Hard Times Call for Mean Girls
For its unapologetic examination of trauma, witty takes on the beloved idols of pop, and contributions to the genre of memoir, Myriam Gurba’s autobiographical novel Mean is a must-read, writes J.P. Tamang.
“God is like rape,” the narrator of Myriam Gurba’s Mean muses, “Rape is everywhere too.” Throughout this book, transgressions big and small disturb the narrator’s mostly peaceful upbringing at the hands of a Mexican mother and half-Polish, half-Mexican father in suburban California. As she ages, the reader witnesses Gurba’s teenage angst ossify into a protective mechanism against the everyday traumas of being a queer woman of color. For her, being mean is more than schoolgirl pettiness, “sometimes, it keeps us alive.”
Marketed as a novel, Mean is an autobiographical coming-of-age tale of a young girl coping with the post-traumatic stress of being assaulted by a serial rapist at large in her community. Based on this I expect many critics will call this book a feminist text. The moniker feels comfortable for the book not only because it is a survivor narrative written by a woman, but also because of the stylistic contributions it makes to American feminist literature and the genre of memoir. By drawing in disparate threads of popular culture and remixing them, Gurba excavates the often forgotten feminist tool of historical revision in the same way Kathy Acker did in texts like her Don Quixote and Great Expectations. Both authors pull in the debris from information age and assemble it into a montage of angsty, pithy, observation. Mean is a fresh take on sexual harassment at a time when the national discourse on women’s rights has taken center stage.
Mean’s narrator is precocious and outspoken. In second grade she likens keeping boys out of a make-believe fort to the pre-Voting Rights Act literacy tests of the American South. She weaves commentary on cultural figures like Walter Benjamin, Billie Holiday, W.H. Auden, Michael Jackson and Gertrude Stein into the story, creating alternate histories that distort the widespread conceptions of these people usually held in the mainstream. For example, Gurba highlights the discovery of a literal skeleton in the closet of the famous drag queen Dorian Corey, complicating their glitzy portrayal in Paris is Burning. Additionally, a fifth-grade Gurba gives her exegesis of El Diario de Ana Frank as lesbian smut.