The Significance of Meanness in Myriam Gurba’s Memoir

This week’s California Book Club newsletter: Mean, You’re Leaving When?, and Soul.

myriam gurba
Geoff Cordner

It’s OK to be mean,” Myriam Gurba writes in her 2017 memoir, Mean, which Alta’s California Book Club will discuss at its April 15 gathering. “We act mean to defend ourselves from boredom and from those who would chop off our breasts. We act mean to defend our clubs and institutions. We act mean because we like to laugh.”

Mean is a cross-genre narrative that charts Gurba’s memories from early childhood to young adulthood, unpacking how she came to terms with her sexuality, politics, race, and identity. No topic is too taboo or off-limits for Gurba, who channels meditative and riotous language to speak unflinchingly about girlhood, womanhood, and sexual violence. Even at her most vulnerable, Gurba is indeed bold in her vision, unapologetic of anything or anyone, and this, in part, is what makes Mean a mean memoir.

Being mean is not simply an affective posture but a way of navigating the tumult of life as a queer woman. It is partly a defense mechanism when wounded, partly a tool to subvert the totalizing force of the heteropatriarchy. “Mean is good too,” Gurba writes. “Being mean makes us feel alive. It’s fun and exciting. Sometimes, it keeps us alive.” In the face of brutal oppression—in which a woman’s body is both made fodder for the capricious and gratuitous violence of male pleasure and confined to set roles and expectations—being mean offers an escape, a tunnel toward a new world of expression. Victims are not as debilitated as everyone might paint them to be: yes, they can be active, calculating, unforgiving, and ferocious.

Ultimately, Gurba’s memoir offers an alternative narrative. While being mean can be a liberatory tool and provide a moment of respite, Gurba is keen not to romanticize it, pointing out how it’s gendered, unglamorous, and not to be mistaken for abuse or evil. “I’m not so mean that I’ve ever raped anybody,” Gurba remarks. “That’s a special kind of mean.”

To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Gurba on April 15 about the significance of meanness and other topics, click here.

mean, myriam gurba
Coffee House Press


Alta’s books editor, David L. Ulin, outlines why you should read Gurba’s thrilling and heartbreaking memoir, Mean. Alta

myriam gurba
Steve Carroll


Have you been enthralled by Mean? Want to know how Gurba kept writing? Well, look no further. Alta

youre leaving when, annabelle gurwitch
Counterpoint Press


Diana Wagman analyzes how Annabelle Gurwitch, in her collection of essays You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility, uses humor as a tool to unpack the hardships of her life. Alta

larry mcmurtry


In a tribute, Alta’s books editor, David L. Ulin, outlines how Larry McMurtry reminds us that “love and longing go together.” Los Angeles Times

soul, pixar


“What does it say that it is so much easier for my son to find wonderfully crafted television shows and films featuring talking animals than it is to find shows about kids who look like him?” writes Hope Wabuke, on the Black characters in Disney’s Soul. Los Angeles Review of Books

john singleton


Jason Parham interrogates John Singleton’s unique vision of Black Los Angeles, as well as the complexities of masculinity and vulnerability. Los Angeles Times

coachella valley
Fernando Mendez Corona


Ruxandra Guidi considers the landscapes of the Eastern Coachella Valley to chart the politics of trash disposal and waste facilities. Boom California

university press books, berkeley
University Press Books


“People who buy books! What a special category of souls,” says Nicola DeRobertis-Theye, on finding community in a struggling bookstore in Berkeley. Literary Hub

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Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.


Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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