REVIEW | She is Sitting in the Night: Revisioning Thea’s Tarot through a queer lens

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She Is Sitting in the Night is unlike any tarot book I have ever read.

In many ways it feels like the tarot book I have been waiting for for years.

It’s a collaboration between Rima Athar, whose idea it was to ‘revison’ an 80s tarot deck, writer and tarotist Oliver Pickle, who wrote the book, and artist Ruth West, creator of Thea’s Tarot, a feminist lesbian tarot deck published in 1984 (reprinted in 2018 by Metonymy Press).

Rima’s idea was to take a deck with a feminist/lesbian ethos and reinterpret the cards via the language and experience of modern queer culture, creating a framework for tarot that would truly resonate with queer folks – and at the same time celebrate and document an important work of feminist art. So it’s essentially a book of beautiful and radical tarot card meanings – and can be used as a reference book for looking up cards – and also an important document, a conversation across generations of feminism and LGBTQ politics.

Rima describes the process of creating this project through conversations with Oliver and Ruth in her introduction to the book. There are some beautiful and thought-provoking extracts from Ruth’s emails, giving life and shape to the vernacular feminism we see in the cards. It’s so clear how much time all three contributed to discussing their individual politics, and the sense of respect and understanding in this introduction is inspiring. As Rima explains:

Of course, revisiting lesbian feminist histories from the 70s and 80s, and reinterpreting artwork from that era to reflect a more more current queer feminist politics in the 2010s is not without its challenges. How exactly do you make a lesbian deck queer? How do you play with gender in a way that still respects the woman-centred focus of this deck, while allowing room for a politics of fluid gender boundaries? How do you address and represent images and/or perspectives that may come across as challenging, especially if you don’t know enough of the history? Perhaps most importantly, how do you do all that, while keeping it fun, playful, and down to earth?

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I got my copy a few weeks ago, and I’ve barely put it down since then, reading it cover to cover three times. As soon as I began reading, it become my absolute favourite tarot book, alongside Rachel Pollack’s classic Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom (which Oliver also name-checks as an influence on their own work.)

She Is Sitting in the Night is generously-sized, with 189 pages filled with heartfelt and radical ideas about what those 78 cards mean, illustrated with full-page illustrations from Thea’s Tarot. It’s published by the awesome Montreal small press, Metonomy Press.

There’s a really helpful introduction to tarot itself at the start, with a great run-through of the four suits, the numbers, the court cards (in this case ‘face cards’) and an overview of how to do readings. I really feel that this is a book that you could pick up as a complete newcomer to tarot and begin getting the hang of using your cards. It’s accessible and friendly, but detailed too, and as a pretty experienced tarot reader I still learned loads from Oliver’s perspectives.

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Oliver describes their own approach to tarot:

I have mostly read in bars or on bedspreads, late at night or holding down the cards on picnic tables or on the grass in parks, while my friends played baseball or gossiped.

My blithe attitude toward tarot is what has made me able to choose to do readings and to use the cards at all. I hope it has also allowed me to introduce its possibilities for analysis and healing to people who would otherwise have shied away from it. […]

I hope that the informed but casual queering of an already subversive revisionist deck will be inviting to those unfamiliar with the tarot. I also hope that it, without being comprehensive, honours and contributes something to those who take it seriously, which I clearly do deep down inside. Please enjoy.

Oliver’s interpretations are down-to-earth, helpful and kind, presenting many of the possible ways we – as queer-identifying folks especially – aspire to be more creative, more radical, more thoughtful, more energised in our lives without judgement, offering many examples of practical ways we can move forwards. There’s a sense of familiarity in these card interpretations – I found myself saying ‘yes, this! This is just how it feels!’ so many times as I read over the different cards.

They ground universal archetypes and often vague-feeling tarot concepts in the dirt of our daily lives, making tarot a tool anyone can use to understand the gritty, real details of their situation. There’s also lots of exploration of how key themes in tarot manifest in the experiences of people trying to do relationships and community differently. Oliver references LGBTQ struggles, the weight of sexism and cishetnormativity, and the more private effects of societal oppression, alongside personal and political ideas about revolution, transformation and liberation.

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I love how they mix up pronouns throughout the book – many cards are she, many are they, some are it – really normalising the feeling that no card belongs to one specific gender. Ideas of masculine and feminine are played with and explored, and never essentialised.

The Creator (The Empress)
The Creator appears at the beginning of the deck because it represents some of the foundational elements of life: nature, abundance, undifferentiated passion. If we come from histories or social contexts steeped in sexism or the devaluation of femininity, it can be helpful to think hard about receptiveness as a strong and positive characteristic. It could be healing to focus on the good in these qualities in your life now and see how much you can open up to them on your own terms.

The book’s card descriptions do centre on the cards in Thea’s Tarot, so it is a particular delight to read it with the cards in your hand, but it can be used with any tarot deck that follows the usual system. Thea’s Tarot has renamed some of the cards, so if you’re not 100% sure which cards in the book correspond to which in your own deck, you can always write your familiar card names in the book.

A few more of my favourite extracts from Oliver’s card interpretations:

This card asks you to be accountable to yourself and others. To make art for real. To start restructuring the non-profit that you work for that actually has the shittiest labour practices. To think about how, though other parties were responsible too, you were partially responsible … for the conditions that led to your breakup, you intolerable living situation, your tepid family dynamics.

Child of Wands
This figure’s hair floats in an explosion around her head, right off the edge of the card. One pointy boob is caught in her clothing, the other hangs to the side. … Her arms are in the air. She is wild! It’s pretty fun being her!

Here is someone optimistic, and probably reckless. Who knows if she meant to have half her chest hanging out of her dress, but she doesn’t care either way. She is cool.

Six of Cups
Advice from a teacher, security in sharing a bed with an ex who has become a friend, or wisdom from a family member may come at this time. This card asks you to draw on the strength of your personal and collective histories, use your own memories and those of previous generations as guides, and heal through these low-key, domestic connections.

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There’s so much more. Of course. Part of the reason this review was so long in the writing was that there was just so much amazing writing to sift through, I didn’t know where to start. This is a beautifully-written, generous, thoughtful book filled with ideas for working with your cards in a more radical/queer way.

I feel like this is a must-have book for anyone who wants to queer up their readings, and especially for anyone who struggles with the normativity in traditional decks and books. But it’s also for anyone who wants to open up their ideas about what each tarot card might represent. This is all about applying tarot to your own life, thinking about the ideas behind the cards as aspects of your own life and behaviour. It’s challenging, encouraging and a real work of art. I’m going to treasure my copy and turn to it often.

She Is Sitting in the Night - front coverBuy She Is Sitting in the Night!

She Is Sitting in the Night is in stock in the Little Red Tarot shop, shipping worldwide. We also stock the newly-reprinted Thea’s Tarot!

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  1. I really enjoy this! Is it possible to use it for other decks too? I’ve been wanting to make sure I don’t just still to hetero-normative interpretations, so this book seems like it would help. Do the traditional cards differ that much or will I still be able to see the similarities?

    • Beth says:

      Hey Ashley,

      The book talks about Thea’s Tarot, and some of the cards are different. Some major arcana cards have different words, and the court cards are different, which can be a little tricky at first. But all the info you need to transpose to your own deck is in Oliver’s introduction to the book, and as I mentioned in the review, you could write your more familiar card names in the book, above the card titles given.

      The book references the specific imagery in Thea’s Tarot, too (much like most tarot books will reference the Rider-Waite-Smith images) but for me, this just helps me learn more about interpreting, symbolism, different ways of looking at cards. It’s a great read 🙂

      • Beth says:

        Oh – and you asked if Thea’s Tarot card differ greatly from traditional cards (I’m assuming you mean RWS-based decks) – yes, they do. But you’ll pick up on the similarities in meaning, the common threads and so on (which is a great way to learn and develop 🙂

  2. Alison says:

    This looks soooo good! I’m still trying to save up to get the Gorgon Tarot, but this definitely made my list as well! I don’t know how you always find the awesomest things to review, but you do!

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