When you read Mean by Myriam Gurba, you’re going to laugh, and cry, at some really gross and mean things – but that’s kinda the whole point. Mean is a very introspective book, exploring Gurba’s childhood, adolescence, and early adult life. By analyzing her own memory, Gurba forces the reader to do the same. She describes the book as a "novel that is memoiristic," meaning not exactly a memoir, but not exactly fiction — it blends the two genres through memory, analysis, and retrospection.
Gurba is direct, casual, and very funny when I probe her about her novel, which explores trauma, meanness, and assault in various forms, as well as the mental and physical repercussions that follow. She hopes the novel will allow readers to better analyze these themes, as well as expand the American literary canon to include a Molack (aka Mexican-Polish-American). Raised in a multi-racial home in California’s Santa Monica, Gurba has a geographically placed understanding of race, gender, and growing up queer. Thankfully, it sounds like she was raised by some pretty awesome parents, especially since Gurba tells me some of her first toys as a child were “Barbies, pistols and books” — what else could an aspiring writer need?
Gurba is explicit in her attempt to expand the American literary landscape to include people like her, because it really is important to see ourselves in characters of books, TV and movies. She explains, "I think that the book paints a very particular depiction of what it means to be an American in my particular corner of the United States. And, I hope I kind of widen the canon of American literature by inserting a mixed-race Chicana into that canon." This expansion is personal for Gurba, because she "never read about a protagonist who was Mexican, and Polish and middle class."
You’re not going to find references to cholo fashion or low-riders in the book — Mean, and Gurba, aren't stereotypes come to life. Instead, she grew up staring those stereotypes down, like when she held her own battle over “Mexican casserole” at a friends’ house while in grade school. Gurba is serious about racism and how it has impacted her life and writing. She tells me, in a matter-of-fact tone, "Non-white people are just as individual and diverse as white people; there's no singular Chicana experience. The Chicana experience is the experience of every individual Chicana, and this just so happens to be mine, and I hope I complicate and enrich that identity." Reading Mean will definitely leave readers more enriched and complicated than they were before.
Throughout Mean, Gurba cuts her dirty, personal, sometimes even terrifying narrative with lots of humor. We had to take many laugh-breaks during our interview. In Mean, she jokes about a school trip to Washington, DC and meeting the Honorable John G. Roberts: “'Oh my god,' I thought, 'He’s the Court’s Tom Cruise. He’s fucking short.'” Moments like this make you laugh, but Gurba immediately reminds you the fear a little brown girl can face when in such an intimidating, judicial, and white building: “We were going to get to touch [history]. I didn’t want it to touch me back. I’m usually not a tactile learner.” Coming from a character already inappropriately touched, the dual fear and humor found in this situation both throws off the reader and welcomes the reader to Gurba’s particular reality. One of the best throwaway jokes happens during her depiction of her first dorm room, which she shared with Chicana and Chinese roommates, and Gurba describes as “smell[ing] of dry humping and shrimp ramen.”
But Gurba also isn’t scared of “touchy topics;" she uses wit and honesty to tackle familial dynamics, molestation, the cruelty of children, discovering her own queerness, finding herself in college, and the inevitable hit to the ego that is “post-grad life,” like she’s talking about the weather. Gurba is careful, however, in her discussion of sexual assault, choosing her words precisely, both while talking to me and writing Mean. She speaks of our society's current obsession with survivorship, specifically "performative survivorship" (like Vagina Monologues-style testimonials). There can be strength found in stating in plain terms the extent of an assault, she says, but there shouldn’t be a societal pressure to do so.
Gurba points out that sometimes people participate in this pressuring of survivors and think they're helping: "I think that’s a really misguided way of treating survivors and victims of assault. I think it's OK for the nature of an assault, the details of an assault, to remain private. And I think a person can overcome and recover from an assault without sharing all of the details…which is why I share aspects of the assault itself, but I do not share the entire assault from start to finish. I don’t think it’s my responsibility as a writer or as a woman to have to turn myself inside out for an audience who is going to consume what I've written as tragedy porn."
Given our cultural obsession with watching women, especially women of color, suffer, Gurba articulates that she does not want to be a part of that canon of "tragedy porn" but admits that it is near impossible to avoid. The fact that Mean walks you through aspects of Gurba’s and another character, Sophia Torres’s, assaults forces it into that category, but the difference in Mean is the purpose: these sections are not designed for shock value or sexual gratification, and they very plainly address the violence and the ploy for power involved in sexual assault. To sum it up, Gurba says to me, point-blank, “I don’t have to perform my victimhood.” Mean does not “perform” victimhood, but rather explores violence, survivorship and the cultural climate that leads to victimhood.
When Gurba explains the ideas behind Sophia, a character that haunts the protagonist throughout the novel, she hits on the themes of cultural and class-based tension once again. The character of Sophia is based on Sophia Castro Torres, a real woman who was raped and murdered by Tommy Jesse Martinez. Sophia and Myriam are both women, Sophia is Mexican and Myriam is Molack, but what truly ethereally connects these two women is one unfortunate fact: they were sexually assaulted by the same man.
Gurba explains to me her deep guilt and confusion surrounding her survivorship: “Why am I alive? Why did I get to live? Why did I get to run? Why did I get to keep living and enjoying my life?” are all questions she immediately asked herself. Some questions, unfortunately, can’t be answered, but Gurba tackles them anyway. She explores her own guilt surrounding the assault, telling me she spent time re-reading old police records and reports, visiting the spot Sophia died and talking to her ghost. Gurba tells me bluntly, “Because I shared this really intimate moment with Martinez, this intimately violent moment, I feel like I know Sophia Torres because she shared this intimately violent moment with Tommy Martinez, that for her ended in murder, my event did not…my event ended in escape.” This guilt manifests Sophia as a ghost who reminds the protagonist of danger, death and fear.
Mean undoubtedly has a lot going on, with lots of levels to tumble through and nuance to detect — fear not, readers, the dark and gritty humor helps you along that sometimes-uncomfortable path. There is no shame in having to put the book down during parts, to take a bubble bath or catch up with friends, like Gurba admits she did while writing it. The short chapters (some less than one page) allow readers to take a breather between heavy topics, but also allows the novel to skip around time, place, and subject, which is impressive and therapeutic.
Reading Mean means reading about surviving assault, coming out, and growing up all within a short few pages. In a similar way to how Gurba feels she knows Sophia Torres, the reader will finish Mean feeling like they know Myriam Gurba. Reading about someone's childhood, friends and family, their coming out story, and their various traumas and achievements would undoubtedly leave any reader breathless — that's a lot to cover in such a short book. Mean doesn't beat you over the head, but eases you into the analyses and discussions surrounding these topics; Gurba told me Mean is like an "existential interrogation." The difficulty and the joy of reading Mean is diving deep into the murky "Molack" waters with Myriam Gurba.
Keep up with Gurba with her podcast, AskBiGrlz which she hosts along with MariNaomi.
Header image via Twitter/@lesbrains
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big haired nerd who likes to talk about books, politics, coffee and anything else you can think of. Be warned of shennanigans: follow me on twitter @BRIawesome