This is only the second graphic novel I’ve ever read, the first being Persepolis, last year. And that was a creative, touching and unique reading experience, which made me very open to trying more. So when this new release got great reviews from some of the bookstagrammers I respect the most (@lupita.reads and @allisonreadsdc), I knew this was going to be the next one I picked up. And onto my “holds” list at the library it went!
“I can’t protect you from becoming a brown man in America. I can’t protect you from spending a lifetime caught between the beautiful dream of a diverse nation and the complicated reality of one. I can’t even protect you from the fact that sometimes, the people who love us will choose a world that doesn’t.”
In the same vein as Persepolis, this graphic novel is nonfiction, a sort of memoir. Jacob covers topics from her youth, growing up as a daughter of immigrants in New Mexico, to present day, as a mother of a biracial son (Indian American mother and white Jewish father) in the hope of Obama’s presidency and the fear in Trump’s. This is a memoir of identity and interracial families in America told through gorgeous mixed media artwork and the profundity of daily conversations.
Wow. This is, by far one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a long time. And I’ve read/reviewed some really profound ones lately, like Eloquent Rage and When They Call You a Terrorist. But the thing that is so particularly impactful about this one is the way it’s told. And yes, as a graphic novel, the visual piece of it is part of what I’m referring to, and does bring the novel a depth of a unique quality. But more than that, the way it’s told in individual conversations, snippets, and short internal monologues/asides from the author is what really brings home the points. Each conversation highlights an issue of racism, overt, structural or microaggression, that is, essentially, presented to the reader to react to as they wish. There is a lot of potential in this method of sharing/telling, because it allows Jacob to showcase the most striking moments, jumping from one to another, in a way that means the pressure is never let up. It moves from important point to important point like a highlight reel, demonstrating the myriad ways anyone that looks different is made to feel like an outsider in the US, constantly, centering on all the issues we should/must be noticing and questioning, without the need for any filler or fluff to lessen the intensity or break up the time between these moments. Because these conversations speak for themselves, this type of succinctness was ideal for sharing the messages Jacob does throughout the novel. And because there is only one way to interpret these conversations, and the reader must acknowledge the daily emotional trauma Jacob and other racial or other minorities in America face, the impact is even more emotionally compelling. It’s “show don’t tell” in its most basic form, a method of story-telling that leaves no room for disagreement or question, and it’s exactly right for the lessons Jacob is teaching, the points she is proving.
A little more insight into Jacob’s tone is an important addition to this review as well, I think. This is a novel that’s humorous in a bitingly real way. There are parts that made me groan in pain and frustration (and recognition in some of my own family/extended family) and other parts that made me smile and snort (again, with some personal recognition as well). But then there were the parts where Jacob talked about her own internal struggles on what to address and what to let go, and, especially, how to answer the difficult questions from her young son about whether or not the country, and even his own grandparents, did not love him anymore because they supported a presidential candidate who said such horrible things about people that looked like him. How do you find the words to explain that? How is it that we’ve created/enabled a situation where that’s even necessary? I do not have children and I cannot imagine how I would even begin to address something like that…I do not envy Jacob at all, and thinking about the terrible emotional weight her son was already carrying at 10 years old, and her own feelings about her inability to protect him from any of it, made me so so sad. It truly, deeply, disturbed and upset me. As it should everyone. And yet, these moments were mixed with moments of legitimate humor and Jacob’s brilliance in balancing it all in a striking and nuanced way was strong. There was “funny haha” and “funny that makes you want to cry” all mixed up in a way that hit all the right chords.
I am completely blown away after reading this book. It’s one that you could easily read in one sitting, but to truly absorb it all, you should make yourself take breaks. The humanity in this graphic novel is bold and demonstrative, no holds barred, uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure – an unbelievably honest, difficult and poignant memoir.
Some passages to savor and reflect on:
“We think our hearts break only from endings – the love gone, the rooms empty, the future unhappening as we stand ready to step into it – but what about how they can shatter in the face of what is possible?”
“I was scared to open my mouth. I was sacred I would start yelling. And if I started yelling she would be scared of me, and if she was scared of me, she would be right about.”
“Sometimes, you go along with it and pretend nothing happened. Sometimes you hold your breath until the feeling of wanting to be believed passes. Sometimes, you weigh explaining against staying quiet and know they’re both just different kinds of heavy.”
“Someone – Kiese Laymon I think – said most white people are sleepwalking when it comes to racism in America. They don’t see it so they think it doesn’t exist anymore. Forcing them to see that it is happening here, now, is like waking up a sleepwalker. They get disoriented. Angry at you instead of about the racism itself.”