Naomi Elias | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (4,793 words)
Nearly five years after the release of her award-winning debut novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob returns with a graphic memoir, Good Talk: A Memoir In Conversations (One World, 2019). Jacob tells the story of her life in a series of conversations between illustrated figures of the author and her constant companion, her son, who is six-years-old at the beginning of the book and is referred to as Z throughout. Z’s hyper-observant nature leads him to ask complicated questions about race and politics the likes of which Jacob first illustrated for BuzzFeed in a 2015 graphic article entitled “37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed Race Son” that quickly went viral. The resulting memoir is a stunning achievement — it’s already being developed into a TV series — that offers a look at America through the eyes of three generations of Jacob’s family: herself, her Syrian Christian immigrant parents, and her mixed race son whom she is raising in Brooklyn with her husband Jed Rothstein, a white Jewish documentary filmmaker.
Jacob’s tracing of her family’s history in this country — from the start of her parents’ immigration story, to meeting and falling for her husband, to the present day where she is raising a brown son in Trump’s America — is a resonant testimony to how difficult but necessary it is to find and fight for your place in the world. In a heartfelt address delivered to her son in Good Talk, Jacob neatly condenses the existential dilemma that is the crux of the memoir: “I can’t protect you from spending a lifetime caught between the beautiful dream of a diverse nation and the complicated reality of one.”
While framed by Jacob’s conversations with her son, the book spans several different pivotal periods in the Indian-American author’s life. Jacob takes us time-traveling through her early years growing up in New Mexico as the daughter of immigrant parents, invites us to relive her dating foibles, walks us through the highs and lows of her early career as a writer in New York, and lets us overhear intimate conversations she’s had with her husband about how to nurture and protect their interracial family. Each period we revisit is filled with revealing snapshots — sometimes literally when Jacob shares actual family photos — of the type of life she lived and the people and experiences that shaped who she has become. Like any good conversation, the book is generously punctuated by humor, has an effortless flow, and is more concerned with thoughtfully exploring questions than in arriving at definitive answers.
The author opened up about her family life and her writing process in a candid conversation with Longreads earlier this month.
Naomi Elias: This is an atypical format for a memoir. What is it about the nature of conversation that made you choose it over traditional narrative structure?
Mira Jacob: When I was writing this book, the reason I even started it was my son was in this moment that he was figuring out that he was brown. And he sort of had this natural trajectory of questions about brownness and what that meant. Some of the questions were really funny and some of them were just body-shattering. He asked me the question “Are white people afraid of brown people?” in the middle of the subway in the cutest chirp. He’s like [imitates son’s voice] “Are white people afraid of brown people?” and the whole subway just sat quiet and I was like oh shit.
He asked me these questions and I knew how they were affecting me, and also it was at the moment when the comment sections hit their peak of really being able to affect me, because it was before I learned that you just don’t look at the comments ever on anything if you want to remain in an interesting conversation. The minute I tried to write an essay about this I felt the comment section coming in and all the different ways that people could not believe the story I was writing, and then I felt how they would make fun of me and how they would make fun of him.
I think making fun of people and deciding you don’t believe them is a really great defense when you don’t want to interrogate things like racism and the systems that are preserving your life over someone else’s. So, I drew us on printer paper and I cut us out and then I just put those bubbles over the albums and then stood on my dining room table and took pictures of them. The great thing about that format is I no longer had to beg someone to care and I didn’t have to kind of walk through the minefield which is trying to open up somebody’s heart with your carefully explained argument. I could just say here it is, this is the conversation. You can choose to listen to it or you can not, but what you can’t do is tell me that it’s just not happening. It’s happening. It just changes the responsibility in some ways and, you know, you can argue out of that but that’s what it felt like for me, that was the psychic weight that was lifted.
Along with that was the idea that I didn’t really have to emote because I drew us as these fixed expressions. We never cry, we never laugh, none of the drawings ever have an emotional reaction to anything that’s happening around them. That also was incredibly freeing mentally, to just not have to perform racial pain in that way.
I really tried to follow his lead. I really tried to answer the questions that he asked, and there are times in the book where that doesn’t always happen because mine sort of unspool in the same moment.
You attempt to have incredibly delicate and nuanced discussions with your son, but the talks gets hilariously and understandably derailed by his wandering mind. For instance a conversation about what distinguishes a racist from a bigot evolves (or devolves) into one about superheroes. In moments like that how do you know your words have reached him — that you have, as your book title suggests, had a “good talk”?
Oh, you don’t. The title is really tongue in cheek because so many of the talks in here are not anything you would ever call a good talk. For me, it’s almost like when you step away from a conversation that you know has gone bafflingly off-the-rails and you’re like, ‘good talk, good talk’ you know? You just say it to yourself in this way that’s like, ‘that was a disaster, I don’t know how anyone is going to recover from that one!’ Mostly I would leave conversations with him and I would be like, ‘that’s another five years of therapy right there.’
This is the really frustrating thing about being a parent especially in this moment, but I imagine all parents in every moment feel this — that despite all your carefully laid ideas about how you’re going to grow a small human into a big one, it’s just a disaster. It’s a shitshow left and right. You’re doing your very very best and it is so not even close to enough.
I think many parents, particularly parents of children of color, will respond to your desire to shield your son from harm and confusion by arming him with information about what it means to be a racial and religious minority in America. But there’s also the possibility — a concern you voice in the book — that you’ll overwhelm him with that information. Did you only answer questions your son asked organically or were there certain topics you felt he just needed to be briefed on?
I really tried to follow his lead. I really tried to answer the questions that he asked, and there are times in the book where that doesn’t always happen because mine sort of unspool in the same moment. It’s not like you get a list of questions that your child is going to ask you and then you come up with the answers and then you have the conversation. I am really conscious with him of just trying to go toward the thing he’s asking about as opposed to my unspoken fears about it, which are many. I also think that our adjacency to whiteness makes that possible for me.
Makes it possible not to answer questions?
Yeah, I mean it makes it possible for me to only answer the questions he’s asked. Indians in America, the thing that people get most often, the thing that I get most often is the assumption that I am somehow a suspect or un-American or possibly a terrorist. That’s a different kind of treatment than the treatment that my black friends and their kids are getting. It’s not like we’re just walking around the streets with people assuming that they have dominion over our bodies and our every word. That’s not how it breaks down for us day-to-day. There are situations we can get into where that certainly happens, and the place I feel it most is in airports, but that’s not my bodily experience so that means that I live differently and I get to answer questions differently. It’s not a one-size-fits-all question, because what you arm your child in the world with is very much how they experience the streets around them, and that’s a really different thing depending on what body you’re inhabiting and what place you’re in.
I have lost countless white friends over the last few years … They can’t have any conversation except for the one where you say they’re not racist. Any other conversation you want to have, you cannot have it until you first say they are not racist.
b>In recent years there has been a ramp up in efforts to romanticize interracial relationships and present them as a cure-all for racism and racial strife. But here you deliberately write about how living in a mixed race household has complicated your familial dynamic from having to navigate life with pro-Trump in-laws to fielding questions that your son only feels comfortable asking you and not his father. How did that revelation change your parenting style?
Well, I’ll say two things about that. One is that I think two things are happening in America. There is a ramping up of interracial relationships as a cure-all and the idea that there is an inherent understanding there and that is the thing that will fix us all in the end. But we also know that’s a lie. People don’t just understand each other magically. The converse of that is, really there’s a deep distrust of interracial relationships, too. There’s the idea that one person or the other really does not like themselves or their race and they’re settling in one way or another. So I think both of those things are in play in America always. For me, it was really important to walk right into that and stop being ruled by other people’s opinions about what this marriage looks like and just actually say what it looks like; and that means exposing the parts of it that are really good and the parts of it that are difficult.
The other part of your question was how has that affected my parenting style?
Yes because in the book you talk about how your husband was surprised to hear that his son had asked if he was afraid of him.
It’s really interesting because as the dark parent — and my son is brown, he could’ve easily not been — but as the parent that he most looks like skinwise, I think there are just certain things that I understand about his experience and I see coming that my husband doesn’t. That conversation was a real moment for us because I said it exactly like that, ‘you know he said the thing about are you afraid of him’ and my husband was like ‘wait, what? He said what?’ and it took me a minute to realize that oh shit this is brand new information. This has never occurred to you. It was hard because I saw his heart breaking because it’s his son, he was in the delivery room, he’s the first person that held that baby. This is every bit his son as much as mine, and then the idea that this little person that you would do anything for could think that is just heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking for him. And I understood that he was getting to a piece of knowledge that was newly heartbreaking for him and it was a piece of knowledge for me that was so old as to be calloused.
How that works out in our parenting style is that I’m often ahead of the conversation in that regard, meaning I often have to say things and then we have to clear it up a few times because I will take for granted that we all know this thing; and Jed will say we don’t know that thing, do we know that thing? Why would we know that thing? And we have to have a discussion about it. He’s a real person with opinions. It’s not like because I’m the dark person in the relationship I just get to say how race goes; that’s actually not how it works.
In one of the anecdotes you share in the book, a Boston radio producer who had asked you to read an excerpt from your first book on air made some unexpected edits to your language before broadcast — specifically how you identified your brown characters as ‘East Indian’ which he replaced with the redundant term ‘Asian Indian’ before you eventually settled on ‘South Asian.’ The producer thought the edit was what his audience needed to hear to be able to keep up with your story. How do you decide which concessions to make, if any, to be legible to your readers?
My assumption is that my readers are readers of color. I’m sure I have many white readers as well but I’m not writing myself to explain myself to my white readers. I’m writing for the people that I know are there, who are reading just as avidly, who most often are not being spoken to in books. I’m writing to the people like me who have been reading their whole life [waiting] to see anyone address them.
In a publicity situation, which is what the thing with the Boston radio producer was, that’s a really tough situation because I’ve already made a piece of art that is writing to its intended audience, and what he’s doing is inserting himself in that and saying ‘no, people really aren’t going to understand you.’ I’ve already made the thing that I want to make and he’s coming in and saying ‘yeah, but you’re going to have to translate yourself if you really want people to understand.’ That’s something that I’ve heard my whole life. My entire creative life people have said ‘well if you really want people to understand…’ and I always say, ‘which people are you talking about?’
I think we’re onto it now. At this moment the assumption of whiteness is not worth making anymore. It’s not only insulting, it’s bafflingly backward at this point in time and it always was but it’s an especially violent thing to do now. If you’re still doing it, you’re doing violence to many people. In that moment, he was trying to get me to do that, and I don’t want to do that; and that was what was so troubling about that moment. His assumption about his own audience — which is also crazy as a Boston radio producer — was that it was white and also he assumed his white audience wouldn’t understand Indian names. I think those are two crazy assumptions to make right off the bat and then to ask me to then change my art to satisfy his fantasy of what readers not only looked like but what they were capable of is just insulting.
I was raised in this white supremacy like everyone else. I had the same problems, I had the same sickness that I’m trying to get rid of. There’s no moment in which I’m going to be free of it. There’s just going to be me continually pulling back the curtain on it.
Have you felt like since that incident you’ve taken more of a hard line if anyone else were to ask you to do something like that?
You know, it’s really hard in the moment. I find when you’re doing something ancillary to your work — i.e. promoting your art, which is very different from making it — those conversations come at you very quickly and in a flood. It is really hard to always know ‘wait, where is the line? What is the line? Where is the thing that is actually being rubbed up against?’ I’ve had to stop myself in the middle of conversations to say, ‘wait I don’t want you to put that kind of a title on my work.’ I’ve had to stop certain things like that, but you can’t possibly stop all of them. I think at this point in my life I know that if I’m uncomfortable it’s for a very good reason. I am not easily made uncomfortable. I’m not particularly precious about my work. If something is upsetting to me, it’s because someone is gunning for something that is unfair to me and it’s unfair to my work, and it’s unfair to my readers.
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There’s a moment after you are mistaken for the help at a party thrown by your mother-in-law where you internally debate talking to her about why it happened. You write, “Sometimes you weigh explaining against staying quiet and know they’re both just different kinds of heavy.” That really leveled me. Very few people understand that constantly having to explain yourself or defend yourself against microaggressions is exhausting. How do you begin to make people understand the concept of emotional labor when it goes largely unseen even to family members?
Not only does it go unseen, I think it’s expected. That to me is the hardest part. Yes, it’s invisible, but even if it is visible, it is expected. Of course you should do this work for me, your job is in fact to do this work. Your job is to do the work of explaining yourself to me because I am in charge of the room, I am in charge of how our relationship goes and you should do everything you can to keep that a pleasant relationship. That’s the inherent unspoken part of it that’s really decimating. It’s really hard to explain to someone who does not want to know that information on their own. It’s really hard to convince them of the veracity of it, and I think that’s true of many of these conversations. I think if someone is genuinely uninterested or too defensive to hear, they will stay too defensive to hear.
I have lost countless white friends over the last few years in kind of this brutal shakedown of white liberalism, people who have always considered themselves to be on the right side of everything but the minute you say hey you’re hurting me, this hurts they have such an intolerance for hearing. They can’t have any conversation except for the one where you say they’re not racist. Any other conversation you want to have, you cannot have it until you first say they are not racist. Being put in that position over and over again has taught me that it’s really common that people will expect you to do this work for them; it’s really common to be told that when you are refusing to do that work and when you say ‘hey this is what your show looks like’ or ‘hey this is what your part of this burden looks like’ they will say ‘how dare you?’ How dare you say that about me? How dare you think that of me? as though you asking for help and for them to own their part in this is somehow a tremendous insult to the entire idea of friendship. I’ve gotten really comfortable with the knowledge that that is just the place that some of these conversations will land. Those particular relationships are not going to be easily turned into something else.
Does that make sense?
It does. I’m black and I’ve felt the irritation of someone — even someone well-meaning — saying “I don’t know why this is wrong, can you explain it?”
No, I don’t want to. I don’t want to spend my day doing that for you! Can you Google it? And if you can’t, can you turn to a different friend because I’m tapped out right now.
Alison said this great thing to me; it’s not in the book, but when I was writing the book I had a falling out with a person that we mutually knew and she — so Alison’s my best friend you probably know that if you read the book, she’s in many parts of it — she said this funny thing to me in a bar once where she’s like, “Do I need to have the white lady to white lady talk with her?” And I was like, what? “What is the ‘white lady to white lady’ conversation?” And she says it’s the one where you turn to that person and say, You just flipped out on Mira about your own racism, you just threw every funny feeling that you had in your body about racism at a woman who has been dealing with nothing but her entire life. Who in this situation do you think maybe needs a break from that moment and who do you think needs to pick it up and carry it forward? I’m going to give you ten minutes to figure that out and then we will continue this conversation. And I was like, “that’s the white lady to white lady conversation?!” It was so funny. And she was like, “that’s it.” And I was like, amen.
The fact that the institutions and establishments managed to not imagine us into existence means nothing. Imagine us, because we’re here.
While most of the stories you share are about times when you’ve been on the receiving end of a racist or sexist remark, you also share memories of instances when you’ve subjected others to your own prejudices. Why was it important to you to include that?
a., Because they happened, but also b., because I am seeing around me, as I’m sure you are, the performance of wokeness and the idea that being woke is a destination. It seems to me that some people think it’s literally a plane trip and you’re in another land and then you are woke and from that land you can criticize the land you used to be in and all people that remain in it. I just find that such a load of shit. I think there is only ever waking, right? There’s only ever going to be waking. There is not a moment in which you’re going to ever truly be woke, and I say that as a person of color who everyone always assumes is on the right side of things and I’m not. When I was writing this book I was like ‘if you’re going to write honestly about something, you’re going to write something that in a week or month or three years, you’re going to look back at this and think [makes heaving noise] that was another way in which I expose myself to be a jerk, and it’s true and I know it’s in there. There are things in there that if you sort of unpack them, they’re still unsettling, and they’re painful; and it’s because I was raised in this white supremacy like everyone else. I had the same problems, I had the same sickness that I’m trying to get rid of. There’s no moment in which I’m going to be free of it. There’s just going to be me continually pulling back the curtain on it and trying to figure out where it’s coming from and trying to go forward in a different way.
Memoirs — the good ones at least — demand vulnerability from their authors. What was the bigger challenge for you, writing a memoir or sharing it with the world?
I mean, ask me in a month honestly. It’s much easier to expose yourself than it is your family, especially in a country that is so violently racist. I am nervous about what this country will do to us. I’m nervous about the various ways in which we will be positioned as saviors or abominations when all we are is just human. That’s it. All I’m saying is that we’re human, not particularly good or bad, just real and muddling forward.
I think people will be pleasantly surprised to find that President Obama figures prominently in this memoir. You even devote a couple of pages to reprinting a segment of a speech he made about America’s racial divide at a pivotal point in his first presidential campaign. How did he earn such an important place in the story of your life?
Here’s the thing about where America had been before: there was a stalemate in the conversation about race because there was the idea that no white people had any problem with race anymore, and there was no way to really talk about it. If you were a person of color and you were bringing it up, it was more about the chip on your shoulder than anything else. Everyone else was totally fine. It was this incredibly slippery situation and informed very much by the baby boomer generation and the sort of like ‘we fought all the wars that needed to be fought, we fought all the cultural wars and now we’re in a better place,’ and an inability to parse through why then the prison system looked the way that it did, why the crack epidemic looked like it did. So when that moment happened and when President Obama — Senator Obama at that point — talked in this way about race, when he said if we’re going to talk about this, we’ve really gotta talk about it and you can’t pretend these problems don’t exist, they exist and yes you’re upset about this man and I’m upset about part of what he said, the part that upsets me is he doesn’t think Americans can change because I do but we’re not going to pretend the other thing he said here is also untrue, we’re not doing that for your ego. Just having him say that? I was sitting on my couch bawling. I couldn’t believe it. It was such an obvious way forward and no one had said it before. No one had found out a way to say of course you are hurting and killing us, that is the reality and we have to find a way forward. No one had said that. It was just amazing. It was just wild. I remember watching that speech and just thinking oh my god, how is this happening? And being so relieved on a cellular level. I felt like my atoms were rearranging to take in oh this too is a way forward, who knew? That’s why that figures prominently in there.
People like to reduce that and say oh you just like him because he’s brown and you’re brown. I feel like they don’t even begin to understand what it was like for all the bodies in America that had carried that history to hear him say this and to stand differently having heard it. It was different. My vision of America in that moment is a thousand different living rooms of people just sitting up straighter. I’m not saying everything about Obama is flawless, of course not, but this thing that he said was a real and measured response to real and valid pain, and that just hadn’t happened. In my lifetime that had not happened, not on that national level. It was always in quiet groups with people of color and never televised, never that publicly.
There is a page in this book that’s full of the bad advice you’ve received from other people about how to build a career as a writer including working for exposure instead of pay, a warning to not “ghettoize yourself with ethnic writing,” and to stay away from writing for the Web. Is there any writing advice you’ve received that has actually helped?
Yes, absolutely. It’s advice that Kiese Laymon gave to his many students and it’s really simple: write for us. Write for us, write for the multitudes of us that are here, that don’t fit into any Census box so neatly, that somehow have not been quite imagined by the country we’ve been in our whole lives and for decades and centuries. We are here, we exist, you know we exist. The fact that the institutions and establishments managed to not imagine us into existence means nothing. Imagine us, because we’re here. And write for us.
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Naomi Elias is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online and in print at a variety of publications including New York Magazine, Nylon, Teen Vogue, and Brooklyn Magazine.
Editor: Dana Snitzky