Mira Jacob, GOOD TALK

Mira Jacob, GOOD TALK

Zibby is joined by Mira Jacob to talk about her latest book, Good Talk, which was named one of the best books of 2019 by the New York Times Book Review. The graphic memoir was the result of Mira’s attempts to answer her young son’s questions about race in America while dealing with the political developments of 2016— especially those that took place within her own family. Mira tells Zibby how she was able to assemble this book despite not being an illustrator or a memoirist and how her husband’s family has received her side of their shared story.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mira. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations.

Mira Jacob: Thanks for having me. Hi.

Zibby: Hi. Mira, we had so much fun, that’s an odd way to say it, but when we cohosted the Literacy Partners’ benefit. Now I feel just so excited to get to interview you about your work.

Mira: I’m very excited about this too. It was funny because we had not seen other humans in quite a while. Then we hosted this thing together. That was the closest I had gotten to a party. It was us alone in a room talking, but I was like, it’s basically a cocktail party. It was amazing.

Zibby: It was. It was like a cocktail party streaming live to tens of thousands of people. We were like, we’re just going to have fun here. Anyway, so your book is amazing, a graphic novel meets memoir about all sorts of things from your career, growing up, your family, race, your marriage, parenting. You have literally every element that you could possibly think of in your life story here. You did it in such an original, unique way. Tell listeners a little about how you came up with the form of this book and how the whole thing came about.

Mira: Just to give them a visual, what it looks like when you’re reading through the book is, I do drawings of myself in various years and all the people in my life in various years. I stick with one drawn version of us, so it’s almost like a paper doll version that travels from page to page. The backgrounds change. There are different photographs that we’re situated in. The way that it looks is you’re always looking at two people talking, but they are looking at you, the viewer, while they’re having an intimate conversation. It is, in fact, a memoir in conversations. My publisher came up with that title. I have to tell you, the subtitle, when they said it’s A Memoir in Conversations, I lost my mind for a minute because I was like, “I didn’t write a memoir.” They’re like, “You did. This is a memoir.” I started laughing. If you had told me that I was going to write a memoir, I would not have believed it. If you had told me even four years before, you’re going to draw a graphic memoir, I wouldn’t have believed it, mainly because I didn’t really know how to draw. It was all this big learning curve.

How that happened is — the first chapter really does tell this very specific story. It was the first thing I drew for this book. My son who was, at the time, six was obsessed with Michael Jackson, deeply obsessed. He knew all the moves. He had a glove and the hat. He would just basically Michael Jackson out on demand. Then because he was watching the videos all the time, he started asking me all these questions. Is his skin like my skin? What happened to his other glove? Is that how people walk on the moon? Then at one point, he asked me, “Is Michael Jackson –” He had all the albums in his room. He’s like, “Is Michael Jackson brown, or is he white?” I was like, yeah, how do you answer that question? I said, “He’s black, so his skin is brown. Then he kind of turned white.” He goes, “He turned white?” I said yeah. He goes, “Are you going to turn white?” I was like, “No.” He said, “Am I going to turn white?” I was like, “No.” He said, “Is Daddy going to turn white?” I said, “Daddy’s already white.” He goes, “But was he always?”

It was this terrible parenting moment where you realize you’ve done the wrong thing. You set out with the best of intentions. You’re like, I’m going to break this down for you. Instead, you basically turn your kid’s brain to scrambled eggs. Those questions escalated pretty quickly. That was 2014. America was hitting a kind of inflection point that I think some of us felt earlier than others. A lot of things were coming onto our radar. One of them was Ferguson. The protests in Ferguson were going on. He was asking about that because he had seen — turn off the TV as fast as you can, but a six-year-old’s going to soak in some things. At one point, he came to me and said, “There was a kid named Ferguson. He was killed because he was brown by a white policeman.” I said, “His name was Michael Brown. He was killed in a town called Ferguson,” trying to help him get the details right but also not really wanting to talk about exactly what was happening. How do you convey the depth of what’s happening and also not terrify a six-year-old? Then that naturally led to all these other questions. At one point, he was like, “Are white people afraid of brown people?” I was like, what do you say to that? The thing I ended up saying to him, which was kind of unsatisfactory in the depths of my soul, I said, “Sometimes.” I said that because I didn’t want to lie to him and because the way that I was brought up, my parents would’ve never said something like that to me. It’s not entirely because they didn’t know it. I think they knew certain things. I think they didn’t want me to know certain things. They were also first-generation immigrants trying really hard to ignore a lot of things so they could just get by day to day. My parents are from India.

Then he asked, “Is Daddy afraid of us?” I kind of lost my mind, not with him at that moment. With him at that moment, I just said, “No, no, no.” Then I went and I put him to bed. I went and sat in the bathroom, which, as anyone who lives in New York knows, is the only place you can get any privacy, and just shook for a really long time because I think I understood right away that he was going to see and feel things about the world that were going to be very different than what his father felt and somewhat what I felt, though we’re definitely more aligned. He is brown-skinned. Also, just the feeling of being overwhelmed. How do you say these ugly things that you know are true? How do you give your child enough information to protect him but not so much that you shatter his confidence in the world? When he’s asking a question like, “Are white people afraid of brown people?” what’s the right answer? So I drew it. I drew that conversation. The way I drew it is what you saw in that first chapter. I basically drew two little pictures of us. I ran to his room and I got all his Michael Jackson albums. Then I put us on top of them with that very intense conversation. It felt really good to do that. It felt like I was doing something proactive. You know what I mean?

Zibby: Yep. You win the prize for best parenting coping mechanism.

Mira: Well, we’re not talking about the bottles of tequila I also downed.

Zibby: That’s a foregone conclusion. The drawing and turning it into this form, it is so hard to know how to process some of these big things and big questions. This fear that underlines your whole book of, am I totally messing up my kid? is just so universal, especially with these incredibly complicated things that are in the news every second, even throughout your book, the language that Z was getting from the news that you were constantly like, I can’t believe he’s saying that. You have that one funny scene when your friend at the bar was saying something like, wow, that’s what four-year-olds say? What do babies learn these days? It’s all so in your face right now. We can’t hide it.

Mira: Yes. Especially in the years 2016 to 2020, a lot of it was some pretty boldly anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-people of color sentiments that were just taken for granted at some point. It was like, this is an opinion that should be in the world. This is a totally normal thing to talk about, how we don’t like any of these things. That was wild. Trying to raise a young brown boy in that, it was just like, wow, how are we going to get through this with our skin on and with you understanding that this isn’t a way that people should really treat each other?

Zibby: It’s so true. I found it so interesting, the way you had to navigate your relationship with your in-laws in that time as well and how you talked to your son about it. Tell me more about that.

Mira: My in-laws, in this same time — I should also explain, I’m Indian. My parents are from India. I was born and raised here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We were the third Indian family to move into the state. This is according to the other two Indian families that were already there, so highly scientific. Then my husband is white, Jewish American. His parents grew up in New York. They also moved to New Mexico. We knew each other for a very long time, though I don’t think we even talked to each other before I was in my twenties. We kind of passed each other in hallways. I could pull him out of a crowd very easily, but I couldn’t have told you anything about him other than, at one point, he had long hippie hair and sort of looked like Jesus and listened to The Dead. That’s what I knew about him, which was really disappointing to punk-me.

Zibby: I have an identical person from my high school who that just brought to mind, so kind of wondering what he’s up to. Anyway, keep going.

Mira: Put it all on that guy. My husband’s parents became, in this same moment, very pro-Trump. It was really surprising. Actually, it was just totally shocking. At this point, my husband and I had been together since 2002. We’ve been married since 2003. I’d been through every funeral and hospital visit and bar mitzvah.

Zibby: And bark-mitzvah, which was hilarious.

Mira: And bark-mitzvah, yes, thank you, for the family dog. We’d just been through a lot of stuff. If you don’t look hard at something, especially an interracial relationship, you can put two very different things in the place of real knowledge. One is complete doubt that that person knows or understands anything about you. The other is a kind of faith that they see you and they get you and they have your back. What I found out in that moment was that my in-laws did not see me or have my back. It didn’t really matter explaining to them, this is what this is doing to my community, to my family who you love. This is what it’s going to do to your grandson. They kind of felt like, our vote is our vote. You shouldn’t bring politics into love. You’re making our family life about politics, which is rough. I understand why they think that. I understand why their lives have been structured in a way that they’re allowed to think that. They’ve never had anything to tell them differently. My husband would argue that their Jewishness tells them quite differently and they did have another choice and they should’ve made it, but I can’t speak to that. I can only speak to the fact that that’s not how it played out with us. It was a real rift in our relationship. It was a real heartbreak, honestly. At the same time, these are people who are such good parents to my husband and really good grandparents to my son. What do you do? How do you hold all those things? That became the conundrum of my life and then also the book.

Zibby: What were the ramifications of your including all of that in the book?

Mira: That’s such an interesting question. What I would say is they were both big. Meaning, my family, instead of me holding all of the pain and discomfort that that caused, which is usually what happens — it’s usually that the person who is in the minority and who is processing the real violence of the situation, it’s just sort of on them to do it unless they confront someone. A book, in some way, is a confrontation. It was hard in the way that it wasn’t like — how do I say this? We had had many reasoned and loving conversations, but at the end of the day, the book is my opinion. The book is my version of what’s happening. I think whenever that happens, the person on the other end feels out of control. I did send them the book in galley form knowing that if they said, “You got this wrong. This isn’t what we said. This isn’t how it is. This isn’t how we feel,” I would have to revisit those passages. They didn’t say that because I didn’t get it wrong. I just told my side of it. That’s kind of the worst part of the heartbreak. Nothing I wrote was untrue. It’s just that painful.

Zibby: I thought maybe them reading it or seeing it like that might have opened up —

Mira: — Oh, no, girl, that’s the white fantasy. No, no, no. I swear, that is always the white fantasy of this. No, it did not happen. Also, I will say, in the writing of it, I’m sure in the beginning there was a part of me that also felt like, if I just explain this well enough, if you just understand how deep the stakes are right now and everything you’re compromising with this thing that you think is seemingly your own and no one else’s to worry about, your vote, if I just explain it well enough, you will understand me, which is, again, something that I do think a lot of brown and black people do. If I just prove my value enough, you will find me worthy. If I just show you my humanity enough, you will protect it. That’s not really how it plays out very often at all. The problem of racism in America is not a problem of white people not understanding our humanity. It’s them choosing to do nothing about it.

Zibby: Wow. That was beautifully said, so important and so beautiful and so just crystalized and getting to the heart of the most divisive issues facing all of us right now. Again, your use of the word heartbreak feels so right. It’s hard to hear someone’s story and not be moved to it or moved to act or whatever. Beautiful. Beautifully said. Sorry for perpetuating the fantasy. I just have to hope.

Mira: No, of course. Also, honestly, we are hardwired to perpetuate that fantasy. Everything that you’ve grown up with perpetuates that fantasy. Me too. Everything we’ve grown up with is built around this idea of white goodness and white saviorism and that, ultimately, this will happen. This is a thing that does happen and will happen. That’s not really true unless people really decide to dig deep. They rarely want to because it’s painful. I understand that. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to that. I hate digging deep on things that I know don’t show me in a great light and also that mean that I’m going to have to do years of work. Who wants to do years of work? No one, right? No one. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to that at all. It’s not that I’m also not guilty of it myself. I completely am, but it’s still devastating.

Zibby: In your book, I was particularly struck by your 9/11 scenes. We’re recording this a day before 9/11. This episode will come out afterwards. The scene of you on the sidewalk and talking to your dad and the realization of what was happening and your use of photography and just the way you told that story, the way you tell all these stories in this unique way is just so moving. I am a hundred percent convinced that one of my best friends was standing in the exact same place that you were. I wish there was some way to take a video camera. The two of you should’ve been — maybe you even interacted. I don’t know. She was right there at the same time.

Mira: Wow.

Zibby: Having this in the book and now with this anniversary right now, how are you feeling about that?

Mira: Phew. 9/11 was so traumatic for so many different people around the world. It was deeply traumatic on many levels. For us — when I’m saying us this time, I’m talking about Indians and South Asians in America, specifically also South Asian Americans who, like me, many of us had grown up understanding that America had a way to slot every other. Every other race had a place. We’re watching what happens to black Americans. Are you going to be treated in that way? Are you going to be treated the way Mexican Americans are treated? Are you going to be treated the way Chinese Americans are treated? Indians coming into this country was recent enough at that point — we were just growing up. Those of us who had been born in this country were among that first generation just watching. What is our thing going to be? What are they going to think of us? What are they going to decide about us? What happened in that moment was suddenly and very quickly afterward, America decided it was very terrified of faces like ours and that we had done something to the country and that we should be terrorized and kicked out. What that meant was a lot of our uncles and brothers and aunts and sisters were being violently attacked. No one was talking about it. There was also a feeling of, well, if that’s happened, I’m sorry, but look what happened to us, as though we weren’t ourselves American, as though we ourselves did not lose our city too.

We’re coming up on the twentieth anniversary, which is so wild. When I think about it, I think about the end of anything close to the sort of hopeful naïveté about how America would take us in. We were already here, so we were American, but how America would help us flourish in this country, or at least accept us. Then I also just think about what it was like to be a New Yorker, which we both know. It was just devasting. It was so awful to be here, and the smell and the sounds and the terror and the fear of what it meant for everybody. Also, to me, one of the scarier, maybe scariest, things was how quickly America at large took on this pain. Their definition of American was this white heartland America. Meanwhile, that is not our city. Our city is super complex. Our city is full of immigrants. Our city is every color and every person on top of each other. That was the thing that was lost in that moment. That was the place that was wounded. Yet the way that it was spoken about was as though it was an attack on the heartland white American. That was also really wild to me. It made me so angry. I was like, you’re yelling about this stuff about America, but you don’t even know the city you’re yelling about. This is us. We are this complex thing, this thing that you no longer have room for, this thing that you’re like, that’s enough. Enough of that. Enough of giving those people a chance. That is the city that got hit. That is the heart that broke. Whenever I think about it, I have those twin reactions. I don’t know. I’m talking a lot. What did you think about it? What do you feel?

Zibby: No, it’s okay. It’s amazing. I cannot believe it’s been twenty years. I can’t believe that I’m old enough to have had something happen of such magnitude in my adult life that was actually twenty years ago.

Mira: Where were you?

Zibby: I was in Boston. I had just started business school at Harvard. I lost my best friend and roommate. She was my roommate all of college and after college and in New York. Then I left her to go to business school. She worked in the North Tower. I was in Boston that day. Then the next morning, I woke up and drove back to the city.

Mira: Oh, man. I’m so sorry.

Zibby: I know. It was so hard. Then I was trying to find her. Actually, in your book, I was looking at the papers. What did you call it? Something beautiful like a wall of paper.

Mira: Paper city.

Zibby: Paper city, yeah. I was like, oh, my gosh, how crazy would it be if she was one of those posters? She wasn’t.

Mira: That image specifically was built from stock photos, but I actually took care to take off the names as much as possible because I didn’t want to traumatize somebody who saw the poster of their loved one there. This poster lived in my life in a very specific way, but I imagine in somebody else’s it’s just an open wound.

Zibby: Unbelievable. Back to the lightness here of the day, what are you working on now? What can we expect from you next? Then also, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Mira: Right now, I’m working on two things. I am working on a television script. That’s exciting and fun and weird. It’s based on the book and yet not really because I went ahead and fictionalized everything so I could actually not talk about my marriage anymore, which I think was a good, smart thing to do. My first book was a novel. I’ve gone back to writing fiction. I think I’m just much more comfortable writing fiction, to be honest. There’s a lot more freedom in writing fiction. I’ve started another book. I’m calling it a mystery, but it’s a mystery in the way — no one else would call it a mystery but me, basically. That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m working on that.

Zibby: That sounds awesome.

Mira: Advice to writers, any advice to writers?

Zibby: Whatever you want to say, aspiring authors, aspiring writers, either way.

Mira: I’ll tell you all what I told my class. I teach at The New School and at the MFA program in Randolph. One of the things that I tell my grad students a lot is that when you leave a grad program, it’s very easy not to feel like a writer anymore because you’re not surrounded by writing, because you’re not actively pursuing something. Even if you’ve got something that you’re working on, there are days and sometimes weeks and sometimes months where your manuscript or your drive fails you. That’s, to me, the most horrifying thing, is when I don’t feel like a writer anymore. That’s a pretty desolate feeling. Really practical advice, if you’re in that place and you’re listening to this, a really easy way to get yourself back is to start with twenty minutes. What that means is you set a timer for twenty minutes. You write for those twenty minutes. If you got the twenty minutes done, boom, you’re a writer. Go on to the next day. The way that I do this when I’m falling off is I do it every other day at first. Then I go to every day. It builds that muscle back up. It also puts me back in touch with my interior in a way where I’m no longer scared of it. I’m no longer scared of my ability to make sentences of feelings. That’s my advice. So practical.

Zibby: I love that advice. That’s good.

Mira: I’m a Capricorn. I just realized that was the least-sexy, most “here’s how to get it done, folks” advice.

Zibby: You know what? Sometimes people need that advice. Maybe that was the advice that someone out there really, really needed to hear today, and they just got it.

Mira: I hope so.

Zibby: I hope so too.

Mira: Someone out there, if you needed that advice, end this podcast and go sit down and write your twenty minutes.

Zibby: Exactly. You can dedicate it to Mira. Amazing. Thank you so much. Thank you for this conversation. I really was moved by your book and found it just incredibly innovative and funny and moving and cool and awesome and pretty much how I felt about you when I got to know you as a person, so there you go.

Mira: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care. Bye.

Mira Jacob, GOOD TALK

GOOD TALK by Mira Jacob

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