Differentially Unwell: On Mimi Khúc’s “dear elia”

By Seo-Young ChuMarch 5, 2024

Differentially Unwell: On Mimi Khúc’s “dear elia”

dear elia: Letters from the Asian American Abyss by Mimi Khúc

YOU ARE 21, sitting at a desk in a studio in New Haven, Connecticut. It’s spring, 1999, and the despair of being an Asian American daughter is slowly killing you. You feel punishingly indebted to your Korean parents, both of whom survived the Korean War and have sacrificed everything to let you exist. You feel Koreanly textured forms of unwellness that you will later discover have been felt by others and assigned specific names: Korean han (한) and hwabyung (화병). A few moments from now you will try your best to die by suicide because, already, you are dying of the shame you feel you are inflicting on your family. Because being a “model” Korean American daughter—100 pounds, heterosexual, feminine, in possession of a 4.0 GPA—is impossible. Because the only way you know to show love to your Korean parents is through apologetic self-negation.


The word “trauma”—from the Greek for “wound”—can refer to injury to the psyche resulting from an event so singularly threatening that the violence thwarts experience itself, haunting the survivor belatedly through flashbacks. But “trauma” can also encompass more chronic and routine woundings. In recent years, the word has appeared with growing frequency in an ever-pluralizing and intersecting range of contexts. It has cropped up in gendered microaggressions, everyday racism, and other, insidious manifestations of late-stage capitalism. Some believe “trauma” has been overused to the point where the word is now vacant of meaning. Yet what if the proliferation of the word reflects the proliferation of the referent?

We live in times of ongoing crises. Over the course of only 24 hours, a person might encounter aggressors as various in shape and scale as indebtedness, abusive family members, damaging stereotypes, inimical laws, intergenerational distress, ruthlessly feckless institutions, and air toxified by fires both distant and near. The ubiquitous usage of “trauma” does not mean the word has become meaningless. It means we are constantly undergoing and/or recovering from and/or anticipating some kind of siege. It also means we need both to expand and to refine the vocabularies we use for identifying different kinds of woundedness. Or, to employ a cartographic figure of speech: We need to design ampler and more vividly detailed maps of trauma to navigate our wound-filled realities with as much attentiveness and care as is humanly possible.

Mimi Khúc’s brilliant and unconventional new book, dear elia: Letters from the Asian American Abyss, is a vital contribution to such brave, careful remapping. Conventional wisdom, Khúc notes, tends to locate “mental health” in spaces with names like “wellness center” and “student counseling services,” as well as in more figurative spaces with names like “success,” “productivity,” “achievement,” and “positive thinking.” Khúc challenges these overly rehearsed lines of thought by positing what might seem initially like a paradox: “mental health” is in fact a life-threatening malady. Somewhat provocatively, the book’s opening pages argue that “what we’ve thought mental health is all along is actually killing us”—“psychology, psychiatry, clinical psychotherapy, university counseling centers, and popular discourses of wellness and self-care are all failing us, and their chief failures are along the axes of race and ableism.” According to Khúc, not only are “the existing industry and scholarly understandings of mental health” actively wounding—traumatizing—our “bodyminds” (to borrow a term from disability studies), but what we normally think of as mental unwellness can also, counterintuitively, be a site of healing, community, and deliverance.

Inviting readers to reclaim the stigma of unwellness and collectively to “tend to our unwellness, together,” Khúc approaches unwellness as a crucial resource for subverting the “wellness and unwellness” dichotomy entirely. After all, the opposite of “wellness” is not “unwellness”; the opposite of “wellness” does not exist. The opposition itself is an artificial framework, one that reductively harms more than it dialogically helps. We need to move away from these simplistic dualisms, Khúc suggests, and towards more generous, trauma-informed epistemologies.


“We are all differentially unwell.” Khúc first coined the phrase “differential unwellness” in 2016, and it has since become essential to her work. Like a lyric refrain, this phrase (or a variation on it) resounds throughout dear elia, evoking a different texture of significance in each of its idiosyncratic contexts. In an epistle to her daughter Elia, Khúc invokes the phrase with tender urgency: “I need you to understand that we are all differentially unwell, that people are vulnerable, made vulnerable, kept vulnerable. That our vulnerabilities are both our death and our life. That our vulnerabilities link us, connect us, in a web of death and survival.”

Elsewhere, Khúc couches the phrase in a more scholarly voice, theorizing the unwellnesses specific to the many Asian American students she has taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and Georgetown University, as well as the many Asian American students she has met touring schools across the United States:

But if we understand unwellness not as decontextualized individual pathology to be cured but as a direct product of structural violence—if we are all differentially unwell, in relation to the various structures of power and exploitation and degradation around us—then the question is not how to medically treat all these teens and young adults, or even how to expand access to treatment for them. The question becomes: What are the structures producing Asian American unwellness in this period of Asian American life? And how do we dismantle them?

Khúc often incorporates this phrase while advocating for a culture of radical care and access in the classroom. Indeed, Khúc’s notion of differential unwellness is inseparable from her theory and practice of teaching: a “pedagogy of unwellness” that acknowledges and responds to students’ differing capacities and needs.

“We are all differentially unwell.” Khúc uses the first-person plural to speak for Asian Americans; she is also speaking to the reality that humans everywhere “are unwell in different ways at different times, in relation to differentially disabling and enabling structures.” Everyone is in need of some kind of care—insofar as any one of us is unwell at any point in time due to a constellation of variables (demographic factors, for example), layered against a different constellation of variables (say, the current time of day, month, year), layered against a different constellation of variables (genetic susceptibility to particular diseases, perhaps), layered against a different constellation of variables (luck, chance, happenstance), layered against a different constellation of variables (the local and global news, maybe) and so on. None of these variables or constellations exist in isolation. They are continuously interacting, inflecting one another, intricately mutating both together and apart.

We are all differentially unwell. Rereading this line, I have grown more and more moved by its prolific and revelatory power to illuminate my own unwellness in relation to the unwellness of others. My experience as an involuntarily childless 1.5th-generationally Korean Americanly unwell academic privileged to have tenure is meaningfully different from Khúc’s experience as a second-generationally Vietnamese American mother who is a “permanently contingent scholar” with “no way of getting tenure.” Yet our experiences of unwellness nearly—Asian Americanly—rhyme (so to speak) with one another, and with other Asian American unwellnesses, too. They resonate across the Asian American abyss through shared plights such as the horrors of anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, the exquisite pressures of filial piety and guilt, the stresses of coming out as queer to disapproving Asian elders, and the suicidal ideations shaped by what Khúc aptly terms the “slow violence of model minoritization.” To attend with precision to the ways in which we are differentially unwell is to begin to pinpoint the ways in which we can cultivate living dialogue and mutual care. Solidarity: We are Asian Americanly unwell together.


Above, I used the word “map” with respect to dear elia. But “map” is ultimately the wrong figure of speech for a book that does so much more than diagrammatically chart. Indeed, “book” may be the wrong word for something that does so much more than what most books try to do. As Khúc defiantly puts it: “I don’t write books. I make cool shit: unclassifiable hybrids that break genre and form to give us something we didn’t know we need.”

Before dear elia, Khúc created Open in Emergency, a vibrantly heteroglossic and dynamically interactive project addressing and redressing the problem of Asian American unwellness. Published in 2016 through the Asian American Literary Review, and incorporating the voices of over 75 contributors, Open in Emergency took the form of a box—an artistic-activist-academic toolkit—whose contents encompass what Khúc calls

a hacked mock DSM: Asian American Edition exploring alternate modes of “diagnosis”; an original deck of tarot cards, created from Asian American knowledge production to reveal the structural forces shaping our lives; handwritten daughter-to-mother letters tracing both intimacies and violences in our families; a redacted, rewritten pamphlet on postpartum depression to intervene in medical knowledge dissemination; and a tapestry poster of collective wounds gathered from across the Asian American community.

Since its inception, Open in Emergency has aided countless Asian American bodyminds by offering emotional CPR as well as more long-term relief for those who are Asian Americanly in pain. Khúc’s newest book is likewise invigorating and experimental, availing itself of myriad genres and modes including syllabi; Mad Libs; autotheory; lively storytelling; epistolary frameworks; manifestos; photographs of scrawled notes; witness-bearing; tarot card readings accompanied by gorgeous visual illustrations by artists such as Camille Chew, Matt Huynh, Nguyên Khôi Nguyễn; critical university studies; annotations; prose poetry; social media posts; conversations with Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, erin Khuê Ninh, Jim Lee, and other beloved family members, colleagues, friends; and travelogue-esque dispatches from Khúc’s six-year-long speaking tour meeting with students on campuses across the United States. Together, these capaciously accommodate the manifold nature of Khúc’s insights into the plurally textured and complexly chronic states of emergency we each inhabit today.


Of the many genres Khúc deploys in dear elia, one is particularly striking in its relevance to Khúc’s pedagogy of unwellness and its ability to engage the reader: the classroom activity. Interspersed throughout the book are thoughtfully designed prompts followed by ruled lines inviting the reader to put their own words on the page. In the second chapter, “Touring the Abyss,” for instance, Khúc asks readers, “What does unwellness look and feel like for you?” and actually offers space for them to inscribe their response. In a later chapter, during a lesson on filial gratitude, Khúc wonders, “Do you feel like you owe your parents for their sacrifices?” before instructing the reader: “Write down five things that you feel you have to do in order to repay this debt.”

These are just a few of the many interactive prompts that make dear elia an apposite resource for classrooms, workshops, and discussion groups of all sizes. The prompts lend themselves to discussions within the psyche too. Near the end of dear elia, Khúc asks readers to pen letters to their past, present, or future selves. She writes:

Now that you’ve read this book, what do you want to remind yourself or teach yourself in this moment? What are things you wish you had known before, or things you hope for yourself for the future? What have you learned about your own unwellness, and what do you want to say about it, and to it?

To my 21-year-old self in spring 1999: I wish you could read dear elia. Then you would know that you are not alone. That your unwellness is not your fault. That you are allowed to feel ungrateful and angry at the forces that contribute to your unwellness. That the abyss engulfing you is shared by others who are also Asian Americanly wounded and suffering.

Thankfully, a quarter of a century into the future, you will read dear elia. You will feel waves of visceral empathy for your younger self. You will weep, and the weeping will be cathartic. Unapologetically emotional, exuberantly unorthodox, fiercely compassionate, dear elia: Letters from the Asian American Abyss will save your life.

LARB Contributor

Seo-Young Chu is a queer Korean American scholar, feminist, poet, #MeToo activist, and associate professor of English at Queens College, CUNY. She is the author of  “A Refuge for Jae-in Doe: Fugues in the Key of English Major” (2017) and Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation (2010).


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