It began, as so many cultural inquiries do, with some confusion about Michael Jackson. The summer of 2014, Mira Jacob’s son (we’ll call him Z) was obsessed with the singer, which is to be expected of a six-year-old who knows what’s what. But any path into Jackson’s story, especially for a child of color (Jacob is Indian American; her husband is Jewish) invariably ends up in the territory of disconnect, the before and after of his complexion, making the pop star’s story, like the larger American one, a bit difficult to explain. What began with an obsessive imitation of the backstep from “Beat It” led to heavy rotation on the family turntable, with albums strewn across the room. “And then it was obvious,” Jacob recalls, “because Michael’s face is so big on those albums. You can see his skin get lighter. So of course Z begins to ask: Who is this person? How did this thing happen? Will it happen to us?”
Add this unraveling backdrop: the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer; the protests and riots that followed; the Black Lives Matter movement; the xenophobic rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign; and, most alarming, the political triumph of Donald J. Trump.
This confluence of cultural forces has shaped Jacob’s current book in progress, so that what began as a series of conversations about Michael Jackson and race has evolved into conversations about race and family, and by extension race in America.
For Jacob, identity is familiar literary turf, her family a deep resource. What surprised her this time was how the project found its form. It lay in waiting, so to speak, after an impulsive bit of artwork she created during a trip to India three years ago.
It was there, visiting her grandmother at a nursing home in Karukachal, that Jacob sketched a conversation that took her by surprise. Her grandmother hadn’t wanted to move into a nursing home, but was forced to, Jacob says, “because of the diaspora, because none of the children were left in the country to take care of her. So we’re in this space that was really troubling for her, and what became her family there was the television, to the point that when I showed up she hardly talked to me because there was a TV to watch.” Suddenly, a power outage; the television blinked off. “She just started talking. It was the most disjointed, troubling, hilarious conversation. It happened like a wallop—boom, boom, boom. First she was talking to the TV, then the TV went off and she was asking me what was wrong with my face, then she was talking about when the British came and how they threw her brother in jail and how they protested and kept shouting on the streets for India’s independence. The range of the conversation was so startling. And then the TV turned back on and she stopped. It was so hard for me to explain. I started writing down parts of the conversation so I could remember it, and then I drew both of us—because that’s just what I do impulsively, in all these journals that I’ve had forever.”
Jacob wanted to share that moment, the surreally sentimental strangeness of it, and the only way she could think to do so was by putting together a collage of the conversation, which she then posted online for family and friends.
Not long after, she found herself on the other end of yet another conversation—this time with Z—that she wanted to preserve in as unadulterated a way as she could. “I had done the one with my grandmother, and it sort of pinned something for me,” she says. “And as the Michael Jackson conversation was happening, I kept trying to force it into an essay, and I got two pages into it and realized I hated it. So I just cut him and myself out—exactly as I’d done with my grandmother—and started picking up his albums while he was at school, assembling the conversations on them. And after a couple of them were done I said to myself, ‘Yeah, I know exactly what this is.’”
Illustrating these conversations at the scale of a book—they are, for the most part, collage inspired by comics—meant that Jacob had to learn new techniques, to translate her skills in ink and watercolor to drawing in software, with a stylus instead of a pen, on a tablet instead of paper, in vectors instead of lines. “Paper has a personality, and you rub up against it and there’s an emotion that comes out of that. It took a long time to find the emotion of drawing on a screen. But it’s also true that it would take me seven years to draw this book on paper, partly because I’ve had to learn how to stop. As a writer, over a certain amount of years, you learn when to stop. I do not know this with drawing at all. I’m starting to know it, but it’s taken me a good two and a half years of just going over and over and over again to understand when I’m done.”
It was especially important that she perfect a kind of neutrality in her characters’ expressions, so that a reader must invest in the story through her own act of decoding. “It’s important that the faces don’t register emotion. When the faces register the emotion, the readers don’t have to. If you see somebody crying in a drawing, that takes care of the emotional work for you. If the faces don’t do that, if they don’t allow you that out, then you have to carry the weight of what just happened, of what’s been said. A reader brings her own agency to the work, and half of the work is the world that’s created between you. And you have no control over that—nor should you.”
To the extent that understatement is power, so too is directness. It helps that one of the guiding forces of Jacob’s book is an innocent frankness, an unspoiled intuition, of a boy trying to make sense of the world.
“Z was asking me all of these hilarious questions, questions of a human trying to figure out what color means, things I’d taken for granted for so long that having to unpack them for him made me realize that trying to explain the logic of this world is an impossible task. I had to explain to him that we were not born at the top of the chain, nor were we ever going to be at the top of the chain, and that we were in a country that has a very hard time admitting its racism in any sort of realistic and thorough way. And that was rough.”
There is, too, a kind of wisdom to be found in talking about race from the outside, before being steeped in its tensions, before internalizing a hardened awareness of it—or at least during the early stages of that awareness.
“One of the things I’m keeping in the book is how Z refers to Michael Jackson as brown. People keep pointing this out, as if I’ve made a mistake, and I keep having to remind them that he didn’t say ‘black.’ He said ‘brown.’ That’s what he said, and I’m honoring it. I understand that we’ve got all this other stuff going on, and that it means a different thing, but I’m honoring it. Because it means something to him. My son knew very quickly that he was brown, and he definitely knew that I was brown. He once said to me when we were walking: ‘People are nicer to me when I’m with Daddy than when I’m with you.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, they’re nicer—well, they’re nicer to Daddy when we’re together.’ And he said, ‘Is that because of racism?’ I said to him, ‘No, I don’t know that. I think people tend to be nicer to daddies than mommies.’ And he said, ‘But mommies do everything.’ And I laughed and said, ‘You remember that when you’re twenty.’ And then he said, ‘But is it because you’re brown and he’s white?’ And I said, ‘It might be. It might be that, too.’ And then he asked me, ‘Will people be nice or mean to me because I’m brown?’ I said, ‘I don’t know…I don’t know.’ And that was a hard thing to say.”
In navigating such heavy small talk, a parent can feel just as vulnerable as the child she seeks to guide. What’s the responsible thing to say? How much truth is too much? To try and make sense of it, Jacob has been using other conversations—some actual, some imagined, with various characters and cameos—as a kind of sounding board for her own doubts and insights, a literary space where an innocence and skepticism can meet and hash it out.
As for seeing the arc, making sense of such strange territory as both an artist and a parent, Jacob says, “I can’t tell you where this is all going to end up, because we’re in it right now.”
— Paul Reyes