Myriam Gurba’s Mean is a brutally honest memoir about sexuality, race, gender, and trauma in a small town. Although it tells Gurba’s story, the book blurs traditional conventions of the memoir genre by weaving in poetry, feminist theory, and cultural criticism.
Mean is for the I Love Dick crowd, but it’s decidedly more for the fans of the Toby, Devon,
and Paula plotlines added to the tv series that uplift queer voices and women of color. These new plotlines expose the white heteronormativity of Chris Kraus’s novel and how ready audiences are to hear sharp cultural criticism from women of color and lgbtq folks.
Enter Mean, which offers a lot about Gurba’s Mexican-polish background, childhood, family, and playground race wars. Soon, we’re learning about the first boy to touch her—under her desk in junior high while the teacher looks away. Thus begins, for Gurba as well as for most women, a lifelong desire to be deemed beautiful and likable and to be safe from harm, which proves to be a heartbreakingly difficult feat—or, as Gurba writes, “Somewhere out there [...] a woman is getting touched to death.” For Gurba’s sister, this desire manifests as an eating disorder, which the writer tenderly examines in relation to religious fervor. And Gurba’s ability to feel safe is shattered by a sexual assault the summer after her first year of college.
Mean is a reflection on the ways women heal from such trauma. Sexuality, art as “one way to work out touch gone wrong,” and feminism exist as possible paths of healing; some of the best parts of the book are Gurba’s explorations of these paths, like when she takes an art theory class, discovers Hannah Wilke, and begins making her own art. Mean is also a meditation on why evil exists, and how being mean is survival tactic—a theme explored via the rape and murder of a Santa Maria woman, Sophia, whose story is inexorably interwoven with our heroine’s.
Steeped in the complexities of identity— queer identity, hyphenated-american identity, Chicana identity, sexual-assault-survivor identity—mean, with its dark humor, vivid sensory descriptions, and acerbic criticism of white America’s racial myopia, couldn’t be better timed. If this is the literary future, perhaps it will save us all.