by Myriam Gurba

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“A painfully timely story . . . an artful memoir . . . a powerful, vital book about damage and the ghostly afterlives of abuse.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
True crime, memoir, and ghost story, Mean is the bold and hilarious tale of Myriam Gurba’s coming of age as a queer, mixed-race Chicana. Blending radical formal fluidity and caustic humor, Gurba takes on sexual violence, small towns, and race, turning what might be tragic into piercing, revealing comedy. This is a confident, intoxicating, brassy book that takes the cost of sexual assault, racism, misogyny, and homophobia deadly seriously.
We act mean to defend ourselves from boredom and from those who would chop off our breasts. We act mean to defend our clubs and institutions. We act mean because we like to laugh. Being mean to boys is fun and a second-wave feminist duty. Being rude to men who deserve it is a holy mission. Sisterhood is powerful, but being a bitch is more exhilarating . . .
Mean calls for a fat, fluorescent trigger warning start to finish—and I say this admiringly. Gurba likes the feel of radioactive substances on her bare hands.” —The New York Times
“Gurba uses the tragedies, both small and large, she sees around her to illuminate the realities of systemic racism and misogyny, and the ways in which we can try to escape what society would like to tell us is our fate.” —Nylon
“With its icy wit, edgy wedding of lyricism and prose, and unflinching look at personal and public demons, Gurba’s introspective memoir is brave and significant.” —Kirkus Reviews
Mean will make you LOL and break your heart.” —The Millions

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781566895019
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: 11/07/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 279,868
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Myriam Gurba lives in California and loves it. She teaches high school, writes, and makes “art.” nbc described her short story collection Painting Their Portraits in Winter as “edgy, thought-provoking, and funny.” She has written for Time, kcet, and The Rumpus. Wildflowers, compliments, and cash make her happy.

Read an Excerpt



Let's become a spot upon which fateful moonlight shines.

Let's become that night.

Let's become that park.

Let's absorb and drip. We're damp grains of earth. We're grass purged of color. We're baseball bleachers. We're November's darkness. We're the baseball diamond's sediment. We host Little League games by daylight. By dark, we become an Aztec altar.

We open our eyes. We allow them to adjust to the place and things described.

Seasonal quiet prevails.

Nothing squeaks or whimpers.

Nothing hums.

In a tunnel beneath the bleachers, a gopher daydreams. Roots sigh. Earthworms blindly go about their business.

A dark-haired girl walks alone.

Her foot falls onto the grass. We see up her skirt. She's not wearing underwear, so we can see that special part of her. It's the hole Persephone fell into. Some swine fell down it too.

Her clothes are long. Her dark-blue jacket sweeps her knees.

She slouches. She walks as if in mourning.

She steps into the outfield.

She pauses.

"Who's there?" she calls out in Spanish.

Silence responds.

She clutches her white purse. Her fingers worry its strap.

She nears the pitcher's mound, walks across it, heads toward home, and walks across it too. She crouches and climbs through a gash torn into the chain-link backstop.

She reaches into her purse. Mexican hair falls across her face.

It won't look like that much longer.

A man wearing white clothes creeps around the corner of the snack bar. He creeps up behind the girl and swings a pipe. It hits her in the head and her knees buckle. The man raises his weapon, takes another swing, and whacks her again.

He reaches down his sweatpants. He fondles his penis.

At sunset, a vendor in a straw cowboy hat had pushed his cart along the sidewalk yards away. Making his way down Western Avenue, the vendor had shouted, "¡Elote! ¡Elote! ¡Elote con mantequilla! ¡Elote con mayonesa!"

The man had heard these calls for corn.

He bought none.

Lovingly, he strokes his corn. It quivers. He lets go of it and resumes his chase.

She scrambles up the bleachers, panting. She bleeds onto benches. Blood on concrete. She hears him coming. She lurches, her purse tips, and two receipts sail. A nail file spills. Her toothbrush hits the ground bristles first. She scrambles further along the bench. She slips and falls. Her weight smashes against her elbow.

She crawls. Wet palm prints lengthen behind her. Blood smears her clothes. It makes dark Rorschachs on various surfaces.

Hard-packed dirt rubs her knees.

The man in white stands beside her. Blood dapples his T-shirt.

He kicks her. She flips onto her back. He slides a knife out of his pocket, takes a step, and stands so that he straddles her waist. He lowers himself onto her chest, squats, and leans toward her face. He presses his blade to her skin and slides it along her cheekbone. Black oozes from the slit. Wrecking her makes him feel like she belongs to him. We may feel that because we are privy to the wreckage she belongs to us too, but she does not.

He pushes her legs apart. He pulls out his corn and kneels. Blood pours from her cheek, nose, and head as he feeds himself into her. He thrusts to the rhythm of her death rattle. Her agony sustains his erection, holding it.

He freezes. He moans and shivers. His slack corn slides out of her. Cum oozes from between her legs. It gleams like unspeakable poetry.

* * *

A newscaster described the murder as "the bludgeoning death of a transient in Oakley Park."

This description is cruel. It reduces her to transience, as if she personified it, and it ignores her name. Her name matters. It's a word that philosophers fall in love with.

It appears many times in the Bible: Sophia. In

Greek, sophia means wisdom.

I turn her name over and over in my head. My brain rubs it smooth from S to a.


In my grim reverie, I think, "She's the capital of Bulgaria. I love Bulgarian yogurt. So rich, so tart, so mean. So grown up."

My mind keeps rubbing her name. An hourglass fills my imagination: Sophia Loren.

I light a votive candle, watch the flame bounce, and whisper her name aloud.

It sounds like breath. Transient sibilance runs through it.

* * *

Sophia is always with me. She haunts me.

Guilt is a ghost.

* * *

Sometimes, in my car, I realize I've been listening to Mexican music I'm not really into. A ranchera will be blaring, a man with a nasal voice will be moaning lyrics about heartache, and an accordion will join him.

I think, "Why am I listening to this? I don't even like this." Then I'll remember: Sophia ...

* * *

Some ghosts listen to the radio through the bodies of the living. They use us to conduct pain, pleasure, music, and meaning. They burden us with feelings that are both ours and theirs.


English Is Spanish

I began as an only child with an only language. This language was English and Spanish.

My English and Spanish came from a pact my parents made. My father, a green-eyed American, agreed to speak to me in English. My mother, a Mexican by birth, a feminist by choice, promised to speak to me in her native Romance language peppered with Nahuatl.

Their pact gave me lots of words. Folger's crystals. Asshole. Aguacate. Tiliche. Cadillac. Smart. Girl. Sanguich. That's Mexican for sandwich.

I spoke my first words at a place more American than Appomattox, the McDonald's across from the Greyhound bus station. This makes me a patriot, though the words themselves were Francophile.

"French fry," I moaned, reaching for one.

French fry: those are a lot of consonant clusters for a small mouth.

French fry. Papa francesa. Pomme frite. Joan of Arc.

While Mom drew blood at the hospital and Dad worked teaching fourth graders, I amused myself at nursery school. From its playground, I saw tombstones, monuments, and an American flag waving at the cemetery. I got down on all fours and knelt in the dirt by the swings. I stared at a gopher hole, wanting to slide my fist down it. The hole proved very tempting for one boy. He sexually assaulted it and they took him away in an ambulance.

I enjoyed the cuisine at nursery school; it tasted metallic since it all came from cans, even the juice. I hated naptime.

Naptime was torture.

I wanted to move and talk during naptime, but I couldn't. I forced myself to stay still and shut my eyes. I listened to other kids breathe. I peeked at the ceiling and at light making its way through thin cracks between curtains. I wondered about the cemetery. The mats were soft and smelled like children who drank juice.

Dad forgot to pick me up once. I didn't mind. Dusk was coming and a nursery school teacher and I sat together at a short table. We stared at a wall clock.

I smiled and told her, "I wonder what happens here at night." I imagined toys, books, blankets, chairs, and cans becoming enchanted, performing for me after dark. I asked, "Do you think things come to life and move?"

The nursery school teacher laughed.

She said, "They might."

The door opened. Dad stood there. "I'm sorry!" he said. As he explained the reason for his tardiness, I zoned out, fantasizing about enchanted objects, disappointed that I would be sleeping in my own bed and not a nursery school cupboard.

Dad laughed at the way my nursery school teachers treated me.

My language paradox escaped them.

They didn't get that my first language was double theirs.

Dad discovered their misunderstanding as we set the dinner table one night. I pointed. In a didactic tone, I narrated, "This is a plate. This is a cup. This is a spoon. This is a fork." I gestured and continued, "This is a chair. This is a table. This is the kitchen."

Dad's brow furrowed. He watched and listened. I grabbed his hand, walked him around the house, and introduced him to more domestic nouns: "This is a lamp. This is a television. This is dust. This is a sofa."

Eventually, he laughed.

Mom was in the kitchen. He shouted, "Guess what!" at her.


"The nursery school ladies think Myriam can't speak English so they're trying to teach her! They've turned her into a parrot!"

Dad spoke the truth. This was exactly what had happened.

On my first day, yo hablé con mis nursery school maestras usando palabras como éstas because I assumed we all had the same words. I didn't know I was spewing ciphers fed to me by a foreigner. I didn't know Mexicans were Mexicans, a category some mistake for subhuman, a category my grandfather mistakes for divine. I thought of myself as a person, and I understood people. People were people, and people talked, and talking was for everyone. Today, I understand that words are for everyjuan, but that not everyjuan is for every word, so please, dear reader, si no te molesta demasiado, pass me the metaphorical french fries as you whisper what you wish had been the first un-American words to pass through your uncorrupted lips.


The Whites

It took me years to figure out that white people are white people and that that's not necessarily a good thing.

Having white neighbors began the process. Their lifestyle differed from ours.

They looked different from us. Mom, Dad, and I were brunettes. The whites had yellow hair. They used fewer words than we did.

Mom sometimes went over to the whites' to practice her English.

She sat across from the white mom at her coffee table. In contrast to one another, each became Other. A mother from another Other.

While they visited, Mom sipped black coffee. She kissed burgundy lipstick stains onto her mug. Her hair, which she parted down the middle, reached her breast pockets. Liquid liner that tapered into tails highlighted her brown eyes. Mom's bone structure put the white mom's to shame. Her cheekbones were so there and lushly sculpted that they made the white mom's face look like mashed potatoes from a box. Not that the white mom was ugly. Her face just didn't exude foreign-lady sexiness the way Mom's did. The white mom's face exuded Puritanism. Margarine. Thrift. The absence of fun.

Mom met Dad in Mexico back when he had long hair and wore bell-bottoms. She first laid eyes on him as he walked past a Guadalajara cemetery, and she knew. She turned to her big sister and said, "See that hippie walking across the street? I'm going to marry him."

Her sister reminded her, "You have a boyfriend."

Mom said, "So?"

Mom broke up with her boyfriend and courted Dad with marigolds. She proposed to him and they married in a Catholic temple designed by one of Mom's uncles. Dad was working at the American School, teaching English and music to the kids of politicians and moguls, and his students filled the pews at his wedding. As a gift, one boy offered my newlywed parents a Great Dane. Dad declined, explaining that he could not feed it on a teacher's salary.

Dad applied to graduate schools in the U.S. and got accepted to one in Tucson. He quit the American School, Mom quit her job as a chemist, and they traveled to Arizona, where they made me in the dry heat.

I guess Gila monsters and saguaros are aphrodisiacs.

Dad earned a master's in linguistics, and then he and Mom left the southwest. They moved to Santa Maria, California, a super-quiet place that grew strawberries and needed teachers.

Strawberries and broccoli grew across the street from our house. A donkey lived at the end of the road.

The white people lived to our left.

Their skin nearly matched their hair.

They parked a long RV in their driveway. They ate lots of Jell-O. The white mom teased her hair into yellow swan wings. It looked great. The white dad looked like my uncle who smoked a lot of mota. Their white son was super chill and fun to hang out with. I followed him around his yard, staring up at his metallic hair, longing for him to show me affection. A smile. Meanwhile, his little sister acted cunty.

One time, when I was playing with her in our driveway, Dad told her, "That's a pretty dress you're wearing."

She looked at him with nonchalance. "I know," she said.

Her answer mortified Dad. At the dinner table that night, he kept saying, "She was supposed to say thank you. She was supposed to say thank you."

I eventually convinced the white boy, Josh, to play with me. I wanted him to myself, so when his sister, Emily, asked, "Can I play, too?" I told her, "No."

Her lower lip quivered. Tears spilled down her cheeks. They landed on her homemade dress.

"Eat your lip gloss," I told her.

I reached into her pocket and pulled out her lip gloss tin. I slid open its lid and eased my finger into the purple sludge. I helped myself to a serving, rubbed it across my thick lips, and sucked the excess off my finger.

I was three, maybe four.

Makeup meant for children is always a snack.

* * *

"Live from New York ..."

* * *

This must have been an omen: Mom went into labor with me while Dad was watching Saturday Night Live. He was laughing so hard at John Belushi dressed like a bee that he didn't hear the screams. Mom's Yorkie bit his ankle and barked. He frowned, got up, and followed her to the bedroom. From the doorway, Dad stared at Mom. The bed glowed red from her blood. Dad wrapped her in wet sheets and threw her into the Pinto. He sped to the hospital, where a doctor wearing a leisure suit sunk his scalpel into Mom's abdomen. He cut a slit, reached between the lips, pulled me out, and held my blue body. He spanked me. I halfheartedly breathed.

This set the tone for the rest of my life.

Mom got pregnant again before I started kindergarten. Dad broke it to me at the kitchen table. He sipped black coffee. I commented, "That smells good, Daddy."

"Take a sip," he said. He held out the cup.

I took it and sipped. I tasted masculinity.

"Mommy is going to have a baby," said Dad. "What do you want, a brother or a sister?"

"Yes," I prophesied.

Doctors had to cut out the twins, a boy and a girl, three months early because of complications. A pilot helicoptered Mom to a hospital in Palo Alto, and Dad threw my things in a suitcase while his forehead and bald spot dewed. Mine remained dry. I was fine. Mom being gone and Dad having to go with her didn't bother me. I got that it was important for Dad to go be with Mom, and I kind of got that something very bad might be happening, something that might prevent my mom from ever coming back, but I wasn't upset by it. I was excited. The abandonment felt like an adventure. My parents were leaving me. This would be new and fun. Kind of like being an orphan.

Anyone who isn't an orphan has orphan fantasies.

Dad walked me up the driveway with the RV.

He handed my suitcase and me over to the white mom.

She smiled. She said, "You'll stay with Emily."

I thought about what this meant.

This meant I was going to get to sleep in Emily's room.

Emily lived in a room meant for an object. Lace edged her bedspread and curtains. Mahogany furniture carved with rosebuds gleamed. Pink accents lurked everywhere. Her carpet was a crotchy color. The room's femininity was inescapable. From a Victorian cradle by the bed, a porcelain doll's eyes stared at the popcorn ceiling. The things in her room were teaching Emily how to be a woman.

I crawled into Emily's bed and felt deficient. I was wearing a scratchy, nosebleed-stained nightshirt. Emily was luxuriating in a gown as white as her race. It was like what Nellie Oleson wore in that episode of Little House on the Prairie where she pretends to be a paraplegic and sits in that beautiful wheelchair. Staring at Emily's curtains, I didn't contemplate my mother's impending death. I thought about how I could get my hands on Emily's stuff.

I was very curious about how the whites handled food. At home, we typically ate fusion. Mom cooked hamburgers, meat loaf, and pork chops, but she defiled these foods in ethnically specific ways. She sprinkled radishes and stuck avocado slices where they didn't belong.

I was loafing in the kitchen when the white mom told me, "Since you're gonna be staying with us til ..." she paused to choose her words, "your parents get back, you're gonna help us out. Today, you're gonna help make dinner."

"What're we having?"

The white mom smiled. She said, "Since you're visiting, Mexican."

I imagined the Mexican foods Mom sometimes made. Enchiladas melting in glass dishes. Chuletas with onions floating in red sauce. Chicken tacos fried in corn oil. Pozole. Machaca. Mom never made mole. In English, that's an animal. It can't see.

"What are we having?" I repeated.

"Mexican casserole."

Casserole was a new word for me. It intrigued me. It sounded musical.

The white mom putzed around the kitchen dicing, blanching, and massaging things into a glass dish that she carried to the oven and slid onto a rack. I shut the door on it and watched the casserole warm through a greasy porthole.

The white mom grabbed five goblets from a cupboard and set them on the counter. I helped her layer cream and red Jell-O, which Mom pronounced yellow, into them. We made seductive parfaits the likes of which I'd never seen in our kitchen. Our kitchen was a chocolate pudding place.

I couldn't wait to explore these cool desserts with a cold spoon.

Dinnertime came and we sat around the table in the dining room, which was basically an extension of the kitchen but a step up. The house had a split-level floor plan. The white mom stabbed the casserole with her spatula. Her vigor made her swan wings flap. She scooped a square onto each of our plates and ladled the night's vegetable, soggy brussels sprouts, out of another glass dish. Four green balls rolled beside my casserole hunk.


Excerpted from "Mean"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Myriam Gurba.
Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

English Is Spanish,
The Whites,
Judas and Icarus,
The Problem of Evil,
Cuban Interlude,
Mamase Mamasa Mamakusa,
Mormonse Mormonsa Mamakusa,
Via Dolorosa,
Something I Often Reflect on as an Adult Woman,
The Unbearable Whiteness of Certain Girls,
Summer in Sumer,
Cyndi Lauper,
Fall Semester 1995,
c c cummings,
Aesthetic Boners,
Spring Semester 1996,
Hart Crane,
A Wrinkle in Time After Time,
Hella Ukiyo-e,
Strawberry Picker,
Exquisite Corpse,
I Wandered Lonely as a Dissociated Cloud,
Fall Semester 1996,
Transcript of a 9-1-1 Call: November 15, 1996,
Battered Body Found at School: Mysterious Phone Call Alerted the,
The Albatross,
Page: 17,
Spring Semester 1997,
The Other Women,
Summer Session 1997,
Fall Semester 1997,
Spring Semester 1998,
Fall Semester 1998,
Spring Semester 1999,
Fall Semester 1999,
The Return of Elizabitch,
The Collector,
The Post-traumatic Bitch and the Sea,
Doing Donuts,
Capital Murder,
Flower Girl,

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