisciplinary artistic practices. Chaya, you come from a journalism background but you also write memoir, essays, and personal nonfiction. Swati, you have an extensive career as a visual artist (sculpture, film, installation and ink drawing among other mediums), in addition to writing fiction. Do you feel that these disciplines reflect on each other in your writing work?
SK: My novel started while I was in graduate school at Hunter for fiction at the same time that I was at the Center for Book Arts on the tail end of an artist fellowship. I was in my exhibition and final project stage at the Center. I studied history in college and I teach history so I’ve always been interested in the past but I couldn’t wrap my head around 1940s India, which is a time period I’ve been interested in writing about. Electricity, toilets, what would the furniture have been like? I couldn’t see it enough for me to really dig into it.
When I was at the Center for Book Arts, I was working on the Vandercook press but I started looking at the Platen press which I had never really used before. I liked looking at and listening to the Platen and I realized that this technology could exist in a printshop in the 1940s, in Lahore. All of a sudden, the Platen press became a way that I could think about the novel. I realized that I could base the novel in a printshop, that the printshop could be a home and that the people who owned the printshop could be a family. I found that I could go further and further out from there, and so my novel was born. It is still being born.
CB: I appreciate the distinction you’ve made between journalism and the other prose writing that I do. I’ve often had trouble thinking of them as two distinct practices and seeing that distinction reflected in the world. A lot of my journalism work is reported essays that include personal experiences. I don’t see all of my journalism as work where I’m placed in the story but it’s been a journey to do these things side-by-side and to see where they diverge and intersect.
During my MFA, I really took a break from doing journalistic work. Now, I feel an intense craving to be reporting again. I love to hear people talk about their own stories and it’s inevitable that in living their lives for a period, we find overlap with something that we’re observing close-up, even if we haven’t experienced it directly. When we work in other forms it enriches and expands the way we think about the work that we feel is our foundation. We allow ourselves different registers of coherence.
This year for the first time I did some visual arts work and that felt like learning to speak a new language. I was at Project for Empty Space in Newark, NJ through a feminist-artist residency. As a writer I had always felt compelled to make sense. I’ve never thought of myself as an artist, so just allowing myself to say, “People will take from this what they will and it means something particular to me” was so freeing. I knew what the intention was behind the work and it didn’t necessarily have to translate coherently in a singular way.
I think that has also fed into this idea of our truth, our wholeness and our knowing — being able to take that idea back towards the writing and to trust myself. That’s how all of this has worked together – believing in myself and my own work.
JL: I was thinking about themes that crop up in both of your writing and one thing that came to mind was the idea of femininity as it manifests in different forms: in roles like wife and mother, in dichotomies like good girl vs. bad girl, and in the problem of beauty standards. Has your thinking on any of those subjects evolved over time?
SK: When I was making visual art, some of my source material was based on pop culture and some of it was based on wedding rituals, especially in the South Asian context. With my writing, it’s definitely something that helps me think about how characters see themselves. I wrote one short flash story in The Offing called “My Ugly Granddaughter”. The title speaks to what it’s about. (I wrote it as an homage to Jamaica Kincaid, whom I love.)
What I’m trying to think about in my fiction is how people inhabit their bodies and space, which connects to an aesthetic framework but can also go much, much deeper than that. How can I depict this cultural milieu that contains this sort of noise in it? How are women and femme characters in conversation with these aesthetics and norms? What agency can they have?
CB: I’m interested in beauty in its physical form but also beauty as it exists on another plane. How do we access “beauty” in the wider sense and be full with it even as the world is trying to rob us of it because we don’t look a certain way?
I’ve recently been thinking about shadow because my name means shadow. Femininity has an association with darkness. The womb space is darkness. The moon is about cycles of coming into shadow and light. In so many communities of color darkness is associated with ugliness. How do we subvert that? How do we transform it entirely?
I’ve also been exploring the concept of Venus as an energy and an archetype that relates to beauty and the divine feminine but also exists beyond our particular social constructs. What does it mean to embody or rest in your Venus energy without needing it to fit the narrow white supremacist, colonialist, or patriarchal constraints of what we think beauty means?
SK: When I’m thinking about beauty I’m also thinking about craft and the appreciation of craft. One of the characters in my novel is a master printer who he is very clean at his work. He is very meticulous at setting up his metal type. His daughter is a visual artist. There’s a lot that she’s seeing as an artist, at the same time that she’s being watched, in her drawing lessons and as a young, adolescent female. The people around her are watching her make something and there are a lot different reactions to that.
In the idea of beauty, grace or craft, I think the concept of wholeness and completion is central. In Fiction 101 they always ask “What does your character want? What do they desire? What’s their obstacle?” Part of what all of my characters want is to be in a state in which their work, their expression, their highest and deepest selves can fully manifest. Some of them are doing it through creative forms, some through more public and political forms. To me, that’s another way of viewing beauty in terms of desire.
JL: In a 2016 Buzzfeed News article that Chaya wrote on the religious practice of Santeria, one of her sources is quoted as saying “Among the Latino community, wellness isn’t trendy […] This isn’t the nice 14th Street bookstore where you smell beautiful scents of incense burning or yoga pamphlets outside.”
As a woman of color, a creative, and someone who is interested in tarot and astrology, I often find myself asking the question, “Who is wellness and spirituality for?” What does wellness mean to you? Do you carry these sorts of questions into your writing and your practice?
CB: I was interested in writing that piece because Santeria is a form of worship, looking towards a system of gods, goddesses and deities, that has been demonized in the Western world.
Within Santeria we find entire communities relying on a certain philosophy and a way of being well that is separate from the mental health system or the medical-industrial complex. The people I spoke to in that story are getting all of their care from their priest, their santero. Some of them told me stories about how the doctors they went to see told them that they were dying and then they went to the santero and they were cured.
I’m interested in the idea of who gets to be well and whose way of existing and perceiving gets to be labeled as “well”. When we think about what it means for communities of color to be well, we can talk about the way systems of oppression enact silent harm by erasing our truth. As a woman of color you grow up experiencing things at the same that you’re being told, “This isn’t happening to you”. To me, reclaiming your own reality when it has been systematically robbed of you, is coming back to wellness. Instead of wellness I would just say “wholeness”.
SK: My first connection to the practice was through a woman of color. I had a tarot reading, a really powerful one, with a root worker from Louisiana, a multigenerational Creole woman, and yet I resisted my own connection to it because of the New Age industrial complex, because of the violence of the word “Namaste”.
I don’t think that labels matter but sometimes they act as containers for different communities, and that’s something I’m still seeking, even here among Asian-American women who read tarot and are interested in astrology. It isn’t easy to find. I’m not interested in spiritual communities who don’t think about the stakes of the world we’re living in and the actions we’re taking as a collective in that forum, in addition to our own.
CB: Before I did the piece on Santeria, I was interested in groups who were doing spiritual work for the Black Lives Matter movement. I was planning to do a piece on Harriet’s Apothecary and frame it around the question of how religion, faith and spirituality function within movements for justice. I was thinking about the Black Church during the Civil Rights era.
It really becomes a question of faith. As communities of color, as people of color, how do we have faith in ourselves and in the truth that we deserve to exist when we are constantly being confronted with a mirror that tells us differently? For me, the question of wellness is about integrating the parts of ourselves that have been severed by the violence of colonialism, of capitalism and of patriarchy. When I think of these practices as helping me be well, I am thinking about how they help me align with my truth.
Jen Lue is a nonfiction writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Kundiman, VONA/Voices and Jerome Foundation among others. A graduate of the MFA program in memoir at Hunter College, she works at The Moth and serves on the board of the literary journal Epiphany.
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