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

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

Muslim Girl, by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

Simon&Schuster 2016

My sister bought me this book because she thought I should read it for this blog and so I did. It’s written by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of Muslim Girl – a website that serves as a safe space for Muslim Girls to communicate and ask questions and get answers from other muslim girls who are dealing with similar issues. Amani talks about her experience growing up as a Muslim girl in New Jersey, spanning from being a 9 year old on 9/11 to the recent resurgence of anti-immigrant rhetoric in US politics.

Her story is important because she is just a regular girl, born and raised in the US, who’s faced extreme racism, judgement, cruelty, and bullying because of her appearance and because of the hijab she chooses to wear. She tells about moments in her family’s life so unfair you don’t want to believe it. Like the time her father turned to the police after his tires were slashed and instead they investigated him in response to an allegation that he was planning to bomb the outdoor market he worked in. My favorite part of her story is when she explains how she came to find and create her own version of Islamic feminism. One of the most striking points she makes is that white leaders in the US are always so concerned with muslim women being under threat by muslim men, but the real threats Amani faces everyday come from white men in the US.

“The theft of brown women’s narratives is not only an injustice placed on them, but also one extended to their male counterparts; by insisting they need to be liberated from their ‘barbaric’  civilization, [Laura Bush] summoned the colonial assertion that brown women need saving from brown men, when, in actuality, brown women have suffered at the hands of white men more than at those of any other oppressor in history.”

If I had to choose the most important point Amani makes in her book, however, it is that the only voices we can and should trust to tell us what it’s like being a muslim woman are the voices of muslim women. The following quote (about the headscarf as a symbol) is a powerful comment on the subject:

“Throughout time, the headscarf has evolved to symbolize autonomy and control over Muslim women’s bodies. An empowering rejection of the male gaze, colonialism, and anti-Muslim sentiment, it can just as easily be twisted into  a disempowering tool of subjugation and repression through its forced imposition…Today, some governments are just as eager to mandate its wear in public as others are to forbid it. In all cases, any decision to intervene in how a woman dresses, whether to take it off or put it on, is just the same assertion of public control over a woman’s body…Sexism has been employed in many ways throughout history to uphold racism.”

Read this book. You will be and need to be shocked by what the average muslim girl and her family have to endure in this country.

Links: MuslimGirl.com | Goodreads.com