Bearing Witness to Sexual Assault in ‘Mean’

A close look at violence, metaphor, and setting in the opening of this month’s California Book Club selection.

myriam gurba

Myriam Gurba’s 2017 memoir, Mean, is a multiform, lyrical text that charts how Gurba came to reckon with the realities of class, sexuality, and race as a queer Mexican American in the United States. It unfolds over the course of Gurba’s childhood and young adulthood, oriented intensely on her sexual assault by a man who assaulted and killed another woman.

Gurba writes in the opening scene of the book: “Let’s become a spot upon which fateful moonlight shines. Let’s become that night. Let’s become the park. Let’s absorb and drip.”

The series of imperatives sets up a powerful and metaphorical scene in which an innocuous moment at a baseball field unravels. The later sentences—“We’re damp grains of earth. We’re grass purged of color. We’re baseball bleachers”—invite readers to participate and become entangled in the setting. No longer are we passive bystanders listening to the commands of an unknown narrator. We are active members of the story; we are integral to the story; in fact, we are the story.

Yet the narrative takes a turn from this ostensibly harmless surface and pierces into the ominous, frantic, and haunting heart of Gurba’s story with the following sentence: “A dark-haired girl walks alone.” Gurba then describes this person, paying great attention to her body, her clothes, and her posture. We later come to learn that she’s detailed the rape and murder of Sophia Castro Torres, a Chicanx women whose sexual assault is the shadow that haunts Gurba’s life.

To arrive at this juncture, Gurba uses metaphor to describe the instant of assault. We learn that the man “lovingly…strokes his corn,” that “he thrusts to the rhythm of her death rattle,” that his cum “gleams like unspeakable poetry.” In many ways, the unspeakable poetry is given words, is given attributes and associations, but even those are not enough, though they are harrowing, filled with all that is not said.

The opening scene of Mean is titled “Wisdom,” which establishes a kind of dilemma, if not a major conflict, of the book. Indeed, we are meant to bear witness to a moment of violence we cannot change. We must recognize our own selves in the victim, and we mustn’t blink to the truths of Gurba’s words, of the legacies of misogyny that function to diminish the identities of women as well as desecrate their bodies. The beginning of Mean sets up the stakes of the memoir with moving clarity—letting us know that Gurba is a writer who can tarry with what is unspeakable and give voice to what remains amorphous but is begging for shape.

To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Gurba on April 15, click here.

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