Myriam Gurba, a Mexican American, bisexual writer and advocate, is first and foremost an expert in her own experiences—as a queer woman of color, as a survivor of abuse, as a survivor of gender-based violence, Gurba knows her story in a way that no one else quite does. As Gurba explained to Daily Kos when she joined us for a phone interview, this type of “expertise” is precisely what people should focus on when it comes to supporting survivors and movements like #MeToo.
“In every situation of abuse,” Gurba explains, “and in situations of gendered violence, in particular, the person being victimized is an expert on how to survive because if they are alive, it is to their credit. They have managed to prolong their life under the threat of death.” In her incredible memoir, Mean, Gurba writes about true crime, small towns, and sexual violence with startling and poignant clarity and humor. In her recent publication, Letter to a Bigot, Gurba writes an address to a certain Republican politician in California she believes made many of Trump’s most notorious racist, xenophobic remarks far before he had a national platform in politics. Gurba also offers some advice to fellow artists who are considering turning to art to heal after trauma and points out one very big—and very consistent—issue with national coverage on the COVID-19 pandemic.
This interview has been edited for clarity, concision, and flow.
Marissa Higgins: I know you have several books out. If you’d want to describe any of your books in a few sentences for people who aren’t familiar, whatever you think might be the soul of them or maybe something that is left out of market copy, but you feel represents the book.
Myriam Gurba: My first two books are collections of short fiction. The short fiction is sometimes as brief as a page or two. And sometimes as long as a novella. The unifying elements in those two collections of fiction are that the protagonists are all Mexican or Mexican American. And then my third book, Mean, is an experimental memoir that also has elements of true crime as well as an element of a ghost story.
MH: I was curious if you wanted to talk a little bit about how you came up with Letter to a Bigot. And just how you came up with it and part of that being, why a letter and why the brevity.
MG: So Letter to a Bigot developed as a result of an invitation that I received from Scribes. The only instruction was that whatever we wrote to be in the form of correspondence. And I had long been wanting to write about the experience of growing up in a California town that was governed by a bigot. And because the bigot that governed the town where I grew up is now deceased … it felt opportune to receive that invitation.
Often when those of us who have been the victims of bigotry and who have survived bigotry are able to narrate that experience, we don’t often do so in a form of address. Where we address a person or entity that harmed us. And I wanted to use correspondence to do that because it seemed that it would create a more intimate experience for whoever read the letters.
MH: I loved that. So for readers who might not be familiar with George by name, and are afraid that they wouldn’t “get” the letter, what would you tell them?
MG: The letter is an address to a man who governed the town where I grew up for over a decade and I express how his xenophobia and racism, directly and indirectly, impacted the lives of his constituents and impacted me directly and indirectly. And I draw a line between xenophobic and racist statements that he made and violence that was directed at my body.
MH: I know in the letter you mentioned the Trump rhetoric specifically. When you were commissioned, or had the opportunity to write the letter, was that with Trump and the election in your mind?
MG: Trump was absolutely on my mind and the connection between Trump and Hobbs had been on my mind for a really long time. I think that I mentioned this in the letter itself when Trump started his campaign and did so on essentially a single-issue platform, which was the Anti-Mexican platform and xenophobic platform. His rhetoric was uncomfortably familiar because it was rhetoric that I grew up being subjected to.
When there was general shock about the very overt and direct xenophobia and racism being lobbied from the stage, I had a sense of déjà vu and also an incredible sense of frustration with the pearl-clutching that I noticed. Because there was this widespread pearl-clutching, “Oh my goodness. How could he say that?” Well, how the f–k do you think you could say that? People have been talking like that for f–king centuries in this country. This is not new. So it’s more overt than we’ve been accustomed to. And it was different rhetoric than we had grown accustomed to. But the rhetoric had always been there.
We live in a settler-colonial state that engages in imperialism. This is at the core of who we are, so to suddenly be shocked. … I found the shock and the pearl-clutching really annoying.
MH: What advice could you give writers, or artists in general, who are also interested in writing in or about trauma or sexual violence?
MG: A popular notion is that the simple act of “telling” is enough to trigger a sense of relief, a sense of catharsis, and a sense of being unburdened. And that’s not the case. Writing in and of itself, or “telling” in and of itself, does not necessarily heal. It can for some people. But I think that it’s really important to take into consideration that when we do choose to confide or to tell or to narrate experiences of trauma that unless we are being cared for and those experiences are being validated by an audience and validated by people who care about us, the re-telling or the telling of those episodes in our life can be re-traumatizing and harmful, as opposed to providing us with this mythical catharsis.
So I would caution people against using writing as a panacea because I think that sometimes writing is misrepresented as that. I would also recommend to people that if they want to do that sort of writing, that they do so as a member of some sort of artistic or writing community. So that they can be socially and emotionally supported during that process. Otherwise, again, it can be really painful and re-traumatizing.
MH: What do you most want to see out of the #MeToo movement?
MG: I primarily want two things to happen. I want for there to be a strong, concerted, and effective effort made at all levels of society for survivors to heal and get well. That survivor spaces are normalized and that survivors’ stories are validated and that resources are directed at survivors and that survivors be listened to in terms of what we need in order to heal and live our best possible lives in the aftermath of being harmed. And I also want cultures of rape and abuse to be disrupted and dismantled.
MH: When it comes to supporting sexual assault survivors, what would you most want allies or advocates to know?
MG: I want allies and advocates to listen to survivors. I think that in every situation of abuse, and in situations of gendered violence, in particular, the person being victimized is an expert on how to survive because if they are alive, it is to their credit. They have managed to prolong their life under the threat of death because, in my experience with domestic violence, that’s what a person is actually surviving.
You’re living under the threat of death. And I haven’t written that extensively about domestic violence but that’s something that I did experience for three years of my life. So, yes. I want allies and others … I want them to center victims and survivors always and to center our expertise and our wisdom and our knowledge.
MH: That’s great. Thank you. I love the use of “expertise” in that way. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone phrase it in that way.
MG: I’ll give an example of what I mean by that. So I’m a domestic violence survivor. I was trapped in a relationship that was marked by domestic violence for three years. And one of the ugliest questions that people ask me is, “Why didn’t I leave?” And another ugly question that people asked me is, “Why did you let him do that to you?” And I did leave. That’s why I’m able to talk about the situation. What the person is actually asking is, “Why didn’t you leave sooner?”
Something that goes unacknowledged by much of the public is that depending on a person’s conditionality based on gender and sexuality, the possibility of experiencing domestic violence and abuse increases. Bisexual women are targeted for abuse and for violence. We’re the subset that is targeted according to some studies for an incredible amount of domestic violence.
I imagine it’s because we are hyper-sexualized. And so when we do find ourselves in a relationship with a controlling and abusive person, that person uses part of these tropes of hyper-sexualization in order to enforce control.
MH: I’m curious if you would want to speak at all to how either a specific state or the country as a whole has been handling education in terms of teacher protections or workers’ rights. Like for teachers working during the pandemic.
MG: I didn’t teach this last year. So I can only comment as an observer about the treatment of teachers and the treatment of students. And what I have observed is that there has been a ridiculous public narrative or discourse implicating teachers as cowards, as lazy people, as selfish and self-centered because of health concerns. And concerns about transmitting COVID-19 and also concerns about pedagogy and distance learning. Distance learning requires its own expertise.
And yet teachers were expected to make the transition to distance learning seamlessly and with minimal training. And I was employed by a minority-majority school district, that was very inconsistent in its messaging to faculty about teacher safety. So I recall still having received emails from week to week at the beginning of the school year. It seemed that protocols were changing. So at first, there was going to be an onsite instruction, and then very quickly that transformed and after teachers protested, distance learning was instituted. In my district, there is now a push to gradually re-open brick and mortar sites. However, parents of students were offered the option of returning students to on-site learning or continuing to engage in distance learning.
And there is a marked distinction between which parents want their children returned to brick and mortar classrooms and which parents are opting to continue with distance learning. And this split has to do with or the split is tied to income and race and ethnicity. And this is something that the “re-open the schools crowd” have largely tiptoed around. The re-open the schools crowd will often invoke the notion of “learning laws.” Particular learning loss for students of color and for students who come from low-income families in order to throw the doors at brick and mortar school back open.
But if we look at data, for example, in my school district and school districts that used to employ me: the parents of such students are not advocating for a return to campus. So to me, it seems like that push is a push for a return to visual normalcy. Certain people want for the United States to look “normal again.” And part of our country appearing normal once again would be the sight of children coming to and from school campuses.
MH: That’s so true. I never thought about that in terms of visual normalcy; even shopping malls or eating in restaurants.
MG: So much of it is about maintaining a visual facade. If you see people dining in restaurants, there’s a sense of familiarity. You see kids coming and going from school, there’s the sense of normalcy and familiarity and safety. And I think that the same goes for mask-wearing. And I think that, that’s largely why there’s this push to shame people who have been vaccinated into completely shedding their masks. Because wearing a mask indicates that we’re not all equal. We live in a highly stratified hierarchy where some of us continue to remain highly vulnerable to certain harm and to illness. But if we impose or shame people into not wearing masks, we can maintain this visual charade that all is well. Yeah.
MH: What issue related to the pandemic do you think the national media either isn’t covering enough or isn’t covering and why?
MG: I think that the element that should be driving coverage of COVID-19 in the United States is race. This is a racial story. All stories in this country are racial, right? All problems in the United States are racialized. All problems on the planet are racialized. Problems are racialized in peculiar ways that are specific to the United States. And I think that any coverage of COVID-19 that attempts to de-racialize representation as the problem is incredibly problematic.
MH: Do you have any projects in the works you’d like to promote or share or tease for readers?
MG: Right now I’m working on an essay collection. I’m not sure when it’s going to be done but I’m working on that. And it’s tentatively titled, Creek. The titular essay is a chronicle of the experience of writing Mean. People will often comment to me “Oh, it must have been really healing for you to be able to write that book.” And it wasn’t. So I want the ability to set the record straight. I’m writing an essay about that experience and about how trauma writing is not inherently cathartic especially when we don’t know the circumstances under which people are engaged in trauma writing.
And I’m also the editor in chief of a web magazine called Tasteful Rude. It’s a magazine of criticism, commentary, and social analysis. And I’m really proud of a lot of the work that we’ve published. We publish twice a week and we’re review-driven.
You can check out Mean here, or request from your local library or independent bookstore!
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