When Alice Sparkly Kat, a queer Chinese Brooklyn-based astrologer, started studying the planets in the early 2010s, there were few books about astrology, let alone ones by people of color. Last year, while teaching astrology to Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking elders, she began to receive a lot of questions: Why is the West so central in astrological discussions and study, and what are its limitations? These conversations are what inspired them to write Postcolonial Astrology: Reading The Planets Through Capital, Power, and Labor.
In their new book, Alice Sparkly Kat interprets the stars through history, politics, and postcolonial theory. Throughout their nuanced and intricate analysis, astrology becomes a way to break political and social norms: A look at the relationship of Mars and Venus complicates gendered power dynamics, while a study of the sun becomes a history of surveillance culture and the politics of who gets to be seen. While some might be hesitant to view astrology as political, Postcolonial Astrology encourages readers to study the stars so that they can better understand their own values, views, identities, and desires for the future.
A lot of queer people got into astrology around 2015, so I was able to find other people in New York who were studying the planets or who just wanted to talk and learn. From there I was reading lots of different astrology books to inform my own practice.
MR: Why did you decide to analyze astrology through a postcolonial lens in this book?
ASK: A lot of my favorite thinkers and people whose work I was reading at the time inspired me. The funny thing is, if you look at a lot of post-colonial theory, astrology is already in there. Sylvia Wynter talks about the sub-lunar and beyond-lunar realm. If you look at Achille Mbembe, he’s talking about the light side of the empire versus the nocturnal body of the empire. Jodi Byrd’s book The Transit of Empire looks at a Venus transit. I’ve been reading all of these thinkers for years. For me postcolonial theory deals with issues of cultural belonging, citizenship, and who gets to belong where, which are also central to my astrology practice.
MR: Each of your chapters looks at the history and etymology of a planet. I particularly liked how you used the chapters about Venus and Mars to look at gendered power dynamics. How do you believe we can use astrology to complicate Western ideas of gender?
ASK: The binary gender system is very Western, so going into the book I was interested in learning more about how these ideas came about historically. While reading Hebrew stories from around the time of the Roman empire, I learned that the way that Venus and Mars were conceptualized was often in relation to the military, which also explains how we think about gender today. Venus was a city under siege—she’s vulnerable, needs protection, and is automatically feminized. While Mars is an invading army, so it becomes very masculinized.
What’s interesting though is that in later astrological interpretations, Mars was often seen as very effeminate, and Venus was also seen as a masculine planet. In Western astrology today Venus is more like an idea of femininity that was created by men.
MR: That’s interesting, given the extremely feminine and vulnerable image of Venus we often see today.
ASK: Yeah, I run this reading group and whenever we talk about Venus, someone always says, “I think of her as a blonde,” you know, or white. Everyone has a different take on Venus, and that’s really cool. It’s cool to be creative about gender, but it’s also important to see where these ideas about gender are coming from and why they’re enforced.
Astrology can help us see that gender doesn’t really exist to describe anyone’s personal experience. Going back to the idea of Venus and Mars as the military, gender exists to define what’s civil, what’s domestic, what’s worthy of protection. People often use astrology to play with gender, but that language is not provided by Western astrology itself; people bring their own life and creativity to the structures that already exist.
MR: You write in the book that astrology tends to have a mainstream resurgence during times of conservatism or fascism. Do you think the Trump era and the last several years of conservative policy helps explain astrology’s current mainstream popularity?
ASK: Historically, there’s often a link between right-wing leaders and a rise in astrology’s popularity, which is something that I was really surprised about. There was a resurgence of astrology between the two world wars when fascism was thriving in Europe, and astrology was also very popular after the Civil War. I don’t know if Trump had an astrologer while he was in office, but Reagan did—and so did Hitler.
It’s hard to spot when it’s talking about emotional stuff so often, but there’s a lot of astrological stuff that feels right wing. The ideas of naturalizing gender and manifesting wealth that I write about in the book are conservative. But obviously a lot of people use astrology to break free of those kinds of constraints, so it really depends on how you practice it.
MR: Though you write about astrology as a political force, that’s not how mainstream astrology is often practiced. Do you think there are any limitations to contemporary mainstream astrology?
ASK: Yes, definitely. The most popular type of astrology right now is usually horoscope columns, which are usually written by white women, though this is starting to change. Horoscopes today can often be very limiting; there’s something about horoscopes as a genre that’s like, “You’re going to talk about relationships and career,” and that’s it. As a form, I think horoscopes can do much more, but we don’t always get to see that. I know astrologers who say that horoscopes are like a recipe, or your medicine for the month: They can be a poem, a collage, a series of questions. I write monthly horoscopes, and I usually try to leave my readers with questions, a way to introspect, and a way to interrogate their relationship to capitalism.
MR: For as much as astrology has grown in popularity, there are still a lot of skeptics. What would you say to people who think that astrology is fake, or believe that astrology can never be political?
ASK: I think it’s a personal choice. I’m not an evangelical, I don’t think everyone has to believe in astrology. I don’t “believe” in astrology. I think it’s a social agreement, and I believe there’s something really mystical about imagining something together. It’s a consensual space too, so if you don’t like astrology, there’s nothing wrong with that.
I want people to talk about astrology in a more political way, because it’s already this intimate language—it’s already political. So let’s make it explicitly political. I want people to be more aware of how astrology exists as a political form.
MR: You pose a question in your book: “What would you look like if you were able to do the naive act of imagining yourself in a world without capitalism?” How do you think astrology helps us imagine this?
ASK: Astrology is all about imagination. It gives you agency and the ability to share imaginative spaces with other people. That takes so much trust and time—that’s where the magic really happens.
One of the biggest ways astrology helps us imagine a world without capitalism is through forging meaningful relationships. So much of capitalism is about creating and maintaining a sense of alienation. So if you can find a way to trust someone and share a creative space with them really authentically, that’s already a huge step forward.