In 2019, memoirist and story writer Myriam Gurba penned a viral essay on Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt,” in which she berates the author for “identifying the gringo hunger for Mexican pain and finding a way to exploit it.” In this and 10 other essays included in CREEP: Allegations and Confessions (Avid Reader Press, 332 pp., $27)Gurba writes the personal and the political with an invigorating conviction.
Throughout the collection, Gurba reflects on her strange Mexican-California childhood, then analyzes these memories through literature and history. “Tell” reprises her morbid childhood games, including the Barbie defenestration, alongside the murder of his wife Joan Vollmer by William S. Burroughs; and the assassination by former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of his family’s 12-year-old indigenous servant, Manuela, while “playing war” when he was four. In each essay, whether about lice and genocide or the legacy of Lorena Bobbitt, Gurba collects chains of seemingly unrelated memories and events whose resonance grows with each new link. She collects countless sources with ease and tackles difficult subjects with blunt humor.
Gurba argues that it is her directness—her “gallows humor” and “insult comedy”—that allows her to approach trauma; but this voice is so strong it can threaten to obscure the truth. Some conversations from her past are written with almost fictional simplicity, clinging so rigidly to her statements that they seem suspiciously dexterous, such as when a student in her high school civics class asks her, “Who is your favorite serial killer, Miss Gurba? ” prompting her to lie “instead of explaining that I had my own Richard Ramirez.” And for all her wit, Gurba’s jokes—which she is rarely the butt of—bely a fundamental self-seriousness, diverting the reader’s gaze from her most compelling character: herself.
The title essay, which is the most poignant, softens the jabs as Gurba talks about her attempts to escape and recover from domestic abuse. Both her seriousness and the urgency of the material make for a story that is less sure and tender. When you read Gurba at her best, you feel both the triumph of the challenging self-esteem and the soft contours of the striving it takes to acquire, maintain, and restore.
“I wanted to get us all started with it,” writes Jenn Shapland in the foreword to her new collection, THIN SKIN: Essays (Pantheon, 270 pp., $26); “instead, this book begins in the free fall of reality.” In five essays, the author of “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” questions how humans are coping with the pervasive fear, capitalist excesses, and impending ecological collapse of our times.
The title essay, named after her own dermatological diagnosis, begins with a drive through Los Alamos National Laboratory, where a security guard warns, “Don’t look left.” There, Shapland sees “tall cylindrical objects the size of tractors,” the secret beginning of “innovation” or of “the end of the world.” And she continues to look: at the state’s seizure of the mesa from the Indigenous people, at the continued radiation levels in the region, and at other systemically neglected pockets of contamination across the country. The sobering essay is both intimate and well-researched, featuring interviews with those most affected by environmental pollution, from a Pueblo native antinuclear activist to her own parents. This piece offers a human response to these destructive forces and is worth a book in its own right.
Other highlights in this rigorous collection include “Crystal Vortex,” about the possibility of living a strange, artistic life defined by “values and rules not defined by known measures of productivity or financial gain”; and “The Meaning of Life,” an exploration of witch trials and womanhood, as well as a spirited defense of not having children. At times, her personal reflections feel overly constrained by a series of left-of-liberal, white anxieties, which Shapland tries to interrogate but can’t seem to go any further (in a passage on “self-care,” she describes “an iceberg of white guilt: What right do I have to take care of myself, my mind, my body, when mine is the colonizer’s body?”). Shapland’s crippling pessimism can make it hard to disentangle her punishing thoughts from the harsh reality she’s trying to articulate.
While the future doesn’t look bright, Shapland is most convincing when she harbors a tentative but vital hope. “Every day is a question we ask ourselves: what is life?” she writes, imagining the miracle of growing old alongside her partner. And answer: this.”
Last year, a new translation by Yan Yan of the late popular Chinese writer Wang Xiaobo’s “Golden Age” brought his wry style and controversially explicit sex scenes to English readers. That same “black humour” and evocative description of life in rural China from the mid-20th century is certainly present in PLEASURE OF THINKING: Essays (Astra House, 211 pp., $26)Yan’s new translation of Wang’s non-fiction from the 1990s – even if it may not have aged as much as his fiction.
The 35 short essays contain tongue-in-cheek musings on Wang’s childhood, travel, and liberalism along the lines of Bertrand Russell. Most memorable are the passages in which Wang falls into farce: the story of a “maverick pig” who evaded confinement and slaughter in the commune Wang was sent to during the Cultural Revolution, or of a childhood classmate who from another student. In the last part, ‘The Silent Majority’, one of Wang’s best and most famous essays, the author questions the power of expression in the face of repression. The tension between Wang’s desire to express himself and his understandable restraint is both taut and satisfying. “People not only learn from books,” he writes, “they also learn from silence, and this is the main reason for the survival of my humanity.”
Many of these essays would have benefited from some editorial context. On feminism and queerness, Wang is limited by conclusions too outdated to be revolutionary — that there are indeed many gay men in China, or that a girl should have “the right to pursue whatever she wants” in life. And unsavory jokes about self-castration and stereotype-laden depictions of black people leave a bad aftertaste. The collection also includes critical evaluations of sociologist Li Yinhe’s work, without any mention of the couple being married. Had an editor’s or translator’s comment anticipated these concerns, it could have given the reader the freedom to encounter Wang’s work on his own terms. Without this context, “Pleasure of Thinking” offers an often confusing, if generally entertaining and sometimes insightful reading experience.
Noor Qasim is a writer living in Iowa City. From 2020-2021 she was an editorial staff member at the Book Review.