Mean is a moving memoir that explores the intersections of race, misogyny, violence, sexuality, and identity. Through non-linear vignettes focussed on various acts of violence performed on her body, by others and by herself, author Myriam Gurba offers up insights that spoke into my own fears, feelings, and experiences. Gurba infuses her story with dashes of wry humour, peppered with puns that would feel cringe-worthy if delivered by a less masterful writer.
The narrative unfolds in short spurts, jumping between childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, to form a picture of Gurba’s coming-of-age as a queer, mixed-race Chicana in middle class America. Throughout Mean, there is a focus on the ways women are taught to present themselves and the ways we choose to defend ourselves.
"I know I can be mean,” Gurba writes, “but I also want to be likable. I just don't want to be so likable anyone wants to rape me.”
There’s something empowering about claiming and expressing emotions or actions that you’ve always been taught to think of as negative. Anger. Meanness. Rudeness. Women’s rage has been explored in a number of different ways in books I’ve read this year, as well as in conversations with other women. It is the focus of Soraya Chemaly’s powerful Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger and Brittney Cooper’s compelling Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, both of which I wrestled with earlier this year. It fuelled discussions at events like Broadside, a feminist writing and ideas festival held in Melbourne, Australia, last month. And it’s evident in the stories of #metoo, which continue to grow years after the hashtag first gained steam.
Meanness is something less often explored in the work of women and feminists. While rage is an emotion, its expression healthy, meanness seems self-serving and made only to hurt others. The ways in which Gurba unpacks the purpose of meanness fit this model, but show how its use can be political and an act of self-preservation.
Unlike rage, meanness is not usually the expression of a deeper feeling, but a tool used for a particular purpose. A mean comment may reflect a person’s true feelings, but it is usually put out there to serve some other purpose–to drive someone away, to make people laugh, to perform a part, to keep from being raped. Meanness is often used as a mask or an act.
“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. Being a bitch is spectacular.”
Gurba’s writing often makes Mean feel both more and less intimate than other memoirs on similar themes. While she does reveal personal details of some parts of the assaults she has endured, she likes to keep the reader at arm’s length when recounting these events. She reveals only so much, understandably preferring to keep some parts of her experiences hidden. Self-protection is more important than a reader’s (sometimes salacious) need to know the details. She spends almost as much time writing about the violence inflicted upon others as she does on her own experiences. The personal sometimes becomes impersonal, and vice versa.
Gurba also uses humour and frequent asides to distract from the pain and mask things from the reader. Rather than being detrimental, these techniques serve to help the reader understand more clearly what her priorities are and how she deals with her trauma. The quick one-liners, often awkward, contrast to show the seriousness of what Gurba is revealing and the way she has decided to view it. There is much in this manner of dealing with the past that is relatable. I certainly found her quippy, ‘look over here’ manner very familiar.
While it is easy to be carried along by the emotions, violent themes and humour of this book, Mean rewards readers who slow down to savour each sentence. The language used throughout the book is precise and clear, but lyrical. Gurba has an evident love of wordplay, using repetition and similar sounding words to make new connections fitting with her state of mind. I would have underlined just about every second line if the version I’d been reading were my own copy.
I’ve read a lot of books about violence, abuse and trauma this year. Mean is unlike any of them. Each time I put the book down, I was eager to get back to it–to find out more about Gurba’s story, to laugh along with her, and to have my perception about my place in the world challenged. Mean was a completely unexpected gift and one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Mean was a completely unexpected gift and one of the best books I’ve read this year.
By Myriam Gurba
198 pages. 2017.
Buy it here.