"I know I can be mean, but I also want to be likable. I just don't want to be so likable anyone wants to rape me," writes Myriam Gurba in Mean, her new, radically experimental memoir published this month. The book is a study in the utility and limits of niceness, especially when it comes to being a nice girl—and the political power of being mean.
Mean is an untraditional coming-of-age story, haunted by the spirit of Sophia Castro Torres, a Mexican "transient" raped and murdered by the same man who would later sexually assault Gurba. A visual and spoken-word artist in addition to being a writer, Gurba uses the visual and aural qualities of words to push her prose in unexpected, sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-disturbing directions.
From a young age, Gurba, a queer, Polish-Chicana girl growing up in a small Southern California town, has noticed the shifting meanings of the word "mean." Reading a children's collection of the lives of saints, she observes that bad things befell the pious and saintly with startling regularity. "Villagers lit them on fire. Pirates and aristocrats raped them. Barbarians cut their breasts and noses off. It seemed the nicer you were, especially in the Middle Ages, the meaner the world was."
Gurba discovers that the fifth grade—much like the Middle Ages—doesn't necessarily reward virtuous victims. After taunts of "wetback" set off a playground race war, Gurba finds herself in the awkward position of being commanded to apologize to the white girls who spat out the racial slurs. By correctly labeling them racists, she has set off a flood of tears. It's a childish recreation of a scene that women of color face all too often: When they implicate white women's racism, they're suddenly cast as the mean ones, for having caused white women to experience feelings of guilt and shame.
A few years later, Gurba discovers that a similar predicament awaits those who draw attention to sexual harassment and assault. Though she longs to call out the boy who molested her during her seventh-grade history class, she "sensed that if I yelped, I'd look liked the bad guy, [so] I obeyed [his] shh. I swallowed my chance at rescue."
Gurba's schooldays educate her in what she describes as "the queer art of being mean." She learns that being mean can be a form of solidarity, as when you call someone whom your friend hates a "cunt." It can be self-defense, and a way to reclaim the stereotypes thrust upon you—a strategy sorely needed in the face of casual racism and homophobia, as well as the sexual violence she encounters. Being mean, she discovers, is fun. Sometimes, Gurba writes, it "keeps us alive," especially in the aftermath of her sexual assault.
Gurba's use of the word "queer" is a reminder that minority social movements, including queer activist groups like ACT UP, have often been smeared with some variation on "mean." In 1990, following a massive protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the New York Times called ACT Up "rude [and] rash," their tactics "a mixture of the shrill and the shrewd." Black liberation movements from Martin Luther King Jr. to Black Lives Matter have been characterized by the government and the mainstream press as aggressive and extremist. As King observed in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," niceness doesn't go very far in taking power. "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation."
Reclaiming meanness, therefore, is a political act. At their sharpest, Gurba's small acts of meanness highlight the cruelty of pervasive, systemic racism, misogyny, and homophobia. She particularly enjoys making fun of white girls, like the one who attempts to save a parking spot during move-in day on the crowded streets surrounding the University of California–Berkeley. "The white girl looked at something beyond us, at something we couldn't see. Maybe the white privilege fairy," Gurba writes. "She was steadfast in her colonization."
Though she struggles with an eating disorder following her assault, Gurba latches onto meanness as a politically and emotionally attractive alternative to the victimhood and passivity expected of good girls. Gurba observes that saints like Blessed Columba saved themselves from sexual violation by self-abnegation in the form of anorexia. "Death by anorexia is a fail-safe sexual-assault prevention technique," she notes drily.
"'Being mean' not only affords unique pleasures to the speaker or writer, but is a crucial rhetorical weapon of the politically excluded," writes Amber A'Lee Frost, the writer and podcaster who coined the term "the dirtbag left." If meanness can be a weapon, it's useful to ask who the weapon is directed against—and whether Gurba's barbs always hit their intended target. There are certain instances in Mean where I couldn't discern any kind of political usefulness to a jab, or when a particular jeer came off very badly—"The shower heads in our locker room were pointless," Gurba writes at one point. "They had as much use as the showerhead in Oświęcim. That's Polish for Auschwitz."
"Mean," of course, also means to signify or indicate. "When we say fuck you, we don't want it to be experimental," Gurba wrote in an essay exploring the dearth of experimental Chicana literature. "We want our fuck yous to be real." But in Mean, Gurba deploys formal experimentation in the service of her fuck yous: Her short, deceptively simple sentences, connected by rude puns and odd jumps in logic, make her observations and dismissals pop.
Some of her chapters are the length of a single blunt sentence; others are lengthier explorations of sainthood, queer sexuality, and Spanglish, among much else. The variations in chapter length interrupt the linear flow of a conventional memoir, punctuating her story with moments of resonance from Sophia's life, and from the lives of feminist artists like Ana Mendieta. Gurba uses these ostensible interruptions to underscore what these women have in common: Each has been, or is believed to be, the victim of gender-based violence. (Many art-world feminists believe that Mendieta's husband, the notable sculptor Carl Andre, murdered his wife by throwing her out a window. He was acquitted of the crime.)
Interruptions are rude: Gurba points out that ghosts, like Sophia and Mendieta, are discourteous creatures, always breaking into the otherwise pleasant lives of rapists, murderers, and even their survivors. "Guilt is a ghost," she observes. "Guilt interrupts narratives. It does so impolitely. Ghosts have no etiquette. What do they need it for?"