REVIEW | Modern Tarot, by Michelle Tea

A few years ago, I met Michelle Tea during a Sister Spit tour show in Toronto.

I remember how excitedly she reached out for the decade-old lilac tattoo on my right shoulder, as the two of us wrote notes in the front pages of books we’d recently published and exchanged them after the show. For each of us, lilacs are our favourite flowers, and it seems we feel mesmerized and drawn to them before words or thoughts can come.

Lilacs are among the few scents I would genuinely describe as intoxicating.

As someone who’s fascinated by etymology and by the words we choose to describe what’s going on around us, I find it interesting that ‘intoxicate’ – a word usually associated with alcohol – is the first one that comes to me when thinking about my favourite flowers, when seeing them bloom each spring. I and Michelle Tea have both written much about sobriety over the years, and as I approach seven years sober, I find myself more and more grateful for her voice, for the way she creates space to talk about sobriety and spirituality in weirdo queerdo land.

After poison and after alcohol, ‘to intoxicate’ also means “to excite or elate to the point of enthusiasm or frenzy” – and that’s how her new book, Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards, has me feeling.

Aside from She is Sitting in the Night, Modern Tarot is probably the only tarot book I’ve encountered where I didn’t have to internally translate the language of the writer to make more sense to my weird / queer / mad / anti-capitalist self, where I could actually relate to the real-life stories given as examples within the descriptions of each card. Plus, there’s swearing.

It’s unsurprising that’s Michelle Tea has written her own tarot guide.

Tarot cards have appeared throughout many of her books over the years and have almost certainly been one of her major supports in creating the new, almost-unclassifiable genres within which she’s been writing since the 90’s.

In the intro, Tea talks about how she’s been reading tarot since her mid-teens (me too!) and briefly talks about hanging out in witchy stores, reading the cards for her friends, and taking road trips to Salem, Massachusetts. Once she grows up and moves out, she tarot-busks on the streets of San Francisco and then gets a job reading cards in a store called Love.

Predictably, a potential client tells her that tarot is bullshit.

Most, if not all, of us who read tarot have encountered somebody who doesn’t believe in us, who doesn’t believe in the things we’ve explored and clung to and shared with others in our own individual struggles to stay alive and make meaning in a chaotic world.

In response, Michelle Tea writes,

She left me in the wake of her bad vibes, and something important was revealed to me: If the person receiving the reading doesn’t actually believe in the Tarot, the Tarot doesn’t work, like a fairy whose existence has to be affirmed for her to survive. Tarot readings are an exchange of trusted energy, between the reader and the seeker, and if that faithful collaboration is missing – in my experience – the magic does not happen.

The illustrations in the book were created by Amanda Verwey.

Verwey also illustrated another Michelle Tea book, Girl at the Bottom of the Sea, worked on a multitude of other projects, and designed the poster for the 2012 Los Angeles Zinefest – where I tabled with my own work and bought the t-shirt because the design was excellent.

Although the images created for the book are not available as a proper deck (yet?!), they are a wonder to observe and feature bodies of many genders, races, shapes and sizes, with beautifully captured expressions and body language, postures and aesthetics. The cards are very queer, and also, I think these might be the first ones I’ve seen with people wearing glasses?!

In one of my favourite lines, Michelle Tea writes of The Magician:

What is possible under The Magician card may look like actual magic to the people who witness your abilities, but it is simply the result of you cultivating your interests and obsessions to the point that you are able to make them happen.

As a writer who does a lot of behind-the-scenes, invisiblized work, I felt validated reading those words.

Modern Tarot is one of the few books about the cards that’s written from an unapologetically political and feminist perspective.

It’s also the first book about tarot in which I’ve read the honorific “Mx”. It directly acknowledges using our varied privileges and spiritual fortitude to fight oppression and patriarchy and to build better alternatives.

When I read a low-star review by someone who was disappointed that she’d written about the racist underpinnings of witches’ long-held and problematic tradition of associating ‘white’ with ‘purity’, I knew this’d be the book for me.

It’s a thick book, almost 400 pages long. Unlike most books about tarot, this one includes multiple spells to use with each card. And unlike most books about tarot, Michelle Tea also acknowledges that a lotta the objects and herbs used in witchcraft cost money many of us don’t have. She encourages us to seek out cheap, free and found options, which cast spells at least as well as expensive junk.

As an example of this kind of attentiveness, in a spell for The Hanged Man she writes:

For an extra boost, do this spell when the Moon is in Pisces. The Hanged man is ruled by Neptune, the ruler of Pisces, and the watery sign is an expert at letting go. If you (like me) would like to involve a crystal in your ceremony, aquamarine is the Pisces sacred stone, but it’s a bit pricey. If your rich aunt didn’t pass one down to you, amethyst works just as well.

I do want to briefly note the tiny bits that unsettled me: “Duh” is an ableist term that comes up a couple times and irks me as a disabled weirdo who would happily take a job editing the ableism and madphobia out of spiritual and witchy writing. “Transgendered” is used in place of ‘transgender’, which is unnecessary and harmful since ‘transgender’ is an adjective not a verb. The phrase “wrongly incarcerated individuals” made me squirm a little, because I’m a messy prison abolitionist who thinks just about every incarcerated person is a wrongly incarcerated person. Oh, and “slave” and “master” were used as metaphors, as they often are while describing The Devil. All of these things could’ve been avoided.

But! That’s not where I want to draw your attention today.

I’d rather focus on the beautiful, encouraging, radical, queer, feminist, and refreshing vision of this book. It was the kind of book that gave me little epiphanies as I read it and continues to do so when I consult it while reading the cards. Michelle Tea is clever and adept at reinterpreting the cards for queerdos, making Modern Tarot an indispensable guide. Much of her descriptions are more practical and resonant than others have been to me, while containing just the right amount of mystery and enchantment, too.

Reading this book feels akin to stumbling into the first blooming lilacs of the season, with someone peeking from behind the leaves and offering a hand as they guide you to a place that feels fresh and familiar at once.

Buy Modern Tarot
in the Little Red Tarot Shop