Myriam Gurba was always a little different, a little more direct, a lot more brazen.
“My mom told me this story about my childhood,” the California-born writer says, “about how she’d take me to parties and things like that, and I would approach adults and start chit-chatting with them and telling them stories. And she noticed that the stories I would launch into were often violently grotesque — funny but also grotesque — and she was concerned that, as a little girl, I would engage in that kind of behavior.
“Then, one day as I was launching into one of these performances, she saw that I had a look of gleeful expectation on my face. And she realized I was entertaining myself, setting people up to be the punchline. They weren’t expecting someone to talk to them that way, especially a little girl. And at that point she stopped worrying about me. She thought, ‘OK, this is my daughter’s hobby. She’s just a weirdo.’
“I’ve always been kind of an aggressive person,” Gurba says, “someone who likes to roughhouse not only physically but also intellectually.”
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And so she has written a memoir that is just a little bit different — or maybe a lot — an in-your-face account of the young life of a mixed-race Chicana who identifies as queer, who has known prejudice, the anguish of her own sexual assault and an unshakable haunting by others she knows have been victims.
Gurba was molested by a classmate reaching beneath her desktop during a junior high history class, an act her teacher saw and, for whatever reason, chose to ignore. She was raped in broad daylight during a summer home from college, her torment compounded by guilt when she discovered that her attacker went on to assault others and beat one of them to death in a park.
“I’m unqualified to tell the story of Sophia Torres,” Gurba writes of the murdered woman, a 35-year-old migrant worker who shared her Mexican heritage, “but since she’s dead, so is she.”
Therein is the weapon — dark, biting, occasionally uncomfortable humor — that Gurba wields repeatedly in the book, heading off any descent into despair. She doesn’t shy from the horror of the attack on her in 1996 and the one on Torres a few months later. But she isn’t cowed by it. And she won’t be identified by it.
“There’s a certain style and a certain tone that a lot of writers use when treating assault or dealing with scenes of sexual assault,” she says. “Typically, it’s a very sort of streamlined, almost scientific play-by-play. Or there’s almost a solemnity and a reverence for the event, as if it’s something so horrible that it needs to be discussed in nearly religious terms.
“I was interested in doing neither of those things. I was interested in using humor, especially humor that might rate as kind of tasteless. I had not seen that done.
“I’m drawn to humor. I like vulgarity and obscenity. I would say I have a kind of campy sensibility, I always have, and it seems strange to me that a person would have to turn off who they are in terms of style in order to honor the (conventional) representation of sexual assault.”
Gurba writes in bursts of short sentences and tosses in pithy asides — “Of course an elderly white dude taught anthropology. Who better to explain all the cultures and peoples of the world than he who is in charge of them?” — lending further punch to “Mean.” A certain meanness, if you will.
The book has been described as autofiction, a sort of fictionalized biography, and Gurba doesn’t reject that characterization. She reconstructed conversations from her childhood, for example. How could she have remembered them verbatim?
“Every time we access our memories, we change them slightly. And so, by the time one is writing about events that happened 20 years, those memories have been so manipulated that you have to accept there’s going to be a fair amount of dirt on them that modifies their truth,” she says. “It’s not an intentional modification. It’s simply the nature of memory, that memory is imperfect.”
Everything in the book, she says, is “as true as I can make it.”
Gurba, a graduate of the University of California-Berkeley who now lives and teaches high school in Long Beach, also is the author of two short story collections and two poetry collections, as well as articles for Time, the online magazine Entropy and other outlets. She recently discussed “Mean,” her approach to writing it and the experiences that went into it. Excerpts are edited for length.
Q: You’re 40, and presumably have a lot of life left to live. Why a memoir now?
A: I hadn’t necessarily intended to write a memoir. I was more interested in conducting experiments with literature … writing about sexual assault in ways that were very different from the conventions I was accustomed to reading.
I think it allows one to develop a more intimate understanding of sexual assault. Treating it as if it’s an event that requires incredible solemnity, almost religiosity, turns it into something sacred, and I don’t think we should treat it as something sacred. That gives it more power than it deserves.
I think if we use humor to write about, talk about and tell stories about traumatic events, especially sexual traumatic events, we can get closer to the truth of the event because the humor serves as armor. It pulls you away from emotion, and pulls you into your intellect.
Q: You write, “Art is one way to work out touch gone wrong.” Were you looking for catharsis in writing this book?
A: Not so much catharsis. That suggests relief. To me, it’s more about confrontation. It’s so unpleasant to have to relive the experience of being sexually assaulted, especially when you haven’t invited the memory — it just sort of ambushes you and surprises you in a way that the assault ambushed and surprised you.
Art becomes a space, like humor, where you can get really intimate with horror and terror and violence. But safely. You can relive it through the artwork, and it doesn’t get the better of you. … There’s an aliveness that comes from facing it.
Q: Still, you’re haunted. The book, as you see it, is part ghost story.
A: The kind of haunting I describe is very metaphoric and emotional. It’s not as if I’m actually seeing ghosts, but there’s a sense of intrusion. One hasn’t necessarily invited these memories or these reflections, and yet here they are.
I talk about how, on occasion, I find myself doing things and don’t understand why. One is listening to radio stations that I wouldn’t listen to. They’re Spanish-language stations, and I don’t listen to banda music. Or norteno. But I’ll find myself listening and wondering if Sophie Torres listened to music like this. Am I doing something that she would have wanted to do had she lived?
Q: What was it about her murder that so deeply affected you?
A: Several things. One was that she has these similarities to me in terms of gender, ethnicity and race. She was Mexican; I’m Mexican-American. We were both youngish women at the time (of our assaults). We were both walking alone when we were attacked, and I think there also might have been similarities in the way we were dressed. That’s all very eerie.
However, I’ve had such a fortunate life in comparison with her. I happen to have been born to two professionals who were incredibly invested in what kind of education I was going to have, who made sure college was never something I’d even question, that none of my physical needs would go unmet.
It horrified me that this woman did not receive that — she was born into poverty, she came to the United States and experienced the murder of her boyfriend while she was here, she fell into depression and then was murdered in the ugliest way possible. It’s sort of like she’s a foil for who I am.
That made me feel incredibly guilty. Not only did this woman have (an awful) life. She also had (an awful) death, and that death could have mine. Maybe it would have been more cosmically just had that death been mine.
The other thing I felt incredibly guilty about was not having been able to somehow help the police apprehend him. His continued freedom in the months after he assaulted me allowed him to assault other women and murder one of them.
Q: It’s impossible not to notice that “Mean” was released last November amid the Me Too movement. Are you pleased that it’s part of the national discussion about sexual violence, albeit it in a less conventional way?
A: It’s absolutely coincidental. … I would not use the word “pleased” because I feel like there’s something very grotesque about the book falling into this moment. Like, “Oh my God, we’re talking about rape and I wrote a book about rape. This is perfect.” I can’t allow myself to feel that because it feels almost like a celebration of rape.
I also think Martinez’s assault (of Torres), that’s so different than what’s being discussed. We’re pairing sexual violence with murder in this case. That bumps it into a different playing field.
Q: Talk about your writing style. It’s apparent that you don’t feel confined by conventions.
A: I like things that are a little weird. When I encounter a rule, my first impulse tends to be: OK, how can I break it? It’s one of the most fun things anybody can do, right?
The other thing that I think enabled me to write in an experimental style like that is I’m not the product of an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program. I emerged from a group of writers who were at one point centered in the Bay Area, largely in San Francisco, and a lot of them were outsider writers in a sense that they did not spring from the academy. They’re not these sorts of well-groomed MFAs.
They taught themselves writing and came out of, like, an open-mic scene where one really had to connect very viscerally with the audience in order to make sure their work was alive. That sensibility affected me quite a bit and shaped the way I write.
Q: You leave out, or only briefly reference, some important life experiences that seem notable by their absence in a memoir. Coming out to your parents. Your former marriage. How do you draw the line on what to include?
A: I think coming-out stories are very scripted and very stale, and I’m not interested in them. I don’t find them very interesting, and I don’t think they hold a lot of water. I think most people actually come out over and over and over and there’s no big unveiling. It’s more of a gradual unveiling. I had to come out to my mom three or four times in order for it to stick. So which one was my coming-out moment? Same thing with my dad.
As far as my partner, I left her out of the book because telling that story was something I didn’t have the skill to do because it would have complicated everything else so much. And it would have suggested a love story and, at the time at least, I had no interest in telling love stories.
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
From the chapter “Spring Semester 1997” near the end of “Mean” by Myriam Gurba, published by Coffee House Press. Gurba, then a student at the University of California-Berkeley, remains haunted by the man who raped her less than a year earlier.
The day was gray. I jogged along College Avenue, toward Rockridge. Mozart jogged with me.
Mozart is the sound of civilization and its decline.
We sprinted past bungalows, a laundromat, and the Catholic church that looked like a Soviet-era construction. Trees had shed large leaves you could have swaddled a large baby in. They gave the sidewalk bedding. If, from behind, someone struck me with a bat, the leaves would have cushioned my fall.
In front of a two-story house with a menorah large enough for a crucifixion on the lawn, invisible arms encircled my waist. They held me.
I stopped, half-expecting my pants to be pulled down.
I turned around.
No one was there.
My finger rolled along the volume dial, turning it up.
I took a step and another and I was jogging, but the hands, which I knew were not real, returned. I ripped off my headphones and spun around.
The memory of him wanted to run with me.
I wanted to run with Mozart.
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “Mean” by Myriam Gurba at 6:30 p.m. March 13 at the UMKC Women’s Center, 5120 Rockhill Road. Gurba will join the discussion via Facetime.
If you would like to attend, email Stover at firstname.lastname@example.org.