If you like reading. You love finding a new author, and somehow it’s even better when that author is just starting out, and wows from the start. I began with Tillie Walden‘s extraordinary On a Sunbeam (You can read it here). Then her memoir of being a competitive skater Spinning. You won’t regret time spent with either of these. But I have just read her third graphic novel, A City Inside published by the wonderful Avery Hill Publishing. It’s a weird novel.
It begins with a young woman being told to relax and being given tea. I’m English, I appreciate that. Then she is told, “Swallow all your spit and breathe deeply.” The words “A City Inside” fill the next two pages. Continuing in the second person. “You left…trying to escape those southern ghosts…were too afraid to live in the city…so you decided the sky would be better.” She lives in the sky with a cat and meets “Her.” You is so taken with Her that You leaves the sky and moves in. Like a good poem, the story leaves sense at the edges and perfectly for a short graphic story, focuses on images of place. Her is even a place. All the old wounds inside You start to accumulate, and a new city is built. In You’s mind maybe? Not certainly. At the end, she steps out of the story and there Her is, in the waiting room. It is as though every line Walden makes on the page has meaning. Each panel is a small work of feeling. A work of story. A work of human emotion. At the end you are together with You and Her, and happy.
Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk is based around conversations Mira has with those around her in New York, between 2014 and 2016 with flashes back to her family in New Mexico and India. She has an extraordinary talent for dialogue that is at the centre here. Much of the story’s present is autobiography alongside her developing romance with Jed,a family story and most affectingly a story of how race in America impacts individuals and families.
The first scene is 2014. Mira and her 6-year-old son, Z, are discussing his obsession with Michael Jackson. Z and Mira are drawn, and then cut out leaving a white border around each figure and super-imposed on photos of Jackson album covers and cityscapes of New York. Z is asking questions: “Who taught him to dance?” and “What is a LaToya?” before he moves on to “Was Michael Jackson brown or white?” Later on, in reference to the murder of Michael Brown, Z asks, “Is it bad to be brown?” Mira replies, “No, it’s great being brown. We look good in colors! We have history! We don’t get skin cancer as easily!” These exchanges establish the narrative and the subject matter of the whole work, but Z wonders why his mother is “yelling at me.” The graphic style of the drawn figures on top of the photographs, sometimes augmented by photographic portraits of some of the characters, allows the story to happen in the actual settings. The photos often open the narrative up beyond the rooms where the conversations are taking place.
“ Now every question Z asked made me realize the growing gap between the America I’d been raised to believe in and the one rising fast all around us. I kept thinking if I could go back in time and make sense of the things I’d been told growing up, I would be able to give Z better answers. Maybe even find a way toward that better country. Soon though with news of the Black Lives Matter Movement flooding our televisions, and the rise of Donald Trump, I would have just as many questions as he did.”
The book progresses through her parents’ story of an arranged marriage and her family’s worries about her love marriage (defined by Mira’s mother as “a marriage that is not arranged.” to Jed, a Jewish man; an hyper-awareness of shades of skin color that comes from her family thinking that she is “not fair” and therefore “no beauty.” There are attempts to arrange a marriage for Mira that fail–all the time she is moving through relationships at school, college after college in Seattle and New York.
Around the middle of the book, 9/11 happens. The book turns here. Indians are taken for terrorists. Mira is mistaken for a young Indian woman who was lost in the twin towers who appears on a poster. The hope of America disintegrates from here on out as Trump’s rise after the hope of Obama, strains the relationships between Jed’s parents and their daughter-in-law and grandson.
This is a subtle examination of how race works for people of color set in a narrative where most of the time the stakes are emotional rather than life or death, and this allows those of us, who because we are white, don’t feel the slights and digs and mispeakings, another place to feel them as they happen. I read the memoir while at the same time reading Jacob’s impressive novel The Sleepwaker’s Guide to Dancing they echo each other. Give them both a try.
My advice to you is to change your basic relationship to songwriting. You are not the ‘Great Creator’ of your songs, you are simply their servant, and the songs will come to you when you have adequately prepared yourself to receive them. They are not inside you, unable to get out; rather, they are outside of you, unable to get in. Songs, in my experience, are attracted to an open, playful and motivated mind. Throw my song away – it isn’t that good anyway – sit down, prepare yourself and write your own damn song. You are a songwriter. You have the entire world to save and very little time to do it. The song will find its way to you. If you don’t write it, someone else will. Is that what you want? If not, get to it.
There is so much talk at the moment about taking time away from our phones and paying attention to the real world unfiltered.
In 2000, John Berger and John Christie published their correspondance that began with an exchange of letters about Cadmium Red. After reading this book, you will see colours anew. Two men committed to art and to expressing their ideas about it.
The book is made up of facsimiles of some hand written letters, some one-off books made by Christie and samples of the art they are discussing.
Take time. Look at the book. Reflect on the text. When your eyes leave the page. The world has changed.