For a country obsessed with the national “conversation about race,” Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir, Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, offers an illustration of all the ways it can go right—and wrong. Good Talk features a series of short dialogues that begin with Jacob’s son, Z, and branch out into startling, heartbreaking, and funny discussions with Jacob’s family members, friends, and complete strangers. America’s racial morass would have yielded rich dialogue on its own in the twilight years of the Obama era, when Jacob began writing the book. We never made it to that post-racial promised land after all, but the prospect of a Trump presidency seemed to raise the stakes.
In comic-style collages, Good Talk delivers a thoughtful examination of the fears that came to life for so many of us on Election Day 2016. It’s easy to feel like faith in America’s capacity to change for the better died with the close of the Obama administration, but a glimmer of hope shines through in the lessons Jacob teaches her half-Jewish, half–Indian American son. They are also lessons for us.
Good Talk fits comfortably in with other recent autobiographical works by people of color, such as The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America, edited by Chimene Suleyman and Nikesh Shukla, whose essays grapple with the despair incited by Trump-administration stances on immigration, terrorism, gender discrimination, and more. There is also a recurrent theme of being othered in the only country you have ever known. Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know echoes that same sense of loneliness, recounting a childhood like Jacob’s in mostly-white communities.
The graphic memoir darts back and forth through Jacob’s past, but its tone reflects the present urgency of raising a biracial son in the Trump era. Good Talk began taking narrative form in 2014 as ruminations on race and color prompted by Z’s fascination with pop singer Michael Jackson.
In the opening chapter, Jacob sets up the memoir’s alternating flashbacks as an explanation to the questions her son prompts within her. How do you supply your child with answers you yourself have not searched your own soul to find in the dark? On one hand, in trying to make sense of the irrational—bigotry, colorism, and racism—to a 6-year-old, she is forced to communicate in simplistic terms. Her dialogue captures Z’s childlike understanding of race-as-color: In his eyes, Black and Indian people are both “brown,” while Jewish and Caucasian people are both “white.” Explaining skin color using Michael Jackson as a proxy is a gold mine of awkward humor.
However, Jacob’s memories of coming of age as a first-generation Indian American affirm that there are no simple answers to her son’s questions. We understand it is out of heaviness rather than flippancy when she doesn’t know how to respond to his questions. Some of Good Talk’s most poignant scenes address Jacob’s lived experience of colorism, and her assurances to Z about the beauty of his skin is all the more moving after we’ve read her recollections of well-meaning relatives pitying her for being darker. In the midst of Jacob’s uncertainties, her self-affirmation is a beacon.
Good Talk remains endearingly irreverent despite its subject matter. Z and Jacob’s playfulness provides moments of levity interspersed through the book, a commentary on how our “meaningless” chats are as foundational to our close relationships as deep talks. And though, as the book’s title suggests, its dominant mode is conversation, Jacob makes good use of silence, masterfully using static illustrations of characters to fill in what the narration and dialogue do not explicitly say. She told Virginia Quarterly Review in 2017 that she wants readers to sit with these conversations, noting that “It’s important that the faces don’t register emotion. When the faces register the emotion, the readers don’t have to.” The effect is reminiscent of zoomed-in memes, which mine humor from stills by focusing the reader’s eyes on an enlarged portion of it in subsequent panels. Her spot-on wit and sense of the absurd propel the memoir through its serious ruminations.
Nonetheless, Jacob is unflinching in her depiction of the ways white people can mistreat people of color. Microaggressions abound and some of the illustrated conversations about race with her in-laws and her husband are cringeworthy even when there’s no malicious intent; by centering her own perspective as a woman of color, Jacob effectively transforms them into the other. And she is forthcoming about her own missteps; Jacob is not necessarily the hero of her own story. Rather, Good Talk is all the more brilliant because of its writer’s flaws and her willingness to reveal her own uncertainty.
While Jacob can’t raise her son in that utopian America, she vows to raise him to change that fiction into reality.
But Jacob is also optimistic about the future. Her hope in America’s capacity for positive change came through in a strongly worded—and ignored—speech she delivered at the Publisher’s Weekly Star Watch party in September 2015. “We are living in a time when what it means to be ‘other’ is shifting dramatically,” she said. She also mentioned Good Talk as a then-work-in-progress, noting the graphic essay’s virality when it was published in BuzzFeed earlier that year. “I looked at who was sharing that, and guess what? It wasn’t just the Asian Indians! It was everyone. Because all of us are so ready to talk about the world we live in.”
But Good Talk itself reveals how many people still aren’t ready to confront racism and xenophobia. One panel illustrates a September 2016 conversation in which Jacob’s Trump-supporting mother-in-law flatly declares “I don’t want to discuss [Trump] anymore.” No amount of “good talk” about racism from people of color will work if the other party covers their ears, and this is a teachable moment for Jacob, who has to explain to Z how it can be that his grandparents can love him but still support a racist. The rift is also one she does not resolve in the book.
Good Talk ends with “The Talk We Haven’t Had,” a letter to her son with Jacob’s sober acknowledgement that the America she was raised to believe in never existed. (“America never was America to me,” indeed.) While she can’t raise her son in that utopian America, she vows to raise him to change that fiction into reality. The hope she proffers might present too tidy a conclusion for the turmoil illustrated, but one thing is certain—Z is the only answer she needs. He represents the laughter, curiosity, and enduring faith in human goodness necessary to survive the prospect of a worsening America. As filmmaker Guillermo del Toro wrote in a recent Time magazine op-ed, “Optimism is radical. It is the hard choice, the brave choice. And it is, it seems to me, most needed now, in the face of despair.” Jacob’s heartfelt expression of belief in her Brown boy is surely the panacea for the worst of our times.