Over a decade ago, in the anthology Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image, Mira Jacob’s lead essay, “My Brown Face,” pinpointed what it is like to be a particular type of woman of color in America:
I can see it in them, the hunger for a quiet woman, an erotic encounter, a spicy dish. Some men don’t even bother with the formalities, cutting to the chase. ‘Indian,’ a man in a bar once said, nodding to me. Then, by way of invitation, his mouth pressed hot against my ear, ‘Kamasutra?’
This year, Jacob’s “The Frustrated White Person’s Guide to Discussing Racism”— which illustrates how people of color have to manage white confusion — went viral and started a conversation on social media about how we all talk about, or fail to talk about, race.
Besides being exceptionally self-aware, Jacob, who was brought up in New Mexico by Indian-American parents, has a wicked sense of humor that is refreshing, outrageous and yet familiar. When I spoke with her this month about writing, parenting, Trump and the fact that South Asians are ballsy and funny, her excitement was palpable, contagious even, interspersed with humor and… rage because as Jacob says, “This is what being South Asian feels like here.”
Garnet News: Let’s talk about your upcoming graphic memoir Good Talk: Conversations I am Still Confused About due out next year. Published in part on BuzzFeed last year as “37 Questions From My Mixed-Race Son,” it shows you as a mother, writer and citizen grappling with politically charged issues. Who are you reaching out to? Why graphic?
MJ: Why graphic? Years ago, when I was with my grandmother in India and the power went out, we had the most bizarre exchange of non sequiturs that I realized were a hallmark of all our conversations. In about ten sentences, we went from her disappointment in my complexion to talking about an uncle who was jailed by the British during the fight for India’s independence, and all of it was oddly compelling. I quickly put us on paper, cut us out, put cartoon bubbles above our heads and posted it on Facebook — mostly for the enjoyment of my cousins, who have all been similarly berated and fascinated by this woman. And man, I LOVED it. So easy, so electric. Later, when my son was discovering his color and Michael Jackson at the same time, I turned to that format, and again, it just made a certain kind of sense to me — how my brain works and what my hands can do. So there is joy in this place, and I’m gunning deeply for it. I have no idea who I will reach.
I quickly put us on paper, cut us out, put cartoon bubbles above our heads and posted it on Facebook — mostly for the enjoyment of my cousins, who have all been similarly berated and fascinated by this woman. And man, I LOVED it.
It’s an attractive form of storytelling, instead of reading a chapter of a big novel, you know? What I’m attempting is to bring weighty topics to the fore in a humorous, more manageable form. That’s how people will talk more about such things as racism, sexism etc.
Garnet News: Like your recent graphic for BuzzFeed, “The Frustrated White Person’s Guide to Discussing Racism”?
MJ: The racism “flowchart” is more pointed than the stories I tell. It’s a different type of storytelling. I wrote it for my many brown friends because I was frustrated with the conversation and wanted to make it more meaningful. I didn’t try to publish it for awhile because I didn’t want dealing with a wall of hate to derail my writing. In fact, the wall of hate was right there in my living room courtesy of the Republican National Convention. The feeling is here, the feeling is terrorizing me and my son, I thought, so let’s put this graphic up. The logic is obvious. It’s telling everyone how folks are being harassed.
Usually social media breeds: “I will stick to my trench and not venture.” I don’t think it happens all the time, but it happens. In fact, I wrote the graphic in anger and had to trash the first version. Then I refined it so it was more of a simmering anger. After all, I don’t have to eviscerate you while I write (laughs).
I’ll often get racist or unwittingly racist things said to me. Like when someone tells you an ethnic joke as a way to prove that we can both be ironic about it.
I’ll often get racist or unwittingly racist things said to me. Like when someone tells you an ethnic joke as a way to prove that we can both be ironic about it. It’s them checking to see if I’m okay with being minimized, while making sure that I know they’re good people. No, it’s not okay. So these are the opportunities I take to define myself. If I can say my piece in a reasonable, sane tone, then I’m ok with that. It takes less of a toll and hopefully helps create the kind of a world I want to leave my son.
During the conversations I was having with my son about Michael Jackson, I found myself sobbing all over the house, at the sink, while I was putting away the groceries. Every parent fears not being able to protect her child, and there it was.
Garnet News: Your son’s questions, antics and inquisitiveness play a big role in your social media posts. “37 Questions” acknowledges his obsession with Michael Jackson but also with Ferguson and his mixed-race identity. How do you balance delving into immediate and important politically and socially knotty issues as well as your own child’s profound and personal obsession with Michael Jackson?
MJ: Strange but true — often extremely sad things become extremely funny when written down. And to that point: during the conversations I was having with my son about Michael Jackson, I found myself sobbing all over the house, at the sink, while I was putting away the groceries. Every parent fears not being able to protect her child, and there it was. He was only six. So the piece is naturally light at points but there’s also a palpable darkness underneath — my rage at having to explain a world that will see and possibly fear the young dark man he will become. I can’t stop that, of course. At times I can barely breathe through it. But I can draw it. I can show it to other people.
Garnet News: Two years ago, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, your debut novel, was shortlisted for India’s Tata First Literature Award. Tell us the good and the bad, especially about your reception on Boston Public Radio.
MJ: It was a dream having a book I’d worked on for ten years come out. So let’s just start with that: to have the characters living in my head suddenly take up space in the world, to have flesh and blood readers all around the world caring about them, was stunning. I had always heard writing professors tell me that the real joy is in the work, and now that I’ve been to the other side of it, I can agree. The writing is the fun part. But the moment of being published, of feeling actualized in a career that can sometimes feel fictional itself, is profound.
The reception, of course, goes up and down. On the one hand, I was surprised by how actively and vociferously readers engage, mostly with appreciation, though I’ve gotten more than a few drunk letters from irate readers with mother issues (and “ending issues” and issues with my haircut). Honestly, all of it — well, other than the hair — is good engagement. The times when I was stung — say, when the radio producer told me to cut characters out if I was going to “stick with unusual names” — those moments exhausted me.
It’s the fate of model minorities in America — you are told your brains and hard work will set you apart from all the other dark people that the system fails, but it never quite rings true.
Garnet News: New Mexico played a big role in your childhood and in your writing, as does race. Tell us more about both.
MJ: I was born East Indian in a state where the Native American population (also called Indian) was visibly and consistently relegated to the least hospitable spaces. I was always aware that somehow being born the “right” kind of Indian had put me on the right side of people here, while the other Indians were shunned, slaughtered, disenfranchised and dismissed. It’s the fate of model minorities in America — you are told your brains and hard work will set you apart from all the other dark people that the system fails, but it never quite rings true. So unpacking that has been a constant and necessary process for me.
Garnet News: Last year, you gave the keynote address at Publishers Weekly — the speech that no one heard. Afterward, you wrote about the ignorance, the deliberate misguidance, the subtle and not so subtle discrimination based on race and color in the publishing industry on BuzzFeed. How did you cope with it all at that time? Is it better now?
MJ: I coped with it poorly at the time. I don’t mean I went out drinking and berated strangers on the street afterward but I took the ignorance in like the poison it was. I took it to mean something was wrong with me. I mean, here’s the thing: no one wants to be that writer — the difficult one you hear about being a prima donna and making outrageous demands. At the same time, the amount of potential minefields a writer from a non-traditional background faces are exponential. So do you choose to wage a war against the red sari/elephant/Taj Mahal on your book cover, or do you refuse to be part of the dog and pony show of diversity panels? Do you call out the publisher who made a racist remark at a cocktail party seemingly to prove his comfort with race, or do you walk away feeling slightly cheapened by the whole thing?
And if you take issue with any of it, if you say that’s not about my book, or this is not the subject I want to speak to or “good god man, get ahold of yourself,” are you seen and heard as a person who has accumulated some wisdom and could help the industry navigate more intelligently, or are you just boxing yourself out of what little publicity and goodwill might come your way?
Well, now there’s Trump, that hot bag of horror, and all the progressive liberals who don’t see the connection between their willful naiveté about race in this country and his rise.
Garnet News: Has it gotten better?
MJ: Well, now there’s Trump, that hot bag of horror, and all the progressive liberals who don’t see the connection between their willful naiveté about race in this country and his rise. But if we’re talking specifically about my travels through the publishing world, then yes, it has got a bit better for a few reasons.
One is simply that more people started talking about a phenomenon they had previously been dealing with alone — first in whispers among each other, and then out loud, and finally to the people who most needed to hear it. There’s sanity in numbers.
Another is I learned to take it less personally. I don’t mean that I was oversensitive — I wasn’t then and I’m not now. I just know it’s not about me. It’s about where we are, as both a nation and an industry, with our understanding. And the only thing that will change it is for as many of us to be the person who is willing to say the awkward thing. Because here’s something else I’ve figured out: just as often as not, people are willing to engage. I mean, yes, there are those who shrink away or get glaze-faced, and there are those who get outright angry, and that is always terrifying. I’ve killed my career, you think. Or worse. But there is also a real want for change by some very key players, and that matters.
So I do think things are shifting, though of course not at the rate I had imagined when I was ten. I figured we’d all be beige by now, and racism would go the way of smallpox. I also imagined I’d have a punk band called The Lady’s Finger, where I would perform as my alter ego — the spurned lovechild of James Dean and Stevie Nicks — so clearly my optimism needed some boundaries.
I figured we’d all be beige by now, and racism would go the way of smallpox.
Garnet News: Okay, so let’s talk politics…
MJ: It’s been a crazy time for Hillary! Matt Lauer — that was funny! He obviously didn’t make his mark. But can I say the upside was that everyone INSTANTLY saw what was happening. This is the future of the nation, how future leaders will be treated or interrupted. My husband (documentary filmmaker Jed Rothstein) and I have the same opinion. It’s very hard to parse out the many slights Clinton repeatedly has had to withstand, the double-standard. Only the most obvious incidents are called out. Sexism in hard to parse.
Interestingly, Hillary started her career pre-internet. So, now she’s learning and fighting on a different platform.
Did you know, when our founding fathers were fighting elections, they would start rumors that their opponent had died at an opportune moment? And it took so long to get the correct news that elections were long over before the news spread. Now, news spreads with a button press. Instant communication. Time has collapsed, and it’s hard to be a human in it.
Garnet News: Where do you think your writing is taking you now?
MJ: A good friend of mine told me that he likes to think of his creative drive as a topographical map that will lead him off to a place he doesn’t know. I love this idea. I am in a place I’ve never been. I’ll tell you what it looks like once I get my bearings.
We are not alone, and so much sanity and change comes in numbers. I have a lot of hope in what we as a people can do.
I will only know when it’s over and done, and I’m staring at the damn map again. I’m not promoting anything but with the racism piece there are so many people who want to help/change — so it does help. We aren’t alone, and so much sanity and change comes in numbers. I have a lot of hope in what we as a people can do.
– Madhushree Ghosh
Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing was shortlisted for India’s Tata First Literature Award, honored by the Asian Pacific American Library Association and named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Goodreads, Bustle, and The Millions. Her recent work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Vogue, Guernica, and The Scofield. She is currently drawing her graphic memoir, Good Talk: Conversations I’m Still Confused About (forthcoming from Dial Press). www.mirajacob.com