California Book Club: Myriam Gurba Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Myriam Gurba's conversation with California Book Club guest host Gustavo Arellano.

myriam gurba, mean, gustavo arellano

David L. Ulin: Good evening, everybody. How are you? Welcome to the April installment of Alta's California Book Club. Tonight our guest is Myriam Gurba, and she will be in conversation with Gustavo Arellano. I'm David L. Ulin, the books editor of Alta Journal, and I'm just going to set up a couple things before we jump into the conversation. Really looking forward to this talk, and I'm delighted that you've all joined us. For those of you who don't know Alta we're a quarterly print journal, also putting out a lot of pieces on a regular basis on the web. We're covering books in online book reviews, and also in sections in the print journal, as well as events such as the California Book Club; the California Book Club is a monthly book club under the auspices of Alta that looks at the literature of California, which is among the most vibrant literature in the United States right now. I would like to briefly just introduce our partners without whom we couldn't do this. They include Book Passage, Books Inc., Book Soup, Book/Shop, DIESEL, A Bookstore, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Vroman's Bookstore, and ZYZZYVA.

I also have been asked to present an offer for California Book Club members. If you are a member of the California Book Club, you can get a year of Alta's print magazine, a California Book Club tote bag—I'll do my NPR thing here; there it is, a sturdy bag with a nifty outside pocket—and a free copy of one upcoming California Book Club title, all for just $50. So watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this deal. It'll be your last chance. The membership discount ends this month. You can find that at And now I would like to turn this over to my former colleague Gustavo Arellano from the Los Angeles Times, a contributing editor to Alta as well. Gustavo, welcome.

This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

Gustavo Arellano: Hi, welcome everyone. I hope you are at home and not driving somewhere, although it'd be cool to have us on Zoom as well and listen. I'm Gustavo Arellano, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, contributing editor to Alta, awesome journal. Pick up the most recent issue. There's a piece by me on my love for the VW bus and also my hesitancy with the all-electric bus that's supposed to come out in 2022.

And it makes me so happy to be able to talk about this book right here that you should all have right now. And if you don't have it yet, what are you waiting for? Go online, not Amazon. Go to Vroman's, go to all of these wonderful partners that we have, and buy this book, Mean. Simple title, straight to the point. Mean by Myriam Gurba, who is one of my favorite writers. And I'm not just saying it because I know her, I really mean it. I first came across her work. I think it was 2015, 2016. It's been a couple of years now, but I knew her for her short stories, I knew her for her essays, I knew her, not just for the written word, but also how she presented the word at readings, performance art, whatever you want to call it. She was just—como se dice en Español—I'm saying, how do you bring it in Spanish? But she just brings it. She always brought it, fucking brilliant, fucking amazing. Let me get to that obviously, so she did that, then she came out with this book, which we're going to talk about of course. So I'll leave my comments for a little bit. And then most of you, if you have never heard of Myriam before, maybe a couple of years ago, you definitely heard about her after her essay, her review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, which maybe we'll talk about a little bit, but this is a book club, so we're going to focus mostly about book. It reminds... The whole uproar about her essay, Myriam's essay, afterwards reminded me of what Abraham Lincoln supposedly told Harriet Beecher Stowe when he met her, was like, "Oh, so you were the woman who started this great war." In this case with Myriam's essay. She's the one who started all this, this [foreign language 00:29:45] and a very much needed reckoning in the book industry when it comes to representation, especially when it comes to Latinx writers. I find myself fortunate to be able to say that I know Myriam out. I would say we're kind of friends, you know? I think so. I think she's amazing more than anything. And I could go on and on, but you folks are not here to hear me. You're here to hear Myriam. So Myriam, welcome to this chat.

Myriam Gurba: Thank you, it's special to be here. What a special introduction. Thank you. [crosstalk 00:30:23] I bought my book here too.

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah, we all better have your books, you know? No, no, I really mean it. And the one thing I forgot to say, we'll get to it later on, but Myriam's writing, honestly, all the time, reminds me of that specific phrase of Mark Twain when he reviewed the works of James Fenimore Cooper, just ruthless, ruthless, but funny, brilliant. And specifically with this book, I see this book, it's a bunch of Bs. It's beautiful. It's brash. It's, it's bitchy. It's specific. It's bold. It is just, and I hate this cliche, but I'm going with the Bs it's bad-ass.

So what we're going to do is just talk about the book, talk, we're going to focus mostly on the book, I'm going to have some other questions for Myriam, of course, outside of the book industry, outside of this particular book. If you folks have any questions, we're not doing chat today, but please we do have a Q and A little segment right there. We'll definitely get to your questions. And then, yeah, we're just going to have a great one hour conversation. So, Myriam, I guess I'll start with the big one, which is, are there any other memoirs about Santa Maria, California?

Myriam Gurba: I don't think that there have been any memoirs that center Santa Maria. Santa Maria appears fleetingly in work. So Santa Maria is one of those communities that is mentioned, but I don't think that there has been like any other book-length work that has, that has unfolded in Santa Maria as a literary stage, but I'm still writing about Santa Maria. I've written quite a bit about Santa Maria and I'm working on some essays that feature Santa Maria and Santa Maria history right now,

Gustavo Arellano: Because what I find about specifically Mean, and of course, other writings is that it's such a reflection of what Santa Maria is. You know, if the rest of California knows it, Oh, Santa Maria barbecue, the Santa Maria Valley, the wines. And that makes it out to almost this like this bucolic wonderland, but there is so much pain. There's so much racism. There's so much bullshit in Santa Maria. And I, you know, and so to read your memoir is... Memoir slash, really, treatise on Santa Maria was just so refreshing to read. So we'll, let's start at the beginning though. We'll talk a little bit about Santa Maria and I love your description of it. Like, if you want to sum it up, it was strawberry fields, asparagus, what was it? Strip malls and Michael Jackson workers.

Myriam Gurba: Yeah, so I was born in Santa Maria and raised in Santa Maria was born there in the seventies. And it was a very small town that grew exponentially during the 18 years that I called it home. Right? And I would characterize the town that I grew up in as semi rural. The first home that I recall was on a street called Sway 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, you know what I mean? This is, this is where I grew up. And then I would often, I often joke that depending on which way the wind blows it either smells like strawberries or cow shit. You know what I mean? 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. And one of the aspects of Santa Maria that I was really interested in representing when I wrote Mean was the community's racial politics, especially as those racial politics play out within Santa Barbara County. Santa Barbara County is an incredibly wealthy County, but that wealth is concentrated in Santa Barbara. And more specifically in Montecito. And the disparity is incredible. Santa Barbara is one of the richest cities in California, and then you've got Santa Maria and Santa Maria is where the manpower resides because it's where brown people live. It's what brown people in Santa Barbara County live. And as you were mentioning earlier, I typify Santa Maria as a place where you've got an abundance of agriculture. And so you've got a labor force that has to keep the agricultural industry thriving.

And then all throughout Santa Barbara County and surrounding areas, you've got a lot of celebrities and other wealthy folks who come to vacation, who come to summer, and you've got celebrities like the late Michael Jackson who have these rambling ranches and who operates those ranches? You've got Mexicans and Central Americans operating those ranches. And so what I wanted to do was to take the spotlight off of the glamour that the spotlight typically attracts and to place the spotlight on those of us who are behind the scenes. Those of us who cobble the glamour and hold the glamour up. [crosstalk 00:36:25] That was who I wanted to shine that light on.

Gustavo Arellano: And I think that is such a, that's one of the most underrated aspects of your book. As a Californian, it is such a blistering critique of the California dream, even though of course, most of the national praise rightfully so talks about just, in your book, how it shows a continued violence against women from all ages, continued sexual assaults, and their racism. But what's amazing, and so disturbing, about your book is how it unspools. You start off in kindergarten, through elementary school and it's not necessarily an idyllic experience, but you have, you're young, the daughter of Mexican and a Polish guy, or a quarter Polish, or half Polish, I forget. And at first it starts like, okay, you're like a kid. Everything's good. You know, kids are going to be dumb. And then by high school, you've already suffered through so much bullshit.

And what really got me, I think it was in high school where you have the boyfriend of a guy... Of a girlfriend of yours who says, "Oh, what are you?" "Oh, I'm Mexican." And you're trying... Then he sees that you see how disgusted he is. I was like, where do you get your green eyes? And you're like, Oh, well, I'm Polish too. And then he says this line, "Oh, you're a Mexican. And you're a Pole. You're like the two dumbest people on the planet." And it's disgusting. It's like in this time period, Santa Maria has just gotten worse and worse and worse.

Myriam Gurba: Yeah. And that xenophobia and that specific anti-Mexican sentiment was very strongly cultivated by our city's leadership. And so I grew up under the regime of Mayor George Hobbs. George Hobbs was known as Mr. Santa Maria. And he was mayor for far too long. And he campaigned one year, according to an anti-Mexican platform, that was his entire campaign. His campaign called for the repatriation of Mexicans who he argued were destroying Santa Maria. He said that Mexicans were making Santa Maria look "unlike itself." And he suggested the solution, and that was to remove Mexicans who were making the community look unlike itself and to deport us, to colonies, which would be erected along the U S Mexico border.

And his wish came true. His wish absolutely came true. His wish was taken up, or his torch was taken up by President Donald Trump. And so when Donald Trump appeared in the lobby of Trump tower, in order to kick off his campaign speech, what I heard was the ghost of George Hobbs speaking. I thought to myself, this is nothing new. And so when the media portrayed Trump as this iconoclastic anti-Mexican, I thought, no, he's not. This is the type of bigotry that I've lived through for decades. And this is home grown bigotry. It's not grown in the Midwest. It's not grown in the East coast. This is a California export.

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah, no, absolutely. You're going to read a couple of passages from Mean. So start off, start us off. Tell us what page you're going to read from so we can all read at home and then we'll talk about it.

Myriam Gurba: Okie dokey. So I can go ahead and read one of the much shorter chapters I can read Googolplex. That is on page 19.

Gustavo Arellano: All right. Everyone get your books. Page 19. Read along. [foreign language 00:40:20]

Myriam Gurba: So I'll go. I think I'll go ahead and read the whole thing since it's so incredibly short. Yeah? That's cool? Okay. All right. "Googolplex." And for anybody who's dropped in who hasn't read the book, I'm going to go ahead and preface that super, super briefly. What I'll say is that this very short chapter is about the playground. It place during my fifth grade year. And the character that I'm referring to, Ida, was a white girl who was my childhood best friend. And of course Ida is a pseudonym that I chose for my friend. Okay, I'll go ahead and begin. "Googolplex."

Although Ida was white, she sort of wasn't. She looked like Kurt Cobain. She attended bilingual classes with me and spoke and understood Spanish. She kicked it with Mexicans on the playground and learned how to play handball. When she came over to my house, she slurped Mom's posole, instead of asking, "What is this?" In that supremely bitchy California girl accent some white girls reserved for interrogating my mother's hospitality.

The fifth grade race war proved Ida's racial solidarity. An Asian American child fired the first shots. She stood near me in the playground sand by the handball courts. She looked me up and down and said, "Your mother is a wetback." I lost control of my limbs. My hands attacked her. And they shoved her chest, making her lose her balance and fall to the sand. My toes flew into her stomach. My Velcro shoes landed, blow after blow, her round face winced, and the bell rang. Recess was over. I quit kicking. She ran away crying. She didn't tell any grownups what had happened, but the fifth grade girls vulcanized soon after. White girls from the English only classes refused to socialize with girls from bilingual classes. Looking at the jungle gym and tetherball courts, our segregation was clear as melanin. Clusters of girls named Lupe played together.

Clusters of girls named Michelle played together. Lupes and Michelles didn't mixed. The playground felt dicey and tribal. From the jungle gym bars, a dangling white girl, Amy, called, "Go back to Baja." Her taunt seemed aimed at both Ida and me. We paused beside the merry-go-round. I turned to Ida. "Have you ever been to Mexico?" I asked her. Ida shook her head. "No," she answered, "but I'd go with you." "You would love it." I told her, "The food is really good there. My uncle got his head cut off by a bus. The cockroaches fly." "Really?" I nodded. Amy screamed, "Ida Love's wetbacks." Ida screamed, "Fuck your mother in the tit." I felt like hugging Ida. I'm not sure where she learned that comeback. Her mother did work for a gynecologist. Her father lived in Colorado and worked for the defense industry.

Ida was so smart, her favorite number was Googolplex. The vulcanization and screaming drew our teachers outside. They decided they needed to fix things. They informed us that we were going have to sit down and "talk about it." After lunch, a male teacher marched the boys to the black top to play Dodge ball. Girls got herded into the English only classroom. I stared at the boys through tinted windows. My skin felt jealous. I didn't want to be inside.

"So," prodded the English only teacher, "what's going on?" She stood by the board. She folded her arms. She was dressed entirely in purple. The white girls sat on the opposite side of the classroom in desks facing ours. They blinked at us. We blinked back. I raised my hand, the English only teacher said, "Go ahead." I pointed at the lot of them and said, "They call us wetbacks and tell us to go back to Mexico. Those girls are racists. And she's not even Mexican." I pointed at Ida. Ida nodded. White lower lips, quivered white eyes grew glassy. One by one white girls burst into tears. Ida, and all the Mexican girls looked at each other like, "Seriously?" "Apologize for making them cry." Said the English only teacher. "Sorry." I said, without any sincerity.

You're muted.

Gustavo Arellano: Always muted. Mute, mute, mute, mute, mute. That's how I teach myself not to mute myself anymore. Well, what I love about this passage is you get some of the... There's not even a stock character. Cause she's real. Like Ida, there's always going to be that token [foreign language 00:45:23] who's just cool with Las Mexicanas and gets us. Like the fact that she's coming in to eat the posole, then the accent that you did, the Valley girl website, "what is this?" It exists. It absolutely exists.

Myriam Gurba: And she was down.

Gustavo Arellano: She was down. Yeah, Yeah.

Myriam Gurba: She was in all bilingual classes. She had these kind of former hippie parents that had become... They were on the path to conservatism, but they still had enough of that in them that they were going to stick this girl in bilingual classes. And then she decided to like pal around with me. We were like this, you know what I mean? And then when she would come to our house.

Do you know what I mean?

And then when she would come to our house, because she spent a lot of time in our house growing up, my father would tell her "You're in a Mexican house, girl. You're going to speak Spanish." So my dad would only talk to her in Spanish and he would only answer her if she answered in Spanish. And she was down, she understood the rules in our house. Yeah.

Gustavo Arellano: That is so cool. And what's awesome about this book is you have this, instead of doing one long narrative as you see most memoirs and that's perfectly fine, you chop it up into all these little chapters. It really reminds me of this idea in Latin American literature Cuento. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Cuento, as in how it did or didn't influence your thinking and writing Mean.

Myriam Gurba: That's an interesting question. I haven't been asked that question before, and I'll say that when I began the process of writing Mean, I didn't intend to write a book, link manuscript. I was writing fragments.

And 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, right? So that took time, but my family is a family of storytellers. And my family is like... The members of my family are like very kind of informally devoted to a Bardic tradition in the sense that we're committed to our rally. We sit together and when we sit together, all we do is talk.

I'm a compulsive talker because I was socialized and raised by compulsive talkers. And one of my favorite things during childhood was during visits to Mexico. We would go to my abuelita's house and then all of the extended family converges on the house. We meet in the living room or the dining room. Everybody sits in a circle and then one tia sort of initiates the storytelling and that's it. And you're there for four hours, sort of peering at one another through smoke cause there's always some people smoking way too much. Smoking actual cigarettes. They're not vaping. You know what I mean?

And that was really seductive for me as a child, like I wanted to crawl into those stories and live in them. And then as I began to age and to mature, I would engage in soliciting those stories. So I would kind of needle the adults in my family into sharing those stories. And so they taught me to narrate and they taught me to tell stories, but you wouldn't have one person dominating that circle. It would be different talking heads. So one person might tell the story of the evening that so-and-so spirit showed up in the kitchen. And then that reminds the other person about the time that so-and-so's dog got run over by a bus. And then that reminds somebody else of the time that somebody left too many rocks in the beans and then somebody broke their teeth. You know what I mean? And so it's like, there's all this sort of back and forth. And then from that back and forth, you get a composite picture of the family as opposed to one lead sort of Bardic narrator. Does that make sense?

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah. Yeah, totally. In other words, it's not this big, Homeric, Epic of one person gets your attention for the entire night. It's oh, this person says that. And that person says that. And with me, there's all these different stories, some hilarious, some disturbing, but all connect into your... I mean if you're a memoir, so it's your memoir, it's this place. It's also about key moments in your life and not just key moments in your life, but again, the ghost, the spectra of not just the woman who got murdered by the man who sexually assaulted you, but also just all the violence that women have faced from men since the beginning of time.

It's really disturbing and it just, it really grabs you and also makes you laugh at the same time. So just a quick reminder here for folks, please ask questions in the Q and A thing right there. Send them to me, I will ask them. So I'll start with, we don't got names on them, but that's okay. So here's a question for [Claim 00:50:33], Myriam. What were some of your blind spots that you discovered while writing by misogyny violence and coming of age in California? Realizations that may have departed from your original vision or intent with your memoir and how did you navigate writing about that?

Myriam Gurba: So, let's see. I had a lot of ambition when it came to investigating the crimes or the harms that were perpetrated by the assailant that I discuss in Mean. I had a lot of ambition and I wasn't able to realize those investigative ambitions because I was working full time as a high school teacher when I wrote that book. And so I didn't have the financial luxury and I didn't have the luxury of time in order to do the sort of research that I really wanted to do. And so that was started. Right now, I'm reflecting a lot on that very set of questions. And I'm writing about that very set of questions because I'm working on an essay collection and one of the essays in that collection is about the experience of writing Mean, and the process of writing Mean. And Mean became a place for me.

I mean it was a manuscript, but it was also a place that I built through words. And it became a place where I could sort of psychologically go home and hide out. Mean took me several years to write.

Most of the writing happened over the span of about a year and a half. And during that time I was trapped in an abusive relationship that involved quite a bit of domestic violence. And I, the person who I was trapped with was a misogynist. And he was anti-feminist. And so I was able to hide from him when I worked on that manuscript. I was able to sort of go home and, and go into my imagination in order to take refuge from him. And so those questions of misogyny are questions that I'm revisiting in the process of writing that essay. And when Mean was released in 2017, its publication coincided with the rise of the Me Too movement. And Mean was written about as a beat to text and as a new to narrative. And that was purely coincidental. I was...

Gustavo Arellano: You're not giving yourself enough credit. Sorry for interrupting here, but you are really a prophetess. We all know we're all book lovers here. So we know you turn in something that had been worked on for years, the day when you turn it in, it still takes nine months to do. And then it came out just like you writing about American dirt and you, writing about Me Too. In a way, it's not coincidence Myriam. It's your brilliance. It really is.

Myriam Gurba: Thank you for saying that. I appreciate that. So, when Mean was published in the fall of 2017, because of the situation that I was in, I was unable to do the sort of press that I'd wanted to do for the book. And I had to cancel a lot of press because the person who was abusing me would actually listen to my interviews and confront me about statements I made during interviews because he was misogynist and he didn't want people to know what was happening in our home. And so I'm writing now about the irony of I'm publishing a book that was hailed as a Me Too narrative while I could not address misogyny publicly for fear of what would happen to me when I got home. So, those are themes that I'm exploring right now, and I'm trying to think through right now.

Gustavo Arellano: And it's incredible because you write in the book. You had the opportunity to be on the witness stand about your sexual assault when the murder trial of the victim Sophia Torres, and you chose not to. And you talk at length, it's this really great couple of passages. It's just about the idea of the stories you can share. And when you share, you still would hold some things to yourself. So in this case, this very traumatic moment in your life, now all of a sudden it became your refuge, at least the exploration of it. The exploration of how it impacted your life, and what it means about the bigger themes when it comes to women and violence from men.

Myriam Gurba: Yeah, exactly. And in retrospect, what I think I was engaged in was this process of constructing this sort of elaborate literary assemblage, that was mine and mine alone.

And it was something that the person who I was living with couldn't touch and couldn't access, so it was one of the few places where I could actually have privacy. And even though it was an exploration of my sort of darkest history so to speak, that history was also tempered by warmth because I also had the opportunity to explore the very warm parts of home in the warm parts of my upbringing, so it was a really strange experience.

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah. From Cassidy, you talked about structure. She asks, "I am not a big fan of memoirs, but Mean feels different from a typical memoir. I loved it. Is there a Troper style or something typical of memoirs that you specifically wanted to depart from or include that isn't normally a memoir?"

So there were two books that I was reacting to when I wrote Mean. And so in some regards Mean can be thought of as a reactionary text. And those two works 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. Lucky by Alice Sebold is a very linear, very spare, very elegant narration of Sebold's experience of sexual assault while she was at university. And then Maggie Nelson's The Red Parts is a memoir about the murder trial of an assailant who killed her aunt. And it also is very sort of linear and elegant. And it's storytelling. Both of those books were incredibly popular and widely read and they both adhere to what I would typify as a white aesthetic.

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, gender 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, survivors of gender violence are expected to follow a template for narrative or for storytelling, that robs us of freedom...

that takes agency from us. And I think that one indication that a victim or a survivor of that type of violence is healing, is our ability and our willingness to engage with spontaneity. But if you've got these ossified storytelling habits that prevents that sort of spontaneity from happening because you can't play and you can't experiment without spontaneity. And so what I wanted to do was challenge myself to engage and play and experimentation and spontaneity on writing by writing against the conventions that I found in both of those works.

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah. You never want to be ossified ever. I mean, just literally you don't want to be honest, that's a whole human experience. We fight against ossification, but especially when it comes to survivors of sexual assault. I covered of the Catholic church sex abuse scandal for years and years and years and there is no one single narrative. And anyone who tries to put these survivors in that narrative, it's like the worst form of patriarchy.

Myriam Gurba: Absolutely. And one of the things that I was most bothered by was the expectation that people who have survived or deals the sexual assault that I've experienced from 1996 and what Tommy Martinez and other victims experienced, was this notion that we need to talk about what happened to us with solemnity and with almost a reverential approach. And what I say to people is, sexual assault is one of the most disgusting and horrific things that can happen to a person. Why should I then have to write about it in a nearly sacral tone?

If what somebody did to me is repulsive and repugnant shouldn't then I'd be able to write according to a disgusting and repugnant sensibility. Shouldn't I be able to bring that to my narrative. And one of the things, one of the elements that is largely absent from trauma narratives is humor.

And I think that humor and horror exist side by side, and often it's difficult to determine where humor ends and hard begins and vice versa. And I wanted to extend an invitation to my readers to contemplate that sort of liminal space between humor and horror through my storytelling.

Gustavo Arellano: Oh, yeah. The book is just so brilliant. Again, I keep saying the word, [inaudible 01:02:48]. Brilliant in that... It's like it's this collision of the grotesque and just the hilarious, so many different passages. So let's get to some more of your passages. So read us a second passage, tell us the page number so we can all pull out your books or order them already in book passage and all that.

Myriam Gurba: Okay. So let's see. I will go ahead and read from the problem of evil. So the problem of evil is it begins on page 16 and it is two and a half pages long. So I'll go ahead and read the two and a half pages.

My brother, sister and I were raised as Catholics, and that comes through very clearly I think. In this brief chapter, the problem of evil.

It's okay to be mean, dad taught me so as he stood at the kitchen counter playing with his watch. I poured a glass of milk, gargled and gulped. I'd emerged from my bedroom after paging through a child's book of saints. Reading about morality had made me thirsty. I swished milk between my cheeks, warming it and thought about the books, martyrs and mystics. I admired them, especially the girls, but a pattern troubled me. Bad things happen to the saintliest ones.

Villagers lit them on fire pirates and aristocrats raped them. Barbarians carved their breasts and noses off. It seemed that the nicer you were, especially during the middle ages, the meaner of the world was.

"Dad?", I said.


"Why does evil exist?" Just a second he answered. He multi tasked pondering my inquiry about fiddling with his watch. The lack of a quick response made me uneasy.

Through my milk mustache I blurted, "Why does God let so many bad things happen?" I breathed through my mouth, waited.

Dad looked at me with the same face he made when I questioned the Easter Bunny's existence. In a matter of fact voice, he said, "Myriam, think of how boring life would be if nothing bad ever happened."

His words felt epiphanic. I smiled in my heart felt very, very warm. It was bathing in permission. What an excellent point. Why hadn't I arrived at that conclusion?

Dad's words, rehabilitated bad things. His logic made them beautiful, necessary, in fact. It isn't just greed that's good. Mean is good too. Being mean makes us feel alive. It's fun and exciting. Sometimes it keeps us alive. I'll keep reading a little bit more. I'll read for two more sections.

W.H. Auden wrote that evil is unspectacular. I totally disagree. Evil as dazzling. If it's done right, mean can be dazzling too. We act mean to defend ourselves from boredom and from those two 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.

I'll go ahead and stop there.

Gustavo Arellano: Awesome. I love the dis of Auden and talking about evil that's unspectacular. Goes back, the most famous, at least in journalism, the most famous depiction or comment of evil is the banality of evil [cross talking 01:06:47] talked about justice in Nuremberg? So you talk about means virtues, but I got to ask did Donald Trump ruin Mean?

Myriam Gurba: I don't think of him as mean, I think of him as cruel. And I think there's a... different [inaudible 01:07:07] cruel. And I think that there's an artfulness to being mean, but I don't necessarily think that there's an artfulness to cruelty. And to me mean is like a very sort of campy term and Trump isn't necessarily campy. I think some people might describe him as such. I just think of him as tacky. So I [inaudible 01:07:29]

Gustavo Arellano: That's hilarious. Okay. So more comments from the audience, a compliment from Carol Nina, "It's so profound and affected me deeply, Myriam. I want to thank you for your courage and amazing way with words." And I got to talk about the words for a little bit. You have some things obviously a reflection of your literary background. You read all the grades in English and in Spanish so you know how to turn a phrase. Other stuff is stream of consciousness. Like the one that made me laugh, you had this comment, I think it's an elementary school, definitely you're facing off against the boys. And one of the idiots is [Raymundo 01:08:07]. And you're talking about [Raymundo 01:08:08], in just on one sentence you're like, oh this asshole [Raymundo 01:08:11] that means King world, what the hell is up with that? Then he, of course, he comes up with this [come ups 01:08:18] and where did you get that sense of humor? I mean, we got your stylistic icons. Well, let's talk about humor. Where did you get your humor aspect?

Myriam Gurba: So I think that I come from a funny family, and I come from a Mexican family and a Chicano family. And Mexicans have a very macabre sense of humor.

Like our sense of humor is rooted in everything horrible. So Mexicans will take the horrible and then we'll look for the funniest thing in it. Do you know what I mean?

Gustavo Arellano: Oh, yeah.

Myriam Gurba: I remember one of my uncles arguing with my dad and they were arguing about something grotesque. They were arguing about [foreign language 01:09:17] I think. One of the cartels had left a sack with some human heads in it, right? And so they-

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah, I know where this is going, but tell him, you got to tell him because he's got [foreign language 01:09:38].

Myriam Gurba: They had left a sack with human head. And so my dad was mentioning the sack and my Theo was saying, no you're wrong. And my dad was no, I'm right. And then we're going back and forth, back and forth about the sack and heads. And then my dad goes no, Roberto they didn't leave it in front of [foreign language 01:09:54] they left it one block away. It just the punchline is in the most absurd but now it wasn't about whether or not it was a sack of seven heads or eight heads. It was where the heads got left. You know what I mean?

These are the people who raised me, they find humor in the grotesque because you're forced to do that. You're forced to do that when somebody is leaving sacks of heads in front of an opera house. Humor is something that I've used across my lifespan as a proverbial coping mechanism and my mother noticed it really early. And this is a story that my mother told me. She said to me that when I was really little, around five or six, she had noticed that I'm... when she would take me to gatherings with adults or cocktail parties or wherever, she noticed that I enjoyed approaching adults, not other children. I would approach adults. And I would tell these wild stories. Right, and typically they would take a turn for the bizarre and for the grotesque. And my mom wondered if I wasn't a little touched, you know what I mean?

She was like, what is theory of doing? She was concerned. So one day she observed me engaged in this practice, right? So I had staked out who I was going to go tell my story to. And then when I was finished telling the story, my mom said that she noticed a look of anticipation on my face and she realized, Oh, Myriam's entertaining herself. That's what she's doing. And she decided to leave me alone because she recognized that everybody needs a hobby we all have to pass time in life and this was mine. I have my family's blessing in being a weirdo but they're funny. My mom is a really good storyteller. My mom has just a gift of gab. My mom can tell a story for days that never really resolves, but it'll keep you interested because of all the bizarre turns that it takes. And then my dad is much more sort of joke driven and also pun driven. My dad is like master of puns.

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah and in Spanish, especially you have so many different types of plans. You have that book which is asexual type of bond. You have Justin. And we also love just the corniness in the language, we also just love to talk, being flashed, the legendary Mexican comic, there's even a bird named African Canty means to talk, just to talk. And I didn't see that with your work. I thought every single sentence was specifically constructed with that point, but you're in a way you were very much like a comic where you would set up your point but you always had a punchline just to make people laugh and push them into that next level or whatnot, just the energy of the book is just what's incredible. Even at its darkest passages, it just keeps thriving. I remember I re-read it last night and I was starting to fall asleep just because it was like 11:30 at night. Then I start getting to this passages I'm nope it's just took me all the way through.

Myriam Gurba: Some of that also comes from having taught high school because I taught high school, public high school for about 20 years. And when you're a teacher and especially if you're a teacher who looks like me. I'm really petite and I'm femme and I'm Chicana. I cannot command attention with my authoritative presence. Look at me for fuck sake. I have to hold people's attention using something else. When I'm in a classroom I typically rely on novelty, right. Because novelty always inspires curiosity and then humor and wit and you have to be able to outwit the class wit, so you have to be able to one up the class clown, if you want to own that room, especially if you're somebody who looks like me, you have to be able to... Not necessarily put the clown in their place, but you have to be the clowns pier. That was a lesson. So I've learned a lot from class clowns too.

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah. You could be any class clown in any room you would've made a killing in Hollywood that prep it soulless place and just own all writers' rooms. But now we don't need to lose you to that. According to my notes now I'm supposed to ask a big question about California and literature. So that's, let's do it. So where do you see California literature specifically in the memoir category going through? Because we love our memoirs. We love our Joan Didion's, who you have had some brilliant take downs on my Facebook page. One of my friends just hated Myriam, just because how dare you attack Joan Didion dude, we could all brag on Joan Didion, David who edited a collection of Joan Didion could have his Joan Didion jokes. You have especially the earliest writings of California in English and in Spanish, raw, travel logs, memoirs and all that. So where do you see California memoir going?

Myriam Gurba: I imagine that California is going to become the epicenter of art, our national literature.

Because of demographics. And because I've the future that demography holds, right? California was the first state to become quote and quote minority majority 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 part of our national entertainment. And so I think that with enough push and up hard work, the literary landscape and the publishing industries landscape is going to change and we're going to see sort of a shift in terms of the importance of California. And I really do think that our nation's literature is going to center California.

Gustavo Arellano: Give a shout out to a underrated California memoir.

Myriam Gurba: Wendy C. Ortiz's Excavation. He's an incredibly important memoir. And it is again, another story of I'm Chicana girlhood. And it's a story of Chicana girlhood that is again fraught with danger and marked by exploitation. And once again, I'm Chicanos have historically been targeted for exploitation of all sorts in the US Southwest. And that's the result of imperialism. We were a colonized people. So of course the exploitation is going to persist. And Wendy does an incredibly masterful job of telling the story of her girlhood while simultaneously telling the story of Los Angeles. And those are my favorite sorts of narratives. Narratives that really allow place to become the main character without the reader necessarily being beat over the head with the notion that place is leading and place is protagonist.

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah. Awesome book. And now especially with California, since we are such a huge state, there's so many different definitions of place and even within a supposed place, the memoir of somebody of a Chicana who grew up in Karahi, it's going to be different than one who grew up in East LA, even though they're literally like five miles away, or even in Long Beach, the memoir of somebody who grew up in Cambodia town's going to be different from say a middle-class Chicana who grew up in big city knows.

Myriam Gurba: Absolutely. And right now I'm working on an essay that I'm calling not a personal essay, but an interpersonal essay. The essay is being written with my pre-modern Desi, and Desi was raised in La Morada and Whittier. And she ran away as a teenager to East Los Angeles and became deeply entrenched in gang life. She wants to tell that story and when we were kids, when we were 12 and 13 years old Deseret and I used to play gangster, like some kids play cops and robbers, we played Chingona. We played gang and we had a two girl gang. It was called [foreign language 01:19:39].

And one of us grew up to be a writer and the other grew up to be a gangster. And she wants to tell her OG story now. So we're going to tell the story as [foreign language 01:19:53].

Gustavo Arellano: Oh, that's so awesome. Well, that's actually a great girl gang group, a girl gang, a girl gang, or look a sad-

Myriam Gurba: Oh no, it's too. We took photos. We have a whole shoot of the two of us. And the photos are wild because we have the hair, we have the clothes, we have like these mean looks on our faces. But if you look in our eyes, we are terrified 12 and 13. We're all. Do you know what I mean, and it's petty, my brother and sister were checking out the photos too. And my brother and sister going well, where were we in these photos? And we're like, damn asses you guys took the photos. That's why you're not in the photos. We forced you to photograph us.

Gustavo Arellano: Oh my God. So we were supposed to end at six, but my notes said, if this conversation still have gas, we could go on for like 10 more minutes. I say, this conversation still has gas. So come more questions. Let's go to Maryann, Maryann and this gets to the big hubbub that Myriam has been involved with these past couple of years of Larry world over the past year. How difficult was it after the American Dirt essay came out, how difficult is it to be honest these days? And thank you for your fierce honesty.

Myriam Gurba: That is a good question. And I like that she asks about the difficulty of honesty. So I'm being honest, comes with a cost.

So if a person is going to be honest and be very sincere and speak very authentically, according to their moral compass, they are going to have to pay a price and they're going to have to face certain risks. I understood that to some extent around the time of the publication of the American Dirt essay. I didn't realize how high the cost would be. And I discovered that once the people in my own community, my own peers began to question what I was doing and to critique what I was doing. that was like a difficult moment. I had to navigate quite a bit of hostility that came from unforeseen sources,

Gustavo Arellano: The worst kind, the people who you think are going to have your back, or at least agree with you and no they're, they're the ones who put into knife harder than anyone.

Myriam Gurba: Absolutely. What surprised me the most was when I did receive violent threats or violent insinuations, people threatening retaliation for what I had done, I didn't receive support from folks that I thought I was going to receive support from. So that was surprising. What I'm going to say is a cliche that everybody listening is probably familiar with, but it really did a very good job of unmasking for me, who is brave, who in my world is brave and who in my world and in my circle is a coward. And unfortunately I learned that the cowards outnumbered the people with courage.

Gustavo Arellano: Horrible, and how pathetic do you have to be to be an American Dirt fan boy or fan girl to do that? It's horrible. Not that an abuse is ever good, but for that but come on, you're really going to defend that shit.

Myriam Gurba: It's super lame. And then the thing that I really relish reminding people of is that I did not pan American Dirt. In fact, I endorsed it because I said it is the perfect book for your local self-righteous gringa book club. So if that's not an endorsement, I don't know what is.

Gustavo Arellano: In California book club is not a white gringa, lame gringa book club. Otherwise we want to have someone like Myriam. That's absolutely hilarious. One of the things I, we're almost out of time here, but one of the things I love about Myriam and I said this earlier was just her knowledge of literature and just that, just brutal take down. I told her this, we didn't really rehearsed any of these questions, but the one thing I did tell her on Twitter, via DM is, I want to do a lightning round with you. I'm going to put up an author that you trashed in Mean and just quick responses to why. Some of them were surprising, some of them made me laugh. So Gertrude Stein?

Myriam Gurba: Oh my God. I actually do like Gertrude Stein a lot. I like what she does with language and I love her repetition. So I admit I love her repetitions and I love her books I love them with much love.

Gustavo Arellano: 1920s with Alice Pitokas. Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities?

Myriam Gurba: I couldn't do it. It was assigned my sophomore year. And I was like fuck Madam Defarge I can't do this too much knitting.

Gustavo Arellano: You described it as all you remember was beheading and knitting that just completely made me laugh. I couldn't tell if you liked Hart Crane or not and since I read that late at night, are you hating on Ambrose Bierce? Because Ambrose Bierce was G.

Myriam Gurba: It wasn't that hating on him. The reason that I brought up Ambrose Bierce was because he seemed to me to be this Anglo American with a death wish. And he went to Mexico to execute that death wish that's disappointing. You want to kill yourself? Kill yourself at home. Don't go use Mexico as your toilet. That was the only beef that I really had with Bierce. Then Hart Crane, I just feel sorry for, because to be a queer poet living in that time, I mean, of course he threw himself over the side of a boat. I probably would have too. So-

Gustavo Arellano: Seriously at that time, what else can you do? Sadly?

Myriam Gurba: Exactly.

Gustavo Arellano: Then the one that made me laugh the loudest, and again, it gets... It is great way to conclude because I think it just wraps up everything that mean is both the brilliance and just like the brutality of it. Richard Rodriguez?

Myriam Gurba: Oh my God.

Gustavo Arellano: Go up with it then I'm going to say what your line was about Richard Rodriguez.

Myriam Gurba: I can't Stand him the hunger of memory, dude, right? Oh God. Oh. So when I was at Cal had that memoir, we was one of the only works on any syllabi written by a Chicano. I was like of all the bull shit to feed to us. You're going to give us Mr. Fucker affirmative action. This is what you're going to give us. And I remember I went to a professor's office to talk to him about it. And he was kind of taken aback. I was 18 or 19 years old. And he was like this geezer who was like an institution in the history department. And I was just sorry you need to fix your syllabus. I gave him some suggestions of things to replace it with, but I was all of the things to give us you're going to give us this offensive text? And did he teach at Stanford?

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah. I mean he... for a little he-

Myriam Gurba: Oh, that's Berkeley's fall. Why are you going to give us text from our rival school?

Gustavo Arellano: And then the line that you had, that this is what had me rolling. So you mentioned Richard Rodriguez and then you say, I'd rather read Richard Ramirez The Night Stalker, again you read that and this is one of the worst serial killer. Definitely he was the boogeyman of my childhood in Southern California growing up in the eighties. There is nothing funny about him whatsoever, but when you put it in that way, you're rolling on the ground laughing. You're like, Oh my God, that's beyond the pale but fuck was that fucking funny?

Myriam Gurba: Thank you. I have a piece coming out. I think it might publish tomorrow on Jezebel about the Richard Ramirez Netflix series.

Gustavo Arellano: Oh yeah.

Myriam Gurba: Did you see it? Did you watch it?

Gustavo Arellano: No. Is it good?

Myriam Gurba: It's trash. It's for murder heads. It's hyper voyeuristic and it basically just jerks off the sheriffs. Do you know what I mean?

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah that's why I don't like [crosstalk 01:29:15].

Myriam Gurba: Get the fuck out of here the sheriffs were so great. So I eviscerated. So that might publish tomorrow on Jezebel.

Gustavo Arellano: All right folks. And then last thing for you, Myriam. If people want to catch up with everything you write, how can they keep up with you?

Myriam Gurba: I'm really active on Twitter. My handle is less brains, so you can find me there. And then if you want to see pictures of me in a bikini, you can follow me on Instagram. I'm all Myriam Gurba 666 and then I have a Facebook, which is really tame because all my extended family is always dropping into my Facebook shit. I also am the editor in chief of a magazine of criticism, commentary and social analysis called Tasteful Rude. I occasionally publish myself. Today's piece is an essay on a racial politics in Texas and the polar vortex. So I invite you all to check it out.

Gustavo Arellano: Awesome. And then final comment from one of the readers' Mean feels like it gave me permission for the way that I already think and privately cope with my experience. So Myriam, thank you so much for joining us.

Myriam Gurba: Thank you.

Gustavo Arellano: Always great to talk. We got to once this stupid pandemics over let's catch up and hablamos.

Myriam Gurba: Definitely thank you so much.

Gustavo Arellano: All right David, take it away.

David L. Ulin: All right. Thanks Gustavo. Thank you, Miriam. That was a remarkable conversation. Thanks to both of you for being here. This interview will be up at if you want to revisit it. Next month's book is the Mars Room by Rachel Kushner and that book club event will be on May 20th, a reminder on the sale for Alta membership for And please participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as this event ends. Stay safe, stay well. Get back to me to see you next month.•

Coffee House Press

Mean by Myriam Gurba

Coffee House Press
Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below