Becoming a parent means that you have to explain things you already know to a hungry, developing mind. Kids build a frame of reference off your every word, with parents hoping all the while they can shape someone who’ll add good to the world. That endeavor gets tricky when the world already has certain ideas about you, something Mira Jacob explores in poignant and hilarious ways in her new graphic memoir Good Talk.
[Disclosure note: Good Talk was edited by Chris Jackson, who I’ve known socially for years.]
Good Talk’s subtitle is A Memoir in Conversations, and many of the talks in the book center on Jacob trying to answer the questions of her incessantly inquisitive son Z. He asks pointed questions about Michael Jackson, skin color, and perceptions of racial difference that Jacob fields as best she can. These conversations harken back to similar ones her East Indian parents and extended family have about her, America, and arranged marriages. Self-assured, snarky, and sad in turns, this memoir lives in the spaces where all-too-important things go unsaid for fear of how they might destroy the connections we need to generate fuller selves.
At first glance, the pages of Good Talk present themselves to the reader with a flat affect. Its chapters don’t unfold in multi-panel pages like graphic novels and other sequential work. But it still homes in on the unique specialized hybridization typical of those forms. The conversations have rhythms and tensions that dart in and out of the layers of meaning proffered by the pictures. The new release fuses word balloons and photographs with hand-drawn elements, populated with characters who mostly wear static expressions on their faces. In her own renderings of herself, Jacob places a zen-like half-smile on her visage.
This stasis stands as an inspired stylistic choice that highlights the main themes of the book, which is all about the uncomfortable churn rumbling underneath the veneers of our lives.
I did a double-take when I read a page of Mira recalling a moment where she cried with a friend because no tears were drawn on her face. But that double-take faded into an understanding: Isn’t this what we all do, show the world a face that lets us get through the day the way we want? In many of the conversations in Jacob’s book, she doesn’t want her face to serve as a stand-in for the stereotypical projections of others. As she recounts the awkwardly funny exchanges she has with relatives, random strangers, and her husband, that half-smile reads as incongruously beatific because the Mira in those moments is often dealing with uncomfortable tensions.
When Jacob does shift a facial expression in sequence, the effect is arresting. A page detailing a childhood trip to visit her Indian relatives shows Jacob’s grandmother suggesting that her mother use a skin lightening product on young Mira. Not much changes in the panel where young Mira imagines being “lighter, happier, prettier”—lines around the inner part of her eyebrows disappear, curves around the edges of her mouth grow upward, and the shade of her face becomes brighter. Yet, those minuscule tweaks are enough to make that frame come across as distinctly creepy.
Much of Good Talk is concerned with Jacob’s own shifting sense of self as the child of brown immigrants who lived through 9/11 and the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and how that impacts how she wants to raise her own son. As a kid, she won a Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest only to endure a chilling reception when she showed up to read her work on stage. As a mother, she struggles to explain the differences between racism and bigotry to her son. Her book is a winning testament to how some parts of our lives don’t prepare us for the things we thought we’d be ready for. Sometimes, the only way to bridge that gap is to have really awkward dialogues, with oneself and others.
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