‘Mean:’ A Memoir of Touch

4 Stars

Mean cover
Courtesy of Coffee House Press

In “Mean,” Myriam Gurba writes, “Art is one way to work out touch gone wrong.” That is fitting, as her memoir is a kind of collage, a bulletin board onto which she has pinned the cut–up memories of her life. She takes these fragments of her life and connects them with the fingerprints that others have left on her body. Analyzing her experience through the lens of her identity as a queer, mixed-race Chicana feminist, Gurba navigates these intersections with honesty and humor. Her memoir examines themes of gender, race, and sexual assault in a way so accessible and raw that it challenges us to see each of the three not as distant concepts, but as tangible realities. Each story, each memory, reaches out and touches us. “Mean” is, more than anything, a memoir of touch.

The memoir opens with the touch of a ghost. Sophia Torres was raped and beaten to death in a park in Gurba’s hometown of Santa Maria on November 15, 1996. Gurba’s form morphs from poetic verse into a vivid description of Torres’s assault. And much of her memoir floats between verse, prose, and inserted police or news reports. She writes of feeling Sophia’s lingering presence. “Guilt is a ghost,” she writes, “Sometimes, in my car, I realize I’ve been listening to this Mexican music I’m not really into … I think, ‘Why am I listening to this? I don’t even like this.’ Then I’ll remember: Sophia...” In telling her own story, Gurba tells Sophia’s too. Tucked within the pages of her novel is a eulogy to a woman she never met and yet, through the touch of another, is tied to forever.

In middle school, a boy touches Myriam Gurba beneath the desk. Youth is no utopia, nor is it an excuse, and its controversies are on trial here. Gurba calls out behavior for what it is, and does not lie about her response. Nagged by the memory of unasked-for hands on her body, she finds new hands to cover them up. The layers pile up beneath the high school bleachers until the offending handprints can no longer be felt. When a boy puts his genitals in a gopher hole on the playground, she does not laugh or mock. She writes, “He sexually assaulted it and they took him away in an ambulance.” There is little empathy or coddling in her description. The boy put his genitals where they did not belong, just as the other boy put his hands where they did not belong, where they did not have permission to enter. She names this sexual assault. Her language is intentional, with no room for exception. It treats everyone and everything the same.

Race and gender, in “Mean,” are backdrops, targets, and breaths. They are transient and they are trained. Gurba drinks black coffee and tastes masculinity. She stays with a friend and writes, “The things in her room were teaching Emily how to be a woman.” Again, she is intentional, identifying the constricting influence of gender roles in even the most seemingly innocuous of circumstances. Even death has a gender: “She likes to flirt.” As a child, Gurba is targeted for her Mexican heritage. She says of one prejudiced elementary schooler, “She was checking to see if I breathed in English or some other language. Breaths do happen in different languages. They are onomatopoetry.” She marries her two languages of English and Spanish together, never letting you forget how proud she is to be Mexican and how beautiful her culture is.

The most evocative parts of Gurba’s memoir, and the most difficult to read, are those in which she deals with unwanted touch. Her strength in retelling her own assault is not only the climax, but a breaking point: It is where the novel splits in two. The novel becomes, save some jumping back and forth through time, a before and after. The fault line is a sidewalk crack at midday, the spot where she is attacked. Her reflection is heart-wrenching, yet she still maintains her ability to detach from what she is describing and probe it to find the wider implications. “Somewhere on this planet, a man is touching a woman to death,” she writes, “Somewhere on this planet, a man is about to touch a woman to death.” Her observations and her experiences are completely uncensored, and her memoir is better for it.

Hauntingly, beautiful, and refreshingly blunt, Gurba’s “Mean” is an open door through which she invites you to experience her life, in all its beauty and struggle. I suggest you walk through it.

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