This weekend, my girlfriend invited me to sub in for her at the house where she was cat sitting for a bit of an artist’s retreat. This place has an alarmed atrium, lots of light, and sculptures of emaciated dogs. Most of the couches are conch shell pink. Bookshelves line the walls and a piano sits in one corner and the whole vibe makes you want to sit down and learn a new language. She left me with instructions: “there will be a moment when you realize that you can do things here that you can only do when no one is watching.” It might not sound particularly exciting to say that I sat on the pink couch and read. But Myriam Gurba’s Mean was every bit the private moment I needed to have here. This book wants you take it somewhere special. It wants you to take a day off work.
Mean is a memoir about a woman who describes herself as “Mexican Pollack.” She tells of elementary school race wars and gives us glimpses into the way her imagination digests things. She says, “Sometimes I imagine Krakow filled with quaint, Polish crack houses.” She knows early on that she likes girls and she also learns from a young age that sometimes being mean “keeps us alive.” This book is about assault and art and archetypes and ghosts.
When she’s at college in her dorm room at Berkeley, Gurba describes throwing pork rinds out the window: “I was watching one touch down on the sidewalk when a feminine hand appeared below. What the hell. I released another pork rind. It floated into the palm of the hand. Cradling the pork rind, the hand slipped back into the building. I felt satisfied that I’d fed somebody.”
I would nominate this moment — the random beauty, the synchronicity, the way in which anonymous women exchange meaning and sustenance — as a kind of artist’s statement, but I know you’re probably thinking: pork rinds? Yes. The pork rinds get straight at Gurba’s charm.
It normally takes me a few dozen pages before I am devoted to a book, but by page eleven, when little girl Gurba spit out a Brussel’s sprout and said “I don’t want to talk about it,” I was holding my copy of Mean like it was a living thing. Her brain starts in one place and ends up across the street and you are chasing her, laughing, suddenly unafraid of cars. She will say, of a trip to Mexico, “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 bloom all around you and you want to re-read everything all over again because the sentences are so smart and so delicious.
I knew early on that something horrible was going to happen to the character I was learning to love but honestly, I forgot to anticipate it. Gurba prepares us, and herself, like a parent rousing a child from sleep. She says, “When we die, we fall. Who catches us? Cyndi Lauper?” She has us humming “Time after Time.” The pre-climactic chapter starts out like a dirge for her grandmother, but it’s actually a kind of trigger warning articulated through the memory of this female elder, who tried to warn her about what history does to women.
As the narrative moves through trauma, Gurba’s humor never leaves her. “Are you epileptic?” someone asks when she’s crumpled on the bathroom floor. “I’m Mexican,” she responds. The story grows the way a life grows, infused by her artistic influences, her family history, her aspirations toward sainthood, accosted by the accidents of history.
In a creative writing class once we spent an entire hour talking about “voice” and “tone” — what were they? Where did they come from? Who can teach us how to manufacture them? Though I’ve never heard Gubra speak, throughout the entire duration of this book I had her voice in my head. Her personality is present in every beat. She writes, “San Francisco sunshine is a bisexual woman moving through the fog.” Of Joan of Arc and eating disorders, she says: “I eat fewer tater tots so my bones could catch the light and reflect it in holy tomboy ways.” A chapter is called “The Unbearable Whiteness of Certain Girls.” Her style is not just in the service of playfulness or texture. Gurba has a unique dexterity for capturing the long scope of history in tiny moments, like at the grocery store: “Mexicans use VapoRub to treat everything. Small pox. Emphysema. Miscegenation.”
After I finished, I cried and opened the huge glass doors of this house and tip toed past the weird boulder-fountain and I stripped naked in the dark. I sat in a tank of rich-people water and thought about what it means to be naked and alone, to be outside at night. I thought about vaginas and creativity and about the fact that we don’t get to know our stories the way you can skip ahead to the end of a book when you know something bad is about to happen. I crept back inside and thought about how outrageously beautiful it is to be queer and to know queerness. I put on some music and the band Lovers sang, “Go get your heart back from the great beyond,” which is another way of describing what this book is about.
If I were the kind of person who prayed, I would pray for Gurba before going to sleep at night. Her goodness glows. It makes the whole project float. And like I was saying about pork rinds and synchronicity: this is the kind of book where, midway through, you will jot down a note to yourself: that the book “floats.” A few pages later she will use the word float herself: it’s in the name of a novel she has been reading, and it’s what the world feels like. At a lecture, she shouts it out in Japanese: “Ukiyo-e.”
Gurba’s writing feels devastating and holy and hilarious all at once, like a dead sea scroll that is as fun to read as an old issue of Playboy. And don’t forget that the name of the book is Mean. By goodness I am talking about something that twists and disappears and resurges. A kind of balance.
Mean, a mix of memoir, true crime, ghost story, and queer mixed-race Chicana coming of age, is the fourth book in Coffee House Press’s collaborative series with Emily Books, and comes out November 7. Read an excerpt from Mean on Autostraddle.