Myriam Gurba on Writing the Visceral
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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from the episode:
Myriam Gurba: [Mean] took me several years to write. It’s difficult for me to determine how many years because it’s difficult for me to determine what the actual starting point was. It began as a series of experiments and I didn’t intend for those experiments to be published. I intended for them to remain these private experiments that were for the sake of bettering myself as a writer.
When Mean did publish I had a lot of difficulty doing press for it because I had escaped from domestic violence and I was a bit timid and very guarded about some of the statements that I made when I was doing press. And one of the questions that I was often asked, and sometimes it wasn’t necessarily even presented as a question, it was presented more as a comment with the suggestion that it might be a question, that comment was, “gee, it must have been incredibly cathartic for you to have written a memoir in which you confront sexual violence that occurred when you were an adolescent and in your late teens.”
Writing Mean and detailing those experiences was not cathartic at all. I was surviving gender-based violence while writing about gender-based violence. And so instead of that manuscript or the process of creating that manuscript, being somehow like a cathartic process, it was a lifesaving process because the manuscript gave me a place to hide from my abuser. It was one of the few places he couldn’t enter into, he couldn’t chase me into the manuscript. He could not abuse me through the manuscript, and so it was a haven, but it wasn’t a location of catharsis. What I want for people to understand is that unless a reader or a critic or an audience understands the specific conditions under which a person is creating a work of art, in particular, a female artist, don’t assume that its creation was cathartic because we don’t know what that person is surviving in the moment.
Maris Kreizman: And this entire book is a very good reminder of that. I don’t often like to ask about book design, but the cover image and title are so striking. Partly in that, like the word “creep” is above your beautiful face with your grandmother’s eyes. And the word “creep” means so many different things in this book, but on the cover, it really implicates you too. Tell me about that.
MG: We had conversations about that word appearing in or around my face, and how I would become an implicated subject as a result of that proximity. Because part of the book’s project is to implicate everybody, and to both diagram in overt ways, but also suggest how it is that we all come to function as creeps, especially through systemic channels.
If we are in some way connected to a creepy institution, then we’re going to be coerced into doing its dirty work at some point in time. And so the book is an invitation for all of us to engage in personal inventory and to engage in accountability. That said, I am enamored of titles that are monosyllabic and crisp.
That’s why I like the title Mean. That’s why I like the title Creep. I really like these rich sort of consonant clusters because it’s really enjoyable to have them all together in your mouth. And “creep” is one of those words that’s incredibly multifaceted. For some of us, it is firmly entrenched in our imagination as a noun, for others, it’s firmly entrenched in our imagination as a verb. For some of us, it toggles back and forth as both. And so I’m really inviting readers to look at the dynamism of language through a word, through a simple word like “creep.”
MK: And another visceral word that you use in the collection is “Slime.” I think we’re almost exactly the same age, so there was this show called “You Can’t Do That on Television.” And it was a big practical joke that if someone said “I don’t know,” a big bucket of slime would pour on them, quite a metaphor there for constant vigilance. “Slime” so beautifully captures the idea of humor as being both something that we really need desperately and then also a great excuse for someone to do something terrible and say it was just a joke. Tell me about that.
MG: “Slime” is an essay about the seriousness of humor and essays about humor or analysis of humor are notoriously unfunny. And so I open the essay by disabusing the reader of any notion that they’re gonna be sliding into a humorous essay. This is an analytical essay, this is an autopsy of a clown, so to speak.
That’s how I enter into that analysis, and that essay was inspired by several dilemmas. One was as follows: I have had some critics and reviewers express that they are very bothered by the intersection of humor and horror that appears in my writing, especially my writing about sexual violence. That is shot through with comedy. So that has made some folks incredibly uncomfortable. And so I wanted to explore what the origins of that discomfort are. I wanted to go directly to that crossroads. I wanted to invite people to go to that crossroads with me and to think through that problem.
What I also wanted to do was invite readers to consider another problem, which is this: So often when misogynists engage in humor and make misogynist jokes, there’s this knee jerk reaction to say, what he just said is not a joke because I don’t find it funny. And so we’re gonna re-categorize misogynist humor and we’re gonna rebrand it as Other. I think that that’s a mistake.
I think what is funny to a misogynist is not gonna be funny to a feminist or a womanist, but that doesn’t exclude it from the category of humor. And what I argue in the essay is that humor isn’t necessarily a phenomenon that we can evaluate according to whether or not it elicits laughter. What it does is it restructures social space. And so if somebody’s joke has achieved that, then that person has engaged in humor and we really, really ought to pay attention to how it is that misogynists are attempting to restructure social space through language. Because what ensues then is a material restructuring of social space that, again, is going to fuck women.
MK: Speaking of that, I love your invocation of Chantal V. Johnson’s Post-Traumatic, which I think is such a masterful intersection of those two things in fiction.
MG: That novel is one of the few novels that goes hard. That goes really hard when it comes to how incredibly grotesque various forms of abuse are, in particular child sexual abuse. But that also invokes the sovereignty of the victim when it comes to her humor and her comedy and her use of medicine. When it comes to healing.
MK: The fact that more survivor stories don’t have humor is sometimes shocking to me.
MG: Yes, absolutely. I see the absence of it as part of… we all develop our habits, and storytellers develop habits too. And so I do think that there is a habit that exists in the current United States where when a survivor is invited to disclose a story of having survived sexual assault, we’re expected to narrate almost according to like these reverential and sacral tones. The class clown isn’t supposed to share her story of sexual violence, you know what I mean? And so I am inviting class clowns to share that.
Myriam Gurba is a writer and artist. She is the author of the true-crime memoir Mean, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time. She lives in Long Beach, California, and her new essay collection is called CREEP: Accusations and Confessions.