This book initially piqued my interest not because it was an autobiography or memoir, and I generally like those, but due to the format via which it was delivered – as a graphic novel. I was curious to see how something with not a lot of words could express all that the author wanted to say about her life and some of the big issues with which she interacted.
And I have to say I thought she did splendidly!
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations is written and illustrated by Mira Jacob, an American of Indian descent, her parents having immigrated to the US so that her father could continue his medical education. She is married to a white jewish man (Jed) and they have one son. By trade she is a writer and they live in Brooklyn, New York.
Now this isn’t an ordinary memoir. It doesn’t run in traditional chronological order and is not a blow by blow description of the author’s time on planet earth. We learn about who Mira Jacob is via conversations she has with various people in her life on the issue of race. And not just from a single aspect but from a variety of avenues through which race has affected her in some way.
This book came about when her young son (I believe he was six at the time) became obsessed with Michael Jackson (it does make sense I promise) and as a result started asking her questions about, essentially, what it means to be black or white. He himself is of mixed race. Mira quickly began questioning her parenting skills when she became aware that she didn’t really know how to answer him in a way that would make sense. Why? Because she had unresolved feelings about race and her experiences. So she decided to revisit her past to see if that would help her understand the present enough to educate her son.
One of the big surprises that came out of the book for me was that some of the most charged attitudes to the colour of her skin came from her extended Indian family. Mira says that her mother, father and brother are of a lighter skin tone to her, something she initially didn’t notice until it was pointed out to her by relatives. And I am not misrepresenting the author or her message when I say that it was made quite clear that dark equalled ugly or lesser than. This was most obviously communicated when her finding a partner was discussed (and it was a topic of great consternation). The author refers to it as ‘ … the tragedy of my skin colour …’. Many an aunt or cousin felt that any Indian man who married her would be in their words ‘… settling for you …’ and that she shouldn’t really expect much, not with that dark skin.
The author clearly states that she felt more hurt by that reaction from her Indian family regarding her skin colour, than she did when it came from white Americans because she saw no difference in how she looked compared to her family still in India. But they thought very differently and were not shy in letting her know. Now I don’t think this attitude was malicious or given with cruel intent if that makes sense. It just appeared to be a fact of indian cultural life that they articulated.
The author provides a juxtaposition to this when she details an experience she had when at school (ninth grade I think). She had a very strict white teacher that she (well everyone) thought was mean – Ms Morrell. The author wrote an essay as part of a competition staged by the Daughters of America which won. The prize was to go to a luncheon and read the essay out to the organisation. Ms Morrell was to drive her. When they arrived at the address given by the organisers they found it to be ‘incorrect’. A few phone calls were made by Ms Morrell and they eventually found their way to the correct location. When they were just about to head home after the festivities Ms Morrell gave the author a stern lecture about Mira being an American and having every right to be in the country. She entreated Mira to never accept anyone telling her differently. I think we can all guess what had transpired. But I think the point being made was a multi layered one connected to identity and not judging people.
Another thing I liked about this memoir was the author didn’t sugar coat things in her favour. She clearly points out that she had racist attitudes towards people of colour even as she was experiencing the same things herself. She highlights this via an incident that happened when going to her high school prom and it is quite painful to read. Her self awareness of the inappropriateness of her attitude is only coming from her adult self because she certainly didn’t recognise it at the time.
She also quite openly and honestly talks about how the election of DT impacted her life, most awkwardly via her relationship with her in-laws who supported him. She had a good friendship with her mother and father-in-law but both Mira and her husband found it very hard to understand how they could give him their vote and condone his attitudes to race when they had a daughter-in-law and grandson who were non-white and would therefore be adversly affected by such ideas. It wasn’t helped when the in-laws said they didn’t see how what he (DT) said was racist. The difficulty was trying not to let the relationship breakdown and affect the author’s son. I don’t get the impression that fences have been mended in any deep and meaningful way in that relationship. They still visit each other, primarily so that their son can see his grandparents but all is not well.
Despite all the rather serious sounding subject matter, this book is actually very funny. I was certainly laughing at more than one point and I think this is a great credit to the author, that she conveyed humour without diluting the seriousness of the situations while still making her message clear and concise. Add into this that it was all done with a minimum of words and this book is quite the achievement. I was really very impressed.
The visual style also greatly appealed. Drawings laid over photographs was the method used which set it apart from most other graphic novels I have so far come across. All of this combined created an immensely enjoyable read that is both fascinating, eye opening and thought inspiring. There is much more to it than what I have mentioned here so I really hope that you go out and find a copy so that you can read it for yourself. It is well worth it and I think you’ll find it time well spent.
Rating: 4 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)