Mean, by Myriam Gurba

Coffee House Press, 2017

Amazon.com: Mean eBook: Gurba, Myriam: Kindle Store

The first time I read Myriam Gurba’s writing was in an article she wrote, published in December of last year, in which she absolutely annihilates a book that was big news at the time: American Dirt. As I tend to do after reading something excellent online, I found and followed her on twitter, and I’ve come to love everything she says. The next time I heard Gurba’s name was when her memoir, Mean, was selected as one of the April picks for Noname’s book club, upon which I promptly ordered myself a copy and finally got around to reading last week.

Now before I get on with my review, I need you to think about some numbers. The advance Jeannine Cummings received for American Dirt was very public because it was a big deal. The advance Myriam Gurba received for Mean was recently made public by her on her twitter account in a thread discussing advance disparities between white writers and writers of color under the hashtag #publishingpaidme.

American Dirt: 1,000,000$ advance
——————–Mean: 1,500$ advance

There are so many levels to how problematic that disparity is (Cummings is a white author writing an immigration narrative while Gurba is a Mexican author writing a memoir), but what makes me so angry above all else is that American Dirt is objectively poorly written (this has been confirmed by people I know who’ve read it and from authors I respect who’ve read it) and Mean is earth-shatteringly good. I’ll move on to the review, but I had these numbers in my head the entire time I read, and I felt that I couldn’t write this review without that context.

The phrase “poetic writing” is tossed around a lot in book reviews, but when I say Gurba’s writing is poetic, I mean it is frequently actual poetry. Some chapters will contain both poetry and prose, and in others, it is difficult to distinguish whether it is one or the other, which is seen in the first chapter, “Wisdom,” and which gave me one of those—oh my god this is gonna be so good—moments on page 1.

The art, history, and literature that influence Gurba are weaved throughout Mean and are inseparable from her identity. The way Gurba talks about visual art makes me wish I knew enough about art to have a taste in it myself. I’m scared of art in the way I’m often scared of poetry, which is that it’s so open-ended and there’s so much of it that I don’t know where to begin. Gurba is confident in her taste in art and proud of her knowledge of art, especially as she makes her way through college. She interprets and analyzes the work of female artists in powerful and unapologetic ways. She never seems to be scared of creating art that is misunderstood or scared of understanding art differently than everyone else in her college classroom.

Mean is labeled as a true crime memoir, which I think is too small to describe this not-quite-200-page memoir that deals with race, class, growing up as a girl, growing up as a lesbian, and the consequences of sexual violence.The true crime label comes from the portion of the memoir in which the man who committed acts of sexual violence against Gurba and other women in her community is on trial. But you’ll also read about how experiencing sexual violence can damage a person in ways that permeate one’s life long after the perpetrator is caught and convicted. One thing Gurba accomplishes beautifully is in expressing her right to and desire for privacy, even within—or especially within—the space of a memoir. Comparing secrets to acorns hoarded by squirrels, she writes, “When a man asks, ‘What did he do to you?’ he’s asking to eat one of these traumatic acorns. Girls never ask for these seeds. . .They don’t need the details of my particular shame to construct empathy.”

Some of my favorite moments in Mean are the ones in which Gurba writes about her friendships with girls, from her childhood up through college. There are some experiences that all women seem to share, and that makes the things the Gurba experienced growing up as a brown girl with a Mexican mom and a Polish dad, stand out to me even more strongly; I was bullied by other girls but I wasn’t bullied like that and I wasn’t bullied for that. Female friendships are complicated at every age, and reading about Gurba navigating them is sometimes painful, sometimes comedic, and frequently relatable. Mean feels very of-the-moment; I think any woman who reads it will find pieces of themselves—feelings put to words they didn’t have—in this memoir.

Links: goodreads | Buy it on bookshop .org

Sister Outsider, Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde

Ten Speed Press, 1984

One of my favorite bookstagrammers, @blkemilydickinson, describes Sister Outsider in this article for Crwn Mag, The True American Curriculum: 10 Books to Remind the Black Woman she is God, as “A holy text,” and concludes, “If I could go door-to-door with this text Jehovah’s Witness style, I would.” So that about sums it up. If you’re looking for a powerful, brilliant, unapologetic takedown of white feminism, colorblindness, the patriarchy, you name it, Sister Outsider is IT. And behind each of the 15 speeches and essays is Lorde’s steadfast reminder that time and time again it is the oppressed who are asked to educate the oppressor (spoiler: this is a tool the oppressor uses to distract the oppressed and ultimately maintain the status quo), and that the oppressed—those furthest from America’s “mythical norm,” that is white, male, young, thin, heterosexual, and wealthy—are so often called to lead the revolution against the system that works against them. There is a reason you find Black trans women at the forefront of the fight for gay rights, at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement now, and at the forefront of each preceding revolution.

Lorde asserts over and over again that it is the acknowledgement and celebration of our differences—not the erasure or ignorance of them—that will lead to liberation for all. She was a visionary, and instead of a traditional review, I have decided to highlight ten quotes from Sister Outsider that provide a glimpse into what you will find in her essays.

  • “In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid?”
  • “Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons why they are dying.”
  • “To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up. Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.”
  • “Revolution is not a one-time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make genuine change in established, outgrown responses; for instance, it is learning to address each other’s difference with respect.”
  • “If we are to keep the enormity of the forces aligned against us from establishing a false hierarchy of oppression, we must school ourselves to recognize that any attack against Blacks, any attack against women, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the systems we support.”
  • “But there is no simple monolithic solution to racism, to sexism, to homophobia. There is only the conscious focusing within each of my days to move against them, whenever I come up against these particular manifestations of the same disease.”
  • “The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us.”
  • On the mythical norm: “In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure…Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practicing.
  • “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions.”

And finally, the quote I have seen most often cited in other literature:

  • “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Each of these quotes is powerful on their own, but void of so much of the meaning you will find when reading them yourself in context. Black feminism is the heart of the revolution and has been and will continue to be where real change stems from. Read Sister Outsider or choose to read one of the countless other Black feminist texts available to you.

Links: Audre Lorde (Poetry Foundation .org) | Goodreads .com | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee

Picador, 2002

Amazon.com: Edinburgh (9780544916128): Chee, Alexander: Books

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write this review because I wasn’t sure I had the right words—or the right experiences—to do so. Edinburgh follows a gay Korean American boy growing up in Maine, Aphias Zhe (Fee), as he experiences sexual abuse at twelve years old and how he processes the trauma that follows him into the subsequent stages of his life. It wasn’t just the fact that I’m not a gay Korean American boy that made me hesitate to write about Edinburgh. This is also a case of my being intimidated by just how good this book is. But two weeks after reading, I am returning to write this review because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how deeply this novel resonated with me. And that has led me to consider what it is about this very specific story that feels so relatable.

I do not by any means want to sound like I am comparing my definitively trauma-free life to that of the characters of Edinburgh. But the way Chee writes about childhood, teenage, and young adult anger, depression, and angst is so visceral that I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ways that I felt at those ages. The following is one example that stopped me in my tracks: “Sometimes the scattered thoughts of their deaths run like a ragged red seam of fire inside me and I burn from the inside out, like a lightning-struck tree: the outside whole, the inside, that carried the lightnings charge, a coal. At other times, I feel empty, transparent, a child of the wind. Touching nothing, nothing touching me. And alternating between these states, with no warning as to when one will turn into the other.” And later, when Fee is deeply depressed and suicidal in college, Chee describes it as, “The year a long shadow I walked through.”

Some of my favorite moments in Edinburgh were Fee’s interactions and changing relationship with his Korean grandparents who had immigrated to the US to live with their family in Maine. You see Fee’s understanding of his grandparents grow and develop as he gets older. This moment from early in the novel where Fee is musing about his grandmother says so much with so little: “She sighed, and it sounded like a sigh that had been learned under a different sorrow.” This is such a complex concept for a pre-teen to grasp—that adults have lived lives outside of the reality in which they presently reside. And the way this is written shows how Fee was just beginning to understand that there were probably a lot of things he didn’t know about his grandparents.

One moment that really struck me as demonstrating Fee’s growth is an offhand comment he makes about a teenage mother in his high school: “She had always been, I recalled, a fiercely silent girl, pretty and small. Now she seems a giant. I see her in the school, nonchalant. Widowed, a mother, a high school senior. Our lives, I decide, watching her, are tiny beside hers.” Chee fills even the small, in-between moments of Fee’s adolescence with these deeply perceptive thoughts.

One of the ideas that stuck with me coming out of this novel was a reminder to take kids seriously; to take teenagers seriously. And the flip side of that being, adults don’t always have a firmer grasp on themselves that kids do. The things that happen to us stick with us, and often, we simply get better at forgetting. Chee’s words sum this up better than I ever could: “Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it’s the adult, moving forward, forgetting.”

Links: goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018

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I bought this book knowing I’d love it. A series of beautifully written autobiographical essays on writing and life? Sold. In retrospect I would’ve enjoyed it even more if I was familiar with Alexander Chee before reading it, but alternatively, I’ll probably enjoy reading his novels more now than I would have before, and I will definitely be reading them. Chee’s writing is wonderful and feels effortless, although he emphasizes that writing is never an effortless task. Any aspiring writer has been told some way or other that writing is hard work and requires extreme perseverance. Chee addresses this frequently in his essays but in a way that is more inspiring than daunting. If I was an aspiring fiction writer, which I am not, I would treasure these essays as a source of motivation. What I am, however, is an aspiring editor, and I found lessons in Chee’s essays for myself—both direct and indirect. On the last page of the essay titled The Autobiography of my Novel, Chee writes about the challenge of getting his first novel published and how, after getting rejected over and over again, the right editor changed everything.

Each essay varies in length and format. They don’t follow any timeline and aren’t centered around any one event. Instead they are organized the way memories are; the thread connecting one to the next isn’t always clear but is there, somewhere. As I progressed through the book, I had the feeling that the essays were building up to a climax of some sort, and then I read The Guardians. It is the third to last essay, and it is the heart of this book.  I started reading and lost myself in it immediately. The Guardians deals with Chee’s childhood trauma: the ways it has affected his life and how he’s processed it through different stages of his adulthood. It’s an essay that I imagine many people could connect with, feel understood by, or even use as a model to help process their own traumas.

In the final essay, On Becoming an American Writer, Chee asks, how do we create art after September 11? How do we create art in a Trump presidency? He is asking these questions to himself and attempting to come up with an answer for his students. In that essay is the following quote that is simple, and to me, entirely true: “But books were still to me as they had been when I found them: the only magic.”

Links: Goodreads | Alexander Chee | Buy it on Bookshop .org

The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton 2015

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is everything I could ever want a sci-fi space travel story to be. This will be a short review because that sentence about sums it up. It’s fun, features interesting and well-developed characters, is well written, and even manages to develop romantic inter-species relationships without ever being cheesy or cringe-y or uncomfortable to read. I absolutely loved everything about it!

I saw this in other reviews and then almost immediately noticed it myself when I started reading, but The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is driven almost entirely by character development while the plot is kind of a background device. There are events that motivate the characters and give the narrative direction, but for the most part, you’re reading to learn about the individuals on the ship: how they ended up there, what their home worlds are like, and how their relationships with each other grow and evolve. As the Wayfarer (the crew’s ship) stops at different planets and space stations on its travels, you get to meet all kinds of different species with fascinating histories. If you’re worried that a 400-page novel driven almost exclusively by character development sounds boring, don’t be. It’s insanely fun while still addressing serious topics, never drags, and reflects open-minded feminist thinking (it’s awesome reading a book where you can almost forget gender stereotyping even exists!).

Links: Becky Chambers .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org