Monday, August 27, 2007

Misfits with Moxie

Book Review by Daniel Olivas

Manic D Press
Paperback, $14.95

Myriam Gurba populates her debut story collection, Dahlia Season (Manic D Press, paperback $14.95), with young people who are often marginalized by a society too afraid or too exhausted to respond otherwise.

But because she creates characters who are complex and, in their own way, courageous, one does not pity them. Indeed, in honest prose peppered with sardonic humor, Gurba transforms her misfits into people who, under their goth makeup and facial tics, are not much different from the rest of the world.

Gurba's protagonists attempt to make meaning out of their lives under the sunny skies of California. In "Cruising," a teenage girl dresses in male clothing to cruise the pier and public restrooms in Long Beach along side gay men looking for anonymous sex. She eventually hooks up with a young man: "His face slowly came at mine and he kissed me. His mouth tasted good, dirty and boyish, and his cheeks scratched my face." The tryst, of course, cannot be consummated, and the girl runs home when the boy discovers that he's been fooled. Her heartbreaking explanation: "I had spoiled everything. I ruined it by being myself, by being a girl."

In "Just Drift," Roberto is stuck in a "ghetto" high school where keeping a lid on violence trumps true education to such an extent that quirky teachers are highly valued for their police skills: "I've figured out that the way things work around here is that as long as a teacher can control us and there aren't total race riots happening everyday, administrators look the other way when it comes to eccentricity."

As he struggles with hopelessness both at home and school, Roberto daydreams about "drifting," a form of Japanese street racing where the driver allows his car to lose traction and "drift" out of control for a few seconds -- a perfect metaphor for Roberto's life.

Gurba's young Chicanas often rebel against family expectations as they don goth attire and makeup and fall in love with other girls. In "White Girl," the narrator develops a crush on an "exotic" girl named Gabriella: "She came from another world. Pale skin, green eyes, and casseroles for dinner. She spoke nothing but English." And in the story "Primera Comunión," Esperanza seems marked from birth to be different and defy her traditional family. As a teen, she starts to dress like a boy and eventually joins a male street gang. But in both stories, the girls simply want one thing: to be loved and accepted unconditionally.

Gurba's skill at creating believable characters is at its strongest in the longest piece, the 125-page novella "Dahlia Season," from which the book derives its title. In it, we are privy to a decade in the life of Desiree Garcia from her teen years, through college and finally her first real job as an English as a second language teacher.

Desiree tells us in the first lines: "I used to pride myself on being a freak magnet. Yes, los weirdos de este mundo had a sweet tooth for me."

But she eventually learns that others consider her a "weirdo." We watch as Desiree's mordant humor keeps her afloat while she attempts to understand why she harbors violent thoughts and has trouble keeping obscene and otherwise inappropriate comments from leaving her lips.

Though Gurba's young men and women might seem unconventional, their hopes and desires are really no different from others. Her characters are simply trying to make their way on a treacherous odyssey in search of love and self-understanding.

Gurba's debut collection brings us a strong, sincere literary voice that seems to say: "Look at me -- I'm really just like you."

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

Luis Alberto Urrea, author of many wonderful books including The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Little, Brown/Back Bay Books), is blogging his heart out on immigration. “Immigration Monday” is back, he announces, so drop on by, read and post a comment.

◙ Dagoberto Gilb is interviewed on Paper Cuts, the New York Times’ blog about books. He says, in part:

“The novel I am now on will be an epic in poetic prose, a bestseller, and deep, although it will maintain a romantic and accessible biculturalism. Unless this is already what I have achieved with the novel ‘The Flowers’ my publisher is releasing soon. (Yes, I am making a small joke/chistecito in the first sentence - you know, like saying I’ve decided to write my very greatest book next. The second sentence, however, is absolutely true, probably.)”

I’m delighted a new Gilb book is coming. You can read the entire interview (and post a comment if you wish) by going here.

◙ On August 16th, Helena María Miramontes appeared on Michael Silverblatt’s radio show, Bookworm. She discusses Their Dogs Came with Them (Atria). Take a listen. It really is a revealing and interesting interview.

◙ You are invited to a special planetarium screening of Gronk’s BrainFlame, the West Coast premiere of an extraordinary animated short in 180-degree projection. It is presented by UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes and Glendale Community College.

WHEN: Saturday, September 8, 2007
WHERE: Glendale Community College, Planetarium and Science Center, 1500 North Verdugo Road, Glendale 91208

BrainFlame Screenings: 2:00 pm, 2:30 pm, 3:00 pm, 3:30 pm

Art exhibit on BrainFlame and signing of the new book Gronk (UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press) reception: 2:00 pm to 4:30 pm.

Screening ticket reservations required. Please reserve early, limited seating. Please RSVP for a specific screening by Sept. 4th: Bryan Robinson (310) 825-7716 or

◙ Speaking of Gronk, he and Ricardo Garcia will have a joint show entitled Momento at the Metro Gallery: Contemporary Fine Art, 1835 Hyperion Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027, (323) 663-2787. The opening reception will be Saturday, September 8, 6:00 to 9:00 pm, with an artists lecture beginning at 7:30 pm. For more information, visit here.

◙ All kinds of literary news from Rigoberto González. First, he reviewed for the El Paso Times a new book entitled, Conversations With Chicana/o Writers (University of New Mexico Press), edited by Hector Torres. You can read the full review here. Also, check out his poetry reviews focusing on writers of all colors here. Finally, González offers his "fun summer reading" list at the National Book Critics Circle: (scroll down to his big picture).

◙ Daniel Hernandez blogs on the untimely passing of writer Aura Estrada, wife of the novelist Francisco Goldman, in a surfing accident while on vacation in Mexico in late July. Estrada was a second-year MFA student at Hunter College which posts this tribute page that includes samples of Estrada’s writing as well as tributes.

◙ Agustin Gurza of the Los Angeles Times tells us of our nation’s art museums’ failure to understand and attract Latinos. It’s a fascinating piece that also touches on Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Latino Art Initiative which is headed by Chon A. Noriega, director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. On a personal note: even with very little money, my parents made certain to take their five children to art museums, a habit my wife and I continue to this day with our son. We are members of LACMA and strongly urge you to join and support and enjoy your local art museum. By the way, Gurza welcomes e-mails with comments, events and ideas for his weekly feature on Latino music, arts and culture. Write to him at

◙ My review of Julia Alvarez’s wonderful new book, Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA (Viking), appeared yesterday in the El Paso Times. In note, in part: “…Alvarez's book is a captivating and fascinating ‘behind the scenes’ peek at quinceañeras. We are honored to be invited into the lives of these young women for a brief moment as they stand -- eager and hopeful -- at the cusp of adulthood.”

◙ Time magazine raves about Junot Díaz’s long-awaited second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead). Lev Grossman writes that Díaz has written “a book so astoundingly great that in a fall crowded with heavyweights -- Richard Russo, Philip Roth -- Díaz is a good bet to run away with the field.”

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro! --Daniel Olivas


Anonymous said...

I just bought Dhalia Season and I'm excited to get a chance to read it.

Rebel Girl said...

You gave me quite a To Do list today - thanks!

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Norma and Rebel Girl...gracias for the comments. There are so many wonderful books to read...wish I didn't have to sleep. Hasta.