A great writer doesn’t have a style: she is her style. The words she chooses, the rhythms she arranges, what music her prose makes. At the highest realm of art, where the act of storytelling is essential to survival, these are not alsos: they are the reordering, the choosing of a written body. In a world where so many bodies are at risk, one does not have to think hard to ponder the importance of this task.
In her powerful and hilarious memoir, Mean, Myriam Gurba gives us an electrifying, front-row seat to the high stakes of forging a style. It is to the memoir what Paris Is Burning was to the drag show. Ribald, beautiful, broken into shards in some moments, as lucid as a California sky in others, the book is a clinic in the ways complexity asserts itself in variety and under the pressure of trauma. It also demonstrates how powerfully humor can deflect the clutches of preconceived emotions.
As soon as you know this is a memoir about rape and survival—which becomes clear on page one—a host of tones and expectations begin to boot up. Gurba is having none of them. This little book is also stippled with puns (has a writer ever enjoyed saying “cum laude” so much?), fart jokes, brilliant riffs on Japanese poetry, California lingo, and some of the best descriptions you will find of history and anthropology professors. “He looked ready to dig or raid a tomb,” Gurba writes about one of her Berkeley professors.
As a made object, Mean is a gorgeous thing. The book unfolds in many short chapters, which ripple out from evocative titles like “Wisdom,” “The Unbearable Whiteness of Certain Girls,” and “Aesthetic Boners.” Some chapters move like miniature stories, others like vignettes, others still with the yoked repetitive rhythms of a Sylvia Plath poem or a Sonia Sanchez piece. Throughout, Gurba writes in short, staccato sentences that detonate musically.
The weave of these chapter styles and Gurba’s inimitable prose produce the sound of her voice. That voice seems spoken but operates on the page; it is unfussy, intelligent, but also unpretentious. Mostly, it invites collusion. It speaks, you listen—and follow. “Let’s become that night,” Gurba writes in her opening incantatory passage. “We’re November’s darkness. We’re the baseball diamond’s sediment. We host Little League games by daylight. By dark, we become an Aztec altar.”
The passage is beautiful and also terrifying, and by making her readers the night, it places us everywhere and nowhere, like ghosts. The idea of possession will appear and reappear throughout the book. As readers, we lurk unseen around events that will haunt Gurba for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, she is tormented by what she describes in her opening pages: a true-life crime in which a dark-haired Mexican girl was brutally raped and murdered, her body left behind. The papers called her a transient. Gurba tells us her name was Sophia.
One of Gurba’s great skills is the transition. Out of this true-crime opener, we’re tipped abruptly into an almost pop-art depiction of growing up in Southern California. The child of a Mexican mother and a half-Polish father, Gurba is raised speaking one language (“English and Spanish”), frequently defending (or refusing to explain) what she is, where she is from, how she got here (she’s always been here). Already she is full of the attitude that gives the book its title and is worth quoting in full.
“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. Being mean to boys is fun and a second-wave feminist duty. Being rude to men who deserve it is a holy mission. Sisterhood is powerful, but being a bitch is more exhilarating. Being a bitch is spectacular.”
The “we” here describes Gurba and her friends at the time, but it also reaches out, inviting others in, and stakes out territory. A space of queer rebellion, a place for survivor realism, for mess and solidarity. This we isn’t always, exclusively brown, as throughout Gurba describes her curiosity about and love for (certain) white girls, beginning with her friend Ida. “When she came over to my house, she slurped Mom’s pozole instead of asking ‘What is this?’ in that supremely bitchy California-girl accent some white girls reserved for interrogating my mother’s hospitality.”
As we follow Gurba into her friendships, childhood, and teenage years, the assault and murder from page one and the vivid images with which she describes it linger, seeping into the book’s descriptive DNA. The games Gurba plays on the playground she describes as practices in sexual assault; her aunt, we’ll learn, regales her with tales of violación; molestation is a fact of life. A boy named Macaulay gropes Gurba in history class, kicking off one of this book’s continuing meditations on what history means. (“Some of us use rape to tell time,” she will later write.)
Again the image of a possession comes back, layered this time and filtered through a Catholic prism. After a baseball coach is found to have assaulted many of her boy classmates, Gurba writes: “If molestation is a circle, a circle of life, then isn’t the hand of every molester working through the hand of every other molester? It’s fair to say that Mr. Osmond’s hand was working through Macaulay’s hand just like the Eucharist is no longer bread during Mass; it’s Jesus coming at you through a cracker.”
The structure of Mean is an elegant, subtle score. The book begins with Sophia, and we don’t hear about her again for 50 more pages. All along, Gurba’s descriptive lexicon of assault has created an exquisite foreshadowing. Will what happened in childhood be it, or will she escape? A reader is apt to wonder, until Gurba writes, “You never know what spaces might turn into graves,” adding, “Sometimes my concerns about the history of violence taint everything…. I was allowed to escape. I was allowed to walk away from that spot. Sophia was not. Guilt is a ghost.”
Here is the ghost that most haunts this book. After all, we are not watching Gurba’s childhood but witnessing her retelling of it, from adulthood: a time during which, we soon learn, she experiences a profound rupture. Looking back, everything that will happen to Gurba on a street in broad daylight at age 18 filters into the telling. She becomes a writer, so the book is eminently concerned with words, language, definitions, and wordplay. She will fall in love, so the telling also studies the first burning of desire, the construction of solidarity, the role—if any—of safety in eros.
And she will survive an assault—miraculously—by the man who killed Sophia. Telling this story from the present, Gurba produces an enormous amount of tension leading up to that day, which she approaches and backs off from, explaining her hesitation. Warning us, telling the reader why she will hold back. That she will ultimately keep some details to herself. And then she tells what she can, and it’s both matter-of-fact and terrifying.
As a memoir of trauma, Mean is acute, powerful, and full of descriptions survivors will recognize. Gurba recalls her waves of reaction—how she began to study like a machine, working out obsessively. She gets a 4.0 and impressive muscles; she immediately sets new, harder goals. Eventually, her faithful body-raft breaks down under the weight of what it must contain. Passing out, sprawled out on the floor of a Berkeley bathroom when it finally gives out, wrapped in a blanket, she still makes a joke: “‘I am a bean burrito,’ I thought.”
Gurba had gone to Berkeley to study history, because she wants to understand it, but also literature and art, because she is drawn to them. In those classes, she suffers through—as many of us do—Gertrude Stein. Mean, in many ways, is Gurba’s brilliant deviation from her lesbian forebearer’s example of writing prose undergirded by the aesthetics and theory of visual art. Proceeding in its later part with stories, inmate registers, lists, found poems, and even a 911 transcript, Mean is a glittering example of the possibilities of collage: a stitching where tears in the reality reel occur.
The book’s descriptions of what the post-traumatic state does to the mind are vivid, distressing, and powerful. Gurba’s own mind, continually under assault by the assault she just survived, works overtime. One day, she believes she sees him in the supermarket, then realizes her mind has put “that face over this homeboy’s face. It blended them into one composite.” And then, fashioning a joke to a serious observation, as she often does, Gurba adds: “The posttraumatic mind has an advanced set of art skills.”
They are not just its skills, though. They are Gurba’s skills uniquely. One of the triumphs of Mean is not to parlay the familiar narrative of overcoming adversity, nor to circle a lugubrious morbidity, which would be, of course, understandable. Instead the book is a chatty, serious, erudite celebration of the creator herself and her mind, and the friends and family who enabled its (and her) survival. That mind is part semiotician, part stand-up comic. Believer in ghosts, fighter for their rights. Maker of new rituals.
In one of the book’s moving later passages, Gurba travels with her parents and a new girlfriend to the site of Sophia’s murder to make an offering. Her father can’t bear to get out of the car. Before the mists of meaning can descend, Gurba quips, “What a dick,” then corrects herself, the voice’s irreverent tone coming as ballast. “I didn’t think of him as a pussy—he hadn’t earned that compliment.” And so they go out and walk among the shadows on that baseball diamond—where so many haven’t a clue they are standing on a grave—unsure what to give, what to offer. As if this extraordinary, essential book isn’t enough.