When Mira Jacob’s son was 6 years old, he started asking questions about what it meant to be biracial in America. And she found that answering those questions led to some interesting conversations. Jacob started keeping track of those conversations in a graphic memoir called “Good Talk.” The book is this year’s Multnomah County Everybody Reads selection. We talk to Jacob in front of an audience at Lincoln High School. She’ll also be speaking at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall Thursday, March 10th at 7:30pm.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We are coming to you today in front of an audience at Lincoln High School in Southwest Portland. It is an hour with the writer and graphic novelist, Mira Jacob. In 2019, Mira Jacob published Good Talk. It’s described as a memoir in conversations. They are conversations from throughout Jacob’s life: with her parents, in law’s, husband and boyfriends, classmates and teachers.
But at the heart of the book, our conversations she had with her young, biracial son. They were spurred by his sometimes absurd but often profound questions about race and identity. Jacob’s parents emigrated from India. Her husband is Jewish and white. Good Talk is Multnomah County’s “Everybody Reads” selection for this year and it’s my pleasure to have Mira Jacob on the show. Welcome.
Mira Jacobs: Thank you.
Miller: I was hoping, just before this we had a show of hands and most of the people in this room have read the book, but probably a lot of people listening so far have not. So, could you describe the first kernel of inspiration for the book? What really turned into the first couple pages?
Jacobs: It’s the first chapter of the book, which is that my son was about six, and he was super-obsessed with Michael Jackson. He had the glove, he had the moves, which you might see later on tonight. And because he was obsessed, my husband and I thought we would be geniuses by getting him all the Michael Jackson albums, because then he wouldn’t be able to skip the songs and drive us crazy and do that thing.
So what happened is we got all the albums and we left him in his bedroom with all the album’s first, I’m going to say like a month. And if you do that with a kid who is - I am Brown and Indian, my husband is white and Jewish - he lands somewhere between us and the color spectrum. He comes out with a lot of questions and some of them were super cute like, “What happened to his other glove?” And some of them were a lot harder like, “Was Michael Jackson Brown, or white?” And I was, “Yeah.”
And then I said, “Well he was Brown, but he sort of turned white.” And he goes, “He turned white”? Are you gonna turn white?” And I was like, “No.” He’s like, “Am I?” And I was like, “No.” He said, “Daddy?” and I said, “Daddy’s already white.” And he said, “Was he always?” Which is, you know when a kid does that you’re like, oh, I’ve I’ve done a terrible job of explaining the world to you. It’s over. I’ll give you to someone else now. No, I actually just had a moment where I realized it was going to be more complicated to talk about race. And then very quickly he was asking me questions about what was happening in America, because that was the summer of the Ferguson uprising. That was the summer that Michael Brown had been shot and killed and he was trying to put together that information.
But because he was six, he was saying things like, “There was a kid named Ferguson, who got shot by a white policeman, and is that true?” And I said his name was Michael Brown, he was a young Black boy, he was shot and killed. He said, “By a white policeman?” and I said, “Yes, in a town called Ferguson.” He said, “But is Ferguson far away?” And I said, “Yeah.” And then his questions got even more pointed as the months went on. So once we were on the subway and in this very sweet little chirp, he’s like, “Are white people afraid of Brown people?” Which is not the question you really want to answer on the subway. But I was looking around and I didn’t want to lie to him. So I said, “Sometimes.” And he said, “How do you know?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “How do you know which ones are afraid of you?” And I was like, “You don’t always.” Which felt like a brutal thing to say to a six-year old kid, but also when you don’t want to lie to that six-year old kid, it felt like maybe the most in-between thing I could land on.
Miller: This is all - that conversation was in public on the subway.
Jacobs: Oh yes, that was in public on the subway. And all the people on the subway were definitely watching us, to see what was going to happen. There was the white hipster couple across from us that heard it and was apologizing with their whole faces.
Miller: Not us.
Jacobs: Exactly, not us. There was a man of indeterminate race, I remember him especially because he was giving me this really hard look. And I was like, wow, I don’t know which side you want me to fall down on right now. There was the African American woman next to me that was like, “Mm hmm.” There was this whole way in which I felt, how do I give an answer that pleases all of these people, or not even pleases them, but maybe doesn’t make them hate us in this moment?
And how do I give the answer? That’s just honest to my kid. Right? I thought I did okay with, “Sometimes.” And then that night I was putting him to bed and he said right as I was about to leave, he goes, “Is daddy afraid of us?” And I said, “What?” And he’s like, “Is daddy afraid of us.” and I said, “No.” But then I went and I sat in my bathroom and just started shaking after I put him to bed because I realized he was asking these questions for a reason, it wasn’t coming from nowhere. And despite everybody’s assurances - I have some in-laws who often told me, “Just don’t talk to him about this stuff” - as though there is a way for a young Brown boy to exist in the world not knowing that something is happening to bodies like his.
Miller: If we didn’t talk about it, everything would be fine.
Jacobs: Yeah, I mean that - right. And that would somehow be a wonderful umbrella for him to live under. The thing is honestly, I was raised a bit like that. My parents came here as immigrants and it’s not that I don’t think they ever intended to lie to me, but I think they really had this dream of what America was and it was definitely informed by this idea of this is a country where you can come and you can make it. So anytime something was happening to me, they were - and I would say, “I think it might be about…” and they would say, “No, no, no, it wasn’t.” It’s not about race, that’s not what’s happening. Maybe you didn’t understand or maybe that’s probably not it.” I asked my mother later about that and she said, “Well, we just didn’t want you to be scared.” One of the many ways you can be scared in the world is when you have a lack of knowledge about something that is happening to you every day. And when you don’t know how to name it and when you don’t know how to say it and you don’t know how to talk about it, but you feel what it’s doing to you.
And I didn’t want him to have that, but he was six. So the book really sent me on a little bit of a tailspin. Trump was rising in America. There was a lot of ways in which I was starting to understand that the great thing that I have always been raised with was just it’s a country that, you know Mira by the time you’re older there will be no racism. That was a kind of a thing that was sort of said to me in so many different ways. And I started understanding that not only was that not true, but things were actually getting harder and harder. And how was I going to explain that to him?
Miller: One of the ways that you started was visually.
Miller: Why? I mean, before this you were not a graphic novelist. You were a novelist and a writer. So why did you turn to a visual medium?
Jacobs: Right. So I don’t know if you know about this thing that is called writing for the internet, have you heard of this? [laughter] So it’s a thing where you write, you write something that matters to you, you put it up on the internet and 5000 people log on to tell you anything from, “You’re dumb, that’s not the way you use that adverb” to, “You should die.” I mean it’s really the spectrum.
Miller: And sometime hopefully, you spoke to me.
Jacobs: Yeah, probably.
Miller: Those aren’t the ones that you probably remember.
Jacobs: Not so much. I mean every once in a while, someone would be like, “I thought this was great” and then it would be like, “Die!”, so the internet is a little bit rough. But what happened is what I would normally do with the thing that was happening with my son is write an essay, right? I’m a writer, that’s what I do. I make the words work into sentences. I started feeling like everything I wrote was actually building a bridge for somebody not to believe me. Like every word felt like I had to make it exactly right.
And I don’t know if you guys have ever been in this situation where you’re trying to tell somebody something that happened in your life that is confusing and true and painful, but when you start telling them there’s this lack of empathy on their face, there’s this, “I don’t really believe, you have to prove it to me.” And so you start upping the ante and trying even harder and then you’re doing a kind of out of body kind of performance of the pain you’re feeling, to try to get them to feel you. Well, that was the thing that I felt was starting to happen with the writing and it became thin that way, it became brittle.
And so what I did in desperation was I drew us kind of like paper dolls, and I ran to his room and I got the Michael Jackson albums and I put them down on my dining room table and then I placed us, the two paper doll versions of us, on top of the albums and I started drawing the conversations on white paper and cutting them out the way that you would see kind of in comics, right? And I was like, “What is this?” I don’t know. Okay, keep going.” And I made these conversations, and then I did the very dangerous thing of standing on my dining room table to take pictures of them. And then I sent them to a friend and said, “Hey, I feel like this is something, is this something?” And he said, “This is a lot.”
Miller: When you started, was it more for your son and to help him process everything that was hard to talk about in some ways, or was it from the beginning something that you had an inkling was more for the wider world?
Jacobs: For that one moment it was for me, so I could stop crying alone in the bathroom. Sometimes you just have a feeling and you don’t know what to do with the feeling, right? Art is actually making something no one asked for, that’s sort of the simplest way for me to think of it. And I knew no one was asking for it, but I needed to make the thing that I needed to make. So I was making this thing and then once I stood back from it and had cropped all the pictures and realized it told the whole story, that’s when I sent it to a friend and was like, “I think this might be a thing.” And he’s like, “It’s definitely a thing, I’ll run it.”, and he did. I actually had him run it on Buzzfeed, because I had a feeling when it was done I thought, a lot of people are going to relate to this because there’s a way that America talks about race which is very black and white, and everybody is positioned on that spectrum and nobody has allowed their specificity. But meanwhile, most of us that I know are much more complicated. We have jumbled parts, We have this member of our family that looks like this and that member of our family that looks like that. And we don’t ever feel totally included in that conversation, like if we’re talking about race we always have to say, “Well I don’t have it as bad as that, but I do have it as bad as this.”
And there’s so many other ways to be talking about it, which is partly what that first chapter got at. And I put it up and it went viral, which I had a feeling it might because the rest of America that never felt like it was being spoken to was like, “I think that’s me!” and I was like, “Yeah, we’re all a six-year old kid wondering who Michael Jackson is.”
Miller: And did it turn out that you were right about your instinct that making this a graphic novel form could short circuit some of the ways that, just to be clear, that white people would have responded to words alone?
Jacob: Yes. I will tell you that even more, even more poignant part of it for me was it wasn’t just that, which is really hard when you’re trying to kind of build yourself toward an audience that doesn’t believe you, but the exhaustion that I had with that, I just knew I wasn’t going to be able to write a book. I just knew it. I thought, I’m going to be doing this thing and I’m going to want to die in the middle and I’m going to be upset all the time. And when I didn’t have to perform the emotions anymore, when I didn’t - like if you look in the book, every face looks the same, they never register emotion. There’s never any crying, no face muscle moves, it is the same picture over and over and over again because once I did that, and I didn’t have to perform the pain, I could just say what was happening. And once I could do that, I stopped being exhausted by the conversation for myself.
Miller: There’s a little bit of a magic trick in it for me in the expressions that don’t change, because it remains the case even in the parts of the book that are the most emotionally intense. After your father dies or in this amazing scene, although you sort of swirl the heads around a little bit there. But when you have really intense arguments with your husband the face stays the same, but when I look at it, I feel like there’s a motion that something has changed. I guess that’s a magic trick that I’m - that’s what’s happening in my eyes or in my brain, and I’m just curious what you think is happening in the reader.
Jacobs: So this is - I’m so delighted that you said that because I will tell you that was one of the fights that I got in with my first editor with this book.The first editor was a white man who was roughly my age. When he looked at it he said, “I just feel like, I don’t know, I mean these things are happening and the faces aren’t changing and maybe, could you just make one face that’s like a cry face.” And I was like, “A cry face?” And he said, “Or how about a consternation face?” And I said, “I think I have a resting consternation face so I’m not sure that’s going to work.” And he said, “Well, when you do this though, when you have these characters and they aren’t emoting, it’s just really weird for me.” And I said, “Tell me about that. What do you mean, it’s weird for me?” And he said, “Because if they’re not having the emotions, I just have to hold all the emotions myself.” And I was like, “Yes, yes.” And I didn’t know honestly until he said it. I mean, I wish I could tell you that I’m the genius that knew that from the start. I didn’t, all I knew was that I was tired. But once he said, “If you do it this way, I have to hold the emotions.” I was like, “That is it, we’re done. I’m never changing a face.”
Miller: How lovely is it that the person giving you criticism gave you the language you needed to defuse his actual criticism.
Jacobs: Oh amazing, it was amazing.
Miller: But I have to tell you, this is something I feel about this way every time I read a graphic novel, that each one sort of teaches me how to read it. And at first I didn’t get it. I thought, why aren’t the faces changing? And it was as time went by I understood it. So I had to get to that point.
Jacobs: Absolutely, and it’s jarring, right? Every graphic novel, actually every book, honestly, will teach you how to read it. But I had to come up with rules for this. And so the rules were, never change an expression. The rules were, sometimes people that are in one part as one character will be in another part as a different character. And I did that because I thought, oh people are going to read this and say, “Oh, she thinks if somebody looks this way, that’s automatically the life trajectory of that person. And if someone looks blond and blue-eyed, that’s their life trajectory.” And that’s not what I think, I think everybody inhabits those bodies differently. And I needed to show that somehow, visually.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with Mira Jacob. Her graphic novel, Good Talk, has been chosen for Multnomah County’s “Everybody Reads” program. We are coming to you in front of an audience at Portland’s Lincoln High School. Let’s take a question from our audience. Go ahead. What’s your name?
Donna Kalil: Hi there. My name is Donna Kalil. So Mira, one thing I really appreciated about your book is the raw, honest and frank way you talk about race. And I think those conversations have been especially relevant these past few years, with the Black Lives Matter protests and the rise of anti-Asian hate. So I was curious, how did you approach this conversation?
Jacobs: How did I approach these conversations with my son? Okay, I’m just going to repeat that. So the question was, how did I approach the conversations with my son and the kind of frank voice, how did I get that done? So, one thing is to write the book- I will just be really honest with you guys, I was terrified. Because I know what that wall of hate looks like and I know also with race, there’s such a need for… it’s so hard to be vulnerable because people have their backs up so hard, and the idea that you can say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing is terrifying.
So the thing that I did to write the book - which I always tell people especially, I’m sure a lot of you in here are creative people that are trying to make work - I think it’s really important to find your “us” and by that, I mean I had to believe that there were people that would receive this book with kindness and with gratitude and and were automatically on my side, meaning they had lived through it and they knew it. And what that does is it positions you differently within your own work. As I was telling you guys, remember if you’re always imagining that the person that’s looking at your work is attacking it, then you can’t get to the vulnerability. You can’t get to the parts where you admit your own flaws, you can’t do any of that because you’re so busy building yourself in opposition to somebody else’s bad idea of you. But if you have an idea of like, no, there’s probably a lot of me and maybe we all don’t think the same thing, but maybe all it is that we all have a shared like boundary of curiosity. We all have a way in which we hope to approach the world. That’s the “us” that you can find and speak to. So that was a really important part of the process.
In terms of where things are now with my son, it’s so funny because having a six-year old is like having a benevolent alien basically, like he’s come down from another planet and he’s like, “What are Brown people and why do humans?” So there’s a delight in being able to talk to that six-year old, which is quite different from now. He is 13 and 4 inches taller than me and has been in New York City long enough to have had a few incidents that aren’t the best, you know? I mean mostly we’ve been lucky, but every once in a while he’s like, “Ma, this thing happened” and we talk about it and it’s hard.
And specifically, I think honestly, I’m sure a lot of the Asian kids in this room will also say, “I was aware of Asian hate long before it became like, ‘Now we’re talking about Asian hate.’” I feel I know that’s been, “No, that’s about 10 years y’all” and probably it’s really about 50. But for me, being able to say it to myself, it’s been at least 10. And so being able to say that now the outside world is also having this conversation, you and I have been having in our living room, that’s kind of how I talked to him about it now. Which is, these things that you thought were happening, these things that I also thought was happening, we’re talking about it in a more mainstream way now. Which is scary because that means that people are again ready to fight and shout you down about it but it’s also - you know what you know. And so there’s a certain amount of grace that you can move through the world when you know what you know - you know.
Miller: There’s a scene in the book where your son asks you if anyone tried to hurt you after September 11. And as readers, you tell us things you don’t tell him in that moment. You tell us about racist and traumatic encounters that you had in those weeks or months that followed, but then you write what you told him in answer to his question: “Not really.” And for me this gets to in some ways an unanswerable question, but one that all parents struggle with in a variety of ways. It’s how you figure out age appropriateness when you’ve decided already you want to be open, you want to tell the truth and you want to answer questions when they arise, there is still the question, “Well, how much do I get into this thing, now?” How did you think about that question of, what are you ready for once I want to tell you the truth?
Jacobs: So there’s a lot of different questions that he has asked me in that regard. What I tried to do when he was younger and even still now is follow his lead a little bit. A question like that is super open-ended, right? I could answer that in so many different ways. What I understood in that moment was, this thing he is small in this world. I am the biggest person around him and he needs to feel safe with me. So this question that he’s asking me is both, did anything happen to you, but it’s also, how safe am I when I’m with you? And I needed him to know in that moment, you are safe when you are with me and I’m your mother and also like I’m a bear, man, someone comes for us, I’m going for them. In that way, right? You’re okay. And when he’s older - and also by the way he read that book before it came out. So two years later he read the answers to that and came to me with that exact page and said,”You didn’t even tell me this at the time.” and I said, “I know, but you weren’t ready.” And he’s like, “And now I’m ready.” I’m like, “No, but you just picked up the book!” So you know, we laughed about it a little bit. And the truth is that he was ready actually, at eight, to talk about it.
People also think that somehow kids don’t understand what is happening around them when they’re young. They think that youth - they align youth with innocence in a way that I actually don’t think is true. I think kids sense undercurrents all the time. I think all the high schoolers I’ve ever taught are wildly smart emotionally and even if they don’t have the words for what they’re going through, they know what they’re going through. So I think part of that is also respecting that in a kid and trying to speak to the emotion, if not with the exact specificity of what your life has involved.
Miller: Let’s take another question from the audience. Go ahead, what’s your name?
Sasha Truck Nova: Hi, my name is Sasha Truck Nova and I know you started touching on this, but I was just curious more about your son’s reaction to the book and what he immediately said after he first read it.
Jacobs: So I will tell you that one of the things that I did with this book was I obviously wrote about a lot of people that are really in my life. All of the people in my life, I gave them the book and galley copies and I said, “If you need to talk to me about something, talk to me about something.” With him because he was little I said, “We’re going to read all the pages of this book that you are in and there are conversations in here. And if there’s anything that you don’t want in here you say, ‘I don’t want it.’ You don’t even have to say why because I don’t want you to have to make sentences around, ‘Why?’ That’s a lot. Just say, ‘I don’t want that.’ And it goes, the page goes, no questions asked.”
Miller: Can I just make sure I understand the deal? But he got a special deal, right? Because he’s your son.
Jacob: Because he’s my son and because he’s a kid.
Miller: Because the book for everything else it’s - this is your recollections of the way things went. If some friends said, “I don’t like that”, or “I remember differently” you would have said, well, this is the way I remember it.
Jacob: I would have had a conversation with them.
Miller: But they wouldn’t have had carte blanche. You say no, it’s gone. So you said this to him.
Jacob: I said this to him. What’s really funny about reading a book to a six-year old… so, I read to him parts when he was a little bit like eight-ish, when the book was starting to come out in galleys. And when I would first write these scenes I would show them to him within a week and he’d be like, “Yeah, that’s good.” And then I’d show him to them in a month and he’d be like, “Did I say that?”, And I was like, “Yes, you said that!” And then I show it to him in two months and he’d be like, “I’m so funny!” So when I read him parts of the book, he really liked it, he thought it was great. And I also knew, and we talked about this a lot now, that there’s going to be a point in time when he really doesn’t like it. And there’s going to be a point in time when he’s probably pretty angry with me. And that is absolutely his right. He has every right to be upset and what we will do at that point is have a conversation about it and I owe him not just one conversation about it, but many conversations about it. I took this risk for what I felt like was a real and worthy reason, but it’s his life.
Miller: We’ve got to take a quick break, but we have a lot more from Mira Jacob and from our audience here at Portland’s Lincoln High School. Stay tuned.
This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We’re coming to you today from Lincoln High School, talking with Mira Jacob. Her debut novel was The Sleepwalkers Guide to Dancing. Her graphic memoir, Good Talk, came out in 2019. Now it is the book for Multnomah County’s “Everybody Reads’' program. She’ll be speaking tonight at 7:30 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Downtown Portland. There are still a few tickets available.
Let us go to another question from our audience here.
Lauren Eldridge: Hi, my name’s Lauren Eldridge and I was just wondering what’s your favorite part of the book?
Jacobs: What’s my favorite part of the book, that’s such a kind question. I think that my favorite part of the book is, there are two: one is a chapter I wrote about my dad. This idea that really, really cool parents smoke pot with their kids or smoke weed with their kids and it was just, it was really fun to write and draw that. My dad died in 2006 and he was a real huge person, and I miss him. So it was great to see his face and to draw his face.
The other part that I will tell you is my favorite part is the last, the letter to my son. And it’s my favorite part because it was such a hard one. I wrote that letter probably 27 times. And the first 26 were so angry that it was unbearable to read it. And so really that letter, I really had to run as hard as I could as a human to catch up to be the person that could write that letter. Thanks for the question.
Miller: When you got rid of the anger, what were you left with that still felt honest? Because, you say 26 times… it was there for a reason.
Jacobs: Oh, for sure. And let’s be clear, I didn’t get rid of the anger. My anger is absolutely in me. I think there’s always an idea that because I’m funny and because that last letter is soft, that I’m not angry. I’m furious. I am furious with the world that my in-laws would accept for me and my son. I am furious with how little I see some Americans trying to grow and live with the rest of us. It makes me outraged and just sad and bitter and all the things, okay, all the things. But that letter is to my son. I cannot write my son a poison letter about what this world is, nor do I think that is an important thing. I don’t feel like I’m lying to him in that letter. I feel like our path forward is this complicated thing and I finally got to that line that is essentially… it is this thing, you will love people that do not want the best for you in this world. They are your own family. This thing, I don’t want that to deform your heart. When I wrote that I was like, that’s the thing I can give him. That is the best protection I can give this boy in this world. And that to me is so much more powerful than saying, you deserved better and you deserve better. It’s so much more powerful than saying that.
Miller: Let’s take another question from our audience.
Audience Member: This question you’ve kind of answered a little bit, but how have these conversations and questions with your son developed? Also, how do you think his experience or just in general, the experience of a kid growing up that identifies with the South Asian background in America, how has that developed or changed since you wrote the book?
Jacobs: I think for one thing, or part of the reason I wrote this book is because South Asians are at a really particular point in our sort of cultural history in America, which is that because we were sort of allowed and invited into the country formerly in 1965, there has been enough of us here now to be building both a reality and a mythology about how we have survived in this country.
And there is a whole side of my community that believes that our success is owed to the fact that we are somehow smarter and brighter and harder working than anyone, and that is why we are successful. Then there is the reality, which is that we were given backing, we were given institutional backing, we were given sanctity within banks, we were given property - not given, we worked for it, the same for it that other Americans were. But there are plenty of Americans that work for it that are not allowed those same comforts.
So part of what is happening right now is my desperate need to talk to my own community and say, “Let’s be real about how these things happened for us” and when they haven’t, let’s talk about what that really looks like and let’s not have our identity centered around this idea that we made it because we’ve been closest to the white people. Let’s have it built around something else that is much more sustainable for this country.
Miller: You have a chapter called “Fair and Lovely”, about your childhood visits to visit your family in India. I wonder if you could tell us a story from I think it’s when you were five, and you heard your aunt’s talking about you.
Jacobs: Yes, but I didn’t know they were talking about me. They were saying, “The little one, it’s so sad about the little one” and I am the little one in my family. “It’s so sad because she’s so… she’s not fair, and the brother is so fair and the father is fair and the mother is also fair, but she’s not fair.” I was little enough to think that they were talking about like my sportsmanship or something and I was like, “I am definitely fair, I’m five and I’m fair.” and I told my mother this and she said, “Oh no, they’re just talking about … um, it’s okay, don’t worry about it.” She sort of tried to gloss over it and my dad too said, “Don’t worry, you’re a pretty child.” And I was like, it has something to do with pretty. Then my brother was finally the one who’s like, “Doofus, it’s that you’re too dark and that’s what they’re saying, it’s that you’re too dark.” I was like, “I’m too dark?” It had never occurred to me. I knew I was dark, but I mean, I thought we were all the same kind of dark. Because in America it was like, nobody could tell. It was, “We’re Indian”, and everyone’s like, “You’re Brown”. And I thought there was one Brown. Then I put my arm up next to my mother’s and my father’s and my brothers and I realized really quickly actually I was dark, and it was darker than all of them. And then I realized that what that meant in the eyes of my family was that I was ugly.
What comes along with that also in India, which I realized growing up more and more is that the idea of dark being associated with both a lack of beauty and also weirdly a lack of intelligence, a lack of being worthy. It’s all of these things that I would walk into a room and people would always say to me when I would talk to them, they’d say, “You’re so confident!” in this baffled way when I was in India, because they couldn’t imagine why I would be, being the color that I was.
Miller: Did you get pushback from Indian Americans or Indians about including this chapter?
Jacobs: I got pushback from everybody of color in America about including this chapter because, and I understand, I mean every single different person of ethnicity that understands what the color spectrum looks like within their community would say to me, in different ways they’d say, ‘Why did you include this? Then they’ll think it’s okay what they’re doing to us. They’ll think that it’s okay for the way that they treat us. They’ll just think that we all do it to each other so why not?’ And my answer to that was, but we do do this to each other. We do categorize ourselves on skin color. We have all fallen victim to what is essentially white supremacy in this belief that lighter skin is king. Why? Because we are so scared of them. Are we not allowed to know ourselves? Do they get to do that? Are we going to give them that? I know it’s rough out here, but I just want to know myself. And that to me is a much harder thing to lose than some idea that we are all one united front. We are not, we are all massively complicated. We’re all dealing with all of this stuff. We all know our inherent contradictions and flaws. It makes all of us feel dirty and strange and unable to come up against this thing that is white supremacy. It makes all of us feel complicated. Why not just step into that, instead of trying to pretend that there is an alliance where there isn’t one, why don’t we say we are all dealing with the same pain. How do we move through it together? That’s a real alliance, right.
Miller: How did the experience of living in your skin in Albuquerque, in New Mexico where you grew up, compared to being yourself, visiting your family in India? Did you feel different based on the way people saw you?
Jacobs: For sure. I used to go on the plane to India because - this is so funny - I used to go to the bathroom right before we landed to check my face, because I was sure that something changed when I landed because the reaction to me was so swift and so damning. And in America I always knew that I was exotic, whatever that meant, and that’s a weird thing on its own and there’s a weird cachet with that. There’s also something really unfortunate about that, especially as you get older. But in India I wasn’t exotic, I was something to be pitied and that is a different thing and I absolutely felt it.
Miller: We’re in a high school, so I thought we could ask a little bit about the section you have on high school experiences. Some of them involve what we now call microaggressions, the term I don’t remember hearing when I was in high school in the 90s, I think you were in high school in the 90s too. But that’s what we call them now but that you didn’t read as such, including when you were with your boyfriend, who was Black and one of them, you and your boyfriend were walking down the hallway and then a white girl - I think she’s white based on the way you draw her in the picture - she says, “You guys look like seriously perfect together.” And then, you thank her in that moment. How did you understand what was happening, and what she meant?
Jacobs: Honestly, in that moment I thought, oh, she says we look good together. We do look good together. Our skin color is the same. It’s okay that she said that, that’s good. Right? That’s a compliment. Really, it was that basic. I wish I could tell you that I was really cool and I had some sophisticated interpretation. I didn’t, I thought, she thinks we match and says we look good. And it also felt like, oh if I were being honest with myself really on some deep, deep subterranean level, it was probably like, [relieved sound] they approve, right?
Miller: What did your boyfriend say to you?
Jacobs: He said, “Why do you let them say that to you? Why do you let them say that to us?” And he was so angry and I was like, “What are you so up in arms about? That’s a compliment.” He said, “It’s not a compliment. Why do you think they say that?” His point was, they’re sanctioning us staying together because we look the same and we are other than them, and they want to make sure that you know that that’s ok and you know that’s our place. He wouldn’t have said it in that complicated way, he had a way of saying it and I didn’t know. And he did, and of course he knew because he was a Black boy growing up in America with a long history of what that looked like.
And his mother was one of the Black Panthers and he knew he had a history that I didn’t have, she was an activist and he also was, he had a Black mother and white father and understood things that I couldn’t possibly. But I didn’t know, and then later… can I, if I can talk about it a little bit, there’s a chapter in there that was really brutal to write and was absolutely necessary. Which is when we went to prom or Homecoming, and it was him and his friend John, who was also Black, and we were all in the car together and we looked so good that night. I mean, we looked so good that night. We were really decked out and it felt amazing, the way that you can kind of feel magic in your own skin.
I was like, yeah, we’re doing it. And then John said, “Mira, your dad, what kind of doctor is he?” And I said, “He’s a cardiovascular surgeon.” And then in my head, I don’t know what happened but it was this short - it was like my brain wrote a whole story that was - maybe, maybe he doesn’t know what that word means. Maybe I am actually able to teach him something in this moment. Maybe I should step up and make this easier for him.
Really, he hadn’t said anything other than, “Oh.” This is where I went with it in my head. By the way, all sorts of things flew in at that moment, there’s a drawing of it. It’s the projects in New York. The movie colors. Just like every strange thing I had ever heard about Black America came into that conversation and I said to him, “That means, you know”... he said, “What kind of doctor is your dad?” And I said, “Cardiovascular surgeon; that means a heart surgeon.” And the whole car just went, [deflating sound]. And I knew the minute I had said it, I knew because the temperature changed in the car. I looked back and I will never forget that kid’s eyes just looking at me in the mirror, because he gave me this look that was like, “Really?” And I knew that look because I had given that look to people before, or wanted to give that look to people before, or felt people underestimate me that way.
And the worst part of it was that I knew I had done something to him that had been done to me and I did it so carelessly and so egotistically. I just didn’t, I hadn’t seen him, I saw everything that America has shown me on TV about boys like him, quote-unquote. But I didn’t see John. And it ruined the night. It ruined the night. We went from being these magical beautiful beings to my boyfriend looking like I had just cracked his heart open, which I’m sure I did. John looking just sick, which I’m sure he was. My friend who was with him looking so embarrassed for me, which I’m sure she was. And I woke up thinking about that story like once a month for the next 30 years, because I knew the minute I had done it. But I didn’t know the minute before.
Miller: Why was it important to you to include that story in the book? And for people who haven’t seen it, one of the most powerful visual representations in the book is your brain. You take us inside your brain through these pop cultural references about Blackness in America and Black boys and white or non-Black saviors. We can actually - we’re in your brain. And we see your version of that before you say, you explain what a cardiovascular surgeon is. But why put this in the book?
Jacobs: Because I think so often when we talk about race in America, we talk about the oppressed and the oppressors and it’s so very, the idea of being an oppressor is loaded with so much shame that people would much rather say that oppression doesn’t exist than own their part in the oppression, right?
But it’s important for me to say I did that. It’s important for me to look at it and say, I did that, by the way, I would do it again. When I wrote this book I knew for sure part of my terror in writing it was I was like, oh five years from now someone’s going to pull out one page and be like, ‘This is when Mira Jacob, you can still see all her racism still clinging to her here’ and they will be right, they will be right. Because I am always going to be in a learning curve with this. I am always only ever going to be trying to wake from this, right. That’s the only place I’ll ever be. And it’s important for me to show that, to show the difference between a moment of being asleep about something and waking up to it and to own that, because I will continue to do that. And also you guys, I just don’t think it’s that, I don’t think that’s the worst thing that can happen to you. Far worse things can happen. Your son can be killed, your relatives can be hunted. That’s worse. That’s so much worse than, I said the wrong thing. I didn’t see your humanity. I’m sorry, I’m going to figure this out. Right?
Miller: Let’s take a question from our audience.
Alex Dolly: Hi, my name is Alex Dolly. I was wondering, earlier in this conversation you talked about writing for your “us” and people that will read this book and relate to you and the conversations you had, this book features a lot of conversation about race and identity. What about people like your in-laws, who will read this book and think, I’ve had the privilege of not having these conversations, or this is new to me. How much during your writing process did you think about that and the reactions of these people?
Jacobs: It’s a really great question, because I’ll tell you that when I started this book, one of the things that made me start it was that every time I would go see my in-laws - and they became very avid Trump supporters, holding signs on the street, that kind of thing. And as that was happening in my family, I was saying, please, please, because I had been, by the way, in the family for I think, 16 years by that point. So they weren’t new to me and I called them mom and dad, and I loved them, right? We had a good relationship. So while this was happening and I was saying, “We’re falling apart, this is going to be bad for us.” What they kept saying was, “Here’s the reason that we’re doing this.” And then when I would say, “Okay, but…” they’re like, “You know what, we don’t need to talk about this, we’re family, we love each other. That’s the thing that matters.” And every time I would start saying, “Okay, but this is why…” they would say, “You know what, we so appreciate you not bringing this up. We so appreciate how much you love us. We appreciate how much we can all see beyond this to the natural bond that is between us.”
And I realized oh, this works for you. This part where you never have to know me works for you, because you can tell yourselves that you have a Brown daughter-in-law that you love and that makes you some level of in your mind, open-minded about this. Never mind what’s actually happening to me, right? You can feel good about yourselves and never know me because you don’t really want to know me. So when I started writing the book, I think I started writing it towards them. But when I kept going, as I got more and more into the book, I realized I was writing it, honestly, for you guys. I was writing it for the me that I was in high school, I was writing it for the son that I was bringing up and I was writing it towards all of us that are in a different place, trying to make sense of it rather than the ones who are like, I outright don’t believe this.
Miller: Go ahead, what’s your name?
Anissa Thomas: I’m Anissa Thomas and I actually have a couple questions. My first one is, ok well my only question is kind of about what you don’t super touch on in this book, but you do kind of talk about your sexual identity and identifying as bisexual. The one instance that you do have in the book about it, where you’re interacting with someone in the bar, and it just seemed like a situation where your identity was just very invalidated. I was wondering how that part of your identity has played into your relationships with your parents and just how you figured out how to feel valid in that identity as well. And also with marrying a man, how do you deal with that identity today?
Jacobs: It’s a great question. The way that my bisexuality plays out in the book, I didn’t make a chapter that was like, “This is how it was when I came out.” Because honestly I was always out. There was never a point in time, I always knew what I was from age five. Probably in high school was the hardest time to hold it because I didn’t know how to say it, I just sort of pretended I was straight but all my friends knew and I knew, right? I tried to live in the book the way it lived in my body, which is this is just who I am, it’s who I’ve always been. In terms of marriage, the first date I went on with my husband I was like, listen you should know I’m bi, and that was the word we used then, I think pan would probably be a closer word now. But I said that to him and… he went to high school with me. He’s like, “Yeah, there were rumors about you in high school.” I was like, “Yeah, they’re all true, yeah, that’s me.” And he said, “Yeah, okay.” That has been a growing and evolving conversation, always. When you have a part of that and when your identity is built in a way your partner’s isn’t built necessarily, you always have to have as we do with race, a continual conversation about what that means, right?
Because it’s not like I got married and then stopped being bisexual. There’s not like some spout where you’re like, “I am no longer attracted to anyone else”, I don’t know anyone’s marriage that has worked that way. So it’s always a question of, what does that look like, and how do I live in this body, and how do I feel alive? And not denying who I am to also be a whole person in this marriage with you. It’s an always evolving conversation.
Miller: We have another question from our audience.
Audience member: Hi, my name is Sarah and I was wondering how you were able to build that tight knit relationship with your son to be able to have those uncomfortable conversations about race, and especially now that he’s grown to be a teenager, how are you still able to continue those conversations?
Jacobs: Let’s just be clear, he’s one year into teenagerdom, so he could turn me off tomorrow, right? Like, you’re done, that’s it. But one of the things that I think is really interesting about him, people will always say, “Oh, you have a great kid” as though I had anything to do with it and honestly, I didn’t. I think kids are who they are. I think people are often born in a full version of themselves. I think my job as this kid’s mother is to get out of his way and try to honor the person that he is. And sometimes the person that he is going to be is not what I would want for him and I’m trying to check my ego about that. Sometimes I do a great job with it, sometimes I don’t. I am his parent and I have rules and he will tell you, I’m not a particularly fun mom, he loves to tell people that. That I’m strict and whatever, that’s true. Also in my brain, we are equals. Like he is a younger person than me, but we are equals, and I have to treat him as my equal.
Miller : Did losing your father affect the way you thought about your relationship with your in-laws in terms of approaching that relationship with honesty and in a way that you were pretty clear was either maybe going to resuscitate it, maybe, or maybe going to end that relationship?
Jacobs: I’ll tell you that really when I started this I really leaned more towards that this is going to resuscitate, this is going to help us. It became clear to me as time went on that it was going to not do that. And it was painful when that was happening. My father would not have wanted me to write this book. He would have been sad that I had to and he also would have felt worried for their egos. Worried about me, being a younger person, bringing something to an older group of people and saying something that he would have thought disrespectful.
Even though he would have believed everything, he would have been completely aligned with me, politically and otherwise, there are just things about my culture that you don’t do, and this is one of them. So I don’t know that I would have written the book with the same tenacity if he were alive, because I would have been aware of his gaze. But he wasn’t alive and I had this kid and I felt like no, I’m allowed to write.
I know my son’s grandparents love him. I know that. And I know that they do not take ownership of the world that they are building for him. Of the particular, like, cage that they are building for him. And they will be so innocently surprised should he ever get snared in it. And I just want to tell them, early on, this is what it looks like. You built this, and you can unbuild this.
Miller: Mira Jacob, thank you so much.
Jacobs: Thank you.
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