Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, a graphic “memoir in conversations,” explores the inextricable links between Jacob’s past experiences and the innocence of her six year old son’s budding curiosity about the world around him: What is race? What is racism? What is privilege? In her attempts to answer these and many other questions, Jacob carefully constructs her answers, knowing full well that they will need to be re-examined later. After all, a straightforward question isn’t necessarily simple, and in uncertain times no answer seems final. Consider, as Jacob does, the context: our fractured country, our divisive climate, how privilege and power tilt the scales against those of us for whom the “American Dream” is not simply a birthright, a tangible destination. Jacob grapples with this, and much more, as a mother, artist, and woman of color living in post 9/11 America.
As Jacob’s memoir progresses, it illustrates in full and profound color the issues that we as Americans may no longer mistake as black-and-white. It’s hard dialogue at the dinner table, and controversial heroes. It’s swallowing the pride of the past and owning up to one’s ignorance. It’s Jacob’s plight to remain honest and informative, but also generous and hopeful. It’s impossible to ignore. As a biracial, millennial woman growing up in America, I have a personal stake in Jacob and her work–what it might suggest for all those trying to navigate a divided nation, while still keeping what matters most closest: our identities, our families, our future. Her memoir was recently shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has been longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award. It’s gotten acclaim from The New York Times, as well as from Time, Esquire, Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly. It is not just relevant and timely: it is also timeless, insightful, funny and heartrending. It’s complicated.
—Briana Gwin for Guernica
Guernica: What made you want to tell this story as a graphic memoir?
Mira Jacob: So the book starts with my son asking all of these questions about Michael Jackson–which means a different thing, now–but at that point, because all of his questions were about race, and some of them were really pointed, and some of them were about Ferguson, I knew that if I wrote it as an essay…We were already sort of ramping up to the America that we’re in now, where nobody believes anybody’s pain, especially if it’s racial pain. People who have never experienced racial pain love to tell people who have experienced it that it’s like an imaginary thing. So I knew that if I was going to write about this as an essay, that was going to happen, and also that people would doubt his questions because his questions are hilarious, but they’re also super weird. That’s just how kids are. I knew if I was going to write an essay, no one was going to believe it. So then I just drew us, on printer paper, and I stuck us on top of his Michael Jackson albums and I drew the conversation that way. It implicates the reader in a kind of sideways way, so instead of saying, “I am writing this for you, the reader,” the reader is now eavesdropping on a conversation I’m having with my son. It takes the focus off of them in a certain way, but it also takes the ownership of the narrative away from them, which is what I most wanted to do.
Guernica: Good Talk is really all about these hard, sticky conversations that the world is now forcing us to have. And yet there’s this interesting subtext, of conversations that you, Mira Jacob of Good Talk, did not have, or chose to keep out. There’s a moment after you decide to work as a writer-for-hire for the eccentric ex-magazine editor, Bree, where she says she’s relieved that you’re “half Indian” because she “does yoga” and, “is spiritual.” We’re almost inclined to accept this common ignorance as permissible; it’s like, we get this all the time, just let it go. But there it is again, later, when you’re at a family gathering with your in-laws and just before one of the guests leaves at the end of it, he says to your mother-in-law, right in front of you, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you have such a beautiful, exotic daughter-in-law.” And again, when an Indian guy whose advances you’d rebuffed at that bar makes the comment about how the only reason an Indian woman would want to be with a white guy (as opposed to someone of her own race) is to be his “colonized bitch.” It’s so powerful, the way you worked that moment through the memoir, because your words expand onto the next page, unconfined by a talk bubble. We see your interiority and your pain running the length of the page, and then the next scene is so real because it’s you just lying awake, going, “Fuck!”
Jacob: There’re so many things that happened in those moments, too. In the first one, I’m trying to get a job, right? This white woman needs to believe we have something in common. I’m not going to say we don’t have anything in common, because she was clearly terrified from the get-go that I even looked like I did. It was her way of saying, basically, “I was really scared before when you were brown but now I think you’re okay.” With the Indian guy, the subtext there is, he obviously thought, “You’re a colonized bitch if you’re with a white guy.” That one I couldn’t respond to because I was in horror—you also have to think about, are you safe in this moment? If you hit him as hard as he’s hitting you, does that escalate into violence? Does that turn into something terrifying? Does that turn into a thing where the white bartender looks at both of you and throws you both out of the bar? What happens in that moment?
Guernica: Do you think your responses would have changed if you could replay those incidents over in real life? So much of memory is playing those moments over and over.
Jacob: We always carry around that perfect conversation that we should have had, but I think there’s also a falsehood to the idea that if you said the perfect thing, you would have reached a mutual understanding with the other person. If I would have interrupted Bree—and I think I did, once, I corrected her by saying, “I’m whole Indian,” and she ran right over that, because she had her own narrative. She kept treating me like I was destitute, like I was this sort of pauper begging for her money. But there’s a way in which she just could not imagine that a person like me went to the sort of colleges that her cousins went to, and lived and worked in New York, and had a good life. There was nothing that I was going to say to change that.
Guernica: Right. There’s this unshakable element at play, of being marginalized under the white gaze. One of the most poignant chapters for me on that is the one you wrote on brown people belonging together. You and your first boyfriend experienced so much validation in the form of, “Oh, you guys are so cute together!” We all just want to believe, in a way, that it’s nice to receive a compliment, right?
Jacob: Okay, let’s talk about this. So what was so poignant about this chapter for you? You want to believe the compliment, but what makes it so complicated?
Guernica: As young women of color, our differences aren’t made readily apparent for us—not at first, anyway. We go to these mixed schools and interact with people from different backgrounds, including white. We all want to believe that amidst the conglomerate we’re all just people, just like everyone else. At that age, you’re attracted to whoever you’re attracted to, without too much conscious thought about race or reasoning. It’s this magical thing that kind of happens, then, when you first begin to click with someone on a deeper level, and that person turns into your significant other, and then the world seems to validate you, in a way, and floods you with this positive response that you’ve almost been craving. You’ve finally made your own space where you find belonging and acceptance, and people you’ve never even talked to before stop you in the hallway just to say, “Oh my god you guys are so cute together,” and you’re not thinking anything of it, you just blurt out, “Oh my gosh, thanks!” And it feels good.
Jacob: Yeah. Because you’re finally sort of seen as normal, and what my first boyfriend knew about that whole situation, that I didn’t, was that they were doing that because they would never consider you as one of them. They’ve put you safely in a pen, and now that they’ve put these two students of color together in a pen, saying, “You’re so cute together,” they feel bigger about themselves. He knew all of that in a way that I wouldn’t know it for years. He knew it because he was the black son of a white father and a black mother who had been living with that specific thing pointed at him his entire life. My family, being Indian, we are adjacent to whiteness in a totally different way than he would ever experience. The way I grew up was more as a model minority, like, “As long as you act white, we’ll treat you like you’re white.” Most Indians bought into that wholeheartedly, but most Indians also come from India where they’re not running into racism because they’re all Indians. So when it’s actually coming at them, they wouldn’t recognize it. He knew. That chapter was so hard for me to write. There’s a drawing that I do of a brain there, and it was so awful to draw what was going on in my mind.
Guernica: I thought that diagram was one of the most vulnerable and humanizing moments in your memoir. We can say, “These were the thoughts that ran through my mind at that time,” or, “This is how that made me feel.” But the brain isn’t linear, that’s not really how it works. Your drawing allowed me to experience it as a work in conversation with the chapter you wrote, where you’re having a conversation with your son, and he’s asking you about racism and bigotry.
Jacob: Yeah, it’s one after the other. I put them there like that for a reason. Part of it is that there’s this idea of semantics, and why they’re important. There’s very much the idea that people of color cannot be racist, because we don’t have a system, which is what I was telling my son about. But there’s also the way—the way that I was brought up— in which the world was definitely in service of a white patriarchy. And it was, “Don’t be like those Americans, be like these ones.” “Don’t be like the black Americans because you’ll be treated this way. Don’t identify with any part of you that feels like you have something in common with them, because you want to be successful.” This was information I was constantly getting from about the age of four onwards. This was coming in like medicine, a dose of this once a day, and it was like, “You, too, will be happy and successful in this country.” And none of it is true. But when you’re raised in that way, you have the loop of thoughts that tells you that a boy who’s in the back of your car, that you’re headed to a dance with, the best friend of your boyfriend, who’s just wearing a different suit, somehow has more in common with this movie you saw about gang life than he does with you or your boyfriend. You’re discounting his humanity because you’ve been taught to fear black boys. And no one ever said, “Fear black boys,” but what they did do was make sure that every narrative that was available was about a young black man getting into some kind of trouble.
Guernica: And it’s not just that black men are harmful. It’s also that they’re less intelligent.
Jacob: Yeah. And the ugliness of that, because that’s exactly what that comment was, it was assuming he wouldn’t understand the words “Cardiovascular Surgeon.” And the humiliation of having done that to him… I remember that night. Even now when I think about it, I remember how it took all the air out of his eyes. We were so young and sparkly and I saw it, and I’d had that done to me so many times, and I did it to him. I knew, instantly, the wound I had caused, and I wasn’t sure how I was the one holding the gun. So many parts of it didn’t make sense and all I had was this deep, deep shame that I then tried to put off on my boyfriend, later on that night when we were hooking up. I was like, “Are you mad at me?” And he was like, “No,” and I was digging. “Are you sure? You seem mad at me, are you mad at me?” I wanted him to tell me what I had done, because I wanted someone else to take responsibility for figuring that shit out for me. He didn’t do it. It took me years to figure it out, and it took me years to stop being ashamed long enough to be like, “Okay, so you’re ashamed, but what else?” Someone else’s dignity was harmed in that moment, someone’s humanity was trashed in that moment. You’re going to let your shame be as far as you go with that particular thought? That’s ridiculous. If that’s all you’re thinking about it, you’re going to do it again.
The reason I put that in there was because I was having a lot of problems with—am still having a lot of problems with—the idea of wokeness in America, and the way that a certain segment of white liberalism has really seized on it as a destination. Like, once you are woke, you are in a place where you can never go back to being un-woke. You are cured, you can tell everyone else what’s wrong with them. You are now back in control of the narrative, because you’re on the right side. I just find that to be such bullshit. How are they woke when I’m not? I’m still making mistakes, you’re still making mistakes. How are they claiming a higher ground from which to judge everyone else, when they’re down in the muck like everyone else? I’m gonna fuck it up again—I almost did the other day. I was writing on the abortion issue and wrote “women,” and then had to stop and ask myself, what does that mean? I had to slow all the way down, and be like, who am I excluding here, who am I leaving out of the conversation and why?
Guernica: Language has certainly become very slippery. And now there’s this interesting thing that’s happening where, as artists, we have to walk this fine line between being all-inclusive, as open-minded artists acknowledging this ever-changing landscape, and being inauthentically politically correct: that person who’s just crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s.
Jacob: Well that’s because it’s a perfunctory thing, right? But it’s not when you look at the vulnerability involved. So, I told you about almost making that mistake. But the reason I tried to break it down in a whole chapter is because I think there are so many people all around me who do this all the time, and they won’t own it. I don’t know how we’re supposed to get better if we don’t own it. I don’t know how we as a country are ever going to get better if we don’t own our national shame. It’s a seismic thing to do, but not owning it has led to this. So what does that look like? Does that look like me drawing the most cringe-worthy diagram of my brain? Yes. And then does that look like me including a chapter right afterwards where I’m having a conversation with my kid, where he’s like, “We’re not racist, right?” And I’m like, “No,” and then we go further into that conversation and you realize I’m telling my son something that may or may not be true. It looks like that—that complicated, and that humiliating. But I don’t think it’s that big of a deal to own your humiliation when not owning it means putting other people’s lives and dignity in jeopardy.
Guernica: And somewhat connected to that point, I think, is something you mentioned in an earlier interview. You were reflecting on the idea that there was just no amount of racial pain that was going to make America stop and go, “We hit the limit.”
Jacob: We need to rethink.
Guernica: In light of that, and hearing about this internal struggle you have, and how you’ve been grappling with accountability in the context of these systems that we’re a part of, or that we’re raised in, did you see this graphic memoir as something you wrote primarily for you—or for your family? Was this mission a personally cathartic one, or one more designed to relay a certain message to the general public?
Jacob: When I started this, the idea was just to write the conversations. I just wanted to write the complexity. I didn’t write this thinking, “I want you to have this feeling.” I want you to read this and hold on to all of the feelings. There are so many. I want you to understand what it is like to be a woman in a brown body in America, and how many different messages you are given every day, and how many different things people will tell you about yourself at any given moment, and how many people feel the right to claim your time, and your mind, and your body, for whatever purpose they have in mind. I didn’t write this like, “I really want people to rethink their feelings on Trump.” No one’s going to rethink their feelings on Trump. To me, the most unfortunate byproduct of his presidency is that we’ve had to seal ourselves up into this monolith called “People of Color.” And once you become POC, you are no longer allowed to explore your complexity. You’re not allowed to give yourself a tenth of the complexity that white people give themselves just for getting up in the morning. If we can’t allow ourselves to have that much complexity, we can’t ever be known to ourselves. I just want to be known to myself.
Guernica: That shouldn’t be too much to ask, and yet it’s one of the rights we’ve had stripped away from us.
Jacob: The thing I hear white people saying a lot, which annoys me to no end, is like, “Listen, we’ve all just gotta be on the same team right now.” They are so clearly uncomfortable with this thing that I do every single day. I don’t know what to say to them, because I’m 46 and I’ve been doing this every day of my life, but I’m sorry if the last three years have been rough on your mental state. Imagine what the rest of us go through on a daily basis.
Guernica: You mentioned how this has become your space to explore complexities. I was thinking about how masterfully you were able to do that in a way that was also efficient, and I’m curious how you came to that efficiency: did you write everything out, then come back and cut it down, or did you train yourself to think and write with that much precision?
Jacob: So for this particular project there’s two things: when I started it, I said, “You are not allowed to do anything other than write the dialogue, and what’s happening at the moment. You are not allowed to write about how you feel—” that’s how I wrote the first draft. The reason I did that is because I wanted the dialogue to telegraph everything it possibly could, emotionally. So I did that and then when I backed up, I thought, “People don’t know what you’re thinking at certain points—like, there are certain points where you actually do have to find a way to puncture this.” Those pages look like the ones where the white writing comes out on the page, and it usually starts with, “Sometimes.” This kind of writing was where I let my emotions come out, and that was a very specific way to handle my feelings.
That’s how I kept it really spare. The minute you make something visual, you’re allowed very few words, and every word you put on that page has to work a lot. I had to set up a visual language that made sense, so I never changed any of the expressions on any of the characters’ faces. The only thing I’m allowed to do is blow them up, crop them differently, or occasionally flip them.
Guernica: I love how many people took the bait on that one, as if it wasn’t intentional somehow.
Jacob: Well it was funny because my first editor also had that question, which is like, “Sometimes it’s really jarring not to see the emotions.” I was like, “Right. Because then what happens?” He said, “It feels weird.” Why? “Because I feel all these things but they’re not on the faces.” Right. If I don’t perform the emotions, then you have to hold it. I don’t want to hold the emotions anymore.
Guernica: What was one of the most surprising discoveries you made in the process of putting this all together?
Jacob: It was really fun. America was a shit show, but I was learning how to draw. I was building a visual language—
Guernica: You didn’t have that skill previously?
Jacob: I mean, I drew, but not to this level. I drew on paper and it was really rudimentary and looked weird. I didn’t know about software or visual composition. The surprise was, Surprise! You’re in your early forties, you’ve never done any of this before but you can do it. Your story feels urgent and you’re just going to figure it out. And it also just felt really good in a time when nothing else felt good. This felt good.
Guernica: As far as urgency goes, writers are often told to avoid the hot topics, to not write about something that’s been written about a lot within a certain timeframe. “We don’t want another Trump essay,” for example. How were you able to push through to what makes your own story unique, when it seems the world is already telling us that there are too many POC-in-Trump’s-America narratives?
Jacob: Well they’re always going to say that. They’ve been saying that since I was in my twenties, in the ‘90s. I know Clinton was in the White House and so we had that going for us, but the moment of what people then called “PC,” people bristled against it. It’s like, don’t say “black,” say “African American,” because this person wants to be called African American. And white people would be like, “Why do I have to do anything?” Because you do. But the idea that anyone white would be asked to do anything besides entertain their own opinion was just too much in the ‘90s. That then became this sort of irony that informed the aughts. An example would be, like, in the show The Office. You have Jim, the sort of white everyman who understands racism isn’t good and is always giving a look to the camera like “Come on, man, that’s not cool.” But what does Jim actually do that changes anything? Nothing. That’s what the ‘90s gave way to, this kind of dude who can get points just for showing up and being a good guy. That going along with the Obama presidency gave way to the false assumption that whiteness had progressed in a conversation with itself—but that conversation never happened. And it’s not going to happen, if “woke” is our destination.
Guernica: Did you draw inspiration from anyone else’s stories when you were putting this together?
Jacob: I love Linda Barry, and her small stories. In terms of race writing, there are so many people. But I’m in active conversation on race right now with two of my friends who I’ve written into my book, and we have this three-way text conversation and everything we see in the world comes into conversation. We all come into it with a different perspective. There’s not a particular writer, I think, who influenced me to marry these ideas in the way that I have. I read a lot, but I haven’t found any of them yet.
Guernica: You mentioned writing your friends into your work, but when it comes to writing your family into this, did you ever consider using any of the admissions in this piece to finish an unfinished conversation with someone? Did you hope, in a way, that your truths could be related more palpably to them through this book? Did you find yourself wanting to deliver a disclaimer before they read it, or wanting to put it into their hands before it was published?
Jacob: I did want to put it into their hands before it was published. I wanted to give them an earlier draft, and I had a mentor who asked me why. When we unpacked it I realized it was because I was feeling guilty, and not even about anything I’d specifically written, but just the idea that I would be talking about this really painful thing. And it’s like, “Is this mine to talk about?” My in-laws and are private people, and it’s their vote. The rule that I set up for myself was that I’d never go for the low-hanging fruit. I didn’t allow myself to go for the things that were easy ways to polarize people’s opinions of my in-laws. They’ve said plenty of things to me that could have done that in this text, but they’ve also shown up every time we needed something. My dad died, and they called immediately. When we had to travel and our son had no one to stay with, they offered to come up. They’re also those people.
Guernica: It’s complicated.
Jacob: Yeah. And the only way this works is by writing that complexity, and allowing people to understand that you love them. If I hated them this would have been a completely different story. It would have been a much easier book. A monster is so easy to walk away from.
Guernica: As our interview comes to a close, I’m ready to ask you one final question. I’d like to draw directly here from the book, because in this really epic moment towards the end, you’re having a heated conversation with your husband about what at first seemed like an incredible opportunity with a radio show producer to get exposure for your work- the opportunity shrivels into a degrading version of itself, as you push back at the producer’s every insensitive suggestion to make your dialogue, culture, and race more palpable to white audiences, and in the thick of it, you’ve nearly unravelled. Your husband says, “Forget this guy, he’s an idiot,” and you shoot back, “This guy is my whole life. Me figuring out how to get past this guy is all I ever do.” It’s a shattering truth about the privileges that are dangled over our heads, about every inch we fight for in contrast to the mile handed to our white counterpart. Did you ever find a way to get past him?
Jacob: I think I’ve certainly gotten past a certain amount of those guys, but every room I walk into, there’s always something. You go to a wonderful book festival, and you’re invited as a featured author, and you’re wined and dined and celebrated, and then one of the donors comes up to you and says, “You know, I could barely hear your accent. Your English is so good.” Or, there’s the person that says, “It’s so funny, your family feels so much like mine—I mean we’re obviously nothing alike and there’s a lot of differences between how we grew up but this was so relatable even though we have different issues.” You hear someone talking themselves toward you and backwards at the same time. They don’t know what to do, they are repulsed. They don’t know how to make sense of the fact that they don’t want to feel any of the things you’re feeling, and yet they feel compelled to tell you that. There’s always some little way you’re kept out of the room or the conversation. I don’t know that I’ll ever fully get past that guy. But I think I’ve discovered many other rooms that that guy doesn’t even know exists.