When I read Myriam Gurba’s Painting Their Portraits in Winter last year I got that special book-soul-mate feeling that the best books give you, a sense that someone really GETS you, and the universe. Because I can never love anything without going full fangirl, I knew I had to reach out to Myriam for an interview, which– lucky you!– you get read below.
Myriam Gurba, Ms. Gurba, if you’re nasty, is a native Santa Marian. She attended U.C. Berkeley thanks to affirmative action. She is the author of two short story collections, Dahlia Season and Painting Their Portraits in Winter. Dahlia Season won the Edmund White Award, which is given to queer writers for outstanding debut fiction. The book was also shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award. Gurba is also the author of two poetry collections, Wish You Were Me and Sweatsuits of the Damned. She has toured North America twice with avant-garde literary and performance troupe Sister Spit. Gurba’s other writing can be found in places such as Entropy.com, TIME.com, and Lesfigues.com. She creates digital and photographic art that has been exhibited at galleries and museums.
Gina Abelkop: My first question has to be about one of my favorite things about your writing: your sense of humor. It’s silly, smart, biting, and joyful even in stories and poems that are emotionally taut. How and on what teeth was this sense of humor cut? Who are some of your favorite humorists and what is it that you love about their humor and/or work?
Myriam Gurba: My sense of humor was primarily sculpted by the sickest people I know: HELLO MOM AND DAD. My dad likes to joke about the horrific, like free-range children and customer service, and by example, he taught me that these are the things you are supposed to laugh about. My mom is different. She’s more elf than human. She doesn’t say funny things; she says things funny. For example, she’ll tell a story about getting into a car accident but she’ll refer to her car as her mystique since she actually drives a Mercury Mystique and her story will take on this exciting, Daliesque quality because imagine a normal conversation about a car accident but replace the word car with mystique. My parents, however, aren’t into queef jokes. In fact, I’m not even sure they could name a queef though I’m certain they’re familiar with the sound. In high school, I was socially attracted to girls who got accused of being unfeminine since they were funny and gross and so they shaped me, too. Boys accused me of not being feminine and of having too big of lips. My favorite funny people are people I know. My boyfriend makes me giggle. When I have low blood sugar and am surrounded by whites, everything gets hilarious. I appreciate humor that is gross, goofy, self-conscious, and, above all, humiliating. As far as publicly funny people go, I like Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, Cardi B, Kristen Wiig pretending to be Bjork, Peter Sellers, Cheech Marin, Chris Rock and angry teenagers.
GA: You’re the author of two full-length books, Dahlia Season and Painting Their Portraits in Winter, in addition to numerous chapbooks and zines. In what ways did your storytelling shift between your first two books, and what purpose do you find your chapbooks/zines serving as they stand between these larger collections?
MG: When I wrote Dahlia Season, I wanted to write a story with a certain kind of protagonist. So in that sense, it’s purely character driven. Character was the only thing that mattered to me. I hadn’t read a book about a middle class NOC (nerd of color) steeped in being goth and I wanted to read about this girl and so I DIYed her. I feel like Painting Their Portraits in Winter is an extension of that because much of that sensibility remains but the writing in Painting is more mature and form-wise, much weirder. Like I hope it would be Desiree’s, the main character in Dahlia Season, favorite book. Or at least a book she’d finish or keep on the toilet tank. My first chapbook, Wish You Were Me, is filled with experiments. Maybe they’re poems. I wrote many of the pieces with the intent of writing unpublishably about subjects that are stupid and worthless. Like bad-tasting vaginas. It was my earnest attempt at being as shitty and off sides as possible on purpose. You really discover a lot about yourself when you do that and I recommend we all experiment with being shitty. I self-publish a lot of stuff, too, because it keeps me busy and if I’m not busy, I’m not busy.
GA: “Petra Páramo” is one of my favorite stories from Painting Their Portraits in Winter; how did you conceive of this ghost girl? (When I imagine her as I’m reading I see the girl in your author portrait on the back of the book, which I imagine is you as painted by your abuelita.)
MG: I came up with her because I wanted to write a feminist response to the novel Pedro Páramo which is told from the point of view of ghosts, one in particular, and, of course, he’s a dude. I love the ghost-as-narrator trope and love movies and books where that’s the case and again, female narrators are a minority and dead female narrators are an even smaller minority. Once I came up with the idea of an amnesiac ghost of color telling a story, it just felt like I was playing as I wrote about her. I put her in a make-believe/real forest and then let her show me what her journey would be as she left. Would she find her way to reality? Her story is very much not a hero’s journey but a dead heroine’s journey. The structure differs markedly.
That’s really cool that you imagine that painting on the book cover as the ghost. That’s a portrait of me at age 5ish which my abuelita did paint. It’s kinda creepy because I am.
GA: If you could have your work distributed in any format, what would it be? Imagine a franken-format if it doesn’t yet exist!
MG: I think my ideal format would involve an ambush. I’m not necessarily sure how that would manifest concretely but I’m leaning towards some type of candid camera scenario that would embarrass my audience.
GA: You currently have a selection of your self-portraits, titled “MEriam”, up at the Museum of Latin American Art’s “Who Are You?” exhibit in Long Beach, CA (up until March 13). These portraits, which you call “digital colonialism,” remind me of your work in that they combine this tender, human earnestness and sharp critique with raucous humor. How did you begin making these portraits, and how have they changed over time? How do you pick which scenes/images in which to insert yourself? In what ways do you see your texts and these images interacting or playing off one another, if at all?
MG: I AM SUSCEPTIBLE TO YOUR FLATTERY.
I started making these images when my friend’s mother died and I was helping out with funeral-related business and other things. The images were meant as a distraction from all the sadness but I quickly got addicted to making them and the phrase “Who else can I become?” started frenziedly popping into my head all the time. Suddenly, I could be all these things I couldn’t be before because of my body. Having a body can be such a downer but art lets me escape from it. I do have an awful relationship with my body. I’d love to not have one. I’d love to be so many other things other than a human body. I’d rather be mayonnaise than flesh. Many of the images that I choose for this “project” are formative cultural icons. For example, in high school, I watched a lot of trashy talk shows since they were among the queerest things on TV so I’ll transform myself into talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael and act inquisitive. I also really like becoming dead people but with a slightly surprised look on my face. I have a picture of myself as Sharon Tate where I look very concerned because you know. Also, I have one of me as Scarlett O’Hara and I’ve got a who, me? But I’m Mexican look.
GA: One of your current projects, as often see in your Instagram posts, is comprised of a series of letters to Gertrude Stein. What is your interest in Stein in this context? In what ways is she (or the idea of her) or her work generative for you?
MG: Well, the bitch is problematic and I’m drawn to the problematic. I started writing the Stein letters as my marriage was crumbling the way a croissant falls apart when you dunk it in hot coffee and FORGET ABOUT IT.
I can get really shy about my feelings so instead of telling a living human being about them, I was like maybe I should tell Gertrude Stein. Which is fun because I kind of don’t even like her, she was so stuck up, but that’s kind of what I also find attractive about her. I am drawn to/repulsed by snobs. Also, there’s something hard about her writing but its also unfettered and I like forcing myself to interact with and grapple with hard language.
Her syntax is a trip. Its so simple but she finds a way to make it hard. That, to me, seems like the essence of queering. To take something that might otherwise be really simple and make it HARD AF. Lol.
So, I started writing all these little missives to Gertrude Stein and the thing is, she listens. She has to. She’s dead. And I was like, oh my god, she’s such a good FRIEND. And then I just got really into writing them because she’s like god. Gertrude is always there.
I wrote a creative meta-analysis of the process of writing to Gertrude. It largely takes place at Hooters. You can read it here.
GA: Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists and writers, and what is it that you find moving or engaging about their work?
MG: I’m super into art and writing by queers, women, and people of color. I kind of think white dudes need to just retire from making culture for a while so that reality can be rehabilitated. That said, who is rehabilitating culture through their art and writing in a way that needs to be talked about and then talked about more? Maggie Nelson’s writing is the shit. Full of body and unique visions of love and family making. Not afraid to look at sadness, shit, and buttholes. Wendy Ortiz’s writing is killer and important and she reinvents memoir with so much ELEGANCE its like how can you write about horror with such ELEGANCE? Oh, that’s right, you’re a goddess, that’s how. Trinie Dalton’s writing is the shit because there’s really not much out there that is weirder but in a super accessible way. Nikki Darling’s poetry is too much and her poems are women. Imagine being able to create a gender through verse. Nikki can. In terms of artists who are making non-word things, I’m constantly thinking about Ana Mendieta and Francesca Woodman. They feel contemporary even though they’re dead. Jenny Holzer because she makes you pay attention to words in a way that transforms their wordiness. Molly Soda for how the internet becomes her, I hate to say it, but playground. Kate Durbin for her shameless interest in the princesstual. Grace Miceli. Allyson Mitchell. Miriam Klein Stahl. Big fat yes to Erin Markey as a performance artist and national treasure. I’M HELL OF INTO THE ART HOE MOVEMENT WHICH ENCOURAGES TEENS OF COLOR TO INSERT THEMSELVES INTO KEITH HARING PAINTINGS.
GA: What does your day-to-day life schedule look like, and where/how do you make time for art-making?
MG: I’m a teacher, I teach of all things PSYCHOLOGY, and I’m not full time right now so in the afternoons I have a small cave, it really is cave-like, that I use as a studio/office and I go in there and do what I gotta do. I’ve also started doing this thing where I drive to the Mojave desert, rent a cheap ass motel room, forget my humanity, become one with the desolation, and write. I go jogging every other day. I eat irregularly. I have no pets or children to prevent me from manifesting my wildest dreams. I used to have pets. They’re dead.
GA: Your chapbook Richard is forthcoming from Birds of Lace (insert self-tooting-horn) this year. If you were making an abstract painting to express the text, which colors/shapes would you use and why?
MG: The painting would actually come on a canvas known as an XL sweatshirt. Lana Del Rey’s face would be in the middle, blue smoke curling out from between her fake, sausage lips. Marijuana leaves would dapple the fabric. Looking at this sweatshirt would make people happy, sad, and high. Dope.