Political Histories Refracted Through a Personal Lens

In 2019, the memoirist and story writer Myriam Gurba wrote a viral essay on Jeanine Cummins’s “American Dirt” in which she excoriates the author for having “identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it.” In this and 10 other essays included in CREEP: Accusations and Confessions (Avid Reader Press, 332 pp., $27), Gurba writes the personal and political with invigorating conviction.

Throughout the collection Gurba reflects on her queer, Mexican-Californian youth, then refracts these memories through literature and history. “Tell” revisits her morbid childhood games, including Barbie defenestration, alongside William S. Burroughs’s murder of his wife, Joan Vollmer; and the former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s killing of his family’s 12-year-old Indigenous servant, Manuela, while “playing war” when he was 4. Within each essay, whether on lice and genocide or the legacy of Lorena Bobbitt, Gurba assembles chains of seemingly unrelated memories and events whose resonances grow with each new link. She marshals myriad sources with ease, and addresses difficult subjects with blunt wit.

Gurba argues that it is her directness — her “gallows humor” and “insult comedy” — that enables her to approach trauma; but this voice is so strong that it can threaten to obscure the truth. Some exchanges from her past are written with almost fictional simplicity, hewing so rigidly to her theses as to seem suspiciously convenient, such as when a student in her high school civics class asks her: “Who’s your favorite serial killer, Miss Gurba?,” prompting her to lie “rather than explain that I had my own Richard Ramirez.” And for all her humor, Gurba’s jokes — of which she is rarely the butt — belie a fundamental self-seriousness, directing the reader’s gaze away from her most compelling character: herself.

The title essay, which is the most affecting, eases up on the jabs as Gurba recounts her efforts to escape and recover from domestic violence. Both her earnestness and the urgent pulse of the material make for a narrative that is less certain and more tender. To read Gurba at her best is to feel both the triumph of defiant self-regard as well as the soft contours of the striving it takes to acquire, preserve and restore.

“I wanted to ease us all into it,” Jenn Shapland writes in the preface to her new collection, THIN SKIN: Essays (Pantheon, 270 pp., $26); “instead, this book begins in the free fall of reality.” Over the course of five essays, the author of “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” asks how humans endure our era’s pervasive fear, capitalist excess and looming ecological collapse.

The title essay, named for her own dermatologic diagnosis, begins with a drive through Los Alamos National Laboratory, where a guard warns, “Do not look to the left.” There Shapland sees “tall cylindrical objects the size of tractors,” the covert beginnings of “innovation” or of “the end of the world.” And she keeps looking: at the state’s seizure of the mesa from its native peoples, at the persistent levels of radiation in the region and at other systemically neglected contamination hot spots across the country. The sobering essay is both intimate and well researched, incorporating interviews with those most affected by environmental contamination, from an Indigenous Pueblo antinuclear activist to her own parents. Offering a human response to these destructive forces, this piece merits a book to itself.

Other highlights in this rigorous collection include “Crystal Vortex,” about the possibility of living a queer, artistic life defined by “values and rules not determined by familiar metrics 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 set of left-of-liberal, white anxieties, which Shapland attempts to interrogate yet cannot seem to move beyond (in a passage on “self-care,” she describes “an iceberg of white guilt: What right have I to take care of myself, my mind, my body, when mine is the body of the colonizer?”). Shapland’s paralytic pessimism can make it difficult to disentangle her punishing thoughts from the harsh reality she seeks to articulate.

While the future hardly looks bright, Shapland is most convincing when she grasps hold of some tentative yet essential hope. “Each day is a question we ask ourselves — what is life?” she writes, picturing the marvel of growing old beside 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 humor” and evocative description of life in the mid 20th-century Chinese countryside are certainly present in PLEASURE OF THINKING: Essays (Astra House, 211 pp., $26), Yan’s new translation of Wang’s nonfiction from the 1990s — though it may not have aged as well as his fiction.

The 35 short essays contain irony-laden musings on Wang’s youth, travels and liberalism in the vein of Bertrand Russell. Most memorable are the passages in which Wang veers into farce: the tale of a “maverick pig” that evaded confinement and slaughter on the commune Wang was sent to during the Cultural Revolution, or of a childhood classmate who bit off another student’s ear. In the final entry, “The Silent Majority,” among Wang’s best and most famous essays, the author questions the power of speech in the face of repression. The tension between Wang’s desire to express himself and his understandable reticence is both taut and satisfying. “People do not only learn from books,” he writes, “they also learn from silence, and this is the chief reason for the survival of my humanity.”

Many of these essays would have benefited from editorial context. On feminism and queerness Wang remains limited by conclusions too outdated to feel revolutionary — that there are indeed many gay men in China, or that a girl “should have the right to pursue whatever it is that she wants” in life. And unsavory jokes about self-castration and stereotype-laden depictions of Black people leave a foul aftertaste. The collection also includes critical evaluations of the sociologist Li Yinhe’s work, without any mention that the pair were married. Had an editor’s or translator’s note pre-empted these concerns, it could have freed the reader to encounter Wang’s work on its own terms. Without this context, “Pleasure of Thinking” offers an often perplexing, if generally entertaining and occasionally insightful read.

Noor Qasim is a writer living in Iowa City. From 2020-2021 she served as the editing fellow at the Book Review.

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