Setting aside Time for Magic: Talking with Myriam Gurba

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MEAN, a series of vignettes released by Coffee House Press in November 2017, is a memoir in which Myriam Gurba explores how it felt to grow up as a queer Chicana in Southern California. Gurba had a Mexican feminist mother and a half-Polish father, and a mother tongue of English, Spanish, and some Nahuatl. The story begins with the rape and murder of Sophia Castro Torres. Years later, Torres’s ghostly presence continues to make itself known, and Gurba has made her peace with this. “It’s okay for ghosts to exist through me,” she writes. “It has to be.”

Gurba’s prose is dark and sparse, potent yet playful. She combines different registers and rhythms, and weaves together threads of different kinds of privilege, whiteness, sexual assault, and trauma. You get the feeling Gurba would be a good stand-up poet: “I looked down at her Brussels sprouts. They looked cold and evil. They looked like American presidents.”

Recently, I corresponded with Gurba, who has also written a short story collection called Painting Their Portraits in Winter, by email.

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The Rumpus: You begin with a quote from Jenni Rivera, a singer and entrepreneur who grew up in Long Beach: “Lo mejor que te puedo desear es que te vaya mal.” “The best I can hope is that things don’t go well for you,” is how I’d translate this. Can you tell me about Rivera?

Myriam Gurba: I like this question very much. It gives me the opportunity to share the accomplishments of an artist who died young and goes unrecognized beyond the Latin American Spanish-speaking world in a way that Selena Quintanilla is not. And, by the way, the cult of Selena Quintanilla troubles me in the same way that Frida [Kahlo]’s cult troubles me. Both cults tokenize at the expense of SO MANY OTHER FEMALE ARTISTS.

Anyhow, Rivera sang and recorded banda music, which is male-dominated, and her music often dealt with social issues from a frequently devalued perspective: a woman’s. The lyrics you cite and correctly translated come from MEAN‘s opening epigraph. I appropriated them from Rivera’s hit “Inolvidable,” which, in English, is “Unforgettable.” The lyrics narrate how unforgettable and INCREDIBLE the song’s protagonist is and how her past lovers will never be able to escape their memories of her. The lyrics also suggest that her lovers mistreated her and that her escape from them is a triumph. Because of their inability to appreciate her, she wishes them ill-will in a characteristically cheeky Mexican way.

I chose these lyrics because they a) focus on memory’s role in preserving and overcoming pain, b) celebrate feminine strength and triumph over machismo, c) communicate morbid Mexican humor, and d) are the type of music I later describe in my narrative during moments when I feel haunted by the ghost of a dead Mexican woman. I wrestle with these leitmotifs throughout MEAN.

Rumpus: Your collection opens with “Wisdom,” an essay about a woman, Sophia Castro Torres, who was walking through a baseball diamond and was brutally attacked and raped. Sophia haunts the narrator throughout the book.

Gurba: I start with the murder of Sophia Castro Torres because had this event not occurred, MEAN would not have been written. Her murder, and my attempt to make meaning out of it, are MEAN‘s engine.

Rumpus: Writing MEAN seems, to me, a way of celebrating female triumph over machismo. You’re telling Sophia Castro Torres’s story, you’re talking about your own rape, and other incidences of unwanted sexual contact that occurred throughout your life. Does writing these instances down and sharing them with others feel like a celebration of sorts?

Gurba: That’s interesting. It doesn’t “feel” that way to me but that’s probably because my writing doesn’t “feel” very good to me after I’ve written it, edited it, and then edited it some more. In fact, I feel a lot of revulsion toward my writing and dislike rereading it, especially once it’s in print. To me, the chronicling of those events is an inventory and inventories are seldom celebratory. There might, perhaps, be something celebratory in MEAN’s tone, especially when it swerves comedic. I value laughter a lot and, as a result, I’m willing to pay a high price to laugh or to make others laugh. Maybe that’s where the felicity or joyousness you’re noting comes from. The tone. I didn’t, however, set out to write a triumphant, celebratory work. That seems presumptuous and too athletic for my taste.

Rumpus: Do you feel as though arranging and describing these memories helped you to overcome pain?

Gurba: No. Writing does not numb, comfort, or soothe me. It does the opposite. It tends to excite me and reinscribe pain. It doesn’t function as exorcism.

Rumpus: Food appears often in here. Bulgarian yogurt, French fries, cool dessert parfaits, corn, “Mexican” casserole, kielbasas in tortillas. Is this deliberate? What are your feelings about food?

Gurba: The food mentions are not deliberate. Food is a complicated subject for me. Food brings joy, satisfaction, and conflict. Eating disorders plague my family. Their consequences have been painful, expensive, violent, and deadly. You haven’t lived till you’ve watched a woman die of starvation.

Rumpus: What was your process for writing MEAN? As a high school teacher, did you work on the book mostly during breaks, or were you writing during the school year? 

Gurba: I started writing MEAN in 2010. I wrote it during the school year (before and after work), on the weekends, on breaks, and during summers. It went through many iterations. I don’t know that I’d call how I write a “process.” Process seems too methodical. I guess in some ways the process of writing MEAN was like dating. I carved out time to get to know my story and let my story get to know me. We felt each other out. When you set aside time for magic, sometimes it happens. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Discipline and tenacity help magic happen.

Rumpus: Do you try to cut yourself off from the Internet to create mental space? Did you have any writing rituals for this book? 

Gurba: The Internet is the best and worst thing to happen to writing. It makes it so easy to quickly satisfy a lot of curiosity but it dampens curiosity for the same reason. It removes the obstacles that used to make hunting for knowledge sexy. I don’t have Internet at home, so that helps. I try not to peek at the Internet (through my phone) when writing, but I don’t have very good stamina. I did burn some cheap incense while writing MEAN so I guess that was a ritual. I wrote part of it with a stolen crystal nearby, too. I wrote part of it in a desert motel by Joshua Tree. I wrote parts of it at particular kitchen tables, too, and choosing those tables felt ritualistic. I also wrote some of it with chickens pecking at my feet.

Rumpus: Do you keep a notebook?

Gurba: I do keep a notebook, but I also compulsively take notes in my phone. Topics that I recently took notes on include sex, the Empire State Building, cologne, and freedom. Looking at my handwritten notes sometimes weirds me out because my handwriting looks so much like my mother’s.

Rumpus: How much revision do you do?

Gurba: A ton. Revision is my reason for living.

With MEAN, I would print the whole manuscript and then pin the pages to a corkboard and retype it, line by line, and refine it as needed. I think of that process as akin to a rock-polishing machine. I’m the machine and I keep feeding myself rocks till they come out smooth enough.

Rumpus: Do you do this with short stories as well? Do you ever tire or grow bored of typing the words out again, or feel as though you’re overexposing yourself to the sentences? I’m thinking of how, when I try to retype short stories from paper copies, that I sometimes feel as though it’s harder for me to see what’s on the page for a while afterward. 

Gurba: I sometimes do this with short stories but less frequently. I see things in hardcopy that I miss if I only see words on screen. I do get sick of the words, but I like to see everything spread out because I get a sense of scale that is missing from screen. Going over each sentence many, many, many times gives me incredible intimacy with sentences, especially their rhythm. The rhythm and music of words matter a lot to me and it only takes one misplaced word to spoil the music. Working with a manuscript with that kind of intimacy is kind of like taking a magnification mirror to your pores. Its horrifying but it shows just where the problems are. Of course, I do get bored of the words after a while. I take breaks from them so that we can breathe. And by the time I’m done with my umpteenth regurgitation, I hate the words. They become flavorless chewing gum. Like how really old gum gets once it starts disintegrating in your mouth. Gum that’s lost its elasticity and feels like a sweater.

Rumpus: What’s your favorite historical moment to think about?

Gurba: I’m working on a book about California at the moment. I don’t have one specific moment though I often think about a moment which occurred before I was born: my great grandfather’s “kidnapping” of my grandmother and subsequent “incarceration” of her at a Catholic orphanage with orders that her mother not be allowed to see her.

Rumpus: Your grandmother was kidnapped—how did this happen? How did she end up at the Catholic orphanage?

Gurba: The kidnapping and the California project are unrelated. I’m writing about California because I want to write about place. As for my grandmother, her parents were fighting. So, to punish my great-grandmother, my great-grandfather took the kids and stuck them in an orphanage. He paid to have them kept there. They lived in really nice quarters, away from the other orphans. They ate non-orphan food. They had a piano. It was terrible, but also mildly luxurious.

Rumpus: How are you going about researching this project?

Gurba: Traveling. Reading. Collecting oral histories. Visiting archives. Consulting historians. The usual.

Rumpus: One of the most striking moments in MEAN was when your teacher made eye contact with you when your classmate, Macaulay, was touching you under the table. What a coward. I wonder about these moments of cowardice. Are there moments like this that you’re finding in this new project?

Gurba: Not yet. But I’m sure I’ll get there.

Rumpus: Do you have a recipe for dissolving the patriarchy? Do you think it’s possible?

Gurba: I’m not hopeless about patriarchy’s dissolution and if one considers the last one hundred years of American history, amazing things have happened to expand women’s freedoms. I am an openly queer, biracial woman who has owned property, gotten gay married, gotten gay divorced, worked as a school teacher, published three books, and voted. This could not have happened in the not-so-recent past, so for those who say change is impossible: NO, it is absolutely possible. The future is unwritten. There is no singular recipe for patriarchy’s dissolution. Its dissolution will take many chefs and many recipe books. Or, perhaps I should say WO-many chefs. Lol.


Maria Anderson is from Montana. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Big Lucks, and The Atlas Review. She is an editor at Essay Press. More from this author →