“Not to speak for all white people or anything.”
“Oh. Wait, you can’t do that? Speak for all of you?”
“I mean, we had that conference call this morning, but you know how it is.”
Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, a graphic memoir, is hilarious in a conversational, inside-joke way. It is also simultaneously heartbreaking, whether it is the dedication (‘For J and Z: You are my country’) or a panel where her son, who is part-brown-part-white, asks whether his white father is afraid of him.
Mira’s son is an inquisitive child. An obsession with Michael Jackson meant that he began asking several questions about the singer – and race. Some questions were innocuous, like, ‘Who taught him to dance?’ and ‘Is that how people really walk on the moon?’, while others were more complex, like, ‘Michael Jackson turned white?’ and ‘Is it bad to be brown?’
“I didn’t know how to answer him — especially when those questions were about why unarmed black teenagers were being killed by policemen, or when he simply asked one day, ‘Are white people afraid of brown people?’” Mira says. She started writing down his questions, and it led to her remembering several of the questions she had while growing up in America, and the ways in which her body was politicised from the start.
In the book, Mira writes that in 2014, she began to question if America was changing for the better and wondered about that the widening gap between the country she was raised to believe in, and the one rising around them. The political climate turned bleaker in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election, and the news reflected this. Mira let her son engage with headlines, even answering
his questions about Donald Trump and racism.
She says the presumption that children can be prevented from seeing and hearing the news, as well as adult conversations, is laughable. “I live in New York City. Short of bubble wrapping my son and carting him around in a soundproof box, there is very little I can do to keep him from the knowledge that our President is openly racist, and almost half our country is okay with it.” The real question, she says, is why it is essential for her to speak to her son about the world he is seeing rise up all around him. “Because I am his mother. Because when the leadership in his own country is telling him he is scary, or loathsome, or hate-able, I must offer a narrative that restores his dignity, his humanity,” she explains.
The graphic memoir employs a striking visual style – paper dolls superimposed on photographs. Mira says that she kept trying to write an essay about the conversation she had with her son, but found herself freezing up each time. “It was 2015, and 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. I ended up drawing us with a Sharpie on printer paper and cutting us out. I cut out dialogue balloons and filled them with our conversations. I put them on top of a Michael Jackson album and photographed it. Boom. I didn’t have to explain anymore,” she says.
Every element in the panels has been thought through by the author, whether it is the frozen expressions (“to put the onus of feeling on the reader”); using colour backgrounds (“to relay the friction of the everyday world on our bodies”); and hand-drawing the dialogue bubbles (“to convey urgency”). “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 and just say exactly what was happening,” Mira explains.
At several points in the novel, Mira writes of how her relatives in India and some Indians in America perceived the colour of her skin. “In America, I would forget about being too dark for years at a time. Then I’d meet new Indians… On visits back to India, the tragedy of my skin colour remained a favourite topic.” She also writes of the helplessness and racism that followed after 9/11 — of being spat at by a group of black teenagers and being assaulted on the subway, where no one stopped the perpetrator or offered to help.
Has the passage of time – and writing the book – helped these wounds to heal? “No, but I didn’t write Good Talk to heal those wounds, I wrote it to name and understand them,” she says.
Many of the stories in the book are deeply personal and intimate. Take for example a party at her in-laws’, where the guests assumed that she was the help and asked her to refill their glasses and take away their plates. She was also pregnant at the time. “Writing so openly and vulnerably about real people I really love was terrifying and lonely and necessary. With every draft, I asked myself if I was writing for clarity or vindication, and if the answer was vindication, I cut the scene,” she says.
The memoir also puts into words what it means to exist in a family where the political inclinations of your loved ones can adversely affect your life – and the sense of abandonment you can feel, as a result. “I can’t protect you from the simple fact that sometimes, the people who love us choose a world that doesn’t,” she writes, addressing her son.
Answering – and attempting to answer – her son’s questions made Mira realise several things, one of which was: “Sometimes you don’t know how confused you are about something important until you try explaining it to someone else,” she wrote. She says that she has been negotiating and thinking about her personal politics for very long. “That’s what the book is about, really — how long this particular exercise has been tasked of me, and how overwhelming (and occasionally hilarious) that can be. And yes, I do get overwhelmed by it. Often. So I write,” she says.
White readers' reactions to the book range from surprise to gratefulness – and responses of a more extreme kind. “I do hear from white nationalists that would prefer me dead or silent, of course, but that’s just an easy place to go when you’re scared of women, brown skin, and excellent dialogue. As for white readers — I think some have been surprised but the vast majority I’ve heard from are grateful. (Now that I put that in print, though, I’m sure the white nationalists will up their game!),” she says.
What place does she think a book like Good Talk has, in the larger narrative that is America today? “I think as a nation of people from wildly diverse backgrounds, many of us are hungry for and delighted to find the stories of POC,” she says.
Good Talk will soon be a TV series, and Mira is writing it herself. She says that she wants it to reflect the soul of the book and the emotional truth that she and so many others live in. “The producer I chose to work with was the one who said, ‘You are really funny and really angry and any show we make is going to have to be both, equally.’ And that felt just right to me. I thought, okay, you see me. And I see us — the us that is everywhere in this country right now, trying to live and love and find each other through this enormously painful moment,” she says.
Updated Date: Aug 21, 2019 09:27:36 IST