(Photo by Geoff Cordner)
Author and self-described chingona Myriam Gurba is kicking 2020’s ass.
It started in January, when her takedown of the novel American Dirt went viral. Gurba’s review is scathing, thoughtful, and funny—a sweet spot that her prose often hits. In Tropics of Meta, Gurba said that the Oprah’s Book Club Pick “…tastes like its title,” sharing how the author, who has no Mexican ancestry, “…plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes … into her wannabe realist prose.”
Gurba’s review kicked off a long-overdue conversation about representation in the publishing industry. Why aren’t more underrepresented people allowed to tell their own stories, and do a much better job in the process?
The conversation around American Dirt also led to the formation of Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots movement that is fighting for better Latinx representation on bookshelves and in the overwhelmingly white publishing industry. Along with leading the conversation on social media, Gurba and her Dignidad Literaria co-founders David Bowles and Roberto Lovato met with publishing execs in New York to make their demands in person.
So, if you beef with Oprah in January, what do you do in February? Well, Gurba—a high school teacher—was placed on administrative leave by the Long Beach Unified School District for, as she Tweeted, “being ‘disruptive.’” That disruption? Speaking out online and helping students organize to fight back against a fellow teacher with a reputation for using violence and hate speech against students. The teacher in question is now on leave as well.
In addition to her accomplishments as an activist and educator, Gurba is a visual artist, co-host with MariNaomi of the AskBiGrlz podcast, a veteran of the Sister Spit spoken word and performance art tour, and the author of three books.
Gurba’s most recent book, the 2017 memoir Mean, is written with an energy that bursts off the page, using a brash sense of humor to trace Gurba’s coming-of-age as a queer Chicana artist. The humor and wordplay in Mean make her trenchant insights on sexual violence, racism, misogyny, and suffocating small-town life hit that much harder. The book is entertaining, thought-provoking, and a surefire conversation starter. Or, as Cheryl Strayd said in the New York Times, “Like most truly great books, Mean made me laugh, cry and think. Myriam Gurba’s a scorchingly good writer.”
In true pandemic style, Gurba and I did this interview via video chat on May 15, 2020, Myriam in a Highland Park garage, me in my View Park dining room. We discussed humor, speaking out, meanness, and much more.
Interview and intro by Chris L. Terry
A CA20 Installment
A Collection of California Artists’ Voices in the New Decade
Funded by the California Arts Council