After Dahlia Season came another story collection, Painting Their Portraits in Winter (2017), of which Rigoberto González observed in a review for NBC News: “At every turn Gurba dares to upend the sexist elements of Mexican lore and to reimagine the familiar narratives through a feminist lens, reminding us that the old stories still matter, but that there’s room for improvement.”
And then, a few years later, came the acclaimed true crime memoir Mean (2017), which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. O, The Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time. And writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jonathan Alexander dubbed Mean “a powerful, vital book about damage and the ghostly afterlives of abuse.” Gurba’s other writings include two poetry collections and numerous essays, published in such venues as The Paris Review, Time, and 4Columns.
Now comes Gurba’s latest book, Creep: Accusations and Confessions, an essay collection that has racked up prepublication raves. For example, Publishers Weekly called it “[f]ull of lean prose and biting commentary.” In a starred review, Kirkus praised it as “[p]rofoundly insightful, thoroughly researched, incredibly inventive, and laugh-out-loud funny, […] a masterpiece of wit and vulnerability.” Novelist Héctor Tobar proclaimed that Creep “will help cement Myriam Gurba’s reputation as a singular and essential voice in American literature.”
And let me add my own voice to this cavalcade of acclaim. Without a doubt, Creep confirms that Myriam Gurba is one of our great American intellectuals, one who expertly utilizes a rapier wit to slice away the façade of hypocrisy, bigotry, bullying, and crime that marks our contemporary moment. She speaks truth to power with panache and lawyer-like logic, producing eloquent and vital essays that simultaneously provoke and entertain. Creep is quite simply one of the best books of the decade.
Gurba answered a few questions for the Los Angeles Review of Books about her new book and the writing life.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: In 2007, I had the opportunity to interview you about your first book, a collection of short stories and a novella. How would you describe the difference between writing a short story versus an essay? Do you prefer one form over the other?
MYRIAM GURBA: I haven’t completed a short story in a long time, but from what I recall, there’s a greater sense of being at sea without a boat or a buoy when writing fiction. Essays give me more to hold onto. I approach them like puzzles to be solved, and I typically can see or sense a fair number of pieces and am able to visualize a broad, intellectual outline. A skeleton. I can’t do the same with fiction. “Make believe” is much more nebulous and I do miss it. I’d love to write a novel but don’t know if I have the discipline for it. I find it easier to abandon fiction than nonfiction, and there’s a lot of half-finished-never-to-be-touched-again fiction rotting in my computer.
Could you tell us about how Creep came to be? That is, how did you choose the 11 essays that make up the collection, what went into choosing the order of the pieces, and how did the essay “Creep” become the title essay?
Creep was conceived as a sequel, or at the very least a complement, to Mean, my memoir. Mean chronicled the first 30 or so years of my life and was structured around two life-altering events, one being a period of sexual abuse that I experienced at the hands of a junior high school classmate, and the other an episode of sexual assault perpetrated by a stranger. I later learned that my assailant was a 19-year-old Chicano named Tommy Jesse Martinez and that he had murdered one of his other victims, Sophia Castro Torres, a shy migrant farmworker born in Chihuahua, Mexico. Martinez was caught after attempting to abduct a shopgirl at knifepoint and is currently serving a life sentence in San Quentin State Prison. Mean describes my sense of being haunted by Sophia.
When I was doing press for Mean, I received a certain question that really bothered me but that I couldn’t answer honestly. People wanted to know if the process of writing about sexual abuse, gender-based violence, and femicide had healed my various wounds. Some seemed to believe that confessional writing cures post-traumatic stress disorder. The assumption that the creative process exorcises pain is widespread but wrong. While writing Mean, I was yet again struggling to survive gender-based violence, intimate authoritarianism to be precise, and I’m not kidding when I say that there were moments during the creation of that book when I would tell myself that I would have to stay alive long enough to finish it, that I had to outwit death to complete the manuscript. I was terrified that I would be murdered before I could finish it, that I might die in a way that paralleled Sophia Castro Torres. My abuser knew the details of her rape and femicide and used them to torture and control me. For instance, he would creep up behind me and grab me, startling me in a way that recreated the assault Martinez perpetrated against me. Multiple lethality indicators signaled that I was at high risk for domestic violence femicide. Creep is my answer to those readers who believe that creating a work of art is inherently cathartic and healing. It isn’t. And besides, catharsis does not belong to the artist. Catharsis is a gift that the artist gives to her audience.
The 11 essays that make up Creep are organized in such a way as to familiarize the reader with my world. The reader comes to know my family, the cultures that produced me, my politics, and my literary genealogy. In each essay, individual creeps are acting in concert with systems of supremacy to maintain their dominant positions. By the time the reader arrives at the final essay, she is prepared to learn about how I was engulfed by a fog that almost consumed me. The title essay can be read as a work of highly mundane true crime. It can also be read as horror nonfiction. The title essay shows how intimate authoritarianism, more commonly known as domestic violence, tends to creep into one’s life stealthily, strategically, and silently.
In Creep, you address head-on many very difficult and painful subjects, including rape, abuse in various forms, bigotry, racism in the publishing industry, and insufferable personalities (both in and outside the family). What is your creative decision-making process in choosing a topic to write about? Did you ever surprise yourself with the direction an essay took?
I address problems that obsess me. By writing about them, I attempt to understand them. I wasn’t surprised so much by the direction any singular essay took, but I was surprised by how present my family, both living and ancestral, came to be in Creep. Their presence is so strong that, in some regards, the book is a familial memoir. The family is a site of resistance against oppression but also a fundamental source of it, and that tension runs through the book.
For me, your essays pack a particularly hard blow against the many injustices in our world because of your sharp sense of humor and the well-timed irony that punctuates your observations. Could you talk about your use of humor in nonfiction as well as in everyday life?
For a long time, I believed that writers who explore serious subjects should use a serious tone. That belief constrained me. And besides, no one was taking me seriously anyways. The late poet tatiana de la tierra taught me that humor has a place in poetry, prose, publishing, activism, and death. Her use of humor gave me permission to use it, and I’m so grateful that she freed me from being sad and boring.
One of my favorite pieces in Creep is the essay “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature.” In fewer than nine pages, you perfectly capture what is wrong with a publishing industry that is willing to pay seven figures to inauthentic writers who appropriate “genius works by people of color,” “[s]lapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estadounidenses” and “[r]epackaging them for mass racially ‘color-blind’ consumption.” I think it is safe to say that your essay shook up the publishing industry. Have you seen palpable changes—for the better—since the publication of your essay? Has anything actually gotten worse?
During the BLM uprisings, we witnessed the DEI-ification of many industries, publishing included. We saw sales of anti-racist books surge. But how many buyers actually read those books? And more importantly, what action, if any, did those books prompt? Its seems that many would-be anti-racists developed “allyship fatigue” and left the cause before ever really committing to it. Personally, I’d like to see capitalism die. In order to rid ourselves of racism, that has to happen. The two are co-constitutive.
Myriam Gurba is a writer and artist who lives in Pasadena, California.
Daniel A. Olivas is an attorney, playwright, and author of 12 books, including the story collection How to Date a Flying Mexican (2022) which was recently released in a Spanish-language edition under the title Cómo Salir con un Mexicano Volador. His forthcoming novel is Chicano Frankenstein.