MEAN

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - BOOK REVIEWS - Myr­iam Gurba ( emily Books/cof­fee house Press )

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.

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