The title of Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir, Good Talk: A Memoir In Conversations (One World, 2019), succinctly sums up the framework of her book, a collection of messy, hilarious, confusing, and gutting conversations Jacob has with her loved ones about everything from coming into her own as a writer to colorism, to explaining the 2016 presidential election to her young son.
It’s a deeply personal work and a new form for the novelist, whose first book, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, won critical acclaim for its depiction of a young photographer coming to terms with her family’s past present — and much like Good Talk, balanced grief with laughter. Jacob, who teaches at The New School, spoke with MFA candidate Liz Sheldon about her process.
Liz Sheldon [LS]: So much of the book is based on remembered conversations, and since you’re not working in a prose-only memoir, there’s really a limit to how much you can fit into each conversation. How did you decide which talks to include, and what went into each speech bubble?
Mira Jacob [MJ]: I pitched it originally as a book of funny conversations that you leave confused. The original subtitle was even Conversations I’m Still Confused About. It was built off of this piece I had done about my son and Michael Jackson and about race that didn’t have any easy answers in it. And then the end of 2015 happened, and 2016 happened, and everything kind of turned upside-down — politically and in America and in our lives and in our family, because my husband’s parents are avid Trump supporters. And that really changed the quality of the conversation. Until then I had cast a really wide net, and produced 70 to 100 conversations that I thought were worth exploring. And as the year got harder and harder, some of them dropped away. For example, I had more conversations about my sexuality in it originally, and I pared those down to just a spare few. And I had more with my parents and immigration, and I pulled those down to the very essential ones. I edited it through the lens of what conversations have informed me in these unfathomable ways that I’m haunted by every day, which are impossible to kind of explain to anyone except in this form.
The question really became: What am I not seeing people talking about? There are plenty of things that are sort of politically safe to talk about within the framework of the left and the right. It’s still awful, but there are ways in which we’re sort of comfortable talking about our views about race when we make it very clear we all [within a certain group] agree. But when you’re talking about brown people looking down specifically on black people, what does that look like? Because I know that’s been a secret, private shame for me forever, the racism Indians direct toward other people. So I knew I needed that to go on the page.
LS: Reading the book feels like eavesdropping on these very frank exchanges you’ve had. Did you have to fight the urge the editorialize while recalling and putting down these conversations? Was it hard to put down what you said when you wish you’d said something differently, or maybe figured out a different answer over time?
MJ: I would say that’s harder for me as an experience of wanting to be a good human, wanting to be thought of as a good human. But in terms of the writing, I have the opposite instinct. I lean into the parts that make me really uncomfortable. Because if I’m made uncomfortable and sickened and shamed by it there’s probably a reason, and that reason is not entirely different than what I see many of my white liberal friends doing. They’ve always thought of themselves as really good people and I see them buckling all the time to the instinct to stay there, to never own up to their part in any of what is happening, even if it means killing the rest of us. So for me, that part of the writing process — owning up to my own mistakes, or at least beginning that process — felt obvious and necessary.
LS: I’ve had the benefit of hearing you talk about this in class, but for those who aren’t that lucky — can you talk about the choice to not draw different facial expressions on the characters, who are pretty much static through the book?
MJ: It starts with why I wanted to draw this book. When my son went through this moment of realizing he was brown in the rise of Trump’s America, the questions he was asking me — some of them were so funny, and some of them were so sad. And I was pinging emotionally from one place to another in the span of ten seconds. Sometimes I’d remember them later and I’d be laughing, and then I’d just start bawling, and I’d think I was losing my mind. I started writing an essay to explain it, and every word I wrote, I felt furious because I felt the comments section of every article I’d read basically denying the truth of what was happening before I even made the sentences. I felt them coming for me. And I felt them coming for him, which was actually scarier to me.
LS: That must be terrifying.
MJL: It is terrifying. So as I was sitting at our dining room table, I drew us on printer paper and cut us out, kind of like we were paper dolls. I went and got his albums from his room, and I put us on top. And that helped me skip was the step where I felt all the disbelief. Because as you said, it became a question of eavesdropping. People can listen or they can not. I just kept moving our unchanging expressions from album cover to album cover as the conversation would change. And it felt like such a relief to do that. Like a real, psychic release. To not engage with those voices of doubt, to give them nothing — no part of my emotion, no part of my pain beyond the conversation itself.
My first editor commented and said, “It’s jarring when you’re having these emotional passages and nobody’s face moves, do you think you want to make one or two expressions? A consternation face, or when something’s really sad, a little hint of a tear?” And I said, No. I’m not performing this. And that thing that you’re feeling when you’re uncomfortable because you have to hold the emotion that my face won’t? I want that. Because when you stop looking to the characters to emote, the feelings land on you, and you have to make sense of it. The whole reason I wrote this book is because I think America has this kind of insatiable hunger for witnessing racial pain, and then denying it. Demanding the details from bodies of color and then using them to deny all the ways in which those experiences could possibly be true. It’s really sick, and ugly. And it’s brutal out there to be a person who is on the other end of that.
LS: The ending of the book is an incredible letter to your son. I heard in another interview you did that you wrote many versions of that before landing on it. Could you talk about that a little bit — how you knew when you had gotten it right?
MJ: It did not come easily. Sometimes when you’re writing something just floats right out of you. There’s a piece that I wrote right after the election — BuzzFeed wrote me at five in the morning to ask if I had anything to say. I sat up and wrote a piece whole cloth. It felt like I was taking it from my carotid artery and placing it onto a page. I’m so surprised that it came out exactly as it was printed, that has never happened to me. And that was kind of a curse — once you’ve had something so raw that actually stands up to time — because I’ve read that piece recently, and it’s still well-written and well-reasoned — once you’ve had that kind of magic happen, you feel like your ending should come out that cleanly. And I did not have that experience with this. I wrote 17 different endings and they were all different kinds of angry. I was so angry I couldn’t breathe for a year and a half. But at some point in writing my 17 angry endings, I pulled back and was like “Are you going to write this to your son? You’re going to write this to the person who has lost so much? This person who now has to deal with the sadness that he has about his grandparents who he loves very much, and has to deal with knowing the president doesn’t like boys that look like him, and has to deal with every time we go to the airport and I get separated from him and searched, and now he has to read your angriest letter about the state of America? No. Whatever you going to tell him to arm him in this world, it cannot be solely informed by your fury.”
This book is also different from the last in that the audience has been with me the whole time, watching me make little things and commenting and saying they’re excited, and that is a certain amount of pressure. But I finally realized it was okay to close the door on what everyone else needs, that it was okay to write just what I need in this moment, and what he needs, and it feels very private. I don’t know how it translates to a reader, I don’t if it resonates or if it’s a turnoff. I don’t know that I care. I just did the thing that I most needed to do.
LS: I think it resonates immensely. It feels really generous.
MJ: That’s nice to hear. I’ve read it a couple of times since. I think this is always going to be the piece that was the hardest for me. I still read it and I’m like, “Yup, there’s the bruise, there’s the fight, this is the rawest person you’ve ever been and you put it on the page.” It’s always going to be frankly uncomfortable to read it and know how much was on the line in that moment. But what I’m hoping is that years from now when my son is older, we can talk about that, what it felt like to navigate that moment.
LS: This book is so much its own animal, but what were your other references when you were working on it?
MJ: I had many books I was in conversation with. Kaitlyn Greenidge and Tanaïs are two of the writers who are in the book, and I was very much in conversation with them and their works when I was making this book. We have a kind of daily three-way text in which we bring up a lot of the issues we’re thinking about in our work and how they manifest. Taiye Selasi wrote a book called Ghana Must Go that book that threads the line between the deeply familial and deeply political with equal grace. I looked a lot to Lynda Barry for how you can let your story be as loud as it needs to be. She does something so wonderful in writing stories that are both domestic and feral, and that’s the space that I was living in with this. I read a lot of Kiese Laymon’s essays — he was a teacher to my editor Victory Matsui, my editor on this, and he has had a huge influence on a lot of marginalized writers I know because one of the things that he says which I really believe is the idea of writing for us. For the unquantifiable masses out there who don’t fit into one box, and who have not been hotly anticipated by marketers the world over, but who you know are there. Because we are there, and we are quite literally dying to be seen as human and whole and worthy. Write for us.
Mira Jacob is the author of the novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing and the graphic memoir Good Talk.
Liz Sheldon is the editorial director at Of a Kind and a current MFA candidate in fiction at The New School.