Reverse Alchemy, Magnification, and “Aggressive Squirrels”: An Interview With Myriam Gurba


Today my dearest books are shaped for cities—books to curl around on the coffeeshop stool, books to read in differently lighted squares on the train. Books to loan to friends and enemies, to ask about in public libraries. And because these books regularly speak to my experience right now, in this horrific political moment populated by racists, trickled-out economies, skeletal polar bears (and deep, fierce familial love), reading them keeps me in my body. This keeps me connected to the world, and to you. Like me you’ve probably said, heard, listened to folks saying (yelling, tagging, singing) “Me, too” even before Tarana Burke did in 2006. Like me you’re probably still deeply in that moment – how could we not be? – but ready for another one too. The bro-zone layer is thick. Now what?

Myriam Gurba’s memoir Mean is about sexual assault as I believe it should be discussed, yes: everywhere – not as a lighting bolt and a short skirt but as a loud fixed moment complicated, glitched, burned and dodged by race, desire, sex, family, and ghosts. And time. And yellow roses. And masculinity. And Ana Mendieta and Taco Bell. This is a truth I live and hear. This book is testament, translation, smackdown, and also it’s hella funny. Hella is a word Myriam uses too.

I am not summarizing Mean because I want you to read it first, and then I want us to tell each other about it. But first, here: read this conversation with Myriam over email in January 2018. I wanted to talk because I think her book is vital.

When did you start writing Mean? And when did it start inside your brain?

I think I maybe started writing it seven years ago. I’m not sure. I’m not sure when it started inside my brain either. I do remember that I wanted to write about experiencing sexual assault, and its aftermath, in a non-reverential way. Many narratives I’d read about the subject had a solemn tone and I wanted little to no solemnity in my recounting. I wanted to make it weird. I wanted to do things you’re not supposed to do when discussing sexual assault. Like make jokes. Bad ones.

Why not solemn? Obviously people pay more attention to humor sometimes—especially if you’re onstage. I know you know. Or they laugh at recognition—like, of course it was your period underwear that day. But I’m also an Irish catholic who starts laughing at funerals—it doesn’t feel like something I can control. It feels like a horrified kind of grief. What I mean is: did you make a choice not to be solemn, or is this “just” how the story came out?

It’s interesting that you mention the stage because I’ve toured quite a bit and typically write work with the question “what if I read this live?” That forces me to “listen” to my work. I listen silently, in my head, but I also read my work aloud to myself as I’m editing and revising.

As for why humor, you anecdotally answered the question! You laughed at death because that’s how you can safely get as close to it as possible. That’s how you can be friends with it. That’s how you shrink your enemy and alchemize it. We tend to think of alchemy as turning the mundane into the magical, exotic, or powerful but it works in reverse too.

Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that “[l]aughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making of it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it.”

Humor is a state of the art laboratory in which some artists work.

I appreciate writing that questions piety because piety is used as a prophylactic against reality. Historically, pieties that invoke femininity and womanhood haven’t served women and have done more to restrict our autonomy than enhance our social and political freedom. Irreverence multiplies freedom, irreverence destroys authority, and I think irreverence, as opposed to doxa and ideology, is what feminism needs more of. In fact, as a result of some feminisms, which I think cater to patriarchy, the way Americans value sexual abuse and assault has changed. Piety burdens the way we think and talk about the experience, and experiences of violation have come to dominate discussions of female autonomy. It’s a paradigm. According to this paradigm, to be sexually violated is to be a woman. How essentializing to have my personhood reduced to one shitty event. I respond by rejecting that construction. This is why I can laugh about sexual violence. I’m not a woman because I was sexually assaulted. The man who attacked me did not give birth to my womanhood but treating my sexual assault as a gendered rite of passage suggests that it has that power. That event was not my female baptism. No way.

Yes. No way. You write “A possessive part of me wants to hoard this story. I want to chipmunk or squirrel away the memories of all the other rapes, attempted rapes, and gropes, memories that will never be released or consumed. When a man asked, ‘What did he do to you?’ he’s asking to eat one of those traumatic acorns. Girls never ask for these seeds. They know what it’s like to be degraded and fucked by this world, to be made a big-time bottom by life. . . I want to be a likable female narrator. / But I also enjoy being mean.”

Were meanness and squirrels always a part of this story for you?

Sure. Sexual assault is a pretty mean thing. But it’s not the meanest.

True. Another thing I admire about your book is that you are very clear about how assault is a spectacularly terrible thing but also, it does not always freeze a life: completely, 24/7. Like, you can have sex and lover/s afterwards. You can work and read, and faint, and you can write about these things without cramming them into some anti-sex faux-happy-ending story.

Again, humor prevents one from having to tell bullshit stories. We do tell ourselves stories to stay alive but the way and manner in which we tell our stories matters. Framework, style, and tone matter. I can tell a solemn story about the ways in which sexual assault harmed me and how that harm continues to reverberate, centering completely on that and aggrandizing the role of violence in my life, or I can tell the story of what it means to live as a woman more completely and less sympathetically. In addition to being a victim of sexual violence, I can incorporate the facts of my life as a student, a teacher, a daughter, a friend, a nose-picker, an artist, a lover and a bitch into my narrative. I don’t want to write myself a halo. I want guts.

I was working at a school with aggressive squirrels when I was working on Mean. I guess they made a substantial impression and squirreled their way into my imagination.

You write about mean and likable as opposites—how deep did you go into the etymology of mean? Prepping for our talk, I read that originally, mean didn’t mean “bad” but just like, “not the best.” An arithmetic mean.

I like the word mean because of its association with girls, mean girls. I’ve always been attracted to mean girls, and I like mean men, too, but I really, really like the kind of mean humor that women and certain queeny men excel at. I’m using the word in a campy sense to mean that sort of mean but also to not mean mean at all. I’m using it as shorthand for cruel. Does cruelty exist on a spectrum? When does malice graduate from mean to cruel? Must there be pettiness involved for something to be described as mean? If so, then sexual assault can be characterized as mean because I think sex crimes are often motivated by masculine pettiness. Sometimes, I think sexual assaults are a form of petty revenge motivated by the pain of rejection.

Speaking of rejection, how did you know / learn what to keep secret? I ask specifically because I think it’s rad that you talk about yourself so clearly in some ways (being a high school teacher, the names of your own schools, Ofelia’s illness, etc.) but not others (your wife). Was this a conscious choice? An intuition?

Dropping my ex-wife into the story would have made a mess. So I wrote around her.

A structural mess?

A chronological mess.

I asked my sister for permission to discuss her relationship, and lack thereof, to food. She gave it. As far as self-disclosure, I tell what I have to when I have to for the art of it. If the art calls for pornography, and by pornography I mean crass magnification, then I indulge it. If it doesn’t, I shut the blinds. I might let you see a silhouette.

When does art call for pornography?

The art lets you know. That’s between you and the work. It whispers, “Give me pornography.” Lol.

There are yellow roses in your book. (I tossed some in the Platte River last month myself.) Are there yellow roses in other parts of your life?

I keep dried roses in my home and place them at the feet of melancholic holy statues. Flowers are great. Wild ones are the best. Mexican sage excites me, especially when hummingbirds sip from it. Poppies excite me because they’re so bright and they represent California. Picking California Golden Poppies is fun because it feels criminal to pluck them. They’re the state flower. It’s very romantic to achieve criminality through flower harvest.

In Mean yellow roses often connect to Sophia, who haunts the book and you. How did you decide – technically – to write about ghosts? (TBH I see them too, and I am not asking you to talk about personal spiritual visions on the internet, but) – You’ve talked about Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a guide. I remember being so amazed by that red light, like, it’s just ON and everyone SEES IT and that is a FACT. My mother always talked to me about ghosts but I don’t think I’d ever read about them that obviously and familiarly until I read Beloved. Did you decide how to write about Sophia, or did she tell you?

I love ghost stories. They’re my favorite kind of story to listen to. I like fear, courting fear is my favorite pleasure, and I love the fear that ghost stories generate. Ghosts have long been a go-to for me as a subject because of this taste and I think this has to do with my ancestry. My mother is Mexican and my dad is half Mexican and Mexicans have a different relationship to death than Americans do. It’s much more familiar. As a kid, when I’d visit Mexico, I’d notice that people discussed the dead differently than they do in the United States. They talked about the dead visiting. Dropping in. They talked about seeing them. And nobody treated those who saw ghosts as crazy. Ghosts are a predictable part of the Mexican landscape.

As far as Sophia, I wrote about her in terms of how I experience her, through emotional haunting.

How did you know where to end Mean?

I wanted to end it anti-climactically with an inverted catharsis, the catharsis itself being undercut by its tainting. I wanted to end with a really stripped down epiphany about pleasure and violence. I wanted to remind the reader that as they take aesthetic pleasure in the act of reading, there’s someone else on this planet who can’t do that because she’s dying. And no one is probably going to tell her story. Catharsis, and her sister, closure, are myths.


Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.