You know how you sometimes pick up a book and feel like it was meant for you to find? That’s what it was like to finally read Good Talk by cultural critic Mira Jacob. It’s an unforgettable graphic memoir about parenting a mixed-race son, living through the fraught Trump years, and reconsidering the past. Driven by humor and empathy, the book is for anyone bursting with questions about how we got to this place — and how to live bravely within it. You also may be familiar with Mira’s award-winning novel or life-giving essays, but what you might not know is that she’s a bonafide beauty icon. (That hair! That style!) Here, we talk about motherhood, beauty, aging, and identity…
Let’s start with your beautiful book, Good Talk. What compelled you to write a graphic memoir?
At the time, my son Z was obsessed with Michael Jackson, and so many of his questions about Michael Jackson were about race. Like: What color is Michael Jackson? All of those questions were also tied in with the protests that were happening at that moment. Z would ask, ‘Are people getting hurt just because they’re brown?’ And instead of writing an essay about it, I drew our conversation on printer paper in Z’s room, surrounded by Michael Jackson albums. Afterwards, looking at the sketches, I thought: This is a story.
That’s exactly how the book opens, with Michael Jackson. Were you surprised by its reception?
One thing that’s really funny about writing about race is that people routinely told me that the book was timely. But it’s been timely, guys. We were taught back in school that racial oppression was cured by Martin Luther King Jr. — it’s a kind of collapsing of time that isn’t accurate. A beautiful lie people needed to tell themselves. We need to stop telling that lie.
In the book, you rendered faces — your own and your loved ones’ — as they changed over the years, in such detail, honoring every aspect of the aging process. Can you talk about what that was like?
One of the best-kept secrets, particularly for women, is how glorious aging can be. My mother is one of the most beautiful women I know, and she’s also a person who doesn’t spend a ton of time trying to make herself a different kind of beautiful. She spends more time enjoying the body that she has than fighting it. Now as I am getting older, I understand what a revolutionary and brilliant thing it was for me to have that example, because there was never an endless fight to preserve.
What are some unexpected things that you learned about being a mother to Z?
I had no idea that I was going to dig it so much. I thought it was going to be this endless slog. And it’s certainly not easy, but no one gave me the memo that I was going to be with this really interesting person for the rest of my life. Kids are going to tell and ask you things you never expected. And it’s going to open up a different way of being in the world.
He’s 14 now, right? What’s it like parenting a teen?
He’s the tiny mayor of our neighborhood. The other day, we passed someone and he asked, ‘How’s your knee doing?’
That is amazing. How has your beauty routine changed since becoming a mother?
I am very conscious of not being overly critical about the way I look, because I don’t want him to be influenced by that. We all share a bathroom, so I get dressed pretty quickly, and I don’t wear a ton of makeup. But when I do, he checks it for me. He’s honest, so he’ll tell me if I’ve done a bad job!
What’s his feedback on your style?
He’s into fashion, so that’s really fun. One day, I guess my pants were wrong, because he told me, “You gotta see my boy, Gianni. He’s one of the best designers on the planet. Loves jean patches.” Gianni’s in eighth grade!
Mouth of babes. Let’s talk skincare.
Oh, I get psyched about skincare. My go-to is C E Ferulic by SkinCeuticals, which I think is a glowy miracle. It smells like a hot dog, but you’ll get over it quickly. My regular cleanser is Cetaphil, because I have dry skin, and it maintains my PH. I usually do a peel, like the Peter Thomas Roth exfoliating peel. For moisturizing, I use the Korean brand Belif’s aqua bomb cream.
What about makeup?
I’m always looking for a black eyeliner that doesn’t bleed, because I’m South Asian, and black eyeliner on the waterline is our love language. I’m so excited about Kulfi Beauty’s eyeliner, but I want to try everything. I’m eager to get my hands on their concealer, too, because like a lot of South Asians, I have hyperpigmentation under my eyes. Vaseline’s Rosy Lips is good for lips, cheeks, and eyelids. If I only had that in my makeup bag, I’d feel good about life. It smells good, and it tastes good. But wait — do you know about L’Oreal’s Double Extend Mascara?
No! I am all ears.
You have got to try this combination: Shiseido makes an eyelash curler that gives you a really nice lift, and then you apply the Double Extend Mascara. The white side adds fibers to your lashes, so go over it three or four times to build up your lashes. Then swipe down on your lashes with the black side of the mascara, covering the lashes end to end from the top. After that, apply the black mascara the way you normally would. It’s astonishing!
I just got a masterclass in mascara. Can we talk about your hair? It’s so thick and shiny.
Many South Asian parents give their kids coconut or mustard oil scalp massages, which is incredibly relaxing. I still think of my sweet dad doing that for me as a kid. It made my hair extraordinarily healthy. In the summer, I try to not use heat on my hair. My shampoo is L’Oreal Everpure, nothing fancy. I’ll do a clarifying rinse with vinegar once every three months. I also like a good haircut, because my hair is so thick, it needs to be regularly lightened in layers. It’s like there’s a whole head of hair on the floor of the salon afterwards. My one splurge is the Oribe Dry Texturizing spray, which smells great; but the drugstore version, Kristen Ess’s Working Texture Spray, is also incredible.
Do you have any beauty icons you look up to?
One is my mother. Another is Grace Jones. Beauty can often be used against women; it can come with a lot of baggage and oftentimes, a lot of violence. She inhabited her beauty so fearlessly. And then in terms of style, I love every choice Cate Blanchett makes. Her clothes never wear her. I also like the clothes Charlize Theron wears in Atomic Blonde. Every time I go shopping now, I’m like, ‘Please get me the extremely sexy assassin wear!’
Mira with author Roxane Gay
When you think about beauty, are there differences between your inherited perceptions of beauty and the ones that you currently hold in your heart?
As I wrote in the memoir, my aunties would talk about how they thought I was an extremely ugly child because of my darker skin. It was so painful. I hadn’t really understood this perception around skin color until I went to India, because my parents did a good job of never talking to me about it. I did feel very confident in my childhood in New Mexico, but I also felt like a complete anomaly. There were so few Indians around me that it affected my perception of beauty. I never thought of myself as beautiful or not beautiful. I just knew I was different.
I love that women overall have been celebrating dark skin more in the past decade, but I’ve always thought we look great in every color. Also, there’s such joy around a curvy body these days. Every time I’ve slept with somebody, they’ve been so psyched about the juiciness of my body, but that’s not really a message you see out in the world. The biggest evolution for me was the understanding that my body’s known truths have always been valid.
Incredible. Last (two-part) question: Which beauty lessons are you still learning, and which have you mastered?
I’m grappling with a choice right now: to try very, very hard to look the same as I always have or to let go with that expectation. Even though I love aging and surround myself with women who love aging, it’s a struggle to make peace with it. I want to be clear about that.
As for one thing that I’ve mastered: I find most people genuinely beautiful. Looking around on the subway, I think, ‘This beauty we all have is innate.’ We humans are these bewildering, dumb, sweet animals in the way that we keep trying and trying to understand each other. And in those times we can actually see one another, it feels like a glorious dawning. It’s like: I see your beauty, and I see mine, too.
Thank you so much, Mira! (Psst — Mira’s newest project-in-progress is a mystery novel, so keep your eyes out for that, someday soon!)
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(Eighth photo by In Kim, all other photos from Mira’s Instagram.)