What begins as questions for Mira Jacob’s mixed-race son about Micheal Jackson (Was he brown or white? Did he turn white? What color was he when he sang “Man in the Mirror”?) evolves into a story of family, immigration, marriage, race, and identity. Good Talk is a graphic memoir, made in a college-style with Jacob’s drawing overlaid on photographs. Dialogue driven, and both laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking, this unique and important book talks of Jacob’s Syrian Christian roots, her parents’ immigration from Mumbai to Boston in the 1960s, her marriage to a white, Jewish man and her experiences with racism in New York City, before and during the Trump administration.
Mira and I spoke over the phone where she discussed just how unglamourous writing can be, handling conversations about race with those living in denial, writing about family, and how Good Talk came into being.
Kailey Brennan: I love how you framed the Good Talk around conversations with your son and the questions that he asks you. Children have such an interesting and honest and clear view of the world. Were these conversations what sparked the idea for the memoir?
Mira Jacob: Yes, definitely. The conversations with him first started in 2014 with his obsession with Michael Jackson, but 2015, was when things were sort of ramping up. He was asking me questions that were more pointed about race. I think part of that was from seeing what was happening on the television with Trump. He was asking these questions like a benevolent alien would if you're trying to explain racism to a species that didn't live on earth. He was asking questions like, are white people afraid of black people? And what do you say to that? So yes, the conversations were the launch point for this. But once I had sort of written out one —which I did at my kitchen table and I drew us as puppets —once I wrote out one conversation, I thought of 75 other conversations I could easily do in the same way.
KB: Do you think that being a mom and your experience with motherhood amplified the anxieties you were having about a race in our world today? With that motherly instinct to protect?
MJ: I think it amplified for me in a specific way, but I wouldn't say that it's more amplified for me than it is for say, a black teenage boy. I think that everyone is feeling what is happening differently. I think what was amplified for me specifically was the need to try to explain something that was inexplicable.
KB: In your opinion, how can we address the people in our lives who live in denial, under the Trump administration with all the racism that's going on?
MJ: That’s a tough one. Just to be totally honest, I don't actually have advice about that because I think in my mind I've given up on those people. I feel like people who at this point won't look at it, they really have a lot invested in not looking at it. And I'm less concerned with engaging with them than just moving on with the people that understand what is happening and have an active stake in changing it. I don't know how to win over the people that want to keep this harm in place and I kind of don't care anymore. I just feel like if that's where you need to stay, that's where you need to stay. America's changing and you're going to feel less and less part of the conversation. You're going to feel more old and paranoid and scared as time progresses. Good luck with that.
KB: Yeah. I have some family members, and I know many people do, that are the louder ones on social media that are in that denial and I’m just like, how am I related to you?
MJ: Yeah. I think if you're white and you have white family members that are in that kind of denial, I do think it's helpful to someone like me for you to take that on and engage in a fruitful way so that someone like that has a resistance or understands that their will do isn’t necessarily the only one out there. But I don't think that anyone's changing anyone's mind about things.
KB: In the book, you give a little background on your parents, how they met and when they came to America. Did you grow up knowing their history as a child or did you have to interview or research when writing?
MJ: By second grade I understood that my parents had an arranged marriage and they were very open about that. I also remember saying it like they did, totally cheerful, and then seeing the various levels of despair and discomfort on the faces around me. I think when you say that to white Americans they automatically go to crazy child bride places and assume that your mother has been kidnapped into bondage slavery. It’s really insane.
So I knew that story. I knew sort of how they met. I didn't quite understand America's view of what that story was until I was a little older.
KB: How did your family receive this memoir?
MJ: I think the feeling of being written about is just a distinctly uncomfortable one because you're not representing yourself, so it’s someone else's version. My mother and my brother were really great about it. My brother asked me to draw him a little more good looking. I had to work on that for awhile which was very funny. He is sort of severely handsome and I did make him look like Frankenstein in the first version. So maybe there was a little sibling rivalry there.
My inlaws read it and they said, we've read it and we appreciate that it's a beautiful piece of art and we're not ready to talk to you about the content. And I said, great. And we never have talked about it.
KB: Did you find writing the book cathartic or emotional?
MJ: Oh my God, it was super emotional. Cathartic maybe not because cathartic to me has a pacing and an arc and an endpoint. And I don’t think it was that.
One of my writing instructors growing up said you should wait until you have distance from something, especially when it’s highly emotionally charged that so you can write it objectively. But that wasn't an option here. There was no writing this objectively so it was writing it from the middle of the battlefield. In that way, it was highly emotional and really painful.
I’m a person that when I’m in pain I get kind of funnier and funnier. So the points in this where it's like laugh out loud funny, I know what's right under that.
KB: You felt a sense of urgency to finish it?
MJ: Yes. My desk was on fire. I remember actually talking to my editor, Chris Jackson, who took over in the middle of the project and I said, we're supposed to publish this in the fall. And he said, why? Do you need to publish it this fall? I think it would benefit from a couple of months of us working together. And I was like, yes, I want to do that. I feel like it needs to be out sooner rather than later. And he kind of gave me this strange Chris Jackson smile and said because you think that the issues that you're raising are going to go away?
I realized when he said that, oh right. It was the white publishing industry that was dealing with this like it was a topical issue, a right now issue. That there is special urgency right now. Everybody else was like, this is how it's been and how it's going to be and it’s is going to be relevant for a long time because it's not dipping into something that we haven't been thinking about for decades.
KB: Did you always see it as a graphic novel when you started writing it or did it evolve into one?
MJ: I started it right away as a graphic. It was never anything else.
KB: I love how the drawings of the people in the novel don’t have any expressions. The conversation is the point and I thought that was a really cool way to show that.
MJ: Thank you! I had to fight for that.
KB: Oh really?
MJ: Yeah, with my first editor–who was amazing. We ended up having this conversation that was instrumental to the book though because he said, I wish that you would maybe every once in a while make a tear or a consternation face. It's really jarring when there's no reaction from any of the characters. And I said, yeah, if I draw the characters so that they're crying, then you don't have to hold onto that emotion. You can wait for my character to feel the thing and then you can stand in judgment of it, which is essentially what it's like being a Brown person and dealing with racism in America.
You just have white people looking at you all the time, like, is that real? Oh my God, is it really that bad? Oh, I don't know if it's that bad. And they're just sort of watching it like their audience members rather than participants and rather than, frankly, oppressors. So when I didn’t put any emotions on the faces at all, it actually solved two problems for me. One is that it enabled me to not be emotionally exhausted by performing the pain of what was happening. And it also took into account my limited drawing ability, since I'm not a professional artist so it was just sort of me figuring out what my style was and how to translate that into pretty rigid black and white line drawings.
KB: How long did it take you to write and draw everything started?
MJ: I sold the book in 2015 and I was done with it in 2018, so about three years.
KB: Did you go through a lot of drafts, like a novel?
MJ: Yeah, I did. It was a much quicker process in terms of drafts because first I wrote it as scripts. Then I would build out the chapter and that would inevitably change it because once you add the visuals in, it changes the pacing. So the script was a rough idea, almost like a suggestion to improv characters, and then I would write and most of what I had written in the script would drop out. Occasionally something would just change entirely and go into a new direction. So every draft changed pretty significantly.
KB: Did I see that this is going to be made for TV?
MJ: Yes. Well, I don't know that it's going to be made for TV but it’s been optioned and we're working on that.
KB: Wow, that’s very exciting.
I like how in Good Talk you speak about being and writer and struggling as a writer in New York City. You tap into the feeling of self-doubt and inadequacy and trying to navigate that world so well.
Do you have any advice for writers who are in a similar situation or maybe struggle with self-doubt or feel like their story isn't important? Any advice that you can think that helped you as a writer to continue to pursue it?
MJ: One thing that's really interesting to me with the advent of social media is writing as a performative art because it's not. It's you being alone in the room with a page. As my son says, —my husband's a filmmaker and I'm a writer— he's like, your job is soooo boring. (Laughs) I think there's a nervousness when you're in the writing that you're somehow not a part of this big world in which people are actively writing every day.
I want to give a shout out to all the people that are quietly doing their work. Keep doing your work. Keep quietly doing your work. I see sometimes people posting sometimes, who have only been writing for two years saying, how long do I have to do this? I just want to say, awhile. It's going to be awhile. It's kind of a long job. But that feeling of it not looking like a movie of someone writing — I just hope that we can interrupt that narrative to just say, no man, writing looks really boring. When you're doing the work, it's really unglamorous looking. Nobody's checking you out, or taking your picture for magazines and showing what you like to eat in the morning. That's just not how it works. You're doing deep internal work and you're alone and you're in your own head and you’re probably not a great conversationalist because you've been talking basically to yourself for two years and the idea of interacting with other humans is somewhat embarrassing and bound for failure. (Laughs)
But in terms of keeping going within that, I feel like there are these other really beautiful things about writing. It's a specific kind of art that all it takes to be a writer is for you to show up and do the work. It's both the downfall and also the greatest thing about it. I know that now because I wrote through 20 years without getting a book published. So I know very clearly that the difference between me being a writer and what I think of as the capital W writer, the difference is simply that I admitted to myself that I was a writer the whole time.
Before I thought that I was waiting to be anointed to being a real writer. But the work is the same. You're doing the work. When you do the work, you're doing the work. The work is the hard part. And I'm not saying that it's not very rewarding to be published. Of course, it is. But I think that people can get caught up in that fantasy and forget that every time you show up for yourself it counts and it matters and you are doing the work and you're changing things.
KB: I love that. That's really great. I love social media but I think as you mentioned, it perpetuates that feeling of inadequacy because being a writer isn’t really postable or glamorous and that definitely can trip me up.
MJ: Yeah, I'm sure it does. I think if I wouldn't have had 10 years in my own head without social media to understand what it looks like to sit down and write every day, I'd probably be really confused right now. It’s a lonely art. I went away from all humans to write and draw a book for three years. I was a weird mutant who didn’t eat much.
A friend of mine who was in my writing space wrote this little write up of what it was like to be next to me. It is the sweetest, kindest thing. It's basically talking about how I was wearing two jackets and multiple layers of gloves and was hunched over a table from eight in the morning sometimes until two in the morning just doing this thing and then taking a break to see the actual child I have in the world who I love. It didn't look like a beautiful life because the beautiful life was inside me at that point. It was wasn’t anything anyone could see.
Mira Jacob is the author and illustrator of Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations. Her critically acclaimed novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers pick, shortlisted for India’s Tata First Literature Award, and longlisted for the Brooklyn Literary Eagles Prize. It was named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Goodreads, Bustle, and The Millions.
Her writing and drawings have appeared in The New York Times, Electric Literature, Tin House, Literary Hub, Guernica, Vogue, the Telegraph, and Buzzfeed, and she has a drawn column on Shondaland. She currently teaches at The New School, and she is a founding faculty member of the MFA Program at Randolph College.
She is the co-founder of Pete’s Reading Series in Brooklyn, where she spent 13 years bringing literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry to Williamsburg. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, documentary filmmaker Jed Rothstein, and their son.