Talking about taking on the issues of race with a graphic novel
Mira Jacob is a novelist, memoirist, illustrator and cultural critic. Her graphic memoir, ‘Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations,’ was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, longlisted for the Pen Open Book Award, nominated for three Eisner awards, and named a New York Times notable book, as well as a Best Book of the Year by Time, Esquire, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal. Mira’s writing and drawings have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Electric Literature, Tin House, Literary Hub, Guernica, Vol. 1 and The Telegraph.
Mira Jacob and Masala Podcast had the most wonderful conversation, going from colorism to racism to the joy of fashion. We hope you enjoy listening!
Things to take away from this podcast episode
Cultural Clashes and Identity
Ever had one of those moments when someone asks if there’s TV in India? The episode kicks off with a story just like that, with a candid conversation about the odd and sometimes laughable misconceptions people have about South Asians abroad.
The Evolution of Motherhood
The episode discusses motherhood, specifically the South Asian side of it, which is even more complex. In South Asian traditional culture, motherhood is all about selfless devotion, but things are slowly changing. Mothers are now finding a balance between family life and self-care, and it’s so important.
The Gift of Being Seen
Parenting gets a mention, too. Imagine having parents who treat you like your own person with a unique voice. It’s what we all want, whichever culture we come from. The podcast dives into how empowering it is to be recognized and valued for who you are by the very people who raise you.
The Colorism Conundrum
So the big topic of this podcast episode is racism, and of course, colourism. We explore the often painful experiences of being judged for your skin tone, even within our own communities.
Claiming Personal Space
The conversation celebrates the joy of carving out space just for you, especially for women who’ve been pegged as lifelong caretakers. We explore how important this is for women and South Asian women, in particular.
The Power of Representation
Remember searching for characters in books who looked like us? The podcast talks about how vital it is to find reflections of ourselves in media and stories, highlighting the loneliness of not finding them and the importance of changing that narrative.
Defying Societal Expectations
The conversation talks about personal choices, like not having kids, and the societal eyebrow raises that come with it. We talk about the power of owning your decisions and living the life we want as women, rather than the one that’s expected of us.
More power to South Asian women
This podcast episode is all about challenging ourselves as South Asian women to embrace our identities and narratives boldly. Whatever those identities and narratives look and sound like.
S5 Ep 11 Mira Jacob Author on fighting racists with words & pics
Mira Jacob 0:00
I knew I was writing an inconvenient book. I also knew that by turning us into paper dolls, and one of the things you’ll notice if you read the book is that our expressions never change. That’s quite on purpose. It actually happened when my first editor read it, he said, ‘Can’t you just, you know, these conversations are very difficult and sometimes the faces there are just frozen, it’s really hard for me when I’m reading it,’ he’s a white man. I said, ‘Why is it hard?’ and he said, ‘because it’s just a dissonance. It’s like your faces don’t move, but I have to carry all the feelings.’ And I thought, ‘yes, yes, I am not crying for you anymore. You just have to carry the feelings. Welcome to my feelings.’
Sangeeta Pillai 0:58
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast. This multi-award winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, from sex, sexuality, mental health, menopause, to nipple hair, and more. This season is a US Special, and it took me by surprise. You see, I interviewed these incredible South Asian American women. I expected to hear some angst around identity and belonging. Instead, they told me how comfortable they were with both their South Asian and American identity. I confess, this is not the podcast season I set out to record. It’s so much more powerful.
Mira Jacob and I had the most wonderful conversation, going from colorism to racism to the joy of fashion. Mira is a novelist, memoirist, illustrator, and cultural critic. Her graphic memoir, ‘Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations,’ was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, longlisted for the Pen Open Book Award, nominated for three Eisner awards, and named a New York Times notable book, as well as a Best Book of the Year by Time, Esquire, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal. The book is currently in development as a TV series. Isn’t that incredible? Mira’s writing and drawings have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Electric Literature, Tin House, Literary Hub, Guernica, Vol. 1, and The Telegraph. I could talk to her for hours and hours and you’ll hear exactly what I mean in this conversation.
Mira Jacob 2:58
My mother is an avid reader and I mean, aren’t all our mothers in a way? But also, my father is a fantastic storyteller. They had an arranged marriage. I’ve written about this, but to my mind, they didn’t actually, I should say, because I don’t know what they think about it themselves. Of course, we would never really talk about this… They seemed to really fall in love 25 years into their marriage, once my brother and I were gone from the house but the one thing I always understood about them is that they were fascinated by each other’s stories. The level to which they would listen to each other, and save up their stories for each other, and then unfurl them across the dinner table was amazing to me. So that was sort of the early… I think there’s something really lovely about being brought up by storytellers, and in some way, unstudied storytellers who just understand where the juice is, on their own right. There’s something gorgeous about that tradition.
And then, of course, my mother introduced me to all of these… I think the Enid Blyton books that many of us were exposed to, at our own peril, all of those mystery books. Famous once again, you will learn your invisibility in a really interesting way, and it will inform your entire childhood. But those were the books I found first, right? And then I think the first book that I ever found, that I felt was even trying to speak to me… The funny thing is, it wasn’t actually trying to speak to me, but it felt like it was for me, was ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison. I had been absolutely interested in books before then but I remember I stayed up all night to finish ‘Beloved,’ which I’d started the day before, because I couldn’t fathom that somebody had made that story, had written that story. And all of the places that it went in me, I couldn’t… You know, I think that’s still… that, by the way, is a book that I still reread, wandering into the contours of, because I’ll never fully understand all the ways in which she made a world in that book, right. But I did understand.
The thing that I often understand about Toni Morrison is that she was writing for Americans who never saw themselves represented and she was writing to them, specifically black Americans, as though their value was inherent and undefinable, as though there was not something they had to prove in her stories to be… how would I say this… just absolutely valued and cherished, right. So that was not a gaze that I’ve ever felt on myself before. I understood that gaze wasn’t directed at me; it was directed from her to them, but the warmth of that, the possibility of that gaze, I thought was maybe the most miraculous thing I’d ever come in contact with.
Sangeeta Pillai 6:02
Wow, that’s so beautiful. It’s taken me a moment to let that sink in because I think books and words have this kind of magical power, almost. Even in my life, you know, the way I grew up was quite difficult circumstances but books were kind of the only way I saw another world, this other world. And like you, I’d never seen a world like that, or even imagined that world could exist. When you say difficult circumstances, can you tell me a little bit?
Mira Jacob 6:33
Yeah, my father was alcoholic, he was abusive. So there was a lot of violence in the house, a lot of blood. It was just not a nice way to grow up. As a child, I was absolutely terrified. I spent most of my time just kind of hiding into myself, and terrified. I thought that was the only life that existed in the world, because, you know, as children, you can only imagine the world, the universe that you inhabit, and that violence is so much bigger than.
Sangeeta Pillai 7:04
Just a child, it’s unimaginable, you know, the scale of it and books were my kind of salvation. I escaped into a book and for those few hours that I was in that book, I would just be in that book, and that another world was possible, one that I wasn’t living in. Mysteries of the world. I read all sorts of things, from Enid Blyton to whatever but the possibility of another life was what books were for me. Even now, it’s so weird, books were safety. Maybe now when I walk into a bookshop, my body immediately settles down. I feel like, ‘Oh, I’m home.’ The point you made there about how we need to see people who look like us, sound like us, have names like us, because otherwise, how many years of people’s lives are they spending thinking, ‘Oh my god, here’s a character but I look nothing like her and her life has nothing to do with me.’ And how isolating is that for little girls?
Mira Jacob 8:06
Right? I mean, there were so few things, so few markers of who or what I might be growing up, and then when we went back to what my parents called ‘home’ in Kerala, and my father grew up in Tamil Nadu, there was suddenly a tremendous idea of who and what I could and should be. And I also was not doing well in any of that.
Sangeeta Pillai 8:33
Right. I was also, I hear you.
Mira Jacob 8:37
I was also much too dark, and why is she such a tomboy? Can’t we make her, you know, look a little cleaner at least? And I think there was… I think I understood, too, in a way that I didn’t understand in America. We were all just dark in America. We were all brown. But when we got to India, I was tragically so, in a way that the rest of my family wasn’t. My brother’s lighter-skinned, my mother and father are both lighter-skinned. Nobody, at first, when I got there, nobody knew what happened to the baby. Like, what happened? It all came to me and I hadn’t even realised that I was a different colour than my family until then. And then suddenly, it was… it was all anyone could talk about.
That’s incredibly sad, isn’t it? It was just in the way that I, when I first heard them… and I wrote about this a bit in the book… when I first heard them talking about it. They were saying that I’m not fair and I had no idea what that meant. So, of course, I went to my mother and also, I will say, I was a tomboy and really good at sports. So I was like, ‘I am really fair. I’m fair because I’m actually the best.’ And I said, ‘They said I’m not fair.’ But I am fair, Mom. I’m always very little. ‘That’s not what that means.’ But she also… she also said, ‘Just don’t worry about it.’ And my brother was the one who told me what it meant and then when I went and talked to my dad about it, he said, ‘Don’t worry about what they’re saying. You’re a pretty girl.’ But then that was the first time that I understood what they meant when they said that I’m not fair, is that it meant I was ugly. It was, you know, sort of the backward knowledge that you sort of put together as a kid. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s happening. That’s why they feel so sad for me, you know.’
Sangeeta Pillai 10:17
I don’t think a lot of people realise what that does to another human being to hear that as kids, particularly, you know, the aunties and the comments. And you know, I’ve had that as well, my family’s from Kerala as well. When I used to go back from Mumbai, it was similar. Like my mother was very fair-skinned, and I wasn’t. And again, similar comments, like, ‘What happened to you?’
Mira Jacob 10:37
“What happened to you?” As though you were hit by something without anyone knowing.
Sangeeta Pillai 10:41
Exactly, like you had a choice to sort of pick a shade and you pick the wrong shade in the room?
Mira Jacob 10:47
Oh, yeah. So funny to me about that is that, and I haven’t, you know, I haven’t gotten to go back for, I think, five years now, with the pandemic and everything else. But whenever I go back, it’s almost like I have to brace myself. First of all, when I was a kid, I would study my face in the aeroplane before it went down because I would say, ‘This is what you look like, this is what you look like,’ because the minute we were on the ground, the way that they treated me was as though, you know, something just terrible had happened to me. And the way that they regarded my lips was so painful, that I was convinced that my face changed on the way down, which is just how you make sense of that when you’re a little kid.
But the funny thing is, by the time I was a teenager, I felt so relieved that I would get to come back to America where, yes, there was absolutely racism everywhere, but I understood what it was at least. And it wasn’t… I think one of the things, and someone finally said it to me when I was 19, one of the uncles said, ‘But you’re so confident,’ in this very confused way. Like, ‘How could you possibly be when you look like that?’ I think I didn’t… I think once he said that, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s the… that is the difference, right?’ is that if I would have been raised here, I would have been raised with the idea that my skin colour is such that I should take up less and less room, which I definitely was raised with also in America, but in a very different way. It’s different… there’s a different poison in the intent of those things, right? Yeah. One is, ‘You are like us, but the most disappointing version.’ And the other is, ‘You’re absolutely not like us. So you’ll learn your place.’ And either way, you learn your use, quote unquote, learn your place. But I think, for me anyway, it was in America, I at least had this one little sliver of an opportunity to, because my parents were among that first desperate generation, I just had this little sliver of opportunity to in some way define myself.
Sangeeta Pillai 12:59
Dark equals ugly in South Asian culture. My mother was fair-skinned. Her fairness played a big part in the stories my grandmother would like to tell. ‘Your mother was the colour of golden wheat,’ she would say, ‘all glowing eyes and wide smile.’ As if all that mattered about my mother was her fair skin. My grandmother would often look at me, her eyes filled with sympathy and say, ‘I don’t know why you didn’t get your mother’s colour.’ I always believed I was dark and therefore ugly. Thankfully, I don’t believe that anymore. Let’s talk about your book, your graphic memoir, ‘Good Talk.’ How did it start?
Mira Jacob 13:52
It started, so as we just talked about, I am dark-skinned. My husband is white, Jewish American. And we have a son, Z, who is really right between us on the colour spectrum. When he was six years old, he became obsessed with Michael Jackson, like deeply obsessed, to the extent that we got him all the Michael Jackson albums thinking we were geniuses. Because if you get him an album that he can’t skip the song and we got him a tiny record player. He would be in his room for hours on end with his Michael Jackson albums and his record player. And what you don’t think about when you are very busy believing you’re a genius of a parent is that that child is looking at these huge pictures of Michael Jackson’s face over the decades, slowly getting lighter and lighter and lighter and lighter. And he came out one day and he said, ‘Mommy, is Michael Jackson… is he brown or is he white?’ And I said, ‘Oh, Uh huh. Yes. So he’s a black American, which means his skin is brown.’ And then he… Well, as he got older, he kind of, you know, he turned white and he said he turned white. It’s… yeah. And he said, ‘Are you going to turn white?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not going to turn white.’ And he said, ‘Am I going to turn white?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, you’re, you’re also not going to turn white.’ He said, ‘What about Daddy?’ And I said, ‘Daddy is already white,’ because, but it was… he always… And it was just this hilarious moment where I realised I had just completely, like, screwed him up for life, right? Like, oh, no, I’ve broken my child, someone took him away.
But what the other thing that he was asking about, though, was this really interesting thing, which is in America, because everything does sort very quickly along race and colour lines in a very profound way. He was sort of asking, like, where do I fit in. And that was also then what was unfolding in America was a young boy named Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri and that started a series of uprisings among black Americans. It was on the news, he was hearing about it. He was getting the details confused, his details were sort of like, ‘I heard that someone was killed because he was brown by the police. His name was Ferguson.’ And they said no, so I… I gave him the right details, but the other thing that was happening is that America at that point was sort of, you know, it was like this thing that you always knew was there. And I think, as an Indian American, who’d grown up here since the 70s, I always knew sort of in the background when 9/11 happened. And then Indian Americans and South Asians, in general, anyone that looked vaguely like any of the terrorists, we immediately became this threat, and we’re sort of treated as a threat. Once that happened, I understood, ‘Oh, this thing that you’ve always feared, which is that this country could turn on you on a dime. That is actually true, right? It will happen and they will come for you.’ That reality was becoming very, very present in 2014 and 2015, which is when I started the book. One of the things that he asked me, my son had asked me during that time was, ‘What is it better? Is it better to be… Is it better to be brown? What if like Michael Jackson, like being better? Did you like being brown or white?’ I said he liked being both in between. But what did he like better? And then he said, ‘Are white people afraid of brown people?’ Which is like the most… What do you say to that, right? And I didn’t want to lie to him because my parents, I don’t think they intentionally lied to me. But I think they certainly were really not prepared to be… I don’t think they knew how to talk about what was happening to them in America. I think they wanted us to not be scared, I don’t think they knew how to talk about the ways in which they were treated sometimes. I didn’t want to lie to him. So what I said when he said, ‘Are white people afraid of brown people?’ was ‘Sometimes.’ And he said, ‘How do you know which ones are afraid of you?’ And I said, ‘You don’t always,’ which was a terrible answer, honestly, like, it was the real answer. And it was also, I knew I was being honest with him, I also felt horrible that I had to say that to him in some way. But also I felt like no, if young, brown and black boys are being killed in America, mostly black, but certainly Brown as well, then then you have to know this. And I have to tell you, right. So then one night when I was putting him to sleep, he said, ‘Is Daddy afraid of us?’ And I said no. But that’s when I kind of did… I just sort of put him to bed. And I went and I just sat in the bathroom and I shook because it was just a lot.
You know, I think I had… we’ve gotten married in a moment where I sort of was like, ‘America is going to get better, we’re going to become this other thing. I don’t know how but we are, I’m always told that this is a very… like this country, the racism is done. So we’re going to become this other thing.’ And by the time I have a son, it’s going to be different. Well, whatever, the fantasy of that, I knew it wasn’t true, but I didn’t know how untrue it was until I had a child. So the way the book started is one day, I was trying to write an essay about it, which is what I would normally do, I’m a writer. But by then, of course, if you’re a brown woman and you publish things regularly, you know, there’s a horde of angry people that are so affronted by the idea that your reality would be different than theirs that their first line of defence is to call you a liar. And I’m used to people calling me a liar, I’m not used to people coming for my son. So when I was trying to write this essay, I just kept feeling all the ways in which they would decide that nothing he said was true, or maybe I hadn’t used the right adverb when I was describing it so everything I said was invalid. So in a moment of complete frustration, I drew us almost like paper dolls. I ran with Michael Jackson albums. I put us on top of them. And then I wrote the conversation on a piece of printer paper and I cut it out in these big cartoony balloons and put it on top and then I stood on my dining room table and took pictures of those conversations. And then I put them in order and sent them to a friend so they feel like I made something. ‘Does this feel like something to you?’ He was working at BuzzFeed at the time, and he said, I’ll run this tomorrow, if you let me run it. I said, hold off, I do want you to run it but give me a minute. I kept working on it until I really felt like it was the right thing, and then we did put it up. When we put it up, it went enormously viral, which I had a fair idea that it would, because I think so many of us have these questions about who am I and how do other people see me? And how much danger am I in? And if I say I’m white, does that mean I’m safe? Is that just what you need to say, you know, how does this work? How does this completely insane system work? As told through the prism of Michael Jackson, and his increasingly light skin over decades of being a highly visible person in America? What does that mean that he did that? Or, you know, his people would say he had a skin disease? He didn’t do it. Them the rest of us wonder, right, like what happened? And how scared were you that you had to hide in plain sight like that? How scared were you with so much power that you’ve never felt safe in your own body? What does that mean for the rest of us?
Sangeeta Pillai 21:22
Hey, I wanted to pause this episode for a minute to share something that I’m really excited about. Podcasting changed my life. I went from typing into Google, “what is a podcast?” Yes, I did that, to creating the multi-award winning Masala podcast. And now I’d like to share some of my knowledge with you. I’m starting podcasting master classes on my website, and one of them’s been created, especially for women. podcasters. Just go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk and look under courses, or email me at podcasting at soul sutras.co.uk and I’ll share details with you. I look forward to helping you on your podcasting journey. Now, let’s get back to our guest for this episode.
Sangeeta Pillai 21:41
I mean, I love that, as a writer and a creative, instead of saying, ‘What is this cool idea that I can create?’ You’ve just gone and created something so organically that’s come out of a conversation, a difficult, painful conversation. And it’s gone viral, and you’ve written the book. And I think that’s absolutely amazing. Was there at any point when you were in the process of writing the book or when it was before it came out? Were you worried? Because race is explosive, isn’t it?”
Mira Jacob 23:11
I’ve been writing about race since the mid 90s. So and I know, I know the repercussions. I understand them pretty well. I was scared. I guess the thing that got me out of it, I will tell you, is that there is always a need to convince people that what is happening is happening. And when I say convince people, I mean convince not white people, right? That people can change it, that what’s happening is happening. And I get very exhausted by that. I get really exhausted by having to perform pain. What I was also understanding with it is something that I’ve seen countless times, is how many times black Americans have done that work. And then when they don’t, when they’re just angry, people are like, ‘Well, if you’re so angry, what do you think is gonna change?’ It’s sort of like, is there a way in which I can effectively say to you, ‘You are killing me and my children,’ and you can just hear it without making it into an issue about how the information was delivered to you? Or no, there never is, because it’s never gonna be convenient for you to hear that. So I knew I was writing an inconvenient book, right. I also knew that by turning us into paper dolls. And one of the things that you’ll notice if you read the book is that our expressions never change. That’s quite on purpose. It actually happened when my first editor read it, he said, ‘Can you just, you know, these conversations are very difficult. And sometimes the face is just frozen. And it’s really hard for me when I’m reading it, this is a white man.’ And I said, ‘Why is it hard?’ And he said, ‘because it’s just a dissonance. It’s like your faces don’t move, but I have to carry all the feelings.’ And I thought, ‘Yes, yes. I am not crying for you anymore. You just have to carry the feelings. Welcome to my feelings. Welcome to me not trying to beg you to carry my feelings, right?’ And to care for my feelings. So um, so that part At event, I will say, I was worried. I was, however, not exhausted, I felt like I was lit from inside with a mission, which was to say, to get these conversations out. And if people wanted to read them, they could, if they wanted to hear them, they could, if they didn’t want to, I hadn’t wasted a lot of time trying to convince them, I’d simply just written down the conversation. And something about that felt really exhilarating. Like, I felt like I was on fire every day, when I went to sit down and work on this book, I felt like yeah, what next, let’s go.
Sangeeta Pillai 25:36
What was the response, like, from people reading it?
Mira Jacob 25:39
I mean, it was quite different from the Black and Brown readers to the white readers, for the most part. So one of the most wonderful moments about touring with this book, and about being out in the world with the book was how many people found me to tell me this is their story. And also, because it’s quite funny and also sad, I sort of live at this intersection of funny and sad. And so they were really happy to be able to hold the pain of this moment without being overwhelmed by it. And I’m talking specifically about brown or black people who have to live with this pain all the time. So they’re overwhelmed by it regularly. And they were so glad to be able to go into a book and feel all the things they needed to feel and also be able to laugh through some of it right. So that was amazing. There were two kinds of white readers. One was, I should say, three kinds when one was the kind that read the book, got to work, started reading more, and I think started changing the way that they were living in America, were already on that trajectory. And this book probably helped them in that way. There was also what I would call the good white reader who would come to me and, sort of explain a situation in which they’d done something maybe not great, and explain their side of it and want me to absolve them, which is really weird. That was my favourite. And then there was the reader who, of course, read it and decided the whole thing was a pile of lies, because again, it’s just inconvenient for them to think otherwise, what does it mean, if your body is so safe and mind is in peril, and you don’t notice, right? That says something about you as a person. Whereas if it’s just not true, then you’re fine. So it was really those three kinds of readers, I will say, when the book was and I still do have a tremendous amount of, you know, now it’s turned into a thing where like a lot of schools read a lot of colleges read it, I find my audience of black and brown readers over and over and over again. And it’s and it’s lovely, and a lot of parents read it, you know, that kind of thing. Toward the end of my tour, it had gotten quite big. And the audience as a result was actually mostly that second kind of white reader, which was a person who felt they hadn’t acted well in the world before and needed, and needed to confess and be absolved. And that was maybe the most exhausted and angry I’ve been as a public person in the world, right? I’m a writer, so I really need my privacy, and, and being on a tour where that emotional labour was expected of me over and over again. And if I didn’t do it, we both understood that I hadn’t done it, and the awkwardness would set in, and they would love me a little less. And I understood that they were liking me a little less, which is fine in one way. But to walk through the world and be in bookstores and understand that 70% of the audience might like you a little less afterward, because you’re taking care of them.”
Sangeeta Pillai 28:38
When I first moved to the UK, I lived in a small town in Surrey for a few years, you know, the sort of place I mean, lots of big white houses filled with people who drove cars and rode horses. Anyway, I ended up working in a shoe shop. And one day this customer asked me where I was from. I said, India, she scrunched up her eyes leaned into me and asked, Do you have TV where you come from? I put down the pair of shoes I was about to show her. And I thought for a minute. Now how do I respond to this? Shall I tell her about the 15 satellite TV channels that we have in India, along with the four government ones? Shall I lecture her about the levels of education in India? Should I tell her off for her ignorance? In the end, I said nothing. Because what do you say to that? So I really wanted to talk to you about motherhood. So motherhood in the culture that we both come from is a very kind of specific experience that we grew up learning. You know what I grew up learning. I don’t know about your experience, but mothers are these kind of self-sacrificing beings whose entire lives revolve around their families, mothers who gave and gave and gave and never thought about themselves. That’s the version of motherhood that I learned when I was a young girl. And that’s what I saw my own mother doing. And I wondered what your experience was of motherhood, then, and motherhood now.
Mira Jacob 30:21
So my mother came to America in the late 60s, and then in the 70s, really was just thrilled with the feminism that she saw around her and what that meant. And at the same time, she was absolutely taking care of everything in the house before she went out and took care of herself, right. So it wasn’t that she didn’t take care of herself, she did. But she also made sure every single other thing was taken care of before she took care of herself. And I think that’s the part that I really, I ingested, and sort of took in like a multivitamin for many, many years. And it didn’t occur to me until much later how much work she had had to do just to get back to herself, that amount of sacrifices enormous. She also put herself through, you know, schooling later on, she had gone to college, but she, you know, got, she got a real estate degree, she became a kind of mover and shaker in the real estate industry in New Mexico and had this incredible, powerful professional life that I watched her attain from when I was like 16, on she sort of accelerated and became the sort of supernova version of herself, which was amazing. And watching her come into her own was amazing. There were two things that I think I feel really lucky that my parents gave me. One was that my mother became this version, this very happy version of herself as I was in my late teens and watching her do that had an enormous effect on me. And the other is that I sound Sicilian in the context of that, but it’s true. My father always asked me a lot of questions about myself and listened to me as though we were strangers, as though he was just getting to know me, and I was a very interesting person. It was just such a gift. I don’t know how to explain it any better. But like, what a gift, right? From a father, what a gift to be thought of as your own person. Right? That’s what his parenting was very much like you are this being that has come to me, who are you? I should get to know you. What do you think now? Right. And so those two things, I think we’re really, those were beautiful and complicated things that in some way really helped me get through the other part of what they gave me, which was very much that the woman sacrifices, and the man goes off and has his big career, and that she takes on not only all of the household work and everything else, my father, you know, he makes a good dosa. But like, that was like his one thing, you know, if you asked him to clean, he would scrub a single pot to a glorious state. But he didn’t have that thing of just how to do that level of keeping up a household that my mother did that and ran a full business, right? So that the thing that they gave me, which was very much rooted in their tradition, was sort of offset by what I’m what they became in America, I find as a mother now, are you a mother now or no? No, I’m not. That’s so funny. Because when I asked that question, I felt all of the aunties behind me standing in judgement. And I also have this urge to say congratulations, also, because I love that we can be yes in our lives and have the fullness of our lives, and not live in the way that they did, and not live as though it is some mortally missing part of us. So when I became a mother, I will say that it took me, it took me along, and it still is a constant self correction. It took me a long time to not see every move I made toward having my own interiority. That was quite separate from what I was doing for my partner or my child, to have it and be so devoted to it. To not view that as taking away something from them to not view it as the zero-sum game, the patriarchy views it as right, absolutely does not view my own internal growth as something that should inherently belong to someone else. And if I’m taking it for myself, that I’m taking something away, I have to kind of talk myself through that a lot. I still do. I still do. I still find myself doing that. But I will tell you that I just came back from a month-long residency, in which I wrote for 25 days, which is not anything I would have said anything I would have known how to do earlier in my life. It was really after publishing the first book, and then the second book and realising how much I needed this life that I started saying, okay, so you get to choose yourself. And that means you’re going to miss a whole month of your son’s life in this moment where you know, he’s going to be going to college and you’ll regret every moment you didn’t spend with him except I don’t. I’m so glad I had that month. Also, he called me all the time and we talked about things that he would never talk to me about normally, like his love life. It was great. But that thing of being on my own and being in my own body and not reporting for some kind of the many duties that women can report for, felt amazing. I want more of it, I will have more of it.
Sangeeta Pillai 35:20
I love, absolutely love that. And I guess if there is permission to have it, what you’ve just said there. And that permission is never given to us.
Mira Jacob 35:32
Never, ever, ever. No one will ever give you the permission to have your own back, explore your own boundless mind, mess off into the sunset, not care about taking care of everyone else. It is a glorious choice that you can make. It took me, I will say, a year and a half of planning, to be able to make that choice. I couldn’t just do it, I had to take care of a million things so that I could do it. But I did do it. And it felt amazing. I do not feel like I was less of a mother, or less of a partner at that moment. For my people, I felt like they were understanding the fullness of me, which I deserve.
Sangeeta Pillai 36:28
I always knew that I didn’t want kids. It’s a decision I’m totally comfortable with. But so many other people aren’t comfortable with my comfort. I can still hear the questions of the various aunties and the responses I’ve developed in my own mind. ‘Who will look after you when you’re old?’ ‘I will, thank you. And no, you can’t have a child so that they’re forced to take care of you.’ ‘You know, you will never find true love until you have a child.’ Well, there are so many different kinds of love. And I’m sorry, you only got to experience one. ‘What if you do regret your decision to not have kids?’ And what about so many women who regret having kids and society never allows them to voice that feeling? Well, it’s not just the aunties, so many of my friends can’t believe that I’m actually truly happy not having kids. So dear aunties and friends, hear this, trust me, I am 100% happy with my decision to not have children.
So I’d love to talk to you about this piece you wrote about turning 40 in Harper’s Bazaar. So I read it this morning. And I was literally in a coffee shop and I was chuckling and almost shouting out at you when I was reading your article. So my favourite words from your article are ‘dried apricot vagina.’ I’ve actually written it down. So I can repeat it to you.
Mira Jacob 38:14
You know, so funny. I was just thinking about that article today because I… Okay, so wait, we should give them some context, right, for where that comes up in the article. Yeah, please. That line specifically is about the way that I was taught that there was a binary for women, and they were: You were either luscious and young, or you were old. And I think the exact line I used was a forest weekend with a dried apricot vagina, right.
Mira Jacob 38:46
Thank you matriarchy anyway, I think there’s something really hilarious to me about, about that right? About this idea that suddenly you are holy, just like that you go from being something that could be coveted and let’s just do something that nobody ever wants to see. Also, I will say I had a moment in the shower today. It’s funny, I was thinking about this because I know people took that line out of context. And other women who do sort of shows about ageing, took that line out of context and then used it to then say, ‘This is what Mira Jacob thinks about older women. What can we really tell her about older women?’ And I thought, what? What a bullshit thing to do, honey. Like, so you really took my words out of context in a whole piece that I wrote about the joy of getting older, and changed it so that you could beef up your own brand and yell at younger women. Well, I hope that when I get older, that’s not something that I’m going to do. I hope I would just read a woman for her true intentions and be able to interact with the actual words she’s put on the paper rather than then somehow marshalling this older woman versus young one thing which I find so tiring.
Sangeeta Pillai 40:03
I really want to talk to you about ageing, because it’s something I see as being my bonnet, and I think it is yours as well. It’s like this idea that up to the age of, I don’t know, 20 we’re desirable, and we’re fertile. And we all have these things. But the second we hit, whatever you want to call it, 40, 50, I’ve just done this.
Mira Jacob 40:22
Yeah, you just turned 50 this year? Congratulations. Me, too. Yeah. Yes.
Sangeeta Pillai 40:28
And it’s like, literally, I don’t know, if you felt this. I feel young, I feel full of life, I’ve got a million ideas. I feel desirable. I feel exactly like I did when I was 30. 20 I felt nothing, because I was just so confused. You know, so this idea that somehow our value in the world evaporates. The second we turn 40 or 50, or 60, whatever, the marker, and that somehow, we must spend the rest of our days trying to be beautiful, fixing up our faces, and our bodies and our hair and our makeup. And we must also lie about our age. And if someone says to you, oh, how old are you? And you go, like, coyly? So don’t answer the question. You’re always pushed it, you know, really pisses me off, that somehow ageing, which is the most natural, beautiful process in the world, and comes with a lot of advantages, which we’ll get to, has somehow become this thing that we’re kind of where it’s our expiry date or something. Please talk about this.
Mira Jacob 41:32
I mean, I find it completely absurd for so many reasons. But I think society has a vested interest in making sure that women are terrified of this thing, because God forbid, we know how great it really is, God forbid, we know that it’s actually fine. Sure does. You know, like, there are things that happen with ageing there. Sure you can have medical stuff, you can have all sorts of things, you could have those, by the way, at any point in your life, there’s also this other thing that you can often come into, which is the whole knowledge that you are absolutely capable of deciding what to do with your time and your mind and your life. And you’re quite good at it. And you make good choices, and you’re good friends, you know how to make good food, sometimes you have good sex. I mean, like, all of these things are much more possible. Because you have stopped second guessing yourself. Because in some way, you’ve lived through the part where everyone told you you were wrong, just to realise you were right. And so now you kind of start from the place where like, I’m probably right about this, let me go and say, right, there’s something amazing about that. I also will not lie about my age, I’ve told you several times. And it’s always so funny to me when people say, especially with people you know, you really don’t have to tell people how old you are no one would ever guess. And I feel like but I want them to know, I’m delighted to be this age, how much have I lived through? It’s amazing. I think I’m astonishing.
Sangeeta Pillai 43:09
I think you’re a solid.
Mira Jacob 43:11
I think the fact that women make it to this age at all, and can live in this way is amazing, right? And I’m always telling this to my friends who are worried when they’re turning 30, or they’re turning 40. They’re like, what does it mean? And I’m like, it means that wonderful things are coming. And I have my series of women that said the same thing to me about the 50s and 60s. And you know, like this, this, this, this feeling. And now I have this other generation of women who my mother and her friends have told me the same thing that they said, you know, 75 is really something I love, which I I really love and you know and that’s not to say it’s more complicated. This thing you said about looks when I found myself thinking about a lot lately. I don’t know if you think about this, but one of the things that I’m I see a lot of women my age who have done a lot of things to change their faces. And I don’t. I’m not judging that I think when you are quite literally brought up to believe the only value you have in the world is the way you look. Then whatever propels you to try to keep that safety, I’m not judging that. Also, I know this is such a weird way to say this, but I would like to go down with the space. I’m trying to just embrace all the things that are okay, so which exam suppose that used to be Oh, my eyes are going a little lower than they were? Okay, you know, just trying to kind of let that go while also being just as excited as I ever was about. I love clothing, for example. I’m not great at makeup, but I love watching makeup tutorials. I don’t know why I find it really fun. I wish I could do any of it. I think it’s fascinating, like these parts of decorating as a woman which I think are really really fun. Yeah. And kind of feeling you know, putting the feathers out. You know that thing? Yeah, the beautiful unfurl. I still love that. So I’m ageing with it and trying to really hold on to myself, when it feels like it is productive for me, when it feels like it is expensive for me. And when it feels like I am chasing something that is growing shorter and shorter and supply and making myself miserable, and it’s and it is a lot to sort of think through that, right? It’s not that I don’t have a lock on when I’m doing one or the other, I have to be quite vigilant with myself about it, so that I don’t make myself miserable. So I don’t find myself, you know, doing things like trying fad diets to achieve a size I’ve never been, you know, something like that I have to kind of stay on top of it. But to me, it’s like it’s new, it’s a new area, again, to be curious about. And I am understanding that I am less visible to men and many women. But there’s also a subset of people that are absolutely looking for me, which I didn’t count, which is really interesting. There’s also like, I know, there are women that are maybe 10 years younger than me that are really looking at me right now and saying, Tell me about this, right? And so I feel like I’m going to show up for them. I’m going to show up for them and tell them exactly how old I am. And I’m going to say it numerous times, I’m going to say it every single time I’ve interviewed, I often say when I’m interviewed Yes, I didn’t even get my first book published until I was 40. Because it is so essential to me, specifically black and brown women who are often not given any sort of quarter in this industry that now thinks it’s so diverse, that they understand that it took me that long to even get to the point of getting published where I’ve been trying for 25 years. And I do not consider myself a failure by any means for taking that long. So like, I guess what I would say about all this is that I am very loud about my age now and I’m sort of rectifying with what it means to become less visible in some arenas and more visible in unexpected ways.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:52
Something you touched upon earlier and I wanted to talk to you about the sequins. Yes, I need dresses. Yes. What was that unfurling of the feathers, I think is what you said I love that. Now, again, that’s something I’ve only started to do. So my 50th birthday, I had this really shiny sequined blue dress like I was the shiniest thing in the room and I loved it and had this shiny tiara and I had this like, all out and I loved every moment of it. I love your rainbow coloured dress. Oh my god, it’s such a gorgeous dress.
Mira Jacob 47:24
So then we will tell you that when I turned 50 I got myself this rainbow sequined dress from I think it’s LeBlanc London is the way I say that. So it’s not. And somebody sent it to me saying, I feel the stress is you. It’s much more expensive than a dress I would normally buy for myself, but I bought it immediately. It is the most amazing dress in the history of dresses. I think you’ve seen it on my Instagram, because it is more expensive than something that I would normally buy because it is Rainbow sequins, i.e. you wear it once and everyone has seen it. I have made a promise to myself that I will wear it 10 times this year alone. And so I just keep pulling it out. I just keep wearing it. I mean, I just keep going to events and be like Yes, it’s me again, in my dress, which somebody called me when one of my friends called me the gay alien of the future. I’m bisexual. So it was just sort of a joke about you know, like, here you are in your full glory, you are finally yourself. And, and I love that I love that idea that that’s what I’m showing up as. But it feels amazing. To wear that dress. Yeah, it’s such a sensual dress. It’s so beautifully made, I feel. And I wouldn’t have been able to wear it in my 30s. I wouldn’t have been able to wear it in my 20s. You know why? I think because first of all the attention that I would have gotten would have terrified me, as it does any woman who sort of actively decorates herself and goes out into the world. And the rudeness that I would have received or the letters since I would have received would have been a punishment. Whereas now the letters that I received are just hysterical. Especially when I yell Thank you! It’s my 50th birthday dress and then they die on the spot and start freaking out and having you know, spouses about what does this mean about them? I’m like, Yes, take it to therapy, buddy. You like to face your old woman. Yeah, you told her you liked her and that’s what just happened. Oh, Orange. Oh, and your mother’s age. Oh the cringe. But yeah, I think I feel like maybe if there was an institution that we can find a totally frivolous and ridiculous one that we can find together in the future. Maybe it would be sequined dresses for all South Asian women over 50.
Sangeeta Pillai 49:42
Oh my god, I love it.
Mira Jacob 49:43
Let’s do this on your birthday. Yeah, sequined dress. Meet us on the corner. We’ll get you.
Sangeeta Pillai 49:49
Exactly, exactly. I love it. But it’s so true what you said like, you know in my 20s I would never dare to wear something like that. Because what is that thing? Look at Me, I’m beautiful, I’m shiny, I’m desirable. Look at me, I’m standing up right here for you to look at. That takes an insane amount of self confidence as I hate that word, but you believe in yourself that you have the space to take up in the world. Tell Mira. So you’re sitting here, your Mira is 50 years old, right, that seven year old mirror sitting in front of you, what do you say to her?
Mira Jacob 50:28
I would tell her, you are going to be a writer. And two things you should know about that. You will not feel like you are a real writer until you are published when you are 40 years old. But by the time you are 40 years old, and one day pass publishing, you will understand that you were a writer the whole time, the knowledge is going to come in like that. Don’t be disappointed about what the journey is going to be. It’s going to come to you in the end, this thing that you so want to be, you will become and you will know how to hold it, those will happen at different times. And it will happen in a way that you would have never imagined possible.
Sangeeta Pillai 51:12
I really love it. Last but not least, have you got any words of advice for listeners of a solid podcast? I think you said a few things before but anything as a summary that you’d like to say to anyone who’s listening.
Mira Jacob 51:27
I guess the thing that I always like to say, specifically to brown women who have often found themselves very much on the periphery of the narrative, trying to imagine something that hasn’t been laid out for them, is that it’s so hard in the moment of imagining, and even when things become a bit disappointing (which they absolutely did for me), to really believe that you are capable of not only becoming what you imagined, but so much more. Be gentle with yourself. Keep going. You won’t get there unless you keep going. You’re going to be so much more than you haven’t even begun to imagine. And how lucky for the rest of us. How unbearably lucky for the rest of us.
Sangeeta Pillai 52:24
Wow, that’s been a really profound conversation.
Mira Jacob 52:28
Yeah, so we were supposed to get silly.
Sangeeta Pillai 52:31
Yeah, like those sets and eat leaves and like, how you like to eat Papdi and followed by what was it? Rasmalai. So I’ve got it in there.
Mira Jacob 52:42
All skipping all notions of nutrition, going from party food to party food. Thank you.
Sangeeta Pillai 52:49
Thank you so much Mira for for being as open and warm and lovely and gracious as you happen.
Mira Jacob 52:56
It was so much fun to talk with you. So, I really do hope that I get to meet you when you come. I hope that we do have, even if it’s not a fancy party, maybe we can just go get Bhelpuri in a restaurant.
Sangeeta Pillai 53:09
Oh, I’m for it. Okay, I’ll squeeze in like a butter butter somebody in the middle. Okay, okay. My like, yeah, it’d be like a mid-mid snack. Okay, all right. We’re doing it. Thank you so much, Mira.
Mira Jacob 53:23
It was wonderful to talk with you.
Sangeeta Pillai 53:29
Thank you for listening to the Masala podcast. Masala podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras, dedicated to celebrating and supporting South Asian women. This is a space for all of us bad betties who don’t do as we’re told. This is where we get to celebrate our culture our way and be exactly who we want to be. I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via email at soul sutras.co.uk or my website soul sutras.co.uk, I’m also on Instagram and Twitter. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me, Sangeeta Pillai produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.
Sangeeta Pillai 54:27
I’d like to share the Super Podcast Immigrantly, which uses personal stories to delve into authentic immigrant experiences. Host Saadia Khan explores multiculturalism, stereotypes, and the general messiness of being human. Saadia has interviewed The Kite Runner, author Khaled Hosseini, comedians hurry Kondabolu and opponent and Chela plus other amazing guests. Listen on all streaming platforms.