Myriam Gurba - The stories deal with the supernatural feminine and the supernatural feminist big time. They explore misogyny and they channel misogynistic ghosts. Death lurks around every comma. There is also a lot of fruity symbolism

Myriam Gurba, Painting Their Portraits in Winter: Stories, Manic D Press, 2015.

In this artfully crafted collection of new short stories by award-winning author Myriam Gurba, nothing is as it seems on the surface. A Mexican grandmother tells creepy yet fascinating ghost stories to her granddaughters as a way to make them sit still ("How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still So That They Can Paint Their Portraits in Winter"). A Polish grandfather spends the night in a Mexican graveyard after a Día de Muertos celebration to discover if ghosts really do consume the food that has been left for them ("Even This Title Is a Ghost").
Unforgettable characters inhabit these cross-border tales filled with introspection and longing, as modern sensibilities weave and wind through traditional folktales creating a new kind of magical realism that offers insights into where we come from and where we may be going.
A native Californian, Myriam Gurba earned a BA with honors from UC–Berkeley. Her writing has been published by Manic D Press, Future Tense, City Lights, and Seal Press. Her first book, Dahlia Season, won the Publishing Triangle's Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award. She blogs often for the Rumpus and Radar Productions.

​“Imaginations are the ultimate haunted houses,” Myriam Gurba muses in this collection of connected short stories. We ​are in ​awe ​of Gurba’s gift for blending supernatural elements like ghosts, spinsters who cook children alive, and graveyard spirits with all-too-real narratives surrounding death, philandering ancestors, and AIDS.
A storyteller of the leanest and meanest variety, Gurba writes from the Borderlands between different countries, ethnicities, generations, and desires. Painting Their Portraits in Winter begins with an abuelita telling her nietos scary stories and concludes with the reader being unable to distinguish that abuelita from Gurba herself. -

This is a book with a heartbeat, as alive as if the words were put down in blood. Probably a macabre first impression of a book, but one that I think really fits Painting Their Portraits In Winter. This is a collection of short stories, some interlinked and some freestanding, rooted in Mexican culture and storytelling both in Mexico itself and in the US. Queerness isn’t at the forefront of most of these stories, but when it does come up, it always feels spot-on to me.
I reach into Andrew’s coffin. My fingers touched his. I appraised them. They felt chilly, stiff, and anti-climactic, like omens of my future attempts at compulsory heterosexuality.
Death does play a major role throughout this collection. Oddly enough, having read this not long after Falling In Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson, both books contain a story about a ghost living (mostly) unseen and unnoticed in the physical world, and they both made for fascinating reads.
Myriam Gurba shows incredible skill for language, and even when I wasn’t completely following the plot, the lush sentences were enough to dive into. I don’t feel like I can do justice to this book, but if you enjoy rich, dark storytelling, definitely pick this one up. -

We are not only being told a tale we are going back in time. Myriam Gurba, author of Dahlia Season and Wish You Were Me, straps us in much like the Disneyland, Haunted House, Doom-buggies of her youth and sends us on our way. From the get go we are ushered into the early 1980’s, small Mexican village of a ghost-telling abuelita who paints portraits of the narrator and her sister, during the few weeks away from school spent visiting. The girl’s homework approved by some LAUSD elementary, deemed fit to continue the semester un-interrupted upon return, is pushed aside for daily outings with Abuelita. Told in the narrative fairytale style of what can be described as ‘old country’ Abuelita links the reader to a colonial European sensibility that at the time still clung to older parts of the country. The baby fuzz of a twentieth century pinking new industrial revolutions and globalizations lurking and waiting behind unseen corners.
In this way the book is reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s great and final Masterpiece, Amarcord. The coming of age tale which loosely translates to ‘I remember’ in Italian follows the life of young Titta, his family and the characters of a small coastal village in 1930’s Italy. Unfolding in a series of vignettes Fellinini never gives us Mussolini in great sweeping gestures, instead we are told details of a life lived in the land of Mussolini, the beforehand knowledge that things will and will not turn out all right, lending itself to a greater sense of melancholy. Gurba, like Fellini gives us life in the every day and shines a mirror across it’s multi faceted surface, letting each shine in small slices. Life lived in ‘simpler’ more imaginative times, a time that in actuality, exists only in the minds of children. Throughout the book Gurba revisits this metaphor of child like reduction and innocence, wonder and blunt honesty. Weaving myth against a backdrop of contemporary ills, to show in some way how our collective child like refusal to take on issues such as racism and misogyny still haunt our contemporary lives, tangled and misinterpreted by our children and finally held back up in that multi fractured mirror. What Gurba gives us is a world on the cusp of change, for the narrator, and the century. Indeed these are ghost stories.
When Mom was the age I was that winter, ten, Mexican death was prettier, slower, and more public. Mom would laze in front of the house, in a strip I guess you could call a front yard, in front of her mom and dad’s bedroom window dangling her chicken legs off the stone bench, a spectator. A breeze might shiver the vines wriggling around the window and bring the smell of cemetery flowers. Mom would hear a signal, horseshoes clacking. She’d look right and see a gelding chosen to do his job because of his color, black, clopping up the avenue, chugging towards her block. The horse would near houses that were twins of the kind Mom lived in, two-story rectangles shaded with mold, loquat trees by the driveways, vines climbing wherever they chose. The animal would be yoked to an old fashioned funeral carriage that truly honored death, its lace gilded windows giving Mom a chance to appraise the size of the coffin – baby, child, or full – and then, once the carriage was past, Mom could observe the ribbon, or ribbons, of mourners in black outfits, weeping, yawning, scratching their necks, wringing one or both fists, adjusting their balls, breastfeeding, moving their feet and taking care of their living bodies’ needs on their way to bury someone. 
When we emerge into the second story we have been fully dropped into the recent past, 90’s Los Angeles, and Gurba hits us with the present in the only way to reap the full impact of leaving Abuelita and that child’s imagination. Gangs, music videos, AIDS. Abuelita, Mom and Dad remain, but the world has transformed and Gurba once again thrusts us in. Each short story weaves in the fable of death, sometimes subtlety other times overt, in the case of killing animals on the road in favor of swerving and risking your own life. Ever present is the idea that life is ephemeral and that story telling in the most basic way possible, makes it last a little longer and in the process helps us make sense of it. The universal, existential por que?
Perhaps the most chilling and beautiful story in the book, Chaperones offers us Gurba at her irreverent and spectacular best. She takes on the legend of La Llorona, the Mexican mother who drowned her children in a river, committed suicide and now spends her remaining nights in purgatory looking for them, and perhaps you, too, so she can drown you in her sorrow. Again, linking us to a passage of time that moves like smog through our lives but never turns new leaves. What sticks in our throat is the way Gurba loosens the moral outrage around these narratives, Susan Smith, et cetera, but smacks us with our own hypocrisy. Women’s bodies are always in a state of mourning, wringing out our expectations socially and historically while trying to reconcile them with emerging identities wrung like rags into the bodies of water we drown our babies in. Metaphor for Gurba is a vacuum that sucks the river bed dry until we are left with only a mountain of bones and questions. Not all of them likely offering the answers we want to hear. Each however, rattling howls of dusty streets, the kind Gurba pushes us to walk down, pick up your candle, pull up your night gown and never mind the shadows, they only flicker as we pass, and look, they are just a product of the light. - Nikki Darling

"Abuelita carried our food home in plastic mesh bags with plaid designs. Waddling along the cemetery murals, she looked how a Mexican grandmother should, like a tropical babushka. Four feet, eleven inches of old lady. Rolls of diabetic weight held in place by a handmade dress. Silver hair cropped short by her own scissors. A yarn shawl flapping like a cape...No man would guess seeing her walk up the street that Abuelita was an artist, and no man would guess that my sister and I were subjects worthy of art. Abuelita thought we were. She turned us into creations."
The motif, el hilo, that runs through Myriam Gurba's latest collection of stories is death, and when it comes to writing about death, Gurba knows how to kill it. Yes, la muerte es triste (that's why La Llorona can't stop crying), but Gurba's stories remind us that from the mulch of the dead bloom flowers.
Ghosts colonize the pages of this book. Some of the ghosts are vain and smell of chorizo, like the misogynist abuelo who envies Juan Rulfo. There’s la abuela, the Mexican Scheherazade, who spins gruesome stories to keep her two Chicana granddaughters captivated and sitting still so that she can paint their portraits. There's 16 year old Andrew from East LA, who got his brains scrambled on concrete. There are, of course, Las Lloronas, the old school and the modern ones who undo their own motherhood. There's Nacho, a much-loved dog who was turned into a little pelt rug posthumously. There are hummingbird huevos that never hatch, and if you stare into a keyhole in one of the stories, you'll see a woman pacing, howling as she carries a little coffin in her hands. The hilo tugs and makes you read on.
If it sounds gory and dark, though, it's not. This is, after all, Death a La Queer Chicana, which is gay instead of morbid, which asks not only such important philosophical questions like "What is death?" but also "Who gives birds dyke haircuts?" 
Although Pedro Páramo lurks in the pages of these cuentos, this isn't Juan Rulfo's Comala, where the dead are so alive that their constant “murmurings” suffocate the living. In Gurba's collection, despite the constant presence of death, the living live. It may be Guadalajara, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Mesoamerica. It may be preconquest Mexico, the 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's, 2012. It doesn't matter—the living do their thing. They get perms and ice-skate inside pyramid-shaped shopping malls. They touch their own sex and sniff, enthralled. They ditch school and eat spiced mangos on sticks. They bust their father having an affair with his secretary. They fall in love and suck on the nectar of ruins. They Facebook in the kitchen table late at night. They talk to ghosts. They photograph the dead and everything around them. They long so badly to touch Andrew's bashed-up brains. They do the Lambada at funerals with Mariachis. They embrace life/death like there's no tomorrow because there isn't; there's only right now and yesterday, yesterday, yesterday...echoing ghosts, memories that never die.
These stories, with their constant attention to fantastic and queer details, mesmerize and pull. Like those granddaughters who sat for their abuelita in winter, when the last story in the collection came to an end, all I could do was say, “Another.” Otra, Myriam. Otra. -

To view other blogas on Myriam the Great:

Newly released from Manic D Press, Myriam Gurba’s short-story collection How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still While Painting Their Portraits in Winter reads like a darkly comic kaleidoscope of children, monsters, violence, and cross-border feminism. The interconnected stories lure readers into the recesses of neo-gothic landscapes, both real and imagined. Gurba is also the author of Dahlia Season and the poetry collections Wish You Were Me and Sweatsuits of the Damned.
Monique Quintana: Family, women in particular, seem to be the pulse of your new short-story collection. How did you come up with the title, How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still While Painting Their Portraits in Winter? It’s also the title of the first story in the book.
Myriam Gurba: It’s kind of tongue in cheek because it’s so long and pedantic, and it delves into the heart of the story immediately. This grandmother who’s capturing and creating culture through art and folk art, I think, links all the stories. That’s why I appreciate the title so much, and I also really wanted to evoke the identity of the Chicana in the title, to ground the short stories in a canon of Chicana literature. 
MQ: I did see that first story as an interesting means of entering the collection. I immediately saw the family thread, but I also saw that it would be very female centric, which I appreciate. I myself have fond memories of my mother and grandmothers telling me really sinister stories, mostly to keep me out of trouble. Who were the storytellers in your own family and what did they teach you about story?
MG: The storytellers in my family were mostly women, and the storytelling that happens in my family tends to be the strongest in Mexico. When I was a kid I would get to go to Mexico a lot more frequently. The generation of storytellers is dying; we’re losing them year-by-year. But I do have an aunt who loves to host gatherings. She’ll put out wine, and everyone will sit in a circle, and the elders will take turns spinning yarns. One of the fun parts for me is that they’ll each have their own version of a story, so one will tell their version of the story, and then another will contradict her, and say, “No, you got it wrong, here’s the real version of the story,” and that will provoke a new story, and you could be there for hours fully entertained by storytelling. Their storytelling tends to be really melodramatic, kind of spooky, but also funny. Those are my favorite flavors in storytelling. My dad tells a lot of stories too, and so immediately in my household, that’s where a lot of stories came from, from my father. He’s more of a formal storyteller than the sort of folksy, natural, organic storytellers.
MQ: I definitely saw elements of chisme in the collection, a merging of the grotesque with humor. I want to talk a little about your first book Dahlia Season. I do see the differences in the collections; of course, the first being that Dahlia Season is a collection of short stories and a novella. When I read that book, it felt very much like a lament for L.A. The narrator is the first story “Cruising” talks about what a real California beach looks like. I was really taken with that whole idea. Living in California’s Central Valley, a lot of people get surprised when they visit. It seems to shatter their preconceived notion of California. Can you elaborate on the idea of a “real California,” and what kind of California you are most interested in writing about?
MG: I’ll start by saying that I have a lot of different muses that influence my work, and one of my chief muses in California. I love California. To me, California isn’t so much a place, as it is a spirit or an entity. I’ve always had this intense relationship with California. I remember being a little girl on the playground after it rained and smelling the earth, smelling California, and loving the smell, and finding it so delicious that I was compelled to put dirt in my mouth because I wanted it to be a part of me. I would pick rocks off the ground and I would suck them because I wanted the flavor of the earth so much; I seriously wanted to consume it. I’m in love with California.
I don’t ever want to leave California. I’ve been all over the United States and nothing compares to California, and I have fantasies about dying in California and being buried here, so I can become part of it physically. California is dazzling because it’s so many things simultaneously. It holds so many worlds that other regions of the United States cannot. Other places cannot contain these concentric universes. L.A. County alone holds universes. If you travel block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood, the change that you can see geographically and ethnographically occurring is wild. In Long Beach where I live, we have a block that is entirely populated by Cambodian refugees, and then the next is Black folk, and the next block is Mexican families, and one Salvadorian family, and a Japanese family. Our state is so culturally rich; and not only that, it’s also geographically rich. Everything that you want geographically you can find in California. Any geographic encounter you would want to have, you can have it in California, and it’s within driving distance.
MQ: California definitely feels like a microcosm of the universe. I was really taken with that concept in Dahlia Season, the real California vs. illusions of California. You continue the idea of illusions in Painting Their Portraits in Winter. As a reader, I was constantly questioning what is real and what is not. This book seemed to me like a lament for those living in the in-between. We see that happening in Dahlia Season, but it’s further explored in the new book. We really see the conflicts that arise when different generations of family come together. Borders, both literal and metaphorical, punctuate these stories. Can you talk about how the characters in the book live in those marginal spaces?
MG: You’re definitely on to something in describing the liminal spaces that exist for the characters and creatures in the book. I think a lot of the stories read as myth and allegory. Myth is rooted in reality, and an attempt to explain reality by using truths to enter the world of fiction. Myths really straddle fantasy and reality in that sense. Myths are not fully real, but they are an attempt to explain the world as it is. Myths and allegory run through a lot of the stories. As you were saying, the book is really woman centric. I don’t think I did that intentionally, but I appreciate literature that puts men on the periphery. Frequently in literature, and in film, we experience creation through the male gaze, but to me, the female gaze is much more compelling. It’s something that I relate to far more. This collection is written from the female gaze. You’re forced to experience things from the female gaze to engage with the stories. If you identify as a woman, you are automatically in a liminal space, you are automatically marginalized, and so the liminality becomes a byproduct of all the stories. Female creatures that are non-human also populate the stories. The sort of fantastical quality of some of the creatures, like the Aztec demons, gives them an even greater sense of liminality, and those creatures reside in a space of liminality, that sort of Goth in-between space that Gloria Anzaldúa wrote about so evocatively in Borderlands/La Frotera: The New Mestiza.
MQ: I really liked how children are characters in the story. Children’s voices are always stifled in society. These are also children that will grow into women. As female children, we see the many intersections of marginalization. We see how the female body is made into a monster. Two of the characters are very young sisters. So, with that, I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that the stories are connected and working within the same family. How did go about arranging the stories as they appear in the book?
MG: I’m going to talk a little bit about children and mothers, and then go into how I arranged the stories. I’m typically really annoyed with writing about children, and writing from the point of view of children. Typically, it feels so sanitized, and doesn’t treat children as fully realized characters; they tend to fall flat. They tend to be dancing around children’s capacity for evil, or their burgeoning sexuality, or their banality. Children have those things too. They tend to be idealized in literature, and they don’t have fully embodied voices. I really wanted to experiment with that idea through characters. In transitioning to a conversation about mothers, I wanted to explore the grotesque relationship between mother and child, and I also wanted to explore the concept of the childless woman, or the barren woman. She’s somebody who is misunderstood, or treated as unnatural, and I wanted to take the childless woman, the barren woman, and the woman who killed her children, and sort of normalize her, and put her at the forefront of the story, so that the reader could empathize with her, so she’s not this strange thing or this monster, that her monstrosity is normal; her monstrosity is something that could become acceptable as a reader. Typically, in media, women who kill their children are presented as violating the ultimate taboo, but women violate this taboo every day. So it can’t be that taboo, if infanticide by mothers is so common. So, that’s why I was drawn to writing about motherhood in that particularly vile and grotesque way, and in a destructive way.
As far as the order of the stories, I instinctively felt like the story with the grandmother teaching her granddaughters should go first. I staggered the stories according to tone, because I wanted different notes to be struck, so the stories could play of one another in an almost musical way. The first story is epic in a small sort of way, and the next story to me is a sillier, funnier, smaller story, and the next story, “E = MaChismo2” is spookier and gets sad, and “Georges Bataille Look Into My Eye” is funny and silly. I wanted to provide the reader with some breathing room, instead of stifling them with the same tone over and over again; give them different tones so they could take a break from the spooky, so they could go to the funny, and then take a break from the funny, and go to the mythic, and then go from the mythic to the folksy. I think I was paying most attention to tone in the organization of the stories.
MQ: It made me think of when I was a kid and my family was really into horror films. We’d watch something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then we’d watch something funny so we could get to sleep that night. That marriage of the macabre and comedy seems to be ingrained in the Mexican-American family. That was something I noticed about the arrangement of the book. I always got a respite from the horror, which I found compelling and it kept me reading.
MG: We usually think that tragedy and comedy are opposite sides of the mask, but to me, the relationship between horror and comedy is much tighter. To me they’re almost the same thing, like fraternal twins. If you push horror a little further, it becomes comedy.
MQ: It does seem that all comedy stems from laughing at the miseries of other people.
MG: All comedy is a violation; it’s a breaking of a rule. The more breaking of a rule, the funnier something is. That’s also what horror is, the breaking of a rule. I think the horror in my work is influenced by southern gothic literature, where the horror and grotesqueness is disturbing to some readers, but there are also readers who find the humor in it, because it’s so hyperbolic. I have started to think of Painting Their Portraits in Winter as an apo-gothic book, as a Chicana gothic book.
MQ: I definitely see echoes of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor in the book. What I appreciate about your book is that it’s relevant to my experience as a woman of color, so thank you for that. I’d also like to ask about the form of the book. You’ve written poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and a novella. I think that you could make the argument that Painting Their Portraits in Winter could be called a novel-in-stories. How do you decide what form you want your fiction to be called?
MG: I’ve heard from a couple of people who explained that because of the reemergence of the characters, the collection reads like a novel in a very odd way. It wasn’t necessarily my intention to do that, but I liked that that occurred accidently, and I think it adds a complexity that I didn’t realize to the work as a whole. My publisher identifies my work as belonging to a sort of literary form. I find it really hard to discuss what form a lot of my writing takes. As you’ve said before, my characters are very liminal and I see my form as very liminal too. A lot of my stories exist between forms. Something that may seem to be flash fiction could also be interpreted as a prose poem.
I’m challenged by that question. I think that a lot of my writing is hybrid writing, and I haven’t developed the language to classify what it is that I do. I like that about writing. It makes me feel free. I don’t have to conform to any sort of length, or style. I let the story tell me what it is. A lot of that is instinctual. I’m a very emotional and instinctual writer. I know there are other writers who are more cerebral, who will plot and structure. I can’t do that. I find my writing becomes very stiff if I try to give it a skeleton. The way that I visualize myself writing is like when you watch a wasp or a bee building a home with that weird cellulose. It looks like they’re vomiting and they soon they have a hive. That’s how I visualize myself writing. It’s like I’ve been vomiting material and before I know it, I’ve created the structure. I’m thinking, it’s inhabited now, and I didn’t think it was going to look like this, holy shit.
MQ: Connected to the idea of form, I’d like to explore the idea of audience. Your story, “Chihuawhite,” is about a Mexican Goth girl, a Moth. I really connected to that story. I’ve been reading Anne Rice since the sixth grade, and my closet has been a black hole for as long as I can remember, so I totally got that girl. What effect does your audience have on how you craft characters? Are you writing with a particular girl in mind?
MG: Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I usually feel like I’m just writing for myself. I’ll get really taken by an idea, and I’ll become obsessed, or fall in love with the idea. Something will really disturb me about the idea. When an idea gets that kind of emotional response from me, I can’t rest until I do something with it. There is also a particular kind of reader that I do write for. It’s a version of myself that I know exists, because I’ve seen them multiplying. It’s a girl or a woman, who’s Latina, nerdy and bookish, and has a tradition of macabre, not only from her culture, but from just growing up as a girl. Sarah Silverman once said, being a woman is like living in the world’s slowest horror film. You experience horror over and over and over again. That’s the girl I’m writing for. The one who has invested interest in those things. I imagine myself and the girls I knew who would hole up in their room, and burn candles, and paint their fingernails black, and listen to creepy music, and want to read a book about somebody like themselves having adventures, and not finding anyone like that in literature because there are so few characters that are nerds of color, especially female nerds of color. I feel like the big book about a nerd of color was The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. I thought, holy shit, this is a book entirely fixated on the nerd of color.
MQ: That book definitely lingered with me too. We don’t usually get a lot of intelligent characters of color in white narratives. Ultimately, it takes a person of color to write about that nerd of color experience.
MG: Another writer that does this is Felicia Luna Lemus. She writes about nerds of color. Another person is Christy C. Road. She does graphic novels. The thing about Junot Díaz’s work is that although it’s beautiful and amazing to read, you’re constantly getting slapped with his dick while you’re reading.
MQ: [Laughs] Yes, it’s very male centric.
MG: If you’re willing to push the dick out of your face, and then prepare for that fact that it’s gonna come slap you again, then you can be at peace with his work. But’s that’s going to happen. There’s this super macho element that you have to be willing to stomach.
MQ: I’d like to return to the idea of ghosts as female figures, like the looming figure of La Llorona. Ghosts are very pervasive in the collection. What do you think makes for a good ghost story?
MG: One of my favorite things in the world is to hear good ghost stories. I urge people to tell me ghost stories. If there’s a context for telling stories, like a blackout or a lockdown, I’m always the person that says, “Let’s tell ghost stories.” If we’re all experiencing hyper-awareness, then the story becomes that much better. I love all kinds of stories. I especially like ghost stories that involve female ghosts and ghosts that carry some kind of message, because then the stakes are heightened. Ghosts with a message are a key ingredient for a ghost story, and also a ghost that brings with it an element of danger and death, a ghost that’s an omen for impending tragedy. Then we’re wondering when that tragedy is going to affect the characters in the story. The first ghost I was introduced to was La Llorona, so she occupies the highest stake in my mental pantheon on ghosts.
MQ: She was definitely my first, too. So, I love how your stories are imprinted with women who are icons of Chicana feminism like La Llorona and Frida Kahlo. I’ve personally come to view Kahlo as a modern day La Llorona because her art speaks to the immense pain of being a woman and living in the in-between. Traditionally, La Llorona has been perceived as the bogeyman of Mexican culture. How do you think your stories complicate this idea?
MG: In the story “Chaperones,” women’s destructive nature is celebrated as much as women’s creative nature. I feel that the destructive nature of women in downplayed and not honored, and I wanted to honor a woman’s capacity for violence in that story. When people tell their children the story of La Llorona, it’s very much a warning: “behave, or you’ll encounter this woman.” I wanted to represent the encounter as something potentially exciting for people. The character who’s narrating “Chaperones” is describing her excitement, wondering if La Llorona could be the psychopomp that takes her into another world, and maybe that passage could be pre-death, but maybe that passage could be something macabre, but exciting at the same time. And almost eroticizing it, in an almost lesbian context, mixing sex and death together, and the idea of this girl trying to sleep and fantasizing about La Llorona. So adding an erotic element to her complicates the narrative.
MQ: We talked about how you the title of the book is a code for Chicana-identified women. I find that my own Chicana identity grows and changes, as I grow and change as a woman and a writer. How would you define your Chicanisma at this very moment?
MG: At this very moment, I feel connected to my childhood encounters with the word Chicana. My father introduced me to the word. He told me I was a Chicana, and explained to me what the word meant, and then I adopted that word as my own. I introduced myself that way, or reflect on myself using that word. It’s always been a word that I’ve carried throughout my life, and I feel like it’s a gift from my father, and it’s a very specific word for a very specific identity. I’m the child of Mexican parents, but I was born in the United States. Having that ancestry gave me a very particular perspective, and puts me in a really liminal space where there are times when I feel fully embodied as an American, and there are times when I feel fully embodied as a Mexican, and there are times when I feel disembodied, and I feel neither of those things. For me, being a Chicana is having to navigate the paradox of being fully embodied and disembodied at the same time, as an American and as a Mexican, and then having the outsider experience of being a woman added to that mix.
MQ: Your stories are both joyful and macabre. We could use those two words to describe the very act of writing and being a writer. What keeps you writing?
MG: What makes me write, and what makes me create in general, is literally a compulsion that I’ve always had. There’s a tension that I carry with me, and the only way that I can serve that tension and anticipation and anxiety is by making something. Frequently it’s writing. My brain is obsessed with language and doing things with language, and chopping words apart, and sentences apart, and narratives apart, and putting them back together in ways that couldn’t fit. My brain is always trying to simulate a problem. It feels like an addiction. I do feel there’s something that verges on mental illness with creative people; let me modify that, with artists. I had this conversation with a friend the other day. A creative person can sit down and write a story and enjoy writing the story, and then they’re fine with never writing another story again. An artist will die if they never get to write another story. I feel like I fall into that category. It’s almost like a pathological drive. I have to do it. If I don’t do it, I’m dead. For a lot of artists that I’ve talked to, that’s how they experience life.
MQ: You’re compelled to do it, no matter how painful it is.
MG: The only analogy that I can think of, where you’re compelled to do something so unnatural is addiction. It’s like a mental illness with a really great byproduct. - Monique Quintana


Myriam Gurba, Dahlia Season, Manic D Press, 2007.

"... A fantastic book filled with stories of sexy badass girls we rarely get to see in literature." - Ali Liebegott

Chicana. Goth. Dykling. Desiree Garcia knows she's weird and a weirdo magnet. To extinguish her strangeness, her parents ship her to St Michael's Catholic School, then to Mexico, but neurology can't be snuffed out so easily: screwy brain chemistry holds the key to Desiree's madness. Combining the spark of Michelle Tea, the comic angst of Augusten Burroughs, and the warmth of Sandra Cisneros, Chicana author Myriam Gurba has created a territory all her own.

Desiree Garcia remembers 1992 as the Year of the Crazy Girl: while jumbled images of Heidi Fleiss, Lorena Bobbitt, and Amy Fisher were splattered on the television, she painted her nails black, listened to Bauhaus, and resisted urges to jerk and randomly shout “cunt!” Desiree, the off-beat Chicana narrator of Dahlia Season’s title novella, is a goth girl, a budding lesbian, and an obsessive-compulsive with a touch of undiagnosed Tourette’s; she not only struggles with her own fears of being a severely disturbed person, but also has a knack for attracting the mentally unstable. Indeed, crazy girls (and boys) appear throughout Myriam Gurba’s debut story collection, set in early ’90s Southern California.
Herself a former high school misfit, Gurba portrays her characters beyond their yearbook photos. With candid warmth, she seems to flip the pages of memory back to her youth, expertly depicting the desires of two SoCal street gang girls named Angel Malo and La Dreamer. She also deftly describes a Mexican hippie boy with a limp who casts a love spell on his American cousin, and a Long Beach girl with a penchant for cross-dressing and gay cruising. Gurba’s characters may be strange, but they never stray into sideshow stereotypes. With honesty and humor, the author creates a believable world of hybrid subculture and youth turmoil.
Dahlia Season is overflowing with teen angst: in “Just Drift,” an indomitable high school student with a scheme to raise his English grade finds himself faced with a pregnant girlfriend; in “Primera Comunión,” a tomboy finds herself condemned by fate (and an overly superstitious family) to be evil. There are girls with first crushes on girls and girls who are cutters in both “White Girl” and the title novella. But what makes these recurrences pleasurable is the sense that Gurba’s characters are operating in the same space. Sisters from “White Girl” reappear in “Dahlia Season” but with different names; Cholo boys from “Just Drift” become pedestrian gangsters in “Primera Comunión.” The Black Dahlia, famous murder victim and flower, appears in both “Cruising” and the title novella as a symbol of dark womanhood.
A highly cohesive collection, Dahlia Season unfurls with a refreshing view of Latina identity; Gurba never shies away from delving into the complexity of modern ethnic American culture. For instance, in the title novella, Desiree’s parents send her to Mexico hoping the trip will instill in her their Hispanic values, but the girl’s dark make-up and witch boots confuse her Mexican relatives. When Desiree returns to the U.S. with a new appreciation (or fetish) for her Mexican heritage, her death-rock friends tease her for braiding her hair and listening to mariachi records.
Just as she portrays Desiree as a cultural hybrid, wearing Christian icons of bloody martyrs and painting her face to look like the DC Comics interpretation of Death, so does Gurba interweave English and Spanish slang, creating a distinct voice with a conversational tone. A feast of life and culture, Dahlia Season may earn Gurba a place on the list of accomplished Latina writers like Julia Alvarez, Christina Garcia, and Sandra Cisneros. - Jacklyn Attaway

Freud could end up twitching in his grave if he got his hands on Myriam Gurba’s Dahlia Season. A series of stories and a novella that feature Chicano/a teenage characters, this book goes beyond Mexican American clichés and gets into the heads of a series of unlikely protagonists. Among them are best friends who turn Goth together; a girl who cross dresses and cruises for anonymous sex on the beach at night; a boy who bribes his plus size English teacher with homemade flan and then deals with the news of his girlfriend’s pregnancy at home; and Angel Malo, the tattooed queer who has a deep encounter with La Dreamer. Then there’s Desiree Garcia, the central character in the novella. Enrolled in Catholic high school and shipped off to her aunt’s house in Guadalajara in the midst of teen angst, Desiree negotiates her bicultural identity within her family and friendship framework as she deals with her peculiar brand of neurological madness. Desiree and the rest of the crew are fleshed out, believable people, each of them imperfect and beautiful in some way. These gender-bending stories are gritty and edgy, packed with tender and humorous moments throughout.
A California native of Mexican descent, Myriam Gurba has a Bachelor of Arts in History from University of California at Berkeley and currently teaches high school in Long Beach, California. Gurba hosts the Guayaba Salon, a latina writer’s collective in Long Beach and will be touring with the traveling queer writers’ and performance troupe Sister Spit next spring. Dahlia Season (San Francisco: Manic D Press, 2007) is her first published book. (See for touring information and other interviews.)
de la tierra: You have an amazing mix of characters. Where do you get your inspiration for them?
Gurba: I derive inspiration for my characters from varied places. For most of the short stories in my collection, there were anecdotes that I heard told in contexts that would bury them. However, I didn't want these stories to be lost. To me, they're part of a larger queer folklore, this tradition of oral storytelling that we have that overlaps with chisme. For example, the story about the trans person cruising Long Beach for men was inspired by a tale I was told in a bar. . .
Desiree Garcia, the novella's main character, is in large part me. In her, I wanted to include all these parts of myself that often marginalize me and illustrate that, hey, this person is relatable, this person is human. I wanted to also create a character that defied easy categorization. To say Desiree is a lesbian character doesn't work because her later love interest is trans. To focus solely on her ethnic identity as a Chicana does her injustice, too, because she is such a bratty American. To focus on her neurological disorders is to ignore the fact that she is quite sane. Desiree is a total freak but in a way that I honor, respect, and find splendid as a peacock.
de la tierra: There are loaded issues that come up in your stories—such as abortion, transgender identity, sexuality, cutting, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Tourettes. Did you ever hesitate to go there in your writing with these topics?
Gurba: I write about loaded topics without hesitation because I find it hard to write about anything else. Topics like queerness and sex and neurological disorders spur me because they are my reality and I like to write about my reality. OCD and Tourette's found their way into my novella because I was grappling with my dual diagnoses at the time and absolutely had to write about these things. . . I often turn to fiction for comfort and to find stories that I can identify with. I sought reflections of my obsessions, compulsions, and tics in literature for the longest time but couldn't find them, so I decided to use my writing as a mirror to reflect my own unique experiences with these phenomena. Maybe if some other person reads that I have OCD and TS and reads my novella it will bring them some measure of comfort.
de la tierra: Your stories have such a strong sense of place. . .
Gurba: I am really, really, really into place. I am in love with places, locale, region. When I was growing up, I would wander through the vineyards by my parents' house and sit on the dirt and smell the eucalyptus trees and think about how much I loved California and would never leave it. To me, it is paradise in both an infernal and heavenly way. I want to be buried here. Because I love this state so much, I want it to live as a character in my stories. I'm super into learning local histories and love immersing myself in them and try to infuse my writing what I have learned. In my stories I wanted to elevate Long Beach to the position of a character and 99 percent of what I write about it is geographically and historically spot on. 1 percent is poetic license. The town in which the novella and one story, “White Girl,” take place are based on my hometown, Santa Maria.
de la tierra: Did you have a specific audience in mind when you wrote the stories in Dahlia Season?
Gurba: I had different types of people in mind when I wrote this piece. Like I thought about people with narrow minds and opening them up through some of my narratives. I thought about suffering people and bringing them comfort.
de la tierra: Where’s your writing muse taking you these days?
Gurba: I’m working on a new book involving lots of characters named Lupe! And I’m having a splendid time hosting the Guava Salon every month and excited that I’ll be traveling with a van full of queer artists for the Sister Spit tour next spring. - tatiana de la tierra


Myriam Gurba, Wish You Were Me, Future Tense Books, 2011. 

Wish You Were Me is Myriam Gurba's bizarre and uproarious follow-up to her award-winning first novella and story collection, Dahlia Season. There are some weird and unexplored thought patterns happening here. Gurba is a fierce pioneer in the gooey guts of our emotional and sexual zeitgeist.

"Myriam Gurba just blows me away. Her wit, her perversion, her sharp female smarts, her total fearlessness. I gasp and I gasp as I read her work because I can't believe she said that! It's not shocking, it's a relief. Okay it's a little bit shocking, too. All the best writing makes you come undone a little and Myriam is not afraid to stick her fingernails into your psyche and pull." --Michelle Tea

"Wish You Were Me is funny. Achingly funny. Uncomfortably funny, and that's the best kind of funny. It's the kind of humor you'll never forget and it's the kind of book you'll find necessary to subject your friends to." --Mary Van Note

Myriam Gurba is a high school teacher who lives in Long Beach, California, home of Snoop Dogg and the Queen Mary (as she gamely notes). She graduated from UC Berkeley, and her writing has appeared in anthologies such as The Best American EroticaBottom’s UpSecrets and Confidences, and Tough Girls. Gurba’s first book is Dahlia Season, a collection of short stories and a novella. (Bio from La Bloga).
TCJWW: I loved your piece, “Squirtle.” It was so frank and humorous and, like much of your writing, touched on topics that female writers and women in general tend to avoid. What made you start writing about such off-limit topics?
Gurba: I seem to get extreme pleasure—always have—from having a toilet mouth and a toilet mind. That, therefore, makes for toilet writing. I don’t understand why more people don’t revel in the gross. The gross can be very stimulating and who doesn’t like some easy stimulation?
TCJWW: Your poem, “Impostor,” struck me because it sounded like so much of what the rest of the novella is about: the harsh and unrealistic expectations we have for ourselves, versus how we actually look and feel. What makes you feel like an impostor and what inspired this piece?
Gurba: I feel like an impostor when I pretend to be my sister. Just kidding! I’ve never done that. She already has one twin; she doesn’t need another. But I did once fail to disguise myself as a man in order to sneak into a men’s bathhouse, Steamworks. They detected my vagina at the door and wouldn’t let me proceed. I guess what inspired the poem is the weird standards and expectations about identity that arise even in really insular, queer spaces that one would think would embrace the totality of our precious snowflakiness. Julia Serrano does an amazing job of discussing these spaces, and the weird, exclusive standards they can perpetuate, in her book Excluded.
TCJWW: You label yourself as Mexican and gay, but you also seem disgusted with labels in pieces like “Irrigation,” “Wish You Were Me,” and “Impostor.” Why did you feel that it is important to label yourself and highlight the negative aspects of your gender, nationality, and sex in your writing?
Gurba: I seem disgusted with labels? Whoa. I don’t think I’m as disgusted with labels, since words are labels and labels are words and I love words, as I am with definitions. Narrow definitions suck toe jam. Like people sometimes flip out that I’m Mexican and yet have green eyes. It’s not my job to change my eye color to accommodate people’s discomfort. It’s their job to accommodate me by re-writing their definition to include me. Actually, I really like labels. Is there a difference between a word versus a label? I’m very curious about this now. The word label is a word but is the label word a label? I don’t know. Something to obsess about while on the toilet later on tonight.
TCJWW: You have self-published and published with Future Tense Books and Manic D. Which avenue do you enjoy more?
Gurba: I like both but they each have their charms and harms. Self-publishing is fun because you can do anything with a copy machine. Working with a publisher is cool for all the help they give in getting your book into the world. Getting your book to penetrate the world can be tough.
TCJWW: Why do you love bunnies so much?
Gurba: I love bunnies so much because I had two, Scratch and Siddartha. They were BFFs and died recently. Siddartha totally lived up to his name, and Scratch was an asshole, but they were my friends. I miss them so. Their ashes sit on my mantle along with my uncle’s iguana’s ashes and a Captain Kangaroo puzzle.
TCJWW: What are you working on now?
Gurba: I’m working on the final edits of a short story collection, Painting Their Portraits in Winter, which will be released by Manic D in spring 2015. The stories deal with the supernatural feminine and the supernatural feminist big time. They explore misogyny and they channel misogynistic ghosts. Death lurks around every comma. There is also a lot of fruity symbolism. -   


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