What We Don’t Talk About is the debut graphic novel by Dublin-based illustrator, designer and author Charlot Kristensen.
The plot centres around a young interracial couple, Farai and Adam, as they meet Adam’s parents for the first time on a weekend trip to his large family home in the countryside, a few hours outside London.
We’re introduced to Farai at the beginning of the story in the comfort of her bedroom, harping away on a phone call to her Mother.
She’s getting ready for her trip away hurriedly packing the last of her belongings and reassuring her mother “ I already told you mom, he’s different.”
We learn that she is from Zimbabwe, and has not met her boyfriend’s parents in the two years they have been together.
At first, Farai is excited to finally meet her boyfriend’s family. But it’s not long before she faces discriminatory comments and microaggressions from his mother Martha.
Farai comes across very intuitively, and is able to see through all of Martha’s judgements and ignorant comments about race and Africa.
She also seems to be able to stand up for herself and her beliefs, not minimising herself in order to adjust to her surroundings, especially when she doesn’t see the need for it.
When asked by Adam if she thought her head wraps might “make her stand out too much”, when going out on a day trip with his family, Farai retorts, “and is there a problem with that?”
Farai is secure and sure of who she is throughout the story, I believe she becomes unsure and insecure about who Adam turns out to be. Earlier, we are informed about how smitten Farai is with Adam. We know she found him charming, and jokes about being swept off her feet by his musical skills.
Adam also appears within a few lines of the book to be nervous and uncomfortable with the meeting of his parents and his girlfriend. Often he is not able to speak his mind or address his mother’s misconceptions or wrongs — instead he cushions them with excuses, such as “she just worries about me” or “it’s not that simple, I just don’t want to upset her.”
These regular encounters with the parents also highlights Adam’s unfortunate inability to understand and assist Farai in dealing with the uncomfortable situations she’s been placed in.
Unfortunately, Farai’s experience of racism isn’t far-fetched nor is it new. It is relevant because it is reality and something many black girls, like myself, have seen first-hand with friends experiencing similar situations.
A frequent frustration is the reduction and distilling of the black identity into the same box even though blackness is represented differently across the continent of Africa. When Farai tries to clarify with Martha, Adam’s mother, that she got her necklace from Zimbabwe. Martha replies with a familiar sentiment “Zimbabwe, Africa, It’s all very similar in the end”.
Adam displays a generally well-meaning attitude but that one that accommodates and excuses racism— he reduces the gravity of each of Farai’s racist encounters with his mother. For the sake of peace and comfort he says things like “you were upset and I didn’t listen to you, but I think we shouldn’t let a few remarks ruin our trip” or “I think you’re overreacting’ to Farai.
Unfortunately many black people have had an Adam or two in their lives, that say they love and care for us but can’t see past their own comfort in a repeated daily cycle that fragments and disrupts the life of the victim. Like most defensive white people, Adam was more angry at Farai calling his parents racist than he was about their racist behaviour. “Seriously Farai, why do you always have to make everything about racism?” he asks her.
I think What We Don’t Talk About is an essential read. It tackles nuanced racial moments that give context to the wider topics we’re all trying to take head on. It puts into simple everyday moments what microaggressions can sound and look like as well as the dangers complicity poses.