A graphic memoir composed almost entirely of dialogue and static drawings might seem like an unlikely follow-up to The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob’s acclaimed 2014 novel. But Jacob, author of Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, which will be published this month by One World, doesn’t shy away from a challenge.
No matter whether the challenge is explaining race relations and Michael Jackson’s fluctuating skin color to her six-year-old mixed-race son, or confronting the mother-in-law she adores about supporting Donald Trump.
Jacob, the daughter of East Indian immigrant parents and married to a Jewish man, does all of this and more in Good Talk. She allows her characters—her son, husband, friends and extended family—to speak for themselves, literally, in a memoir that is as graphically inventive as it is deeply personal and unapologetically political.
We talked to Jacob about creating her first graphic work, identity and American racism, and the challenge of raising a child during a period of political and moral crisis.
The Millions: Which came first, the graphic nonfiction form or the subject matter? Or did they evolve together?
Mira Jacob: I’ve always drawn, and my agent knows this because when I turn in manuscripts, I have drawings in the mix. When I get stuck, I draw my way out. She said, “You should draw a book,” but I had no idea what it would look like.
Then, I was stuck in a nursing home with my grandma in India—and in India, no one goes to nursing homes—and she was depressed and angry, and the TV went out. But in the span of the four minutes it was out, we had the most intense conversation. I drew that conversation to crack up my cousins because there are so many of us and I knew they’d understand it immediately with no additional explanation. That’s when I understood that if you just draw the conversation as it happened, people will understand.
Later my son started asking these questions. I wanted to write an essay about it. Most kids go through an obsession with Michael Jackson. But he figured out he was brown and that it wasn’t as welcome as white, and his idol was black. I started writing those conversations down and drawing them.
TM: I’m curious about how you decided to approach writing about the unwitting racists of the world, of which there are many.
MJ: I kept wondering, especially in my interactions with my liberal white friends, “What do I do when racial violence is happening everywhere, but you express this skepticism. The only thing you’ll accept is the idea that you weren’t racist, so we can keep being friends.”
It’s a known known now that people are more upset about being called racist than by being racist. There are clear patterns with my white friends, where I say they’ve hurt my feelings, and their emotional reaction trumps anything I could ever do. Defending yourself is not getting us anywhere. How can we not have a conversation about this? It’s usually with my liberal friends. They say, “If this is how you handle it, you won’t have anyone on your side.” And I wonder, “How on my side are you?”
Writing to that place is tough. The other thing I’m writing to is this persistent fantasy that if people have interracial relationships that are positive, they’ve worked through it…. People are like, “I’ve done the work. I’m woke now.” I myself am in a constant process of waking.
TM: There are several scenes at different points in your life in which you depict your own ignorant or bigoted moments. Why were those important to include?
MJ: It was very deliberate. There’s a scene where I said something really stupid to my black boyfriend’s friend, but right after that [in the book], I told my son we weren’t racist. So I just let it stand.
TM: The parenting conversations really resonated with me—the constant tension between wanting to protect our kids and wanting to be honest with them. How have your conversations with your son evolved?
MJ: He’s ten now. This book ends two years before this moment. It’s gotten more complicated. I’ve lived by the rule of answer the question you’re asked. Don’t rush forward into all the things you think he needs to know. Those things will come. He’ll be a teenager and he’ll figure out how people perceive brown boys. It’s gonna be awful. It’s not gonna be less awful because I tell him about it ahead of time.
There’s a lot of anti-Semitism too. He asked me a year ago, “Is it that I’m brown and Jewish, because those are two things no one likes?” I wanted to call my in-laws and say “What do you think brought this on?” When he was born and Obama was in office, we were living with a level of privilege. He didn’t know everything that went behind creating that moment.
TM: There’s so much humor in this book, like the scene where you draw your parents as space aliens with these crazy eye-stalks.
MJ: Drawing on a computer is a trip. Literally anything you can dream up you can try it very quickly. What would it look like if my parents had alien eyeballs? I tried so many alien parents. I found that one the most bizarre and haunting. For all the pain in this book—I cried a ton—I did crack myself up an awful lot. I’d be up at three in the morning cackling feverishly.
TM: What kind of reactions to the book have you had from your family and friends?
MJ: My mother says to all of her friends, “Oh, Mira is so creative. Of course I know how it really happened.” My brother said, “What do you think about Hasan Minhaj playing me in the movie?”
TM: You write about the racial micro-aggressions you experienced when your novel came out. How did that impact the decisions you made about publicizing this book?
MJ: Any woman of color on Twitter can tell you there’s an incredible amount of hate. Then throw the identity of “mom” on top of that. As far as making rules for myself, I’m most comfortable talking about myself. I’m protective of my family. I’m also aware that people are really hungry to know how it felt for us, as a way to have more hope or to not have any, and I’m not taking that on. People want to read their tea leaves through the lens of my family. I want to turn that around and say, “This is my family. You take those questions to yours.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.