“Good Talk”: Indian Culture and the Immigrant Experience in the 21st Century

Good Talk is the story of Mira Jacobs’ life as told to her son, Z, in conversations that mostly take place while they are walking the streets near their home in Brooklyn, NYC.  You know how if you are a suburban mom all of the best conversations with your kids take place while you are driving them around?  Kind of the same thing.

 All of the people in Mira’s world are depicted through gray scale sketches. Most of the time, these characters appear as paper doll cutouts against color photographs of the settings where they interact.  This visual structure definitely serves a purpose.  To me, in emphasizes the similarity of all of us as we interact in the spaces of our lives, which somehow, in this context, become more universal, even when Jacobs uses private spaces, such as the homes of her family. 

Background for Good Talk

In interviews. Jacob talks about how she used the format of conversations with her son to tell as difficult story. It works because, well, you know, kids can get away with asking things in their innocence that as adults we wonder about, but can’t ask. As Jacobs says, she can just tell the story without commenting on it.

The Format

What’s helpful to me that this format emphasizes that she is an individual with a particular background and set of experiences that give her a certain point of view. I am interested in her point of view, but I feel no obligation to agree or disagree with it: I can just take it at face value and integrate it into my understanding of the world. 

The format also gives me a with a stab of recognition from my students from many years ago: that individuals of color often draw themselves without coloring themselves in.  Jacob’s drawings definitely suggest skin color, but as the reader, we have to fill it in. Or not, I suppose? 

On a purely aesthetic level, I have to admit that I love city scapes of all kind; in my mind, it’s city porn.  And that one reason I like this story.  I also enjoy and appreciate the photos she includes of her actual family, most especially the one that made her father insist upon the match with her mother.  It’s so obvious: she was a beautiful young woman, and her face conveys a personality that anyone would want to get to know.

The Story of “Good Talk”

I enjoyed the first chapter immensely…where the trouble began. This phrase evokes the famous line from Maus, but in this case it’s because Z, the 6 year old, is obsessed with Michael Jackson.  Well, d’uh.  The whole country has been obsessed with Michael Jackson for decades.  That’s both the blessing and the curse of his life on an epic scale.  When I had the opportunity to meet Soviet sailors in 1988 (this was just before the fall), I was able connect with him over the name of my then-boyfriend-later-husband Michael.  Without a common language (except for his very limited English), we couldn’t connect. Until I introduces my boyfriend, and the sailor said, “Ah, Michael Jackson.”  I’ll never forget it. 

But you know, if your six year old is into Michael, at some point you are going have to explain to your half Indian half Jewish kid why he can’t have a giant ‘Fro. 

I am about five years older than Jacob, who was born in the midseventies, so definitely it’s easy for me to identify with many of the events of her life.  I really enjoy the visuals for things that are familiar, and they help me understand the things that aren’t easy for me to picture, especially having to do with Indian places and cultures. 

The Flaw with “Good Talk”

In the last section of the book, Jacob heavily focuses on her personal struggle with understanding the forces that elected Donald Trump as the president of the United States, and most particularly, her in-law’s support of his campaign. She is far from the only person, of any ethnicity, who struggled to understand it, and her feelings are totally valid. After skimming some of her interviews however, I see that the problem I have with the end of the book is that she does allow herself to devolve into a level of judgement that she manages to restrain throughout the rest of the book.

I think her point of view is what they call “identity politics.” If so, I don’t like it. No one’s point of view is more important than anyone else’s, and that it’s my responsibility to try to understand why others feel as they do.

The rest of the book is so good that does no ruin it, but I would suggest that you take it as her point of view in a very specific place and time.

No matter which side you’re on, I know it’s hard not to get emotional, but the fact that we, as a nation, are so emotional is why this topic is important to discuss.

I don’t know if politics are ever so important enough that they should undermine family and personal relationships.  I just don’t.  And I suspect Jacob will come to feel the same way. 

Regardless, except for the cover, which I think detracts from the work inside, this is a stunning book to read and to own.

Free Listen

Enjoy this 40 minute interview with Mira Jacob and Reading Women via lithub.com

Quick Read

This hilarious excerpt from Good Tal was published on Buzzfeed while this book was in process, “Jacob and Z on the Michael Jackson Question” (my title) or the official title, “37 Difficult Questions from my Mixed Race Son” .