In 2019, Myriam Gurba’s essay “Pendeja: You Ain’t No Steinbeck,” a bitingly hilarious takedown of Oprah’s controversial book club pick, American Dirt, went viral. Gurba’s criticism not only sparked a Latine-led campaign called #DignidadLiteraria, but also showcased the writer and critic’s formidable rhetorical skill. Gurba’s newest essay collection, Creep: Accusations and Confessions (Avid Reader Press, June 15)—a follow-up to her memoir, Mean—received a starred Kirkus review. In Creep, Gurba roams beyond the borders of her lived experience, engaging with history, literature, art, culture, and crime. On a recent video call, I talked to the author about her influences, audience, and ancestors. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you settle on the title Creep?

On the night that I escaped from domestic violence, the word creep played a pivotal role in breaking the spell of my abuser. Until that night, I had not witnessed anybody stand up to him. And then, not only did a defender confront him, but they named what he is. Once my defender called my abuser a creep, it was as if his mask had been stripped off. My abuser had gone to great lengths to hide his abusiveness, and suddenly here he was, unable to hide it. The naming was so important in that moment.

Creep also functions as a verb. We’ve got these individuals who are creeps, who move in this almost gothic manner. Plus, I think of domestic violence and gender-based violence as more of a structure than an event—the sort of structure that creeps up on us, that we slowly creep into without realizing what we’ve set foot in.

When it comes to titles, I initially conceived of Creep as a kind of sequel to Mean. Since they were in the same family, I wanted another title that also had consonants that really slap. Creep has those consonant clusters, and it’s almost a violent word. It’s like a mouthful of glass.

What do you mean when you say Creep was a kind of sequel to Mean?

As I was doing press for Mean, I encountered certain questions over and over and over. They really began to bother me. When I began to think of a book-length response to some of the questions, I realized it could become a sequel.

One of the questions that got under my skin was whether the experience of writing Mean was cathartic, and whether or not externalizing that story had led to my recovery from PTSD. There’s this myth that those of us who write about violence, who write about trauma, who write confessionally, are somehow engaged in an emotional purge. That we’re somehow lighter afterwards. That’s simply not the case.

When I was doing press for Mean—and I wasn’t sharing this with anybody who was an interlocutor—I was also surviving gender-based violence that was as horrifying as the stranger assault that I documented in Mean. Which means I was being lauded for using the narrative process to overcome the scars of gender-based violence while new ones were being inflicted. I wanted readers to understand that if one is subjected to gender-based violence, that violence is present across one’s lifespan. Until whatever form of supremacy motivating the violence ends, there’s no escaping it. It’s not as if we overcome it through the creation of a work of art.

Speaking of art, what are some of your influences?

My maternal grandmother played a large role in my infancy and my childhood. Because her hobbies were drawing and painting, that was what she would engage in when she cared for us. During the summertime, for example, we would sit on the couch watching reruns while the two of us drew the view of the backyard. We’d sit side by side with sketchpads in our laps.

My writing is impacted by my attempt to keep alive the painter’s eye that my grandmother began to develop in me. I’m a visually oriented person. I love looking. And I think it’s important for writers to immerse themselves in many different art forms. The worlds that we create on the page are strengthened when we’re able to create solid, well-etched pictures.

Mexican literature has also strongly influenced me. The most passionate imprint was made by the work of Juan Rulfo. He published Pedro Páramo, which is a novel narrated by the dead set in a fictional ghost town named Comala. It’s an iconic book because of the fragmentary nature of the writing, and because the verb tenses are dynamic and ever shifting. Time exists in a blender: We don’t know where we are. We don’t know when we are. All we know is that everybody’s dead or dying.

What I wanted to do with Creep was use Rulfo’s structure in specific essays—in particular, the “Creep” essay, because certain situations and events are best narrated without strongly adhering to a linear narrative. Rulfo offered a counterstructure. And then by adopting that counterstructure, I was also nodding toward my grandfather, because my grandfather and Rulfo were friends—or, one could say, frenemies.

You have an essay about your grandfather and his writing. Did he encourage your writing the way your grandmother encouraged your art?

No! My grandfather did not encourage women or girls to develop intellectual or artistic talents, because he didn’t believe that we had them. In the essay about my grandfather [included in this collection], I really tried to reckon with how complicated he is. Born into a peasant family that was racialized as Indigenous, he became—according to him—the first publicist to operate in the city of Guadalajara. He is in part responsible for my interest in Mexican literature, and yet he demeaned and abused women.

For me, the most delicious irony is that even though my grandfather believed he was destined to be one of Mexico’s great men, he never developed the reputation he believed he was fated to have. But now, people will know his name because of his granddaughter. So, it’s like, do you want it, grandfather? Because you’re getting the thing that you wanted with a messenger you hadn’t anticipated!  He does inspire me to write, but there’s an element of spite in my writing about him.

Who else inspires you to write?

I have various imagined audiences. One of those is made up of my high school friends. I hung out with a group of girls that I thought was the funniest, meanest, nastiest, smartest girls to live in California. I loved making these girls laugh: They’re the first group of people who I really wanted to impress with language. Very often when I write, I still imagine that I’m addressing them. Like, we’re not going to be meeting outside of the gym, but they might pick up the book and read it. I can’t let them down.

The other group of people that I write for are my former students. I taught high school for over 10 years, so when I write, I think to myself, if one of my former students were to pick up this book, what would they get out of it? Also, when you teach at any level, part of your lesson planning should involve how not to bore the students. Relatable stories, stories that center humor, novelty, violence—all of those phenomena are going to keep kids’ eyes open. Those same techniques can be used by writers.

Mathangi Subramanian’s latest novel, A People’s History of Heaven, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.