Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations By Mira Jacob
New York, NY; One World, 2019, 368 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Interview by Tahneer Oksman
In 2015, Mira Jacob published her first book, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, a sprawling, elegantly written novel about a young woman wrestling with grief, love, and the complicated ways our family histories and backgrounds never stop influencing how we see and experience the world. Four years later, Jacob returns with a second work, Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations. The genre and format of this new book is radically distinct from her first; with Good Talk, Jacob has composed a visual memoir chronicling her life. Told in forty-three short chapters that shift back-and-forth between various backstories and the present, the book is made up of episodic snippets detailing everything from her Syrian Christian parents’ courtship and immigration from India to Albuquerque and her early experiences with peers, educators, and members of her family and community in New Mexico, to her journey towards becoming a writer living in New York City and meeting, marrying, and having a child with a white, Jewish filmmaker.
Jacob’s story is bookended with the candid, sometimes humorous, and often painful conversations she has with her observant, evercurious son, who is six years old when the book opens in 2014, against the backdrop of their Brooklyn neighborhood. In the wake of his progressively sophisticated and often difficult-toanswer questions (“What did Michael Jackson like being better, brown or white?”; “Are white people afraid of brown people?”; “Is daddy afraid of us?”), Jacob finds herself increasingly aware of what she describes as “the growing gap between the America I’d been raised to believe in, and the one rising fast all around us.” With the 2016 election before her, and her husband’s parents standing steadfastly behind a Trump presidency, Jacob invites her readers to witness her multiform attempts to contend, through conversation and dialogue, with the painful contradictions that surround her.
On a cold day in early January, Jacob and I talked, over tea, about this new book of hers that is, at its core, a frank address, from parent to child, expressing hope and helplessness in the face of a baffling, uncertain future.
Women’s Review of Books: With Good Talk, you’ve turned from fiction written in prose to visual memoir, with illustrations of you, your son, and other family members and friends in conversation, superimposed over photographic backgrounds. Could you talk about this collage-like structure and how it came about?
Mira Jacob: Partially, it was the conversations themselves that chose the format. My son was asking me a lot of questions about being brown in America, and I didn’t know how to answer him. It was really weighing on me. I kept trying to write an essay about it, but I froze up every time. We were already ramping up to the America in which no story could ever be bad enough, no feeling could ever be scary enough, where everything was something to be disproven. As many times as I tried to position us, I felt the gaze of the disbeliever. And I was exhausted by trying to navigate the space between what is hope and what is horror in this country, and trying to make that okay— specifically, for white eyes. It’s frustrating. I feel like I live in [that place between hope and horror]. I have been in that place for a long time. This is where a lot of us live. [The visual format] felt like a shortcut. I ended up drawing us with a Sharpie on printer paper and cutting us out. I cut out dialogue balloons. I put them on top of a Michael Jackson album and photographed it. Poof. I didn’t have to explain anymore.
WRB: What was it like to move from fiction to memoir as you were also moving into a visual format? How did these new modes of creating shape the story you were trying to tell?
MJ: I didn’t know I was making a memoir when I started. I kept calling what I was working on a “thing” in my mind. When I hear the word “memoir,” I get scared, thinking my life is not interesting enough.
I kept making these visual things, thinking, I’m going to tell these little stories from my life. These are just conversations. I made strict rules: I told myself, you can only set things up. You cannot talk about the feelings you’re having. You can only set up the scene and play out the dialogue and see how that goes. But I’m a metaphor junkie. A metaphor is basically taking an emotion and making it concrete for another person. When you can’t rely on your flowery senses, when you can’t rely on your metaphors, what do you develop in that place? I had to lean hard on action. On dialogue.
I realized later that I was going to have to talk about my feelings at some point. But the helpful part of realizing that later on was that I hadn’t exhausted myself before I even started.
WRB: While the book opens with, and is framed by, these conversations you had with your son, it also goes back in time to tell the story of your own coming-of-age in New Mexico, moving to New York City to become a writer, and falling in love and partnering up. How did you arrive at such an unconventional narrative scheme?
MJ: The book stemmed from an identity crisis—my identity crisis—which was brought on by America’s identity crisis. I wrote it chronologically, for lack of a better thing to do. Then I realized that I needed to build a through-line. The conversations with my son build momentum throughout the book.
When you frame a story around conversations, the reader has the delicious experience of eavesdropping. Even though these conversations might implicate readers directly, they’re still coming to it sideways. There’s a lot of freedom in that for me because sometimes I could just lose sight of the reader’s needs. I could just say what was happening. I could not feel an allegiance. I could feel like I didn’t have to make things accessible.
WRB: The book exposes tense, challenging interactions between you and your closest family members, including your husband and in-laws. The issue of exposure is something all memoirists have to grapple with to some extent. How did you approach this problem?
MJ: The years that I was making this book were the most terrifying and lonely couple years of my life. To expose your spouse means you’re actually pulling away to allow yourself the distance that you need to write what happened.
America is always already pulling at us. America has a fantasy about interracial couples, which is that if you’re married to someone from a different race it’s because you understand everything about each other, and you’re in sync. It’s a load of shit. It doesn’t take into account how complex life is. So, then the counterpoint to that idealized version becomes a deep distrust of interracial couples—this idea that one partner or the other doesn’t value themselves or their race. It’s fucked.
My husband is also a private person. He has his own creative life as a documentarian. Sometimes conversations got heated. But always, after, he would come back with, “You just need to write it. You just need to tell the truth. You can’t dodge what you know out of some loyalty to me. You have to write it, and then we can figure it out.” That was a gift.
WRB: In the book you include a direct look at prejudice—specifically colorism—within the East Indian community. Why did you think it was important to include this perspective?
MJ: When we talk about racism and prejudice in this country, it’s always about whiteness. Anyone of color becomes a monolith, like it’s “us against them.” But every brown is different. Every one of us has our people saying privately, “we’re better than them.” That’s how tribes function. I wanted to see what it would be like to look at my own tribe and my place in it, at times in which I had compromised and times in which I had not been my best self. And at times in which I had felt unloved and unseen.
People seem to experience “woke-ness” as an idea that there’s a place to get to, and when you get to that place then you’re on the right side of things. I find that exhausting. There’s also this idea that as a person of color, I’m always going to be on the right side of things. And that’s absolutely not true. The idea that you get to a place where you no longer have to interrogate yourself, where you’re on the “right side” of racism, of colorism, it’s a baffling falsehood. It’s laziness. You lose the chance to grow and change.
WRB: Did you have an audience in mind for your book? What kind of response have you seen until now, from the short pieces you’ve already published online on BuzzFeed, Instagram, and in other venues?
MJ: I’ve been surprised by how many people have found me and written me to say, “You just told the story of my family.” There is a world of unspoken “us” that gets lost in conversations about race. When I envision the audience for this book, I envision people who are seeing conversations take place around them and saying, “What’s next?” For me, all of this stuff has a lot more nuance than we are allowing ourselves in this moment. I don’t want the byproduct of these years to be that we stop being interested enough in each other to allow for the possibilities.
I know this book is going to make a lot of people upset because I’m not tying things up with a righteous tirade. Right now, we want our discussions of race to end with righteous anger because there is so much to be angry about! And some people will think the lack of that means I’ve let my in-laws off the hook. But the truth is more complicated. I’m horribly wounded. I feel betrayed. Also, I love them. I’m holding all of these things in my hands at once. I’m holding all of them together because my boy is made up of all of us, and I’ve got to find a place for his body in this country.
WRB: Your book ends with a letter to your son, titled, “The Talk We Haven’t Had.” The timing is early 2017. Why did you decide to end the narrative in this way?
MJ: I think what people so often look for in a book like this is a solution. People want the story to end well. I don’t have that kind of ending. The best ending that I could have was the most honest one, the one that was written for him above all others, the one that said, “I see you; I love you. We’re in this together. We’re in it.”
Tahneer Oksman is an assistant professor at Marymount Manhattan College, the author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (Columbia University Press, 2016), and the co-editor of the anthology, The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself (University Press of Mississippi, 2019). She often reviews graphic novels and illustrated works for the Women’s Review of Books.