By Emma Fryer
Myriam Gurba’s use of dark humor throughout her book, Mean, gives us clues as to what her personality was like as a child. The sarcastic tones and shocking language within her anecdotes imply that she was disobedient, precocious, and hilarious in the face of trauma and adversity, taking typically detrimental events and handling them in a unique way. The author also narrates her stories with the wisdom of an aged woman… despite having been quite young at the time of each of them. This emphasizes the way in which her current perspectives in life have changed the way she views her past, and makes otherwise basic tales much more interesting. These ideas are demonstrated in multiple instances throughout the book. Both factors work together to form an image of herself growing up as a young Chicana in a prejudiced world.
One example of Gurba’s use of dark, intelligent humor is in the beginning of the book when she recalls her introduction to education. Her nursery school teachers assume that she can’t speak English because she is able to speak Spanish to them, the author having assumed that they understood both languages the way she had learned to. This results in the teachers attempting to teach her English despite her pre-existing ability to do so. However, instead of telling her teachers that she is fluent in both languages, she plays along out of pure amusement. This is revealed when she mocks her teachers efforts in front of her father at home. Gurba writes, “I pointed. In a didactic tone, I narrated, ‘This is a plate. This is a cup. This is a spoon. This is a fork.’” Once her father had understood the situation, he responded by saying to Gurba’s mother, “The nursery school ladies think Myriam can’t speak English so they’re trying to teach her! They’ve turned her into a parrot!” (5). This is one of the readers’ first opportunities to gain insight on Gurba’s childhood persona. We learn right away that she was a smart-ass kid who enjoyed mischief based upon her ability to out-smart and poke fun at her caucasian instructors.
This scene also allows the author to stress the fact that such prejudice assumptions shouldn’t be made based upon surface qualities through her humor. Telling her story through the eyes of a witty child exposes how ridiculous prejudice is as a whole, revealing that even a little girl can recognize the problem. This is emphasized when Gurba says, “I didn’t know Mexicans were Mexicans” (5). The explanation behind her thought process during this situation is what helps us as readers understand her point. Pairing her hilarious reaction as a kid with a more mature viewpoint is a strategy that allows Gurba to emphasize how important it is to not let differences hold you back.
Gurba’s comedic response to adversity takes stories that would otherwise be boring or sad and makes them hilarious. For instance, when she is invited over for dinner at her caucasian friend Emily’s home. The mother says, “Since you’re visiting, Mexican” in response to Gurba’s question as to what they would be eating (9). Instead of correcting the family or pretending to enjoy it when a terrible “Mexican casserole” and other unauthentic dishes are brought to the table, the author reacts in the most dramatic way possible. She says things like, “The brussel sprouts were a different story. I scooped one into my mouth and realized its flavor: eternal damnation,” and lets the food fall out of her mouth (10). Once again, Gurba chooses humor over anger or hurt in a situation that is wrong. This, much like the other example, says a lot about her as a young girl. Gurba didn’t care what people thought of her, something that she still believes. Her attitude pokes fun a prejudice once more, and solidifies the idea that you can turn any situation around to your own advantage if you learn to laugh sometimes.
- If you were Gurba, how do you think you would respond to your teachers trying to teach you a language that you already knew?
- Do you believe that Gurba’s comedic approach is effective in getting her points across? Why or why not?
Gurba, Myriam. Mean. Coffee House Press, 2017.