Penguin Random House

In Good Talk, author Mira Jacob shows the complex reality of mixed-race family

June 12, 2019 7:00 am

Mira Jacob is a master of sharp, poignant comedy. Good Talk, her recent graphic memoir, begins with her mixed-race son‘s questions about Michael Jackson (Was he brown or white? He turned white? Am I going to turn white?), then zooms out to tell the story of her family: her Syrian Christian roots, her parents’ immigration from Mumbai to Boston in the 1960s, her marriage to a white, Jewish man with whom she shares a New Mexico hometown. Made in a collage style, with Jacob’s drawings overlaid on photographs, the book is fast-paced, dialogue-driven, and just as funny as it is tender and sad.

Its characters have a limited range of expressions—mostly one drawing per person—and apart from the main characters, they move throughout the book playing multiple roles, so that a problematic ghostwriting client becomes an audience member at Jacob’s reading, and a stranger on the train becomes someone who harasses her after 9/11. Jacob wanted to show the multitude of experiences had by one type of body (“white guy, 27,” for example, who looks like a bad boyfriend on Girls). The repetition isn’t immediately obvious from the start of the book, and when readers finally notice it, they—the ones who tell Jacob about it anyway (myself included)—notice it first with a white character. “It taught me something about the bodies that we are taught to see and the ones that we’re taught not to see,” she said.

Good Talk, which Jacob is now developing for television, is her second book, following 2014 novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. Her collage-style comics have also been published on BuzzFeed and Shondaland, and in The Believer. We spoke by phone about writing for an audience of “us,” losing friends to difficult conversations, and America’s fantasy and suspicion about interracial relationships.

HelloGiggles: You published the piece that eventually became the first chapter of this book on BuzzFeed (“37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed-Race Son”). After reading Good Talk and going back to that initial post, I noticed that your images of yourself and your son started out as line drawings that weren’t shaded. In the book, they are colored in. Can you talk about that change?

Mira Jacob: I made that so fast, the one that went up on BuzzFeed. And I made it because I was frustrated. I didn’t know how to talk about what my son’s questions were. I was doing an essay, and in doing the essay, I started freezing up. Because if you put anything online, you know that you’re going to get a comment section full of very, very irate people questioning everything including your humanity. And so out of frustration, I drew on printer paper and stuck it on some Michael Jackson albums, and then stood on my dining room table and took pictures of that. And it wasn’t really considered—meaning, I just did it so fast, it felt like the only way to deal with the feeling that was inside me.

But when I backed up long enough to think, Okay, if this is a book, what is it going to look like?, obviously skin color played a huge role in so many of the things I’m going through. And it mattered to me to just let us be the color that we were, within this scale of black and white. It made sense to me that if it wasn’t just going to be that one-off, if it was going to be so many different situations, we really needed to know who was what, and how and why, to appreciate the complexity of how these interactions work.

HG: I read in one of your interviews that when you’ve written memoir in the past, you’ve taken a subject and slowly, carefully laid it out. But with this series, you wanted to just put it out there quickly instead. How did that impulse come about? Is that a new philosophy for you, or is it particular to this project?

MJ: I think it’s particular to this project, but it’s also a little bit of a different psychic space I’m allowing myself. You know, I’m 46, and I think because it took me so long to find any place for my work in publishing, for a long time, I just assumed that my work wasn’t quite good enough or up to par. It took me forever to realize that nobody knew what to do with stories like mine, and that they struck people as inauthentic in how I wrote them. What I mean by that is that they would tell me that they were too Indian, or not Indian enough. People who had no other interaction with Indianness other than their view of it from watching movies like Mississippi Masala and liking Indian food were telling me whether or not my Indianness was valid.

Once I realized that, and once the 2016 election showed me exactly how willing we were to go with white male mediocrity, I just sort of felt like, what am I doing here? Why am I always trying to find a perfect way to tell this story? As though by perfecting that story I’m going to reach these people that have something against me. Why am I telling a story to those people? And why am I trying to build it of perfection? What if I just allow myself to say the thing I know? And what if my audience is us, and not them?

HG: I love that. In Good Talk, you have this scene with a white radio producer, who thinks the “unusual” character names in your novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, are confusing, and he wants to frame your work using terms you wouldn’t use yourself, because he’s assuming his audience is white. And you mentioned something Kiese Laymon says to his students, to write for us, the people who will understand where you’re coming from without you having to explain everything against a white standard. Was there a point where you were writing for a white audience? And when did you feel like you didn’t have to do that anymore?

MJ: You know, what we’re really talking about here is not even the word choice as much as, are you writing for an audience you think will believe you? Or are you building yourself in opposition to a criticism you’ve gotten your entire life, from a country that doesn’t want to believe you? So which thing are you going to service? Are you going to service the hundreds of thousands and millions of us who have never seen ourselves in print, who know that this is a vital part of our lives, who experience this every day? Are you going to turn and talk to those people? Like, Yeah, that’s happening. You’re not crazy. I’m not crazy. This is real. Or are you going to keep trying to convince the people who don’t want to listen?

It felt incredibly good to walk away from the idea that I needed to convince people who I knew didn’t want to be convinced. I did it in a few ways. Part of that is the belief, of course, of writing for us. Part of that, though, shows up in the art, too. So you notice in the art the characters never change expressions. They have this kind of look that could be anything. Believe me, it took me a long time to perfect a look that could be anything, to make it both somewhat emotional, but just devoid enough of emotion that it could be any of them.

I did that for a reason. And part of that was because I felt like I was exhausted about the idea of trying to perform a kind of racial pain for an audience that I thought was insatiable. They really wanted to see it so they could say it was ridiculous. Giving us those really neutral expressions, and not allowing my characters to ever cry, or wince, or otherwise emote really gave me a way to do that, knowing that “the us” was going to be able to solve that kind of emotional algebra. And the people that couldn’t, I wasn’t going to worry about them anymore.

HG: I read that you have been drawing for a really long time. Before you were doing this series, did you have drawing obsessions, things that you would return to over and over, and what were they?

MJ: It’s funny, my agent told me a long time ago, oh you should draw a book. And I said, you’re nuts. Because I was like, that’s not the kind of illustrator I am. I’m not a person who can draw a whole book. But what I did was, when I would turn in a manuscript to my agent, if I couldn’t figure out a way into the scene, sometimes I would take an object from the scene and just draw it. For me, one thing that happens a lot with writing is that there’s this idea of the perfect thing that you’re going to write. Before you write it, you have a feeling about the story, and in your brain, it is the most perfect story. And then, by necessity of process, the minute you start writing something, it’s falling apart. It shows you its transparencies. It shows you the places where it’s really sort of janky. And it’s hard sometimes to keep the faith in your writing.

The thing that I would do in those moments is turn to drawing, because one of the things that putting lines on paper does is it relaxes my brain, and it also lets me forgive the process. With drawing, I also have an idea of how a picture is going to look at the end, and it never looks like that. But somehow I’m able to forgive that more. Probably because I’m not a professional illustrator, so I just sort of reach a place where it’s good enough, and that helps me enter a place where it’s okay to make art that isn’t perfect. Does that make sense?

HG: Yeah, it really does. I’ve heard that from another artist I interviewed in the past, Keiko Agena, who is an actress. She also drew, and published a book she illustrated herself, called No Mistakes. She said something similar, that drawing was a secondary art form that she hadn’t invested all of this emotion or sense of self worth into. So there was more freedom. And for me, I knit. I care about what I’m knitting, and I want it to be beautiful. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s not what my self worth rests on.

In Good Talk, you show moments where people you loved hurt you with their racist assumptions, and you also show ones where you are the one hurting others with assumptions of your own. Why was it important to you to do that?

MJ: I definitely, obviously implicated myself on purpose. And I did it for very specific reasons. One, it was true. And I don’t feel like you can write a book about race and not own up to your own missteps and misunderstandings and the ways that you have mishandled people’s dignity. But the other thing is that I really buck against this—the moment I feel like we’re having, on some level as a society, with the idea of being woke, and the sort of dumbed-down version of it that I see quite often, is people believing in wokeness as a destination. So there are beliefs like, I am now on the right side of having thought through this, because I used to feel that way. But I’m now the person that feels this way and all the virtues that go along with it. And I just get really exhausted by that whole idea.

I feel honestly that the people that cling most to that are white Americans, usually white liberal Americans. And I feel like it’s this way of saying, I’m one of the good guys. And the part that I find so frustrating is that none of us are the good guys. None of us exist without these racist ideas. None of us exist in a way where they haven’t harmed us. And none of us exist in ways where we haven’t harmed ourselves and we haven’t harmed each other.

The thing that I keep telling my son is that we’re going to make mistakes. There’s no way not to. You’re always going to do things that hurt people. There’s no way to inoculate yourself or them against that damage. I’m trying to show him that when you make a mistake and you’re called out on something, there’s this other place to go to besides rage for the person who tells you about it. And the only way that I think we can do that is if we talk about our own mistakes and what we’ve done.

HG: You show difficult conversations and relationships really tenderly, especially in the scenes with your in-laws, whom you still have a relationship with despite the huge ideological divide between you. I’ve also read that you had similar conversations with white friends, and those relationships didn’t survive the conversation. I’ve had experiences like that since the election too. I’m wondering, at the same time that you have lost these white friends who couldn’t engage with you in these conversations, have you also gained community? And has the overall makeup of your community changed?

MJ: Yes. It really, really has. I don’t know how you feel about it. I’ll tell you that I think the hardest part of it for me, and you can tell me what the hardest part for you is.

HG: Sure.

MJ: The hardest part of it for me has been the surprise of it. Like, it was friends that I didn’t see it coming with. It was friends that I thought, no, what? We’re good, right? We kind of get each other. You know me. And finding out, oh, not only do you not know me, but your value for our relationships is inherently tied to me not telling you what hurts, or when, or how. And if we discuss race, your value for our friendship is only in me assuring you that you are not racist. That’s maybe even why you are friends with me, so that you can assure yourself that you are not racist. But actual humanity isn’t a thing that matters to you. You’re not willing to engage with it. I’m too angry. I’m too vocal. Can’t I just let us be people. The things that I’ve been told.

How dare you is literally a thing that has been said to me. More than once. Now I just know. When a white person says how dare you, that now to me is like, okay, there’s the death knell right there. Because they can’t imagine, they literally do not have the space for me to be a human with emotions. How dare you tell me something about myself I don’t want to know, is what they’re saying. How dare you tell me that you’re disappointed in a way that I’ve acted, or that you’re feeling pain about the world that I don’t want to know about. And if you do tell me about it, I want you to tell me about it in a certain tone of voice with a certain disposition. And I want you to point out the hope and the solution the whole way so that I don’t have to feel terrified the way you feel terrified. So I mean, I don’t know. How does that go for you?

HG: Yeah, you’ve captured it. I had one particularly bad experience with a friend. For me, yeah, I was surprised. But another terrible part of it was if I looked back far enough, then I thought, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Because the clues were there a long time ago. I had thought that maybe we got to know each other and then we changed. But maybe that never happened.

MJ: That is the real heartbreak, right? This idea that maybe I didn’t know you. And I think just what a lot of us are going through at the moment as a country. We’re going through that moment with our friends, our families, our lovers. It’s a lot.

HG: As I was reading this book, I found myself wanting to give it to all my friends because a lot of us are mixed or in interracial relationships. And even the ones who are in relationships that are really solid, where their partner really cares about getting to understand their perspective and having these tough conversations, new things come up all the time. Like, a friend moved to the Midwest and that changed their relationship or changed the way people view their relationship.

MJ: Oh, gosh, yeah, it’s constantly shifting. I mean, it is funny, right? Because I think in America, we have this fantasy about interracial relationships. We’re all just gonna have beige babies, and they will save the world. And because we know that that fantasy is bullshit, the other side of it is this deep level of mistrust for interracial relationships. Like, one person must not really love themselves or both people must not really love themselves. If you choose someone that’s that different than you are, then what is really under it is a deep self-hatred, a deep hatred for your own race. There’s that real distrust there.

The thing that I also have found over and over again in my relationship is the way that I sometimes feel people look at my husband like he’s doing some sort of community service by being with me. Does that make sense to you?

HG: Like, “Wow, you are so not racist, you even have a wife who’s different from you.”

MJ: Exactly, exactly. And then the hard part is that I see some streak of that in him, where I’m like, You’re not doing that shit, are you? And he’s like, No, yep, let’s talk about it. The truth is, we have this very real relationship that has everything to do with race and also nothing to do with race. But all of these things, of course they bleed into the relationship. Of course the white patriarchy bleeds into the relationship. Of course it makes us suspect each other. Of course it breaks our hearts. The idea that we somehow live in a fantasy world that doesn’t have to deal with it I think is the most destructive idea. And that’s partly why I wrote this. Because I just felt like, I know there are so many people that must be just going through shit in their relationships right now. I just wanted to a space to show, this is actually what love looks like. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s nothing to deride, it’s nothing to spin into fantasy. It is just as complicated as actual love is.

HG: When you were deciding what to put in the book and what to leave out, did you have a guiding philosophy? And were there any particular things you’d read in the past that helped you determine those boundaries?

MJ: For sure. Yeah, I did. You know, it wasn’t so much things I had read in the past. It was more my gut instinct. I had a really strong feeling there are many conversations I could have written with my in-laws that would have immediately tipped the narrative to one feeling or another. I could very easily have gotten people outraged, I guess is what I mean. I chose not to put those conversations in because I asked myself continually, Are you writing this for vindication or clarity? And if the answer was vindication, I cut it. And I did that over and over and over and over again. I asked myself repeatedly, Did you write this so that people would know you’re a good person?

HG: How has it been different for you to write a graphic memoir vs. prose, non-fiction vs. fiction?

MJ: The graphic novel is much more immediately gratifying. Making up a form in which I could go as fast as my brain does go was helpful. My brain works like this, and it felt really good to finally put the way my brain works on a page. I feel really excited about this particular form because it feels very much mine. It feels like my own language.

[With this form], I can really lean hard on the dialogue, the things people say and what they don’t say. I really love to look at the ways people in conversation are not talking to each other at all, the ways that they can have two entirely separate conversations. You’d think they were talking to each other. They are not. They are talking to every person from their past, and that ex-boyfriend that really scarred them, and that time that x or y or z happened. And I love that. I love that about dialogue.

HG: Has writing and publishing a book with all these intimate scenes involving your friends and family changed the way you talk with the people in your life? Do you feel like you have more honest or open conversations now that this is all out there?

MJ: I mean, there’s two answers to that. One is that my mother, when talking to me now, will say, “Don’t write about this.” Which is hilarious. But yeah, in terms of my in-laws, before I wrote this book, they were thanking me for not speaking about the election. They just wanted to be able to get along with us as a family, which I can understand. That was also really dehumanizing for me, to be in a situation where I was thanked for not speaking. It’s very painful. And I love them very much. And they love me very much. So I don’t think they were doing it to be cruel. I think they were doing it because they were scared. They were scared of what would happen if we really looked at this chasm between us. And now, I have looked at my side of the chasm between us, and I still really love them.

But I don’t have a happy ending here. They’re still avid Trump supporters. There’s still plenty about their lack of connection to the toll they are taking on my life and my son’s life that is real, and it is not dismissible. It is painful. So I guess what I would say is what I was carrying before only in my interior is now known to them and the world. But the love also hasn’t diminished. It’s just become more complicated.

HG: Has having a mixed kid changed the way you think about race, considering that you’re already in an in-between place yourself, and he’s also in-between in a very literal way? Has that changed the way you see the world?

MJ: I’m very aware of now, in addition to wanting him to be proud of his skin color, and wanting him to be proud of his Jewishness and all of these things, there are parts of him, the parts of him that are [privileged]. And instead of using that power to hurt people, I want him to find a way to live with those things and negotiate with them in ways that are helpful to him and to frankly, society at large. Basically what I mean by that is I don’t want him to hate being a man.

He’s sad about men right now. He’s sad about the toll men take in this world. That’s real. I’m sad about that, you know what I mean? It’s not some overestimation. It’s a real thing. And yet still, I have to raise a boy who’s going to be proud of himself as a man. So we have to find some space for him to be that man. We have to find some ways for him, some examples for him, some people to watch, who are the kind of men that he wants to be in the world. His father is one, and a great one. But there have to be others as well, so that instead of just having the vacuum of “don’t be this,” we have an idea of what he can be moving forward.

HG: Yeah, that’s something I feel, not gender-wise, but racially, being half a minority, half white. How to acknowledge and honor my dad’s side of the family and not run from being part white, while still identifying as a person of color, while also looking ambiguous. It’s really difficult.

MJ: Yeah. And that’s the thing, I don’t want him to hate his whiteness either. Because if you hate something, if you are so ashamed of something that you can’t face it, then it is guaranteed to do more damage than anything, right? This is just true. When we abandon something within us, the abandoned thing will find a way to take a toll on this world. So I don’t want that. I don’t want that to be his experience of whiteness. I don’t want that to be his experience of maleness. So what else is there? What else can we do? How can we acknowledge these things so that you’re not ashamed of being white, and you’re not ashamed to be a man, and you understand that with that kind of power, there’s a way to move responsibly in the world? And there are in fact many men who do it well.

HG: I think it’s great that he has that space in your family to have these difficult conversations with both of you.

MJ: Well, you know, it sort of remains to be seen. Who knows? As a teenager, he could be like, It was horrible. You never know how these things really play out long term. But I do want him to feel open. I want him to feel like he can bring up anything and we’ll figure out a way to talk about it at least.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.