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Nikki Darling in Conversation with Myriam Gurba

[Writer, Artist] [Writer, Artist]

“‘Tommy Jesse Martinez wore my genitals as a gas mask.’
That sounds very different from ‘I was sexually assaulted,’ doesn’t it?”

Things that are better than posting a meme:
Voting
Canvassing
Lobbying
Reading the damn paper

by Nikki Darling
Illustrations by Tony Millionaire
header-image

Nikki Darling in Conversation with Myriam Gurba

[Writer, Artist] [Writer, Artist]

“‘Tommy Jesse Martinez wore my genitals as a gas mask.’
That sounds very different from ‘I was sexually assaulted,’ doesn’t it?”

Things that are better than posting a meme:
Voting
Canvassing
Lobbying
Reading the damn paper

by Nikki Darling
Illustrations by Tony Millionaire

Nikki Darling in Conversation with Myriam Gurba

Nikki Darling
24 Snaps

Myriam Gurba’s Mean is a memoir that refuses to sensationalize itself. It chronicles a lifetime of sexual violence, culminating in a rape by convicted murderer Tommy Jesse Martinez and its aftermath. Mean plods through the gory details of violence with measured banality, begging readers to put down their feigned outrage and instead proceed as they normally would, with the assured knowledge that misogyny will continue and that happenings like the assault on Gurba are routine. To quote Jenny Holzer, whose words have come in some part to define the #MeToo moment: “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.” Mean wants us to settle in and feel the discomfort of our complicit behavior.

As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.” We have become cogs of violence, suggests Gurba. She compartmentalizes her descriptions with bad puns and clinical formality, the same way the United States has normalized misogyny. Think of President Trump, filling out endless health-care forms.

Early in Mean, Gurba describes her first experience of sexual misconduct at the hands of a classmate who reached under a desk to fondle her. She makes clear, however, that the systemic violence perpetrated is carried out not by her fellow student but instead by a teacher who witnessed the attack.

Mr. Hand, the teacher, fails not only Gurba but her young attacker as well, condoning his behavior with silence. Mean takes a hard look at how this country has treated victims of sexual violence and how collectively we have shamed them into inaction and steered them away from their own advocacy, demonstrating that consequences for attackers often fall entirely on the victim.

Myriam and I met about five years ago through our mutual friend the poet Raquel Gutiérrez. I had read Myriam’s work and been a silent fangirl from afar for some time, having seen her read at events around Los Angeles and in Long Beach, where she works as a high-school teacher. Onstage she is droll, sarcastic, irreverent, and almost always in poor taste. I’ve seen her make rape jokes and call vegetables her spirit animals, when she knows full well the term spirit animal is offensive. Myriam constantly leaves me aghast, but she also leaves me thinking about important issues on a deeper level. I think this is true for many people who stumble out of her readings confused and unsure of what they’ve just encountered.

Myriam and I have developed a friendship around humor and similar interests: we’re both visual artists who don’t make distinctions between literary and visual modes of creativity, à la the New Narrative movement; we have both made work about the artist Ana Mendieta, explored concepts of fandom and obsession, and enjoy Roscoe’s House of Chicken ’n Waffles in Long Beach as a place for cultural exchange. Myriam is incredibly funny, generous, and one of the smartest people I know. Sharing ideas with her is an honor and a treat.

My novel Fade Into You, unlike Mean, is a fictionalized account of my high-school experience at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts during the 1990s. I wanted to reclaim the city as a place of historical importance to people who are born there, and not just as a transient dream state of people who are looking to find themselves: gold rush prospectors, actors hoping to make it big, health nuts, cult impresarios, millennial gentrifiers. It’s also a meditation on girlhood and trauma. It was my sincere hope that I could write a novel about a teenage girl without a male co-protagonist, vampires, or extraordinary circumstances. I simply wanted to show that the interiority of a teenage girl’s life was and is enough to justify its telling.

At the heart of both books are the intersections of race and class and how they, too, play a role in misogynistic expression. In Mean, Gurba is not only a statistical one-in-six female victim of sexual assault; she is a mixed-race, first-generation, lower-middle-class Latinx from a small California town called Santa Maria, out by the grapevine. Her traumas are doubled by molestation and aggravated by racism. Mean takes its name from a question that a young Gurba asks her father, “Why is there evil?”

“Evil,” he responds. “Myriam, think of how boring life would be if nothing bad ever happened.”

Nikki Darling

 

I. SILUETAS

NIKKI DARLING: Mean opens with the murder of a young woman named Sophia, whose death predates your rape [by] the same perpetrator. Later in the book, there seems to be a serializing of famous dead women who’ve experienced horrific deaths, and also what feels like a need to return them to their human agency. There’s Anne Frank, Nicole Brown Simpson, Elizabeth Short (more commonly known as the Black Dahlia), and Ana Mendieta.

MYRIAM GURBA: It was important for me to write a narrative about trauma as an unlikable narrator. I wanted not to include unlikable victims or survivors, per se, but victims and survivors who—ugh, I hate this turn of phrase—but who are more “fully human,” as opposed to angelic, creatures. I frequently emphasize my meanness and my pettiness and my bitchiness throughout the narrative, almost to sort of challenge the reader. Did I deserve this even though I’m a fucking bitch? No, of course not. And did it correct my bitchiness? No. I’m still a fucking bitch. The same goes for these other figures. Elizabeth Short, from what I’ve read and researched, was not a particularly pleasant person. And with Nicole Brown, we didn’t know anything about her, because the story became about him, as it frequently does in cases of domestic violence and abuse. The man usurps the entire story and that’s why he’s an abuser. She became a footnote in her own murder. That interested me because when I talk about the murder of Sophia, she, interestingly enough, became a footnote in her own murder as well. There wasn’t even a story. Santa Maria, where her trial happened, was also the home of the Michael Jackson trial, which was happening at the same time, and as a result the Tommy Martinez trial got very little coverage. The Michael Jackson trial was incredibly absorbing. In what was reported, her name was erased. She became “the transient,” “the homeless woman.” She was nobody. She became a thing that was beaten with a bat and a pipe. With Ana Mendieta, she was an artist, and a lot of the work that she made is very challenging and addresses violence against women. The irony, of course—

ND: Yes, the irony is that she made an actual silueta.

MG: Exactly. She made her own silueta. In some ways it almost seems as if she psychically foretold her own death through that work. The book is filled with dead women, and that’s intentional, because for years I could not think about Sophia. It was too distressing for me to do that, so over time I latched onto proxies and I became absolutely obsessed with true crime and tabloids. I wrote a novella called Dahlia Season, named after the Black Dahlia. I would allow myself to really indulge in thinking and almost ruminating on incredibly misogynistic crimes, because that was my way of thinking about Sophia. That was the only way I could think about her. I couldn’t think about her directly, because if I thought about her directly I would have to think about what happened to me, and I’d have to consider the fact that I had come very, very, very close to a really horrific death. If I had to think about that, then I had to think about the “privilege” of surviving and whether or not I had a right to find pleasure in life. That was a philosophical problem I didn’t want to have to deal with, so I coped by finding all these proxy women to obsess about.

 

II. “MAYBE MEN SHOULD ADD CARROTS TO THEIR DIETS SO THEY CAN BETTER SEE WHEN THEY ARE MORALLY POLICING WOMEN.”

ND: Much of your book seems to be about a culture obsessed with the performance of grief or the performance of outrage, without actually investing in solving the things that create tragedy, namely misogyny. Is this an accurate assessment?

MG: I like that you bring up misogyny. In Mean, I wanted to use precise diction. It is inaccurate of me to say I was sexually assaulted. If I phrase the crime committed against me that way, I absolve my attacker. In Mean, I name the boys and the men who have hurt me. And I paint their crimes televisually. “Tommy Jesse Martinez tackled me.” “Tommy Jesse Martinez ripped down my underwear.” “Tommy Jesse Martinez put his face between my legs and inhaled the smell of my vagina into his nostrils.” “Tommy Jesse Martinez wore my genitals as a gas mask.” That sounds very different from “I was sexually assaulted,” doesn’t it? It comes with horrific clarity. That iteration carries gravity and truth. Justice can’t happen independently of gravity and truth.

[Without] full gender equality, women will never have justice. Women will never be able to free themselves from masculine violence unless we harden the target through equality. Hardening the target translates into closing the wage gap, enhancing women’s social status so that being a woman is no longer framed as a liability, abandonment of male supremacist ideology, and full political representation of women at all levels of government.

ND: Exactly: semantics have crippled progressive efficiency. Words are often used against women. Human trafficking versus sexual slavery, for instance. We need to start calling things what they are if we are going to see a change in the policies you describe. I remember we had a conversation about white guilt and how that’s just another way to frame whiteness at the center without actually dealing with racism. It’s a way, especially on social media, for white individuals to outperform one another in terms of who is the most woke, when in fact they don’t actually amend their behavior. Almost as if they are performing to be acknowledged for their progressive, antiracist pedagogy. It’s all highly problematic and creates a culture in which whiteness needs and seeks constant validation. As well, it’s a way for white people to say, See, I’m not racist! Which again is a white person’s way of saying, My fear of being called racist and need to be absolved is greater than your actual lived experience of racism.

MG: White guilt gets on my nerves when it’s performed as part of quasi-religious rituals like the dramatic and publicly enacted mea culpas I’ve watched certain white undergraduates perform in university classrooms. These are replete with shows of weeping and proclamations of spiritual awakening, and, honestly, I don’t want to know how bad you feel about the gifts you were handed. I’m envious of those gifts. A lot of people envy those gifts and would trade anything for them. Boo-hoo, you got the biggest slice of cake. Shut up. Instead of performing guilt, I want to see people working to change inefficient, broken, bloated, and cruel systems. If I actually see you sweating to execute change, I might congratulate you. I might not. If you’re an asshole who seems in it for personal glory, I’ll continue to turn up my Mexican nose at you.

ND: A part of me thinks the most radical thing whiteness could do at this point is to stop talking. Do one antiracist thing each day and don’t tell anyone about it. I’ve had to unfollow certain white peers who post daily meditations on white supremacy. It feels very self-congratulatory and masturbatory. I understand that you’re white and you want to show solidarity, but perhaps [you make] your amends [by] having to sit in the discomfort of not knowing whether friends of color view you as antiracist. Steering the conversation or attention back toward yourself is, in fact, racist. Maybe [you make] your amends [by] having to be uncomfortable. Welcome to the microaggressions of racism. Now you’re living it. No cookie for you.

I think of a cis-male peer who spent the entire election [season] posting insanely vitriolic, misogynistic Instagrams about Hillary Clinton. After Trump’s election and during the protests that happened in response, he reposted a picture of a group of young women of color holding a sign that read, Maybe if racism was pumpkin-spiced-flavored, white women would care about it. That is a fair and necessary critique from a group of young women of color, and that’s their argument to make. But for this white cis-man to repost it just sent a ripple of rage through my body. Like, if you really want to help women of color, I have a laundry list of shit you can do as a cis-man to amend your behavior before you start telling other women how to think and act. I was tempted to post my own Instagram that said, Maybe men should add carrots to their diets so they can better see when they are morally policing women.

MG: Memes are certainly political, but posting a meme isn’t the same thing as voting, canvassing, lobbying, and—because plenty of people don’t do it—reading the damn paper. Reading the newspaper is more politically powerful than meme posting. Plenty of people now behave as if posting a meme is more powerful than going to the ballot box. It’s sick and indicative of the reality that our democratic republic is filled with termites. Thinking about this reminds me of an Onion headline that attacks this stupid dilemma better than I can. It reads something to the effect of Woman Who Called You a Whore in High School Posts Selfies at Women’s March.

 

III. “TO SAY THAT SHE ISN’T PARTICULARLY SPECIAL IS AGAIN A WAY TO SAY THAT EXTRAORDINARY VIOLENCE IS ALSO QUITE ORDINARY.”

ND: What do you want people to take away about sexual assault and violence from reading this?

MG: It would be nice if people had the epiphany that sexual assault and sexual violence, even grisly sexual violence, are pretty mundane, everyday, and banal. The most horrifying thing about Tommy Martinez when I first saw him was how normal he looked. He’s not anybody I would have picked out of a crowd. He looked like the kind of guy you would borrow a pencil from in class and not remember [from] whom you’d borrowed the pencil. That’s how nondescript he was, and that’s what horrified me the most once the attack began: that an average man was doing something that I thought was extraordinary to me.

ND: I’d like to discuss an early scene in the book between Macauley, the classmate who molests you, and Mr. Hand, the teacher who lets it happen. My overwhelming thought when reading it was that this was a book about trauma and the ways that we internalize and live with it, the credo that hurt people hurt people. Also, because you write about Anne Frank, who is featured prominently in the early part of the book in funny, sort of nasty junior-high ways, I couldn’t help but make a connection between the Nazis and Mr. Hand. These two Anne sections bookend the molestation. This idea that I was just doing my job. Even though Mr. Hand literally fails at his job, his job technically is to teach sixth-grade history, not mitigate molestations.

MG: Right. The Eichmann defense. I was just following orders. With Anne Frank I wanted [to] return her to her human state. She’s been deified as a saint and she wasn’t a saint. She was a young Jewish girl who wrote in her journal like any girl might, and that—

ND: Yes, to say that she isn’t particularly special is again a way to say that extraordinary violence is also quite ordinary. You honor her humanity by suggesting she was flawed, human, just an average little girl.

MG: My intent in writing that scene was to illustrate that although the teacher doesn’t molest me, he averts his eyes. It was the teacher who gave me one of my first lessons in patriarchy when he looked away and chose not to do anything. That was the moment I understood what patriarchy really is. It’s a facade. I’m a man who’s here to comfort, teach, and protect you is a mask, and behind that mask is someone potentially vicious who will abandon you.

ND: Most women reach a point in their young lives when they are betrayed by a man they trusted, or, rather, when they see the cracks in the facade. The world has another conversation going, but we don’t discuss it.

MG: It’s taken thousands of years for patriarchy to be able to crystallize and to exert the amount of power that it does over women, but I don’t think that power needs violence in order to generate itself. Power can do that without violence. Violence exists in order to destroy power, so I think that’s why these kinds of attacks, murders, happen. It’s a fear of women. Just a fear of women and a fear of women’s power, and it’s an attempt to destroy women’s power, and that violence is also an admission of powerlessness. I don’t have power over you, I can’t tolerate that, and so I’m going to fucking rape you. I’m going to kill you, I’m going to hurt you, because you need to be obedient.

ND: It’s so gross.

MG: [Laughing] Yes, it’s sad. You know, it makes me think of the #MeToo movement, which at this point is messy anger finally having a voice, which is good. It’s also, I think, a response to Trumpism. This is a political response to Trumpism. We have this man that acts like the ultimate patriarchal abuser who has just rooms full of victims who have detailed his crimes against them, and yet he’s able to mock them from the highest perch in the world.

I think #MeToo is a response to him, and because he seems unimpeachable at the moment, there are all these sort of proxy Trumps that we can go after. Deservedly, of course. We can go after them with a pitchfork and impeach them. Like Harvey Weinstein. And we can topple them because we can’t topple our own president. Women are angry. I think that is partly what’s going on, and it’s amazing to watch how energized women are, and how this is energizing people politically, and how many women are running for local office. That to me is incredible, those numbers. Right now there is a record number of women running in both houses of Congress, and I think the number is 111, but I will be shocked if that number doesn’t climb a lot after future election cycles. A lot of it, not all of it, is a direct response to him.

 

IV. FADE INTO YOU

MG: Could I ask you some questions about your book?

ND: Please!

MG: Because both of our books are set in California, and California is a character, I was wondering what your exact California experience was. Los Angeles in your book is a dystopia. It keeps destroying itself, then being rebuilt. Also, reading your book, I realized you lived this LA teenage life that in Santa Maria I used to dream about.

ND: Absolutely. That was part of what I wanted to communicate. On the one hand, yes, my teenage years were atypical. I hung out with pro skaters in Hollywood, had a fake ID, and was going to clubs and raves and all that. On the other hand, my friends and I, we watched all those movies and TV shows too. So there was a real sense of cannibalizing and regurgitating our lives. I remember My So-Called Life being filmed in South Pasadena at my friend Ryan’s house. My friend Jason lived in the Charmed house on Bellevue. I went there all the time. Only we didn’t know then what something or anything being filmed would eventually become. It was commonplace. There has always been this fascination with Hollywood, the mirage behind the mirage, so to speak. I meet friends who grew up in New York City and they have a similar sense of displacement. Everyone comes to LA and claims it as their own. One of the great secrets of Los Angeles, of course, is that it’s filled with locals. Kids who grew up here. They never leave the state. For the holidays they get on the 10 and drive twenty minutes. That familiarity, though, that others have with Los Angeles just from reading about it or watching movies about it affects the people who actually do know it on a more intimate, long-term scale. LA is not a static place. My dad, who also grew up here, once told me, “The only thing you can count on as an Angeleno is that the city you grew up in won’t be there when you go looking for it.” This city constantly tears down great architectural buildings to build something new. It’s hard, but in some way that’s a constant.

On top of that, LA in the ’90s, you’re right, did feel very dystopian and wild. The riots, the earthquake, the corrupt police department and the rampart scandal, the gang violence, poverty—just, no one was clamoring to get here. The wildfires. Oh god, and the godforsaken OJ trial. It seemed endless and open. While I am grateful for my childhood, it does do a number on you to watch movies about kids in LA and wonder if your ideas are your own or something you saw Robert Downey Jr. do in Less Than Zero. Also, being a white-passing child with a single Mexican mother. All of it was a recipe for interior uncertainty. Having the literal earth shake under your feet. Not to mention just being a girl. Girlhood in general. That’s the thing, though, as you know. No matter where you grow up, eventually you get hurt.

MG: It bugs me when people lecture me on personal safety, especially women’s safety, and an emphasis is placed on where a woman should or shouldn’t go. As if nighttime is the most dangerous [time] for a woman. Or a dark street is the most dangerous place for a woman. I think the most dangerous place for a woman is womanhood. The most dangerous place for a girl is girlhood.

When I think back on my girlhood, I do get drunk on nostalgia. Girlhood has been the only time in my life when I had a surplus of self-esteem. I hadn’t been objectified or sexualized yet, and that freed me to be a loud, wisecracking, chubby attention monger. Entering adolescence squashed that, although adolescence isn’t necessarily womanhood, either.

Girlhood is a time and place where a person can be really free with her gender. The only man who could tell me what to do was my father, and I took every opportunity I could to disobey him and stray way farther from home than he allowed. I wanted to feel the sea breeze whip my hair while I explored, and it wasn’t fair that my father had been able to ramble all over Southern California as a kid because he’d been a boy. I shared my dad’s childhood thirst for adventure, and I didn’t care that I was supposed to stick close to home because I was a girl.

Girlhood, however, was also a time [when], unbeknownst to me, I could easily have been subjected to gender-based exploitation, violence, and abuse. Many of my female friends and family members first experienced these phenomena during girlhood, and the effects were especially devastating given their lack of recourse. They felt so small and terrified that they confided in no one about what was happening. Others told but were prompted to simply endure. Others told but were disbelieved. This is especially true of girls who were childhood victims of incest. No one believed them despite the blood in their prepubescent underwear. Gender-based violence didn’t come for me until adolescence, and it has continued to dog me up through adulthood.

The thing I most feared as a teenage girl was being called a ho. This was the ’90s and I understood ho to mean “bad.” Rotten. Terrible. A pariah. It had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with being rejected for my great “misfortune,” being a girl. I got called a ho ages before my hymen broke, and once the epithet got hurled at me, I knew I was stuck. There was no way to wash it off. I was a ho and decided to have fun with it. And remember, I didn’t conceive of being a ho as being a hypersexualized girl. I understood ho to mean “bad.” A bad girl. A rule breaker. And so I considered it my duty to break all the rules. If I was going to have that slur hurled at me, I might as well earn it. What names were you most scared of being called when you were a girl? Did being pretty matter to you as a girl?

ND: It did. I felt ugly and out of place and not at home in my body. Also I had no idea what to do with being present in the room with other white people who didn’t know I was also Mexican, and the racist stuff that would come out of their mouths. Now, of course, as an adult I always identify myself in those situations, which, pathetically, still happen, but as a child I had no idea how. No one teaches you that stuff. At least my mother didn’t; she worked full-time to support me and my sister. I developed at an early age, around eleven. C cups, zits, armpit hair, all of it. I was teased mercilessly for being tall. I’m still 5’6” but I’ve had the same body since 1991. In junior high I started smoking pot, found my people, and eventually became an active alcoholic and drug addict, but that’s all for another book.

MG: Are you conscious of your writing style, or is style second nature to you?

ND: This is a good question. I don’t believe I am. I mean, I’m conscious of it in the sense that I have something I want to communicate, but I often let the text tell me what that is. My writing has always been more of an intuitive endeavor. I think of it as if I’m a sculptor. I barf everything out onto the page, wait a few days, let it marinate, go back and edit, shave away what no longer needs to be there or is excessive. See what shape I end up with. So perhaps second nature? But that makes me seem like some writing auteur. I definitely work at whatever I’m writing. I bang my head, get anxiety cramps, cancel plans, eat everything in the fridge, cry, sometimes give up, throw books against walls. I mean, it’s still very much work. It’s never fun. It’s never, ever been fun. Neither is art making, though. I think if I was in it for fun I would have quit a long time ago. I definitely have something to say; getting it out in an articulate or meaningful fashion is the challenge. I recently had a conversation with a friend who seemed mildly horrified by this. For her, art needs to be fun in order to be worth it. Or she needs to get joy from it, and I understand that, but for me that’s not what this is, nor has it ever been. Fun for me is a day off to eat In-N-Out, be in my garden, hang out with my dog, and, if I’m really having fun, Disneyland on a drizzly day.

MG: Who are your favorite Los Angeles writers?

ND: Joan Didion, Luis J. Rodriguez, John Fante, Dana Johnson, John Rechy, Eve Babitz, Bukowski, of course. People can judge me, but Bret Easton Ellis. Less Than Zero taught me how to write, and I truly believe American Psycho is a misunderstood masterpiece. Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus, Salvador Plascencia—The People of Paper is a modern classic, as far as I’m concerned. Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat is perfect; Wendy C. Ortiz, Raquel Gutiérrez, and you, of course. How do you respond?

MG: I respond by telling you to put yourself on that list.

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