Perfect Ridiculous Racism: An Interview with Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob is the author of Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, a 2019 graphic novel framed by the difficult conversations she had with her six-year-old son, whose questions touched upon race, representation, and identity in the United States. Ms. Jacob illustrated the book, which also documents her growing up as a first generation South-Asian in New Mexico, attending Oberlin College, and working in New York City. The book is a New York Times Notable Book, has been shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, long-listed for the PEN Open Book Award, and has been recognized as a Time, Esquire, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal best book of the year. Her debut novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing, was shortlisted for India’s Tata First Literature Award, long-listed for the Brooklyn Literary Eagles Prize, a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers pick, as well as a best book of the year by the Boston Globe and Kirkus Reviews.  Mira Jacob lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their son and teaches at the New School.

Why did you decide to write Good Talk as a graphic novel?

MJ: Usually, I would have written an essay, but I realized early on that every word would be either denied or not read by the people who deny and ignore racism because their lives are made more comfortable by it. I was also exhausted by the mere thought of having to “prove” something to the kind of reader who has no intention of really engaging. Drawing it short circuited both of those things: the format is engaging and I could just write the hard parts instead of positioning them. 

You deftly use humor and irony throughout your books. It brings to mind a book titled Jewish Comedy: A Serious Study by Jeremy Dauber. He quoted a rabbi who said humor enabled his people to survive “the iron hand” of “bigotry and contempt.” How useful have you found the tools of humor and irony to be in your own war against prejudice?

MJ: Humor is wildly underappreciated as a tactic in writing. It also holds the greatest potential of allowing a person to change. You can call yourself out on something that is perfectly ridiculous–which racism is. The laugh in itself is a release, and admission, an acknowledgement of the trauma right underneath without the usual paralysis that accompanies it. 

What was the intention behind drawing the characters in Good Talk with expressionless faces?

MJ: It has something to do with that first question–of why I drew the book in the first place. Of my exhaustion with the cowardice of Americans who ask the rest of us to perform our pain over and over so they can judge whether or not racism is real. It will never be real for them. They cannot afford for it to be. But by watching us, by judging us, they think they are really doing something. They are doing nothing. The expressionless faces are my nothing back for them. It is so freeing not to have to perform for people who have no interest in doing anything but watching, and hiding behind their judgment. Also, a curious thing happens then the characters don’t emote–the reader just has to hold the feelings all on their own. 

On a personal note, in Good Talk, you describe some intensely racist and misogynistic encounters. How have your previous personal experiences influenced your writing? And have you continued to have these types of interactions with others?

MJ: In a broader sense, most writers unpack some level of their personal experiences in writing, and I’m no different. White writers not writing about race are in fact doing the same thing–bringing their personal experience of being seemingly undamaged by a system that wreaks violence on the rest of us. (Seemingly because I think whites in this country are tremendously damaged by this system as well, they’re just taught to ignore it, which is it’s own kind of trauma.)

In Good Talk, you juxtapose photographic images of New York City and New Mexico with the characters and prose. Can you explain these decisions? What was their essential purpose?

The photographs are jarring. There’s a nice friction between them and the black and white illustrated characters, and coupled with them, it reminds the reader that I’m writing about the real world, not a fictional paper doll land. 

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing and Good Talk follow multiple timelines. Can you tell us what was behind that decision in each book? Do you anticipate using this technique in the future?

MJ: Whew–to be honest, I have never known the structure of my books before I write them, and once they are written I just kind of back way up and figure out what goes where. I love the multiple timelines because I think our interiors function as multiple timelines–we are always carrying so many lives inside us from moment to moment.

The concept of a photographer capturing a suicide in The Sleepwalker’s Guide is intensely provocative. What unique perspective does a photographer offer as a main character that a teacher–or someone else–would not?

MJ: Amina, the photographer in the book, is someone who sees everything and cannot look away.  She straddles the line between being an observer and an actor in her own life, never securely one or the other. While she does that in a particular way as a photographer, I think all of us do it to some extent, never knowing exactly when we’ve crossed the boundary from watching to participating. You can see this clearly in the last year: What does it mean for some of us to observe a pandemic from our houses, while others had to operate in highly volatile situations outside of them? How did we help or not help? What could we do as neighbors and citizens? Did we do it?

Sleepwalking is a condition where the sleeper’s response to their environment includes little conscious control, while dancing is a highly coordinated and controlled effort. How does this paradox illustrate the main character’s struggle in The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing?

MJ: The original sleepwalker in the book  wanted to be so many other things than what he was, among them a dancer. But he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and his body has gone rogue with a certain kind of misery, setting off a chain of events that lead to other sleeping disorders in his kin–insomnia, narcolepsy, etc. But what if he could have just been the version of himself he had wanted to be? I think about this all the time with the generations that came before mine. What did they give up in the coming? And how does the trauma live on in our subconscious?

In your February 11th talk “An Evening with Mira Jacob,” you talked about the importance of communication on difficult subjects. How would you approach the subject of the rise of anti-Asian rhetoric in the wake of COVID-19 and the parallels you mentioned with the aftermath of 9/11?

MJ: The rise of anti-Asian rhetoric and violence--because it’s important we not gloss over that part, yes?– has been terrifying and nauseating. I’m scared for my friends, I’m scared for our kids, and I’m especially worried about the non-Asian Americans who claim they are acting out of “patriotism” instead of deep and willful ignorance. But it’s simple, no?  If you really loved your country, you would protect the people in it, not harm them.  And if you can’t, or won’t  because your anti-Asian-ness trumps all other inclinations? You’ve just turned yourself into a domestic terrorist.

Ian McClelland
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Ian McClelland is a life student whose world is inhabited by film, books, and imagination while being immersed in the day-to-day emergencies of humans as an EMT. He finds meaning in his family, surfing, art, writing, and the mysteries of the human kingdom.