BY JACOB PAGANO
Every so often, we encounter a memoir which voices a narrative that, though lived and told by so many, has still not been heard in its complexity, or received the recognition it deserves. Mean (Coffee House Press, 2017), Myriam Gurba’s witty, trenchant, and all too relevant account of a culture in which sexual violence exists as a frightening daily reality and is often confronted alone, marks that kind of memoir. It is urgent reading for anyone who wants to understand the hidden traumas on our high school and college campuses (and, as the #MeToo movement has shown, definitively everywhere), and an opportunity to hear directly from a survivor whose voice moves seamlessly between empathy and satire, wit and slam poetry-style conviction.
Mean tells the story of a queer Chicana (Myriam’s mother is Mexican, her father white) in the style of a feminist bildungsroman, with sharp attunement to what it means to be a mixed-race and bilingual woman growing up in Santa Maria, California. The world Myriam describes is one where sexual violence—in the junior high classroom, where Myriam is molested by a male classmate, or on the town’s baseball team—is seldom punished. Gurba’s account is also deeply intersectional, addressing how cultural barriers make telling one’s story even more difficult, while at the same reveling in the joys and opportunities that come from being able to vacillate between Mexican and American cultures. Its content today would receive a trigger-warning, but Gurba gives us none, which is part of the point: this is violence we cannot afford to turn from.
The memoir opens with a vivid account of the night when Sophia Torres, an itinerant worker, was raped and killed in 1996 by an assailant who, we soon learn, also attacked and raped several other women, as well as Gurba herself while she was attending UC Berkeley. Myriam’s narration of Torres’ murder, representative of what follows, is poetic and deeply embodied. Beginning with a lyrically rich few lines—“Let’s become that night. Let’s become that park. Let’s absorb and drip”—Gurba invites us to witness what is often unseen. She wants us to feel that we are there when “a dark-haired girl walks alone...” and is raped and killed.
The narrative that follows—tracing Myriam’s own pre-teen to college years—is at once courageous in its emotional breadth and in its ability to revel in a caustic humor that, despite all the pain, Myriam insists on preserving. At the crux of the memoir are poignant confrontations with grief: Myriam wrestles with the ghosts of those killed in acts of sexual violence and narrates the time she was raped; she accompanies her sister to an anexoria appointment, only to hear a doctor conclude “Mexicans” can’t be anorexic; and she faces a world of both adults and teens who are willfully blind to the pervasive hidden sexual violence in her California town.
The cultural climate in Mean—unfortunately one that resembles the experience of many on college campuses today—is one where administrators say, “These kinds of things happen,” to students when they report assaults. These are the words the school nurse tells Myriam when she recounts the night a man raped her, making the narrative itself, the imagined conversations between you the reader and Myriam, the place where confession, empathy, and understanding must occur.
Myriam’s words are like poetic flashlights, activists in their urgent demand for illuminating the truth: “Somewhere on this planet, a man is about to touch a woman to death,” she tells us while lying alone in her room one night and recalling her traumatic experiences at junior high. She later says, “After a stranger ambushes you and assails you… You understand that you live in a world where getting classically raped is possible and that classical rapists lurk everywhere.” Part of what Myriam does here is make us uncomfortable through language at once mocking and bitingly honest (“classical rapists”) that resists a culture where sexual violence is perpetuated in part through euphemistic diction that ignores or masquerades its effects and allows too many turn a blind eye.
And Myriam not only makes the blunt, poignant observation—“When you have PTSD, things repeat themselves over and over and over”—but performs that repetition in the narrative. Traumatic memories return, again and again, regardless of where Myriam finds herself.
At the same time, almost as its own act of resistance, Mean sizzles with humor that is at once Myriam’s self-proclaimed “mean” style (“being mean,” she says “makes us feel alive”), which mocks and satirizes on a whim, but is also profoundly revealing of the way laughter can at times be the only way to express and confront despair. Part of what Myriam’s humor does is sublimate frustration and anger through imaginative fantasies. Spending the summer before she goes to college in the Mexican desert, Myriam encounters a missionary couple with a beautiful daughter (to whom she is attracted) and tell us: “I am a gringa, and since gringos are really good at exploiting Mexico as a liminal space, a shadow rose in me and eclipsed my morality. Images of violence toward the missionaries’ daughter sped through my mind.” Myriam is no real threat—she herself abhors violence—so we can laugh here, and realize the joke for what it is: a way to find laughter and to confront her own queer sexuality in a violent, discriminatory world.
And much of her humor is itself cultural commentary that points out the underlying prejudice in our culture. Recounting the irony in the fact that a white man teaches her college anthropology course, she says, “Who better to explain all the cultures and peoples of the world than he who is in charge of them?” And she doesn’t stop at anybody’s expense, telling us that, “‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ was originally a kind of rapey song meant to be sung by a guy. Luckily, Cyndi Lauper saved it.” It’s this kind of biting attention to the implicitly sexualizing language in our culture that characterizes much of Gurba’s wit, and invites us to be aware of how we ourselves speak.
Following her short-story collection, Painting Their Portraits in Winter (Manic D Press, 2015), the memoir further establishes Gurba as a voice that, like writers Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo, fearlessly reveals the complex tensions in being queer, Chicana, and a young woman in America. Castillo, a leading academic who considers the unique experiences of Chicanas as they relate to mainstream feminist debates in America and the literature that represents those experiences, would find a poignant, revolutionary example in Gurba. And like Cisneros in her inventive vignette style in The House On Mango Street Arte Público Press, 1984), which tells the story of Esperanza Cordero growing up in Chicago, Gurba has conveyed those tensions with profound relatability, striking psychological chords in her readers through prose that unabashedly moves into modernist-style poetry on one page, and into sitcom hilarity the next.
What Mean does so brilliantly is not only narrate such traumas and questions of identity, but help reveal the psychological obstacles, the grit and resiliency, that exist behind finding the voice to share them. Mean is both readable and unforgiving in its psychological realism, the way sexual violence leads to dissociation, P.T.S.D., confusions with what is normal and what is not. In doing so, Mean is also a profoundly impactful account of how violence threatens to take away language and the incredible ways that its victims have resisted that threat and reclaimed it with force.
Without giving away the memoir’s ending, it is fair to reveal that Gurba’s voice as the narrative develops becomes something of a compelling emotional friend—she is not just speaking, but she is speaking directly to anyone who has encountered such violence and wants to know what kind of enjoyment, what kind of moving through the world, could feel real and meaningful again.
In this way, the “mean,” bitingly humorous tone the book uses so brilliantly throughout, indicated by the epigraph from Jenni Rivera’s song “Unforgettable” (“Lo mejor que te puedo desear es que te vaya mal,” or, the best I can wish for you is bad luck), also finds a convincing note in profound empathy, reading almost like a letter to women and young people everywhere.
And though the omnipresence of violence as an ongoing possibility never departs Mean, Gurba ultimately becomes the understanding and resilient voice she herself (and every young person) surely deserves to hear. That she is a high school teacher in Long Beach, California, is no coincidence, and one can only hope that her students are good listeners.
Jacob Pagano is a writer and reporter who graduated from Amherst College in 2018 with a degree in English. He has worked as an assistant producer for the In Contrast podcast at New England Public Radio, lived and reported in China, and written for publications including The Oxford Culture Review, The Oxford Review of Books, and The Mainichi Daily Newspapers. He also freelance writes on activism and social justice movements, and he currently has a Gregoy S. Call Fellowship from Amherst College to develop his thesis on James Baldwin into an article. He lives in Los Angeles and loves to travel.