In April, I attended Memoir Night at Franklin Park, an indoor/outdoor bar in Crown Heights that hosts a reading series on the second Monday of each month. I made the hour-long journey from Harlem to listen to Kiese Laymon and Mitchell Jackson read from their memoirs Heavy and Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family. Also on the bill was Mira Jacob, a writer I did not know. Her book Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations was published a few days before the event, and I didn’t know what to expect when she took her stand at the microphone while the Franklin Park crew cued up a projector.
Good Talk is Jacob’s second book, following her critically acclaimed novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (2014). The graphic memoir traverses Jacob’s childhood in New Mexico, her earlier years trying to make her way as a writer in New York City, and her marriage to a Jewish man and the resulting relationship with Trump-supporting in-laws. The memoir begins with her six-year-old biracial son, Z, who is obsessed with Michael Jackson. He asks questions about Jackson’s skin tone change. Eventually, as he consumes media covering the 2016 election, listening to Trump’s abhorrent rhetoric about banning Muslims and referring to Mexicans as rapists, he inquires whether his father—who is white and Jewish—is scared of him because of his brown skin. The challenge of speaking honestly about racism in America with her young son allows Jacob to broach discussions of race, parenting, family, marriage, and love.
The graphic form enhances the accompanying narrative. The images are vibrant and shift from drawings, to album covers, to city backdrops. Strikingly, the character illustrations do not change expressions when the page turns and conversation continues, but the mood of the discussion swings. Instead, the lack of situational emotiveness allows the nuances of each scene to resonate more. The reader is forced to contend with the juxtaposition of what they are seeing and what they are reading. But the words are what matter, and linger with me once the memoir is finished.
Inside the bar, the memoir’s words were magnified against a changing backdrop of illustrations (drawn by Jacob) and found photographs from her personal life and elsewhere. She read from a section detailing her dating life in New York City. While living in Williamsburg and pursuing her writing career, Jacob’s family pressed her to go on a date with a neuropsychologist studying at Columbia University. Her great-aunt emailed her about the date and her bedridden great-uncle called to make clear that the encounter was his dying wish. After the neuropsychologist failed to call Jacob back, she joked to a friend, “he is probably some totally normal Indian guy with an American girlfriend he’s been seeing for seven years that his parents don’t even know about.”
Jacob’s memoir thrives in its ability to find truth through humor. Following a trip to India, her mother returns with information regarding the neuropsychologist. She reveals that, when asked about her appearance, Jacob’s aunt had told the suitor’s aunt, “Well, sure, she’s no beauty, but she’s a really nice girl.” Jacob is shocked, so her mother clarifies by saying, “Because you’re not fair, right? So then they didn’t want you.” Good Talk whiplashes the reader from ease and pleasure to apprehension and concern, so that the reader is never truly comfortable. It is an astounding memoir— surprising and funny, honest and heartbreaking—that is unquestionably timely in its conversations with America’s past and in what it asks of our collective future.