Myriam Gurba, "Mean"
Review of Mean, by Myriam Gurba
Book of the Month, July 2020
Written by Las Comadres Book Club member and DC Public Library staff person, Gabi K.H.
Mean is a memoir like non other I've read before. The book begins with a gruesome murder, and quickly pivots to Gurba's childhood in Southern California. The reader comes face-to-face with her cutting wit and sharp words, as Gurba describes her family and community.
From the beginning of the book, I marveled at Gurba's appreciation for, and defense of, being mean. When she asks her father why evil exists, he says that without evil, it would be a very boring world indeed. She immediately turns this thinking on him when he gets upset with Gurba, her sister, or her mom for being a "bitch," taunting him in her head that to his point, they're merely keeping things interesting. Seldom does a reader find the playful and thoughtful nature, almost an art form, behind being mean, in books. Villains are often mindlessly or inexplicably mean, whereas Gurba's meanness is complex and intentional. I admired Gurba's ability to recognize the power in meanness from a young age, perhaps because I was such an obedient and complacent child. As I've gotten older, and not until my late twenties, have I had the confidence to embrace being flagrantly mean.
The reader begins to meet and understand Gurba's way of thinking as well as identity as a Mexican-American, daughter of immigrants, and queer woman, as she introduces us to her childhood, teen years and college at the University of California, Berkeley. During the Comadres discussion, I shared that the beginning, and majority of, Mean focused on Gurba's character and personality, rather than the series of events that make up her experiences. Something that deeply resonated with me is the candor and sharpness with which Whiteness is addressed throughout the book. Gurba speaks unabashedly and unapologetically about Whiteness, the privilege, and often, arrogance, behind this identity; when comparing her mother's beautiful, chiseled face to a White mom's, Gurba describes it as "mashed potatoes from a box." Again, the description of Whiteness may strike some readers as mean, but not only is it hilarious, it is carried out in such a cunning manner, my hope is that readers are able to see the craft behind Gurba's writing.
Gurba's life is suddenly changed following a traumatic incident, and the reader sees only a sliver of the darkness. Perhaps Gurba chose to limit what was shared for self-preservation, or consideration for the reader, or to keep the memoir from falling too deep into the shadows. Whatever the reason, I respected the choice. Most of all, I admired how Gurba was able to integrate so much humor and lightness into her story, while conveying the severity of the effects these terrible events have had on her life. I felt that the humor and levity was as much a coping mechanism for Gurba as it was for the reader.
Gurba's writing made me sit up straighter while reading, forcing myself to slow down and pace myself, to fully appreciate the text. I closed my eyes and laughed aloud at her wit. During the more difficult parts of the book, I would hold the book in my arms and nod in silent consolation. Some of the best stories derive from real experiences, and though we only witnessed select chapters of Gurba's life, it was an emotional, exciting, hilarious and joyous ride to get to know Myriam Gurba.