Difficult Dialogues

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A graphic novel on being brown in Trump’s America

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations | Mira Jacob | Bloomsbury | 368 Pages | Rs 599

FROM JHUMPA LAHIRI’S sari- clad ennui in 90s’ Boston to Hasan Minhaj’s more recent punchlines that rely on classic desi parental examination anxiety in Patriot Act, the Indian immigrant story has become a popular genre in itself. Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk takes on this experience in an unusual way—documenting difficult conversations Jacob has with her son about being brown in Trump’s America.

Good Talk delves into a broader range of experiences from those we have seen so far. It addresses the seemingly mundane like Jacob’s parents’ immigrant story and her understanding of love and relationships. It introduces the profound with her everyday experiences mothering a mixed-race child whose racial identity contrasts with that of her own (Jacob’s husband is White Jewish- American filmmaker Jed Rothstein).

While the issues may seem familiar, Jacob’s take on them transcends the tropes. Straight out of the gate, Good Talk packs a punch—in a conversation about the police-led murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Jacob’s son asks her if his father fears him because he isn’t brown like them. It is the first difficult conversation of many.

Jacob has had these conversations with herself before. She dissects everything, from wildly different family dynamics compared to those of her friends in a very White town, to her own internalised racism as a model minority. But as she raises her son, she finds herself having to grapple with them all over again. Jacob’s memoir ends up pushing the desi diaspora narrative beyond relatable anecdotes about cultural differences. Instead, it acknowledges the complexity and contradictions of self that third-culture kids often tangle with, in a world that demands order and answers. Increasingly porous cultural borders mean that these aren’t just experiences the Indian diaspora would recognise, but also homegrown desis who grapple with eerily similar sociopolitical issues on home soil.

Jacob’s conversations feel so familiar because they come from a place of profound truth. Between ‘knock, knock’ jokes and the kind of intense Michael Jackson obsession only a child could have, Jacob’s son forces his mother to confront her place in the world in order to help him figure out his own. No longer are the neat explanations and boundaries that Jacob created for herself to cope with the world enough—her child deserves to feel protected but prepared for a world polarised in ways that seem intimately familiar yet terrifyingly harsher than before. Mothering her child has forced her to raise herself in new and urgent ways, long after it seemed like all her growing up was done.

Jacob’s unique visual style also reflects how transformative conversations really affect the self. She sets grey-scale illustrations of each character in standardised poses at various ages against fully coloured photographs, almost like actors dropped onto a set. The photos range from humdrum parking lots in suburban New Mexico to the soaring sklines of New York City. Significant conversations are recalled by multiple versions of these cutout characters resulting in exchanges that feel like they have overcome the conventional limitations of time and space. As an adult Jacob struggles to cope with her father’s mortality, her child self has an epiphany about the temporariness of life. It mimics how we receive resolution in real life, where our adult self reaches back into time to save our child self years after the fact.

Despite its at times serious themes, this isn’t a difficult read. Instead, it does what all good talks do—instill you with the courage to grapple with a not-always easy life, while feeling protected by the knowledge that you will always be understood and loved.