Event Recap: Myriam Gurba Redefines the California Memoir

The author of Mean discusses oral storytelling traditions, Santa Maria, and writing against literary convention.

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Myriam Gurba remains a force to be reckoned with in the literary world. “The whole uproar about her essay reminded me of what Abraham Lincoln supposedly told Harriet Beecher Stowe when he met her—‘Oh, so you’re the woman who started this great war,’” guest host Gustavo Arellano said of Gurba’s work at the start of the seventh installment of the California Book Club. “And in this case, with Myriam’s essay, she’s the one who started all this desmadre and a very much needed reckoning in the book industry when it comes to representation, especially when it comes to Latinx writers.”

Last night, the CBC gathered virtually to discuss Gurba’s Mean, a cross-genre narrative that charts Gurba’s memories from early childhood to young adulthood, unpacking how she came to terms with her sexuality and identity and the complexity of her community. The memoir is predominantly oriented toward the impact of her sexual assault and the legacy of a woman who was murdered by the same assailant.

The event opened with Arellano asking Gurba if there were other memoirs about Santa Maria, where Gurba grew up. “I don’t think that there have been any memoirs that center Santa Maria,” Gurba responded. “Santa Maria appears fleetingly in work, so Santa Maria is one of those communities that’s mentioned, but I don’t think that there has been any other book-length work that has unfolded in Santa Maria as a literary stage.”

“It was a very small town that grew exponentially during the 18 years that I called it home,” Gurba continued. “I would characterize the town that I grew up in as semirural. The first home that I recall was on a street called Suey Road, and there were strawberry fields across the street from us. There were horse stables at the end of the road. And then beyond the strawberry fields were canyons and a dump. This is where I grew up. I would often joke that depending on which way the wind blows, it either smells like strawberries or cow shit. So that’s sort of the essence of Santa Maria. It’s either incredibly sweet or incredibly foul. And that was something that I wanted to represent when I wrote Mean.”

Arellano noted that Gurba’s objective of decentering the glamor of California in favor of those who are the foundation of it offered a “blistering critique” of what some may consider the golden dream. “That’s one of the most underrated aspects of your book,” Arellano said. “What’s amazing and so disturbing about the book is how it all unspools.”

Gurba read a passage from Mean—from the chapter titled “Googolplex,” which recounts Gurba’s childhood friendship with a white girl named Ida. “What’s awesome about this book is that instead of doing one long narrative, as you see in most memoirs, and that’s perfectly fine, you chop it up into all these little chapters,” Arellano remarked after she’d finished. “It really reminds me of this idea in Latin American literature of cuentos. I was wondering if you could talk about cuentos and how that did or didn’t influence your thinking in writing Mean.”

“When I began the process of writing Mean, I didn’t intend to write a book-length manuscript. I was writing fragments,” Gurba replied. “So as I engaged in the execution of those fragments, I began to think of the fragments as part of a larger organism. But I wasn’t sure how I was going to bring the pieces together to sort of bring Frankenstein to life. That took time. But my family is a family of storytellers. And the members of my family are kind of informally devoted to a bardic tradition, in the sense that we are committed to orality. We sit together, and when we sit together, all we do is talk.”

Arellano asked an audience member’s question about the structure and style of Mean, since the book seems to be a significant departure from the ostensibly normative memoir form. “When I was working on Mean, there were two books that I was reacting to,” Gurba answered. “Mean can be thought of as a reactionary text. Those two texts were Lucky, by Alice Sebold, and The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson. And both of those works are brilliant. They’re both different from one another.”

“Both of those books were incredibly popular and widely read, and they both adhere to what I would typify as a white aesthetic,” Gurba continued. “And I was entirely disinterested in that. But what I was noticing at the time that I was thinking about Mean and writing Mean was that the popularity of both of those narratives was having quite a bit of influence on storytelling habits, especially storytelling habits as they relate to narratives that center sexual assault, gendered violence, and sexual trauma. And I think that when storytelling habits kind of ossify, that’s limiting for writers. And I think that when sexual assault victims, sexual assault survivors, [and] survivors of gendered violence are expected to follow a template for narrative for storytelling, that that robs us of freedom [and] that takes agency from us.”

The event concluded with Arellano asking Gurba about the future of California memoir. “I imagine that California is going to become the epicenter of our national literature because of demographics and because [of] the future that demography holds,” Gurba responded. “California was the first state to become a majority-minority state. And as California leads, the rest of the United States follows. And there’s quite a bit of agitation right now in the literary world to dethrone New York as the publishing industry’s capital. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to topple New York, but I think that New York will eventually be displaced because we’ve got the entertainment industry centered here and literature is a part of our national entertainment. I think that with enough push and enough hard work, the literary landscape and the publishing industry’s landscape is going to change. And we’re going to see sort of a shift in terms of the importance of California.”

Alta Journal’s California Book Club will return on May 20 in conversation with Rachel Kushner. We will be discussing her remarkable novel The Mars Room, which follows a woman in her late 20s serving two life terms in a California prison. For more information, please click here.

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