INTERVIEW: Trung Nguyen on personal narratives in tarot and art

The people in my life deserve to find themselves considered in the fanciful parts of my imagination – in a perfect world, my loved ones are there, and that means there should be gender variance, there should be a lot of people of color, and depictions of queer affection.

Trung Nguyen is a comic book artist, illustrator and tarot creator based in Minnesota.

His Manga-style depiction of The Moon caught my eye on Twitter last week, and as I followed the links, I was excited to discover a fascinating artist in the process of creating his own tarot deck.

He’s also working on as a comic-book version of The Little Mermaid, an adorable lo-fi web comic called Literal Unicorn Boyfriend, and loads of other brilliant projects too!

You can find links to all of Trung’s work around the web via his website: trungles.com

Trung-Nguyen-artwork

Trung’s work is colourful, cartoonish and draws on all kinds of mythologies, fairy tales and heroic narratives, as does all of his work. Increasingly, his work is encompassing more of his own personal narratives, too.

As we talked over email, Trung explained how these narratives – in particular as a refugee, as a person of colour, as a queer person – have come to inform and influence his art.

Hey Trung! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I am mostly a comics artist working in Minnesota. I studied art history, painting, and a bit of sociology, so I tend to be all about histories of power and oppression discourses as evident through popular images and mass media and fairy stories (I know, it’s a weird combination, but I really think it works together beautifully).

I love cartoons and animated TV shows. Recently, I’ve been investing in incorporating more of my personal narratives into my comics, so I’m going over old keepsakes of my refugee days before I came over to the United States.

Fairy tales and academic language are both ways to keep shared experiences that may be highly personal and emotional at arm’s length, and I want to close that distance in the work I’m doing.

Trung-Nguyen-Hermit-Wheel-of-Fortune-Tarot-Cards

Refugee days? Could you tell us a little more about that?

Sure! I am Vietnamese, ethnically. I was born in a refugee camp near Bataan in the Philippines. My parents were “boat people” floating from the shores of South Vietnam with nearly a hundred other people in a tiny fishing boat for days on open water before landing on the shores of whichever neighboring nation would take them.

This was in the mid-80s. We were sponsored by some Minnesotans in 1992, so we moved to Minnesota when I was about two or three. We eventually became American citizens in 1998.

Trung’s deck features people of varied ethnicities and sexualities. I asked him to what extent this had been a conscious decision.

I’d say it’s a deliberate choice on its way to being a second-nature part of the way I work, and there’s a bit of context to it. I mainly studied the visual vocabulary and tropes of fairy tales throughout most of my academic career. I spent a lot of time looking at Edmund Dulac, Rose O’Neill, Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke, Margaret Evans Price, and Arthur Rackham, to name a few. Consequently, they more or less ended up in my work, and you can sort of tell.

The unfortunate side effect is that almost all my figures were white, and I took up a lot of the Orientalist tropes they employed in their imagery pretty uncritically for a while. At some point, I took a hard look at my work and wondered why none of the figures in my images looked like me, the people in my family, or any of the folks in my life. And it just amazed me, you know? If there was room in my mind enough to empathize with talking animals and flying lizards, why didn’t I seem to exist in my own imagination? The notion was almost a little ridiculous, but at some point I actually had to convince myself, in all my Asian Americanness, that I deserve to exist in my own fantasies!

But that’s the reality for many people of color – we internalize the idea that we are not considered people worthy of space in our own minds. The people in my life deserve to find themselves considered in the fanciful parts of my imagination – in a perfect world, my loved ones are there, and that means there should be gender variance, there should be a lot of people of color, and depictions of love and attraction should, by its nature, encompass queer affection.

I think that’s what it means to be considerate – you hold people in consideration, they exist in your mind and your thoughts as, well, people. And if the people in my imagination start looking a little homogenous, it is imperative that I reassess my definition of people to best accommodate and support the agency of the people in my life.

Trung-Nguyen-The-Lovers-Tarot-Cards

Trung plans to include several different versions of The Lovers in his deck

I asked Trung more about the tarot project itself – how it all began and the ideas behind the card imagery.

I wasn’t too familiar with tarot until I participated in a tarot-themed group exhibition in 2012 at this wonderful gallery called the Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis. [View the Light Grey Tarot here.]

It was my very first exhibition since I’d graduated that spring – I illustrated the 10 of Cups. My interest in the cards resurfaced a couple years later, and there’s no way to spend so much time with each card and not come to develop a strong relationship with them. I began the project with the intention of exploring the iconography behind the Rider-Waite-Smith cards, re-envisioning them to bolster their narrative clarity, and to hopefully make them more accessible to contemporary readers.

So when I talk about ‘personal narratives’, for me this is the idea of “showing” and not “telling.” Especially with the tarot illustrations, there are lots of symbols that need to be incorporated like a text. There are some superfluous elements of images here and there for embellishment, but I have to make sure each picture can be “read”. It’s sort of like writing a beautifully succinct academic text and then refining it by removing the extraneous purple prose.

Trung-Nguyen-Fortitude-Sun-Tarot-Cards

The impetus for the project has changed a little bit from its inception. I originally started the tarot deck last year in black and white, but it lacked the capacity to elegantly convey so much narrative imagery in such small illustrations.

For 2015 I decided to regroup and redraw everything with the intention of playing with colors. The use of color makes them stick a little better in my memory.

Trung Nguyen The Empress Tarot Card

So, what are your plans for this project? Will it be a complete deck and will you publish it?

I do plan to complete the whole deck. Seventy-eight or more illustrations is a daunting project, but with a little careful planning and proper preparation, it’s a nice way for a new and very part-time artist to learn how to refine a rigorous project.

At this point, I might release the Major Arcana separately before I go on to work on the suits.

What is your favourite tarot deck, and why?

I am not too familiar with very many decks, but I’ve looked at a few and nothing really beats the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. I love Smith’s illustrations. Although I’m not really trying to create something based on esoteric knowledge to which I have no access, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is an excellent starting point for getting a grasp of tarot.

Trung-Nguyen-Temperance-Death-Tarot-Cards

And how about your favourite tarot cards?

My favorite card at the moment, I think, is Death because it’s so often conflated with literal death. Compounded with its number (XIII) and its classic death’s head imagery, it tends to drudge up sentiments of doom. It’s actually generally favorable, from what I’ve seen. It indicates closure, which is sometimes met with trepidation and sorrow I suppose, but it makes room for newness and transition. I reinterpreted the personification of Death as the child Thanatos in the arms of Nyx, his mother, playfully catching souls. I think it captures the sentiment of natural transition a little better than a grim reaper.

From my own deck, my personal favorite so far would have to be The Moon – it’s my birth card, so it’s always been a pet favorite. The story of the goddess in the Moon seemed to be really appropriate for the card, and I took it as an opportunity to break from Western iconographic traditions while retaining the meaning of the card as it’s read. The Sun corresponds to it a little, but The Moon also seems to be related to The Hermit, which I also really like.

Trung-Nguyen-The-Moon-Tarot-CardIMG_2312Find out more:

If you (like me) want to support the creation of this awesome tarot deck, you can make a monthly donation to Trung via Patreon.

You can also find and support Trung Nguyen all over the internet!

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11 comments

  1. Ah! Thank you so much for sharing this artist! I’m blown away by his art and SAD that I can’t immediately go purchase this deck! His art this gorgeous blend of Alphonse Mucha and Hayao Miyazaki with a splash of Arthur Rackham. I absolutely love it.

    • Beth says:

      Isn’t it beautiful? I’ve signed up to the Patreon in the hope that it will make the deck come faster… but hey, good things come to those who wait. Love the Mucha comparison too.

    • Shelby says:

      That’s exactly who I’d blend to create art like this! This is exquisite! I cannot wait for this deck to be published and in my hands.

  2. These are such gorgeous, gorgeous cards. Even in black and white, they’re lovely, but with color–WOW.

    “So when I talk about ‘personal narratives’, for me this is the idea of “showing” and not “telling.” Especially with the tarot illustrations, there are lots of symbols that need to be incorporated like a text. There are some superfluous elements of images here and there for embellishment, but I have to make sure each picture can be “read”. It’s sort of like writing a beautifully succinct academic text and then refining it by removing the extraneous purple prose.”

    I think this is what I’m enjoying most about learning tarot–learning to pick up on and read these symbols. It’s like learning a new language and accessing a new mode of thought all in one, and I love it!

    • Beth says:

      Yeah totally. Some decks are so heavy with symbols it’s alienating at first…and then so satisfying when you start to understand them. I love the idea that the artist is trying to convey secret messages to me, hidden in their artwork. And best of all, it’s totally up to you how to read them…once that deck is in your hands it’s really beyond the artists’ control (like any good work of literature I think.)

  3. chloetarot says:

    Oh my, I love what he says about consideration, and seeing himself and the people he loves in his fantasy life! Gorgeous cards, too 😀 Will definitely watch this space for the completed deck!

    • Beth says:

      Yes – this idea of honouring the people you love (and yourself) by allowing them to be part of your imagined, ideal world seems so obvious, but maybe so hard to do – especially with the internalised racism Trung talks about:

      But that’s the reality for many people of color – we internalize the idea that we are not considered people worthy of space in our own minds.

  4. Celia says:

    I am so so so very in love with this deck and am definitely buying it when it’s released– his artwork is so beautiful!

    I think one of the reasons I love his work so much is because I studied art history in high school and am now studying sociology and Latin American Studies in college; all of my personal studies are now tending towards histories of power and oppression discourses and fairy tales and the construction of identity and media– so I love his combination of interests/backgrounds, because I love finding that I’m not the only one who thinks that combo works well together!

  5. Jeanna says:

    What a fabulous interview. The deck is absolutely stunning — I’m not familiar with the artists he’s referencing, but it’s so thoughtful and eye-capturing. “Death” is also a personal favorite of mine right now, and his interpretation of it absolutely blew me away.

    Going to follow on social media immediately!

  6. lustreats says:

    Very colorful and cool. I’m really into his Hermit, and I like the thoughts behind his Death card. Would definitely buy a deck!

  7. Jessi says:

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for sharing this! This deck is beautiful–I’d love to get my hands on it! I’m fairly new to the study of tarot, and one of the first things that struck me when researching decks was their homogeneity. We live in such a diverse, vibrant world! Honestly, it saddens me that people of color don’t see themselves represented, and that this lack of representation affects self-conception so drastically (Benebell Wen just wrote an enlightening blog post regarding this). It’s so important that we embrace diversity! More diversity in decks, please!

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