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Laughing in the Face of Patriarchy: A Conversation With Myriam Gurba

Gurba discusses humor in the age of Trump and #MeToo.

"Words do and can boss people around," says Myriam Gurba. (Image: Nayobim / Wikimdedia)

Suddenly there is a national discussion about sexual violence. Conversations long held in private have entered the public domain through disturbing and sensational stories focused on sexual harassment, rape culture and sexual assault behind the scenes in Hollywood, corporate and elite media, and the halls of government. While these stories expose structural violence, they rarely offer structural analysis. But one side benefit of this mass media interest is that it has opened the door to broader attention for more complicated work, such as MEAN, Myriam Gurba’s third book, a hybrid memoir about rape and sexual violence, systemic and internalized oppression, anti-Mexican racism and growing up in a dangerously corrupt world.

While Gurba has been known in queer literary spaces for her acerbic wit and trenchant insight over the past decade and beyond, MEAN has brought her wider notice. In her new book, Gurba manages to simultaneously inhabit the innocence and audacity of a child’s point of view and the nuanced and scathing humor of an adult awareness. She invokes petty meanness and indicts systemic cruelty. She exploits the often-paradoxical distance between the experience of trauma and the body’s reactions to create a fractured narrative that teases the line between disclosure and revelation. MEAN is structured in 60 meticulously crafted short chapters, often no more than a few pages each. These chapters could function on their own as short stories, but together they create a kind of frenetic momentum toward and away from closure.

While working on MEAN, an imaginary conversation played out in Gurba’s head, she tells Truthout. One person asked: “What is one way of becoming immortal?” And the other responded: “Raping a memoirist.”

“Harm a memoirist, and they will enshrine the offense for the pleasure and elucidation of future generations,” Gurba says. And in MEAN, she adds, somewhat more somberly, “Art is one way to work out touch gone wrong.”

Truthout talks to Myriam Gurba about humor as an analytical tool, histories of structural racism, ghost stories, methods of subverting authority, strategies for reinventing language and problems with the national conversation about sexual violence.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: While MEAN covers a lot of painful material, the book is also very funny — you use humor to reveal hypocrisy. At times, your delivery is almost like that of a standup comic. How did you develop this strategy?

Myriam Gurba: My parents are funny and they made me. My dad’s funny is strategic and mean. He likes to joke about dark subjects like voicemail and customer service. My mom is unintentionally funny. Spending time with her is like spending time with an elf. Imagine an elf trying to shop at Costco. Or get its oil changed. That’s my mother.

My mother told me an anecdote about harsh humor that demonstrates my lifelong practice of it. She told that when I was really little, like four-ish, she noticed I had a habit of approaching adults at cocktail parties. I told them off-color tall tales with attention to grotesque detail. At first, my mother said this behavior made her concerned. She questioned my mental health. So she observed me and noticed that, after I’d say something super off-kilter and playfully insulting or inappropriate, my face would light up with anticipation. My mom said that she then realized that I was entertaining myself and she stopped worrying.

My ex-wife might also have something to do with my delivery. She was a standup [comic]. I attended a lot of shows with her and spent a lot of time around standups. Their medium did rub off on me and I noticed, at one point, when I was writing poetry, that my poems had taken on the structure of standup bits. I was writing jokes that were poems and poems that were jokes. Once I started performing this work on stage, the jokiness in the poetry and my writing became really amplified.

MEAN really feels like a spoken text. When you write, “Being mean makes us feel alive. It’s fun and exciting. Sometimes it keeps us alive,” I can almost hear you saying that. And I can almost hear the audience’s reaction. But then you write stoically about moments of shocking betrayal, such as when a teacher witnesses you being molested by another student in class, and he does nothing to intervene. You describe this scene so methodically. It’s horrifying. It’s hard not to go back to the title of the book, but “mean” cannot hope to approximate this cruelty. Your teacher’s silence makes the violence structural. Would you say that revealing personal complicity in structural oppression is one of your central goals in MEAN?

I tried developing a form that mimics violence. Because violence’s hallmark is unpredictability, I crafted a form that reveals its architecture in unpredictable ways. I wanted this violent form to reflect PTSD symptoms too. A symptom I experienced was the recurrence of intrusive thoughts, feelings and sensations of or relating to my assault.

I tried achieving this second goal by letting a ghost loose in the narrative, a ghost who interrupts, a ghost who won’t leave, a ghost who seems to want something but who’s incapable of communicating desire — living language no longer belongs to her.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved guided me. As a regional and racialized American ghost story, it lit my path. Ghosts take me to a content-related goal. Few people know the name Sophia Castro Torres, but who hasn’t heard of Michael Jackson? The same judge who presided over the Jackson molestation trial presided over Tommy Martinez’s trial. Mr. Martinez raped, murdered and mutilated Ms. Torres, and her ghost is the one that haunts MEAN.

Laughing at patriarchy didn’t shrink it, but proved to me how small and fragile it actually is.

By aestheticizing the life and story of Ms. Torres — a depressed, homeless, migrant strawberry picker — I participate in making her matter. When her ghost presents itself to you, she, in a way, is making herself matter. Violence has destroyed her materially, but she persists in other ways.

You mentioned my teacher. I think about him more than I probably would had I not become a high school teacher. Whenever people express to me that they’re interested in teaching, I tell them that whether they want to or not, they’ll do much more than teach, and that if they’re squeamish, teaching isn’t the job for them. You’re going to hear and see some heartbreaking, grotesque and mind-boggling stuff in public education, and you need to be able to remain calm in order to soothe people and masterfully help kids manage life. If you frequently freeze in response to shame, humiliation, sympathy or pity, you can’t be an effective adult. A triggered teacher can’t help a triggered kid.

That molestation was very instructive for me. The teacher’s response shaped me more than the touching itself. His inaction wrecked expectations and beliefs I held about adults and men. My teacher taught me about the prevalence of cowardice. He proved to me that paternalism wouldn’t keep me safe.

Even here, you use humor, because this is when we understand why you’ve named this teacher Mr. Hand — because the boy who is molesting you is using his hand. At another point in the book, you name a racist classmate Shaquanda. You write, “White people love to appropriate things. By naming the white girl Shaquanda, I’m beating them at their own game.” I’m wondering if you could talk about how you use naming as a tactic for undoing power.

[In On Violence] Hannah Arendt wrote, “The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.” Undermining authority is what class clowns get paid in laughter to do, and I think I’m not so much using language to undo power as I’m using it to undermine authority — white authority in Shaquanda’s case.

My response to my adolescent epiphany about grown-ups and men is also explained by Arendt’s argument. After getting bruised by paternalism’s hypocrisy, I grew contemptuous toward masculine authority.

Language always has its welcome mat out. People don’t.

I felt obliged to mock it. I couldn’t honor the fatherly fiction, the mask. Giggling about what I knew to be true — that masculine authority was a farce — felt right and good. I didn’t need to respect something so two-bit. Laughing at patriarchy didn’t shrink it, but proved to me how small and fragile it actually is.

I wonder how this applies to language. Near the beginning of the book, you write, “I began as an only child with an only language. This language was English and Spanish.” Your nursery school teachers, though, are too racist to understand that you’re mixing English and Spanish because you know both. In the book you invent language, and you are also constantly reshaping the form of the text itself. So the text becomes its own process. What did this process reveal for you?

I have a lot of fun spending time with people, but I also have a lot of fun spending time alone with language. I have always felt invited to play with it. Language always has its welcome mat out. People don’t.

Something that writing this book revealed for me was that sometimes it seems that language has a will of its own. It doesn’t, but when you play with it and it behaves like a playmate, you wonder about its autonomy. You wonder if you’re playing with something that has agency. Words do and can boss people around.

My dad is trained as a linguist and he taught me that language isn’t something to fear. Yes, it has rules and it’s crucial to know them, but breaking them is fine and necessary. My dad also taught me about the ubiquity of dialect and that we’re often unaware of what dialect we speak, what accent we use. He taught me not to judge dialect, and this value-neutral approach to speech seeped into my writing. It freed me to treat all the language at my disposal as elements of my own personal dialect, an auto-dialect.

Throughout the book, you show examples of anti-Mexican racism on an individual and structural level, from the teacher who makes you apologize for telling the girls who are calling you a “wetback” that they’re racist, to the doctor who tells your parents that your sister can’t be anorexic because she’s Mexican. Even though Trump has made anti-Mexican racism more blatant than ever, I think it’s still rare to see these hideously mundane examples in everyday life depicted in popular culture.

Often, American racism is characterized two dimensionally: White people are racist against Black people. The end. But racism isn’t a black and white cookie. Racism is a fruitcake. And nobody likes fruitcake. Except my mom. She actually eats fruitcake at Christmas. She’s the only person I know who takes fruitcake seriously.

I also grew up knowing the history of anti-Mexican lynching. I knew that white vigilantes lynched thousands of Mexicans during the 19th and 20th centuries. Law enforcement officials often condoned and sometimes participated in this mob violence. I understood that racial violence was not segregated to the American South.

Public and popular anti-Mexican sentiment was something I grew up with, and so it has never seemed hidden to me. Maybe that’s a regional phenomenon specific to California and places with higher per capita Chicano and Mexican populations. I remember going to the library as a kid and seeing sepia-toned photographs documenting our town’s history lining the entrance hall. One image pictured local Klansmen riding horses down a main street. The Klan carved out quite a presence in California. In fact, during the early 20th century, they dominated Anaheim’s city council. Some people still jokingly call it “Klanaheim.”

I understood that racial violence was not segregated to the American South.

When I was in elementary school, a Santa Maria mayoral candidate ran on an anti-Mexican platform. He pledged to round up Santa Maria’s “bad” Mexicans, put them on trains and send them to camps. He promised to sort the wheat from the chaff, to spare the “good” Mexicans. Whether or not we were good or bad Mexicans became a running family joke. You forgot to flush the toilet? Bad Mexican. You remembered to take the dog for a walk? Ate all your vegetables? Did your homework? Good Mexican! Our dog was a bad Mexican. She bit.

MEAN has come out right in the middle of a national conversation about sexual violence. And even if you couldn’t have intended this, it strikes me that your book, with all its humor and nuance and intersectional analysis, in some ways works as an antidote to some of the simplistic rhetoric about sexual violence in the media right now. What bothers you the most about this national conversation?

What doesn’t bother me about this national conversation? It bothers me that a retributive tone dominates it, as if excommunicating the accused from humanity will cleanse the social body. It bothers me that so much of the conversation is anti-sex, as if sex is primarily a weapon and not a social practice that produces many meanings and life-affirming pleasures. It bothers me that so much of the conversation infantilizes women. It bothers me that Americans seem to want greater state intervention in their sex lives. It bothers me that broader questions of female autonomy are being ignored. It bothers me that simplistic rhetoric, like “Teach boys not to rape” is gaining popular traction. It bothers me that I’m supposed to believe women’s accounts of abuse or assault because they’re women. That’s offensive to women. If we’re going to be seen as fully human, we also have to be treated as fallible.

It bothers me that an offense like a pat on the butt is being treated as interchangeable with a blitz rape. That, perhaps, pisses me off the most. The former assaults your dignity. The latter plunges you into mortal fear, resets your nervous system, and viciously damages your dignity.

It bothers me that people are increasingly lobbing “sexual misconduct” as an accusation when, frankly, that category is intractably indeterminate. It bothers me that so much of this conversation focuses upon the offenses of wealthy and powerful men against women who are often powerful and wealthy themselves and who’ve appeared on People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful” list.

I hear only whispers of how class makes women vulnerable to sexual violence. Poverty is a much greater threat to women than Hollywood and big media, but that story isn’t as glamorous. That is a story of economic and institutional failure. That is a story that points in the direction of social democracy, not vilification, as a solution.

I think about the role that race plays in accusations. I think of Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Boys, the Central Park Five and the strange case of Grant Neal. I recall the white girls I went to high school with. If a carload full of Mexicans whistled at them, they cowered. If a carload full of white football players shouted sexually explicit epithets at them, they puffed up.

I wonder how much of this hysteria [about sexual violence] is displaced anti-Trump rage being projected onto effigies. Last year, I attended the Women’s March and I watched a group of marchers beat a Trump piñata to pulp. Are we using Trump proxies as piñatas? And is the media’s incredible and sudden devotion to this cause a way to redeem itself for the reckless behavior they engaged in during the campaign? Maybe.

Copyright, Truthout and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. May not be reprinted without permission.