“I wrote this for Mexican girls who sit alone in their bedrooms at night painting their fingernails black,” said writer Myriam Gurba when asked who she envisioned her audience to be when she wrote her latest collection of short stories, Painting Their Portraits in Winter. “He was just so put off,” she continued, “he was no longer interested in my book. I felt like I had triumphed.”
Mexican girls who paint their fingernails black may just be tough enough to handle Myriam Gurba’s fascinating and macabre stories. Last month the author came to San Francisco’s Booksmith bookshop to talk about Painting Their Portraits and her take on cross-cultural magical realism, incorporating abuelita‘s ghost stories, La Llorona and Dia de los Muertos into contemporary horrors like racism, misogyny, AIDS and los narcos. Gurba’s stories take us across borders and throughout different eras, but the theme of death remains. Nikki Darling expands upon this idea in her insightful Radar productions review of the book.“When you get a bunch of Mexicans together and bring up the subject of ghosts, the stories just spill,” Gurba told KQED before her Booksmith event. Although she’s been called a “Chicano literary superstar,” she believes her prose is not affixed to any one particular literary tradition.
“I see myself with one foot in the Chicana writing tradition and the other foot in a completely different tradition,” Myriam Gurba said. “Some of my work speaks really overtly to the Chicana identity. But some of my work is more abstract and harder to place in an ethnic context. When I take a form, it’s hard for me to work in that form without destroying it. I consider it trans-genre — though some people might just call it weird.”
The Mexican experience that Gurba presents in Painting Their Portraits is far more nuanced. As KQED described it, it’s “one particular to a young, Chicana, queer, nerdy girl with a taste for the shadowy side of life.”
“I understand the experience and the taste of that audience,” Gurba added, “and I understand why they are hungry for stuff that’s a little bit macabre. It makes sense culturally where we come from.”A native Californian, Myriam Gurba’s has written short stories, poems and an unpublished novel. She originally worked as an editorial assistant at Frontiers magazine and On Our Backs, the groundbreaking queer erotica publication. Her first book, Dahlia Season, won the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award. You can also read her writing on the Rumpus and on Michelle Tea’s Radar Productions blog.