By Ramya Ramana
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2019.
Mira Jacob is a novelist, memoirist, illustrator, and cultural critic. She is the author of the novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which was shortlisted for India’s Tata First Literature Award, and the graphic memoir Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, which shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and named a New York Times Notable Book.
Ramya: So first I want to say thank you for writing this, from the bottom of my heart because it was just so refreshing to read a story that I could see myself in, and so much of your journey. I felt like I see myself and I could see my sister and I could see so many other South Asian women in. When you were writing this book, did you expect it to resonate with so many people? There's also a lot of people who aren't South Asian that find themselves in this story. Was that something that you expected, or what was that for you?
Mira: Yeah, it's a really interesting question because it gets to the heart of something which is the difference between what is your experience as a writer in the world, and what is your experience as a writer in this industry? And those are really different things. So as a writer in the world with a lot of other people of color around me, and a lot of other writers from marginalized communities around me, I was like, of course this is going to resonate. We're all in this. But as a person who's at the mercy of an industry that is largely guided by whiteness, I wasn't sure if it would get out in the form that I wanted it to be in. If the editing process was going to let the parts that I knew were vibrant shine through, if the team behind it was going to really be behind it or if they were going to get what was important about it. Like all of those things, the business parts were parts I didn't know. If the question is simply, did you know when you were writing it that other people would find themselves in this? For sure. I just wasn't sure they would find the book.
Ramya: And how was that process for you from finding the editor?
Mira: The editor who bought the book is not the editor that I ended up doing most of the editing work with, only because he moved on to another house. But when that happened, there was a moment where they briefly about giving me to the associate editor or the assistant editor at the same time. and it was somebody who would be inheriting the book. It was also a less senior person. It was also a white woman who I'm sure does fantastic work, so this is not about her work. Just that I understood very quickly as they were explaining it to me, I was like, oh no, this is somebody who doesn't have the seniority to battle back what I know is going to be a tide of insecurity about putting out a book like this.
I think what happens when you're writing about race-specific topics is white editors can get so cagey about what rights they have. Because they don't have the conversation deeply, they react from a place of paranoia and marketing, rather than a place of knowledge and a place of 'if that comes at us, we do this. If this comes out...' There's a way to talk through these things and to these things, and I knew that that person probably wasn't going to be adept in that. So I specifically requested that it go to an editor named Chris Jackson, and finessing that was was a bit of a thing. There were two things that happened that helped that. One is that I talked to Alex Chee who's a good friend and just a real friend to so many of us, so many writers of color in the literary space in that he's been there for longer than most of us, and he's been through a lot of these difficulties before. And he was the first one that said to me, you know, you can ask for an editor of color. And when he said it, I started laughing and I was like, there were like three, what do you mean? And there are many more than three. But yeah... Like I remember going home and being like, you need somebody that's going to call you on your bullshit, because that was actually, to be honest, that was the harder part. I wasn't worried that a white editor was going to censor me as much as they were not going to engage with it.
Yeah. You have to fight for everything. There's not a part that you don't have to fight for.
Ramya: You do such a great job of incorporating specific moments in telling your story. What was that process like in choosing what to put in the book, and choosing what to keep out? And then also like as far as memory, did you have any practices that helped you remember certain parts of your life?
Mira: That's really interesting. Okay, so let me answer the first part first.... the second part first, which is that I don't have memory practices. I would write things that I remembered, scenes that I sort of remembered from my life because I do remember things almost as like movies and in that way, because memory is unreliable, I will totally own the fact that I remember them in a way that someone else might not. And that is actually to me just how memory works. We will all remember things differently. I had no problem with being like, yeah, this is how I remember it. I'm writing it. I also know because I'm a fiction writer when I'm making something up. So I knew like if I was like, Oh, it'd be better if it happened this way and I'd be like, yeah, but this is a memoir, so you don't get to have it happen that way.
What's really interesting with that particular point and going between fiction and memoir is that when you don't get to have an event happen the way you would want it to happen for dramatic effect, you have to look really hard for what made it have that dramatic effect on you. Like, Oh I want to write this moment bigger than it is, but that didn't happen. So what is the thing that happened and then what was the thing? What was the beat of conversation or the moment or the pause that shaped me, and how do I let that live? And then there's one thing with like how do I let that live in normal prose? And there's another thing with how do I let that live with basically paper dolls that I've drawn in the shape of myself and conversation. so it was not that I had practices so much for remembering, as much as I had practices for once I knew what I was going to write, for how to get to the vulnerable part.
Ramya: Obviously it's your story, so nobody can experience the same exact thing that you experienced. But there's a space where when you cringe, I feel like I can cringe with that moment. Is there a specific way that you choose to craft dialogue that insinuates that emotion or insinuates that feeling where the reader can also feel what you're saying?
Mira: Yes. I have to always think about, so dialogue for me is every bit as much about what isn't said as what is said. So I feel like when people craft dialogue, they're always looking at it from - not they're always, but one of the things I see often, especially with writers who are less seasoned, is they're always looking for a kind of information exchange. Like, how do I get this point across, rather than what can this person not say? And I jumped from what can't be said to what can't be said.
Ramya: So another question I have is, you speak a lot about love in your book, and specifically like journeying through romantic love and what that looks like. We come from cultures where you get married and you don't marry for love really. You just kind of get married because it's tradition and it's just what everybody's done, and so those are the people that raised you, and then you grow up in this country and everything is about romantic love.
Ramya: And I wonder if there was ever a point where when you were young, when you were navigating all of this, a point where you knew you deserve this romantic love, even if that's not what your parents had or the generation before had? Or was it something of desire that felt distant that you kind of had to journey towards, and what was that journey like?
Mira: I mean, there's so many complicated parts to me about being a South Asian woman and being a South Asian young woman, and specifically when we're talking about romantic love, I think you're right that we're expected. In families that have had arranged marriages, I think we're supposed to actually also do that, have an arranged marriage and it's very much about supporting your community, being part of your community, supporting your tradition.
But also if you look at the fantasy within that, there's also the fantasy that you fall in love after you've had your arranged marriage. That's the unspoken part of it. Everyone says like, Oh, then you just get married. But then, and there is this kind of silent "but of course then you fall in love", and you know and I know, because I've seen so many of those marriages that that doesn't always happen for everyone. That happened for my parents and I feel really lucky. I know it's happened for some of my friend's parents. I also know several friends' parents for whom it never happened. They didn't like each other from the get go. They didn't like each other 30 years later. It was never happening. So one of the things is you have to unpack ...the fantasy of romantic love is present in both. You have to look at that and just decide where they're placing it. So it's not actually ever that you're just not supposed to want romantic love. It's that you're not supposed to pursue it in one.
And in the other, you were allowed to pursue it, but then what happens in that too is this kind of funny ... because pursuing it in the Western sense comes with betraying your culture, you make an equation in your head, which is more or less if I pursue romantic love, I'm betraying my culture, therefore I'm doomed to fail, and when I fail, it'll be on me cause I'm the one that left my culture anyway.
So like in the way that we were just talking about dialogue and what can't be said, to me it's really interesting always to unpack the part of the fantasy we don't say out loud. So the part of the fantasy that we don't say out loud, especially that one is if I pursue American love and it backfires, I will deserve all the pain I get, and then I will be alone with it. Yeah. I think I had to go through a point many points where I'm also... part of that also is just acknowledging sexual hunger, which we're also not supposed to acknowledge at all. You're supposed to be a virgin when you get married and again, other things like good sex will just happen automatically. Whatever.
Ramya: Nobody even talks about it.
Mira: Nobody talks about having sex. The babies just appear, but you're supposed to believe sort of in the glow of a Hallmark card that something happens that's great, and foggy lens. Anyway, I'm a person with a pretty active sexual appetite. I knew that from the time I was young and I knew that if I was going to be sexual, people I knew it was always much better when it cared about them. And so it was like letting my body inform me as much as my culture informed me. Which can feel really.... I think it's a real threat to my culture that I would do that, and at first when I was doing it, it was just sort of like, Oh my God, what does this mean about you? What does this mean that you're going to listen to your body as much as you listen to your parents, as much as you listen to your culture, your relatives? What does that mean? And everything in this world will lead a young brown woman to believe that if you listen to your body as much as you listen to everyone in your life, you have failed everyone in your life. I just don't fucking think that's true.
Ramya: Yeah, and also the idea that everybody owns you.
Mira: Yeah, exactly right. That is the sure-fire way to make sure that everybody owns you but you. And then what? When do you get to be yourself? When do you get to feel the joy of being in this brown woman's body? So I think for me it was like I came at it sideways through the lens of shame, and sort of sneaking off to be with people and really loving it, and then sneaking back into my own culture. A culture that, by the way, also rejected me for my skin color, because it wasn't attractive and I wasn't what anybody wanted for their son. Surely I had some feelings. I don't know, hold those feelings about, that's my body.
Ramya: I think even from what I see in my own growing up in what I've spoken to a lot of South Asian woman, you learn to kind of compartmentalize both sides of yourself and function and code switch in each world.
Mira: Well that's why it was so important for me to draw myself naked. I had to explain that part to my son. And it was really wild to say that to him, because when the book was coming up, one of the big conversations, we had a lot of conversations about how do you feel about this part? He didn't read many of the parts that were about the drugs, the sex, whatever, but he read all the parts that are about him. And then I was like, there's one other thing I need to tell you about in the book and he's like, okay. You might hear about this from friends of yours, but I drew myself naked and I want you to know before anyone else tells you. And he was like, okay, you know. And I was like, yeah. And he's like, okay. And I was like, do you want to know why? Is it important for you to know or do you not want to talk about it yet? And he's like, no, you should tell me why. And I was like, I grew up in a culture where I wasn't supposed to enjoy sex and I wasn't supposed to pursue it and I wasn't supposed to enjoy my body, and the amount of shame that I grew up with was so present that it took away a level of conversation I could have been having with myself the whole time about what my needs and my wants were. I couldn't even look at them directly because I wasn't allowed to feel powerful in my body. And I was like, it took me until I was 20, in my twenties and away from my family and living in New York to be like, I'm just, okay, wait, no, I am doing this. The sky's not falling down. I'm just able to enjoy myself. Life goes on. It took me that long and I can't imagine how much more powerful I would have felt if I would've been able to see that sooner. So I'm drawing myself naked for all the young South Asian women. And I was like, what I'm scared of is all of the aunties and uncles and the patriarchy and all the people that are going to be like, that whore! Why did she do that? And I was like, but why I'm doing it is because there's probably some young South Asian woman that's going to look at this and it's going to relate to other parts of the story, and sooner or later she's going to go back to the part where I was naked and I'm not ashamed about being naked on the page because I have a body and I love that body. I don't want her to remember that. And he goes, okay, so it's like for feminism, and I'm like, yeah, it's like for feminism. He goes, okay, cool. He was like, great. So done.
Ramya: On page 75 , there is this diagram of your brain. There’s a lot of anti- blackness that is perpetuated in our culture and it's interesting because especially South Indians, if you look at some of us, we're just as dark.
Mira: Oh yeah. Darker.
Ramya: Darker, but nobody ever wants to admit that. How did you demystify the stereotypes or anti-blackness in your own journey growing up? And what did that process look like for you?
Mira: Part of the reason I drew that diagram of my brain is because that is basically a diagram of what was happening in my brain before I said some stupid racist shit and ruined the night of two boys who really didn't deserve it to be ruined. That night that I still wake up regularly remembering saying that and remembering what was so haunting about that moment was that I saw their faces and I was like, oh my God, I just did the thing to them that's done to me. I just did it to them, and knowing exactly what they were feeling because it had been done to me so often and having done it myself, it was just this real moment of like, Oh, just because people say racist shit to you doesn't mean you're not going to say to someone else. Doesn't make you bullet proof. What's really interesting to me about this moment that we're in right now is I think that there's this tendency to identify as people of color. I've already said it several times in this conversation. We say that in response to Trumpism and to whiteness and this need to kind of say, I am not of you. My experience is different than yours, but within that our experiences - blacks and browns - is so, so, so different.
So one of the things that I'm trying to do really interrupt in this is how Indians specifically, and some, I would say South Asians, there are many different groups of South Asians, but Indians specifically come here with a lot of white privilege and we come here and what is given to us, we take and then also I've heard more than one uncle be like, we made it here. Well, I don't know. Were you shipped here without your choice, separated from your family? Were you routinely raped? Were you routinely subjugated? Did you have your family stripped away from you over and over 400 years? Is that something that you survived? No. Oh, you mean the government just let you in the country? It helped you build systems and you wonder why you think that you can compare that to what black Americans have gone to through. Is that really what you're comparing with? Let's take that apart. I could just as easily have written a chapter about some horrible racist shit an uncle said to me, but what's the point of that chapter? If I'm confronting an uncle, we can all do that work. We all want to be the hero, and so what does it matter if I can be the hero over and over and over again if I can't actually really show where my I thinking has fallen short? I say that to you also knowing that if America progresses, and I hope to God it will, they're going to be chapters of this book that people pull out and they're like, oh my God, she was such an idiot. Look what she wrote here because we will have thought past it. Because we'll be able to look back. I will be able to look back on this and say, wow, I still had a blind spot about that. I still did this thing there. Wish I wouldn't have done it and grow from that point. You have to be willing to put something down on paper, which is much less than glamorous. I think it's really important for South Asians especially because our population does tend to rate with the highest income earning population is very small, but we're the highest income earning. I think it's really important for us to take that apart and look at what system are we benefiting from and why? And also what do we keep in check so we keep benefiting from that system? Because if the only way that we can continue to thrive in America is to step on the necks of other brown and black people. then we are inherently deciding to buy into a system which will never see us as fully human at the expense of other people, of other people. Yeah. It is just a shit show. That way it goes, the shit show. I'm so uninterested in my community becoming part of that shit show.
Ramya: There's certain characters that have the same image used multiple times. So for example, it will be a character, but in one scene they will appear as a teacher and another as a relative. Is there a reason you chose to do that?
Mira: So much of this book was creating a visual language. So what you're talking about there is every character in here is presented almost as a paper doll. They never moved their expressions and they never changed their bodies. They present one way, and there's reasons for that. I never changed the expressions because I don't want to have to perform racial pain, and I realized if I don't ever put an expression on their face, then the viewer has to hold what's happening. The other part of that is just this idea where when I was in bed one night, I was like, so is the thing you're saying then that whatever body you're born into is just how you act in the world? Is that what you believe?
Like you believe that a person that's born white is always gonna feel this, and a person that's born brown is always going to feel this? And I was like, no, I actually don't believe that at all. Okay, so then what's the visual solve for that? What is the visual way to confront that? Oh right. You have to have the same potty repeated in completely different situations. You have to like allow that to be real. And I don't do it with any of the main characters because it would be too confusing. But with the side characters, I do it. I've done it a lot. What's really funny about it too is when the book was being edited, a lot of people pointed out to me the white characters I had repeated, but they never pointed out the black or the Asians. So it was what it was, but what was really fascinating to me is how we're taught to recognize white faces over every other face.
Ramya: How did you give yourself the permission to write this book?
Mira: There is something when you are in a brown body that has always belonged to everybody else, giving yourself permission becomes such a wild thing because you want it from your mother, you want it from your father, you want it from your boss, you want it from your husband. There's a million different ways to ask for permission. And then running up against all of that was this idea that all of those people who I would wait to give me permission were not going to save my son from what was happening in this country. And I was like, I'm the only one that's going to care that much. I'm the only one that's going to... I definitely wrote this book for a segment of America that I felt was drowning and couldn't see themselves anymore and didn't feel recognized or cared for or held, because they didn't feel real anymore, because they'd been turned into a gross caricature by a dictator basically. So it's like, how do you run in the face of a caricature? You make it as complicated and specific as possible. You make yourself, if you're writing a memoir, as complicated and specific as possible. You air things about yourself you're not even quite comfortable with to say, this is how I've lived.
My friends have known forever that I was bi. It was no secret to absolutely nobody, and it's even funny cause I even had to go back to some of my closest friends in college and I was like, I forget. Was I openly out with you from the get-go? And they're like, yeah, you were out from the get-go, and it was really interesting cause I was like, that's cool. That's good. I'm glad. Cause I knew what I was, but I also was like, did I tell you? And they're like, yeah, you were totally clear about it. I was like, okay, thanks, but also deciding like I've been married for 20 years, there's no reason to talk about it, unless you feel like, okay, wait a minute. This is a part of my life. This is a part of my life I could safely tuck away to make this less complicated, and then we're just talking about race, but that's not who I am and that's not who I ever was. And also it feels so weird to have any of my ex-girlfriends reading this and be like, so you just erased us, for the sake of talking about what? You just erased us for the sake of talking about your identity in this very uncomplicated way. So you know, when you ask who did you ask for permission was less, or how did I give myself permission? I gave myself permission because I felt like the thing that I was trying, the thing that I was up against was the monolith of the idea of a person of color. And the only way that that was going to become a human was if I got specific. So I just got more and more specific and every time I got specific and every time it landed an ugly place and every time I felt vulnerable and exposed. Yes. this is exposing. This is awkward. Probably some of your aunties are never going to look at you again. That's true. But also there's a little more room for your boy in the world if you do this. There's just a little more room.
Ramya: What is your message to young Indian, brown girls and boys?
Mira: Yeah, I mean I wrote this book for you guys. What would I say? I mean it's so funny cause it's a huge thing. But I think I feel like the one cultural trait that we all share is wanting to respect tradition in a way of caring for our parents and holding onto those community bonds, and I believe in those same things, but you can never do it at the expense of yourself. And if that community makes you ashamed of who you are, if that community can't see you and can't hold you, then you have to redefine community. You have to find your people and look for each other, because there are many of us. There are so many of us. I know now for sure, I'm sure I've got several aunts and cousins and other people that are like, this is tremendously embarrassing and they talk about it with the family. Oh my God, can you believe this girl did this? But also I feel like sure, you will be able to bandy that about as gossip for the rest of your life. But also I've got this life. I love this life. I'm okay, and we will probably meet and have open conversations, but in your version of how things should have gone, I would have never been fully myself. I'm just fully myself. That's all. It's really not bigger than that.
Ramya: Thank you so much Mira.
Mira: Oh wait, I want to tell you something.
Ramya: Of course.
Mira: And one of the most amazing things is while I thought it would resonate, I was like, there are so many reasons that a book like this will never be taken seriously, partially because I'm funny, and I think right off the bat when you're funny about things, it gives people an opportunity to pretend that it's not serious. It's a mechanism by which people will dismiss you and I've always known that, but I'm writing for my readers. The critical will dismiss you and then there's your reader who you're like, I don't give a fuck. I'm just trying to reach you. You know this, I know this. This shit's funny. So I think I always knew it would resonate with people. I've been really surprised and sort of just really gratified about the critics getting this one, specifically with this award. This is one of my favorites. Favorite book of all the book awards. I always read this list, because I always feel like it's the people who really delight in books and really take them apart and put them back together the way I do. So that's why this is such an honor and I didn't think that would happen. That has been both baffling and deeply wonderful, like really, really good, that part.
Ramya: And you deserve that and so much more. So I'm rooting for you.
Mira: Thank you.
Ramya Ramana is an Indian-American poet and New York Native who performed at over 200 venues in one year as the Youth Poet Laureate of NYC and was mentioned in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Brown Girl Magazine and many more. Ramana released her first manuscript, “Don’t Drown Her in the Baptism”; the collection of poems explored femininity, faith and race. As a first-generation Indian-American, Ramana’s work illustrates both the immigrant experience, and exploring existentialism. Ramana is currently receiving her MFA in poetry at The New School.