If you’re a woman of colour in America, and you’re in an interracial marriage, what does the future hold for your young brown son? If you’re an Indian writer in America, is your writing read as “too Indian” or “not Indian enough”? And if you are both, what does art in the age of Donald Trump look like? These are some of the questions that Mira Jacob’s second book, Good Talk, stages and sketches out.
Born as a BuzzFeed article (37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed-Race Son), you can find frames from Jacob’s graphic memoir—and Michael Jackson dance videos of her son Z, who centres the conversations she’s creating—on the Instagram handle @goodtalkthanks. Within the pages of the beautifully illustrated book exist everything from “Indian Aunties” to Trump-voting in-laws, from micro-aggressions in the “book business” to bigger, bolder moments of racism and sexism in American life. That said, Jacob also offers the reader moments of strength and solidarity—of family and friends as support systems through the nightmare of it all. The flip of a page can take you from the heartbreaking to the horrifying to the hopeful—and healing.
Jacob spoke to Lounge recently about how the book was “hard on her body”, conversations as “building blocks”, and the “unhappening” of America. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
This form of storytelling is quite a departure from your debut fiction novel (‘The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing’ in 2014)—it’s a graphic memoir. Did this story demand to be drawn and written?
Yes, it did—but really, what it demanded was for me to stop judging whether or not anyone would be convinced by the reality of our lives. When I was trying to write this in essay form, all I could imagine was the comments section, and the worst of America making a piñata out of my racial pain to judge whether or not it is worthy of consideration (spoiler alert: it is never worthy of their consideration). Drawing this allowed me to just write the conversation as it happened, and not worry about who it convinced to care.
This is a “memoir in conversations”. You have said elsewhere that you want the reader to have the “delicious experience of eavesdropping”. What did this device afford you?
First, I should tell you that eavesdropping is my favourite pastime—something I share with my mother. It’s just innately fun. And the truth is, race has become so fraught in America that a huge portion of the population no longer wants to talk about it with one another. This was a way to let them hear about it without engaging them directly. You don’t want to pay attention? Fine. This conversation is happening anyway.
The conversations with your curious son, and parenting him, lie at the core of this book. But you also travel back to your own childhood and coming-of-age as a young woman and writer of colour in America. Why this circular narrative structure? What has and hasn’t changed?
I think of every conversation as a building block of some sort, meaning that we could not have the level of conversations we are having now in the 1990s because in the 1990s, most white Americans were under the illusion that they were in no way racist. Naming unconscious bias was happening in limited circles. People trying to come to terms with their own (biases) was almost unheard of. In that way, we have made some limited progress. We can name what’s happening beyond micro-aggressions. And yet some things really haven’t changed. Most white Americans will still ask me where I’m from, as though I was not also born and raised here. On the one hand, it seems harmless. On the other, the assumption that this country is inherently more theirs than mine is dangerous and demeaning.
I have been surprised by how deeply some of this is resonating with readers. I’m a bisexual Indian woman who came of age in New Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s. I did not see myself anywhere in popular culture, so l grew up feeling like I had dropped down on to the wrong planet. But there were lots of us, tucked into pockets all over the US, I’m finding out.
You were creating a lot of this in real time—the frictions with your husband and your parents-in-law. How difficult was this? How did you maintain distance?
This was a hard book to write. It was hard on my marriage, it was hard on my friendships, it was hard on my body (drawing really messes with your back)! At the same time, it was incredibly clarifying. I saw very quickly which people in my life were up for looking hard at what wasn’t working any more, and which weren’t. In terms of deciding what I could write about, I would ask myself if I was writing for vindication or clarity, and, if it was the first, I would cut the scene.
My husband was shockingly supportive about much of it. Which isn’t to say we didn’t have arguments or very rough nights—we did. But, ultimately, he would always come back to me saying, you just need to write everything you need to and then we can figure it out from there. It was brave, and very, very loving.
My favourite is the illustration with the quote: “We think our hearts break only from endings—the love gone, the rooms empty, the future unhappening as we stand ready to step into it—but what about how they can shatter in the face of what is possible?” Can you unpack this?
The heartbreak of this moment is truly the unrealized possibility of it. (Barack) Obama’s presidency pushed us, as a country, towards a conversation we so desperately needed to have. And now? Now it is unhappening right in front of us. All the progress made, all the ceilings shattered. It’s like we have been marched back into the dark ages by one unimaginative man’s wounded ego. (US President Donald) Trump appeals to those who are scared of what America will look like when they are irrelevant. The irony, of course, is that they are already irrelevant because their own fear keeps them from learning to survive in a world that doesn’t give them every advantage.
Who is your favourite graphic novelist or memoirist?
Emil Ferris—My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. This book is everything—a mystery, a triptych, a diary, a wonder. And Ferris’ style—her hatchwork drawings are so stunning and original that every page is a joy.