New School Book Club: In Conversation with Mira Jacob

Earlier this spring, we launched the New School Book Club. In a time filled with separation and uncertainty, we wanted to find a way to get our community on the same page — literally — and what way to do that than through reading?

Our first Book Club pick was Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by New School alum and faculty Mira Jacob (MFA Creative Writing, ’10). We chose this graphic memoir because of the difficult questions it raises through its honest perspective on race and family. It is vulnerable yet full of humor and love, and we were excited to share it with The New School community.

After reading the book, we had the opportunity to gather questions for Mira from our community. She answered them over video from her family’s home in New Mexico.

“Being an artist comes with so many strange vulnerabilities… You step into a place where you provide something no one has asked for, and you do it to interpret the human experience.”

Mira Jacob: I’ve always been drawing. I used to draw in just journals, on the sides of notes in class, and in meetings. When I was writing fiction and didn’t know what else to write, I would draw an item from the scene I was writing. I’d draw a leather jacket, or a pair of shoes, or a jar of mango pickle, I would draw something to relax my brain because sometimes it’s easier to be creative when you cut yourself a little slack. But for [Good Talk], I had to learn specifically how to draw on a computer, which is a really different thing.

It’s very different because it’s not like paper; paper has a personality. And when you’re drawing with a stylus on a screen, everything just slips through, it doesn’t feel as easy to transmit your mood to the screen, so learning that took me about three years. I started teaching myself from the minute I sold the book and then I kind of kept refining it as I went.

BC: The writing about your family feels so intimate and honest (especially the relationship with your in-laws), was it difficult to write about them in this way?

MJ: Yes! It was, it was really difficult to write about my in-laws, it was difficult to write about everybody. Memoir is so different than fiction because you have to keep having relationships with most of the people that you write about unless you’re like one of those people that’s like, “Burn it all to the ground I don’t care about anyone anymore you’re dead to me.” I always wished I was that person, but I’m really not. I love the people in my life, I love my in-laws, so writing honestly about what was happening with us was really hard.

One of the ways I created a boundary for myself was, especially if a scene was very angry, I would ask myself am I writing for vindication or clarity? Vindication is the thing you write because you’re trying to get everyone else on your side, clarity comes from a really different place, it comes from wanting to know what the truth of a situation looks like. So a lot of times I would write something, I would realize I wrote it for vindication, and I would erase it, or not erase it per-say, but just not put it in the book. I did it for a lot of reasons, but honestly, I’m not that interested in the writing people do to be right about things. I find that really boring. I’m more interested in the complicated ways that we are human and fallible.

BC: Good Talk mixes humor with so many emotions — anger, vulnerability, love. The “light” mixes so well with the heavy, it’s jarring but in a powerful way, was that intentional?

MJ: Yes, because I wrote it, so anything I write down is intentional, but I wrote it that way because it was the experience of being in a body like this in that time where you’re so hurt and bewildered, but you still have to move and you still have to go on. The other thing I would say about that is, I’m maybe funniest when I’m at my most distraught. So this format gave me the place to do that, to just be in the element of my exact mood. It was a very limited and delightful way to get at right what I was feeling.

“I realized I didn’t want to perform my emotions anymore. I didn’t want to have to cry so that somebody could judge whether or not my tears were worthy of sympathy.”

MJ: I’m glad you noticed that. The reason I decided to do it was because I realized this thing I’d been doing my whole life when I’d tell people — usually white Americans, but also with my parents — when I’d tell them something painful that had happened, having to do with race, they would tell me what it really was, that I was offended for reasons that I didn’t need to be. That maybe the person meant it in a better way. And if it’d happened to them, they would have felt a certain way about it.

It’s so infuriating when that happens. If that’s ever happened to you, it’s just mind numbing. So I realized I didn’t want to perform my emotions anymore. I didn’t want to have to cry so that somebody could judge whether or not my tears were worthy of sympathy. So when I took the expressions away, I knew that the reader was just going to have to sit with them and feel them for themselves, and I knew the reader that was interested in doing that would do that and the ones that weren’t would walk away from the book, and I was OK with them walking away from the book.

BC: What made you decide on The New School for your MFA?

MJ: The New School’s MFA in Creative Writing Program is a working person’s program, which means you can study with great professors and go to school at night, and that was essential for somebody like me who needed to be able to work full time, pursue a degree in the arts and not give her parents a heart attack about what that life was going to look like. My parents are immigrants, so getting a higher degree in the field of the arts was not really their dream, but it was mine.

Mira Jacob and Luis Jaramillo, Director of the MFA in Creative Writing Program, after hosting a panel discussion at The New School’s Centennial Festival, October 2019

BC: Did you keep in touch with any classmates from The New School?

MJ: Yes! I kept in touch with a ton of people. My best friend Allison [who is featured in Good Talk] was from The New School, and the director of the program is in my current writing group. I also just keep in touch with so many people in the program in general because so many of them came to the program for the same reason I did. They had to have an active working life while also pursuing the arts, and I think that’s a very specific kind of person who does it that way. There’s a likemindedness in the kind of person that’s going to show up in a city and work crazy hours to go to school at night and get an arts degree, and I like that kind of crazy.

BC: What’s it like being an artist in this current moment?

MJ: It is really difficult. As difficult as being a human in the current moment. Being an artist comes with so many strange vulnerabilities, and one of them is to make something that no one has asked for, and that’s what we do away after day. You step into a place where you provide something no one has asked for, and you do it to interpret the human experience. To that point, I don’t really love writing about being right. I like writing about the complicated ways in which we are all compromised, and we are very much in a moment where we are all compromised whether that’s I took a walk and I brushed too close to somebody or I ordered food in and put someone else’s life on the line for mine or I went to a store and put somebody else’s life on the line for mine, there are so many ways in which it’s really scary and hard to be human; there are so many decisions to make.

I think there’s a real sense of fury that people have right now, which is rightful. I think we’ve really been let down by our government, and I think we all feel very alone with how we can make these decisions. I don’t know what art is going to have to say about this moment in the future, I don’t know how art will or won’t get itself around this moment, but I think the effort of trying and trying to build that thing that nobody asked for but which is essential, that part gives me faith in humanity.

BC: The book is framed around the hard conversations with your son leading up to the 2016 election, I imagine our current moment makes for some hard conversations too. How have you been talking to him about COVID-19?

MJ: My son is 11 now. I don’t know if you remember 11, but it’s basically like having a 36-year-old teenager: he knows it all. We have a lot of talks about this moment. I tell him it’s not his job to worry, but I know that he’s seeing us worry and I know that’s really unnerving. I think one of the things as a parent is that you want to somehow extend your child’s childhood for as long as you can, and that has never really been an option for us. So that’s hard, but some of the conversations have also been kind of as wonderful and weird as you’d expect.

He asked me the other day what the difference between a “BM” and a “DM,” one is a bowel movement and the other is a direct message, and that was kind of awesome. I appreciated that conversation, and the truth is, not much. [laughing]

BC: What is your advice to artists who are struggling to create right now?

MJ: My advice is to remember that sometimes creating looks a lot like doing nothing, we don’t ever know that part. Whenever you’re watching an artist in a movie it’s always when they’re like writing and drinking whiskey and painting or whatever, but so much of art is thinking, so much of it is just sitting with it, knowing that it’s going to emerge at some point, and that it may be complicated when it does.

I saw another artist today sort of apologize for making art, which I thought was a rough place to be, a place where you feel like you need to apologize for your way of making sense of the world.

So what I would say to someone who is struggling to create right now is, do not apologize for your way of making sense of the world, if that process is internal or if it results in a body of work, both of the things keep you closer to being human, and I know it’s a really weird time to be a human. I know most of us would rather be a fawn or a salamander or something, but I think we’re actually pretty interesting and lovable species, and my hope is that the work that we all do in this moment leads us to a better understanding of that, of who we are and what we could be.

“I don’t know what art is going to have to say about this moment in the future… but I think the effort of trying and trying to build that thing that nobody asked for but which is essential, that part gives me faith in humanity.”

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Mira Jacob is a novelist, memoirist, illustrator, and cultural critic. She is the author of Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations (One World, 2019) and The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Random House, 2014). Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Electric Literature, Tin House, Literary Hub, Guernica, Vogue, and the Telegraph. You can find Mira on Instagram at @goodtalkthanks and Twitter @mirajacob.

Thank you, Mira, for taking part in The New School Book Club!

Stay tuned for the next New School Book Club pick later this month!

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