Imagine Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Myriam Gurba eating a meal together at Hooters—you will never think of tits, Toklas, or teleology in the same way again. Yet Gurba insists we sit at her table, and we comply because we cannot resist her prose. Like her fiction, Gurba’s prose here innovates and somersaults with sass, intelligence, and tenderness. As the Kathy Acker Fellow and curator of the Les Figues blog, I was interested in curating essays that interrogate poetics and difference in experimental ways. Gurba, with her wild and Steinian obsession with chicken and other things, explodes the essay form and what we understand as identity: queer, feminist, ethnic, and otherwise. Instead, Gurba offers alternative navigations in intimacy and experimentalism. Juxtaposed with Gurba’s radical experiments in digital self-portraiture, her essay moves like a wild ride, a rollercoaster that holds your neck gently, while it playfully jerks, tears, and catapults you in necessary ways. This essay is not just an essay. It is a gorgeous queer reckoning. Her needed demand. As Gurba writes, “This cums frum a manuscript wherein I use steinomancy and other methods of divination and textual interaction to conjure Gertrude…Dear Gertrude Stein.” And so it begins. —Margaret Rhee
TAKE THESE BROKEN HOT WINGS AND LEARN TO FLY
(THIS ESSAY WAS PARTIALLY WRITTEN AS I LISTENED TO DIGITAL UNDERGROUND, AN ALTERNATIVE HIP HOP GROUP CELEBRATED FOR THEIR DITTY THE HUMPTY DANCE, WHICH CONTAINS ONE OF MY FAVORITE LYRICS EVER: People say ya look like M.C. Hammer on crack, Humpty)
(I also listened to The Beatles’ Blackbird while writing this. A disobedient part of me wants to rewrite a version called Blackturd. Blackturd singing in the dead of night…)
Exuberance is better than taste. –Gustave Flaubert
(speaking of taste)
I love chicken fingers. –Holly Madison
Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna, but it says “Chicken of the Sea.” –Jessica Simpson
“That you are experimenting with literature.” –What my mother said (in Spanish) after I asked her (in English), “What do you think of when I say experimental literature?”
I’m scribbling this essay (órale, essay) on a pair of tickets to Nigger Wetback Chink, a stage play NPR says “magnifies stereotypes.” Duh. I saw NWC about two weeks ago with my friend Griselda. My titties ached through much of the performance, and like Jesus, Griselda was seated at the right hand of my titties. I think Griselda has regularly sized titties. She and her titties belong to my ethnic group. We’re all chickenas. (Chickena is my preferred spelling for Chicana. It is also my preferred pronunciation. Here’s the explicit pronunciation: Chicken. Uh. My friend tatiana de la tierra, a Colombian poet, taught me this pronunciation. She’s dead.)
Like Godot, I’m waiting for my boyfriend. We planned to meet at Hooters do like lovers do, eat chicken, but beforehand, I went dress shopping. I stressed myself out to get here on time so I didn’t shop as long as I wanted to and when I got here, I took a table near the bar and ordered coffee, which I’ve been neglecting. I texted my boyfriend hey are you still meeting me at Hooters and he was like what are you doing there and I was like we were supposed to meet at 1 and then he texted me a screen shot of an earlier text which indicated that 1 o’clock was not at all our agreed upon time. I need proof like his screen shots to remind me of reality and my radical misinterpretations of time. I need texts to remind me of the reality of time as the rest of the world, excluding me, knows it. Time and linear thought challenge me. Chronology is mysterious to me. Teleology weirds me out. I can never remember what teleology means. For me, time is a sneeze in motion silhouetted against the white sun of a colonized land. Diasporic splooginess. There really isn’t anything coherent about time. Not even when it’s a magazine lounging atop my parents’ toilet.
The lion’s share of the Hooters girls waiting tables or tending bar are of color. “HGC,” I think. “Hooters girls of color.” The acronym I’ve just invented pleases me. My nuggets warm.
The HGCs wear their hair fluffy and teased. It schpills down their backs. Low-cut, white tank tops hug their (of course) voluptuous torsos. Hot pants the color of the earplugs I sleep with, hyper peach, cover their crotches and surrounding areas. Tan stockings mask their legs’ true colors. I contemplate why, why must these Hooters girls wear these stockings as part of their uniform and wonder if it has anything to do with preventing spilled cooch. Overzealous lips have been known to somersault and do their own floor routines.
Years ago, I came with my wife to this Hooters when it was at a different location. That was back when this Hooters was at a place which is now a creperie. Every place used to be some other place that is doomed to become some other place. Seriously. I spent our entire meal staring at a nearby patron. I would guess that he was in second grade, and he sat bloated and staring, mouth agape, at Hooters girls. The passage of time, not the magazine, and the bouncing of breasts made his mouth water.
There have been moments in my life when I really wanted cereal but didn’t have much milk so I poured what milk I had into the bowl and added water. These were not proud moments but I felt resourceful. I guess this aside about resourcefulness is here to underscore the resourcefulness of women of color. (and stoners)
I went to that same Hooters that my wife took me to with a blonde gay. He had been bugging me about going to Hooters with him. He had been saying, “Hooters serves the best clams. Ha ha. I miss my grandparents.”
The Hooters barstool I’m perched on gives me views of cleavage and the Pacific Ocean. Boats filled with expectant whale watchers glide past the waterfront lanai. A lighthouse in the distance does nothing. It’s daytime. Lighthouses go into existential crises in the daytime.
It might seem that this is an essay, (órale, essay), about nothing, much like the show Seinfeld was a show about nothing, but I’m actually trying to summon the spirit of Gertrude Stein. At Hooters. I feel like she would have really appreciated this place. She would’ve brought Alice B. Toklas here so that she could have the night off CAUSE THAT BITCH WAS ALWAYS COOKING. EITHER POT BROWNIES OR PHEASANTS FOR ASSHOLES LIKE PICASSO. A copy of Stein’s collected works chills on my table, and I know in my heart of hearts that Hooters is the ideal place to read Stein’s masterpiece, Tender Buttons. Tender Buttons at Hooters. Tender buttons get tips at Hooters. Tindr Buttons: a dating service for experimental lessbians.
I am obsessed with Gertrude Stein and sometimes I use steinomancy to contact her. Steinomancy is a divinatory art that rolls like this: you ask a question and then open one of Stein’s texts to a random page to find your answer.
I mutter, “Gertrude Stein, what do you think of Hooters?”
I open her collected works to page 303: “Young ones sometimes think they have it in them.”
My very pretty, very snaggle-toothed waitress sets my Hooters coffee down near my hand. “Cream?” she asks. (Oh wait. That already happened. C what I mean about my trouble with time?)
“No thank you,” I say. “Do you have a pen? Mine sucks.”
She smiles broadly so that her snags are more apparent and she reaches into the fanny pack riding against her stomach. She pulls forth a deluxe ballpoint and sets it on my placemat.
“Thank you,” I say.
(I’m also writing this essay in Berlin. Berlin is a coffee shop in California. I guess that makes this west Berlin.)
There is a chickena professor I ate noodles with a few months ago. During our noodling, we discussed the dearth of experimental literature by chickenas. I told her, “I do some,” but we concluded that our kind tends to keep her distance from this type of writing and we came up with some reasons why. My phone archives part of our continued conversation on this subject:
TEXT FROM ME TO THE CHICKENA PROFESSOR: Remember that conversation we were having about the dearth of chickenas writing experimentally? Tell me what yer thots r on that again…
CHICKENA PROFESSOR: Similar to yours, though I hadn’t considered class before. When you’re invisible and unseen you fight for visibility: when your identity is discounted you assert it. Literature that eschews subjectivity can seem scary and irrelevant if you view literature primarily as a social tool.
me: May i quote u in an essay I’m writing on the subject?
cp: Sure. Let me know if you need more elegant prose.
ME: Lol. K. <kiss emoji>
I saw the professor again last week, and she said, “About chickenas and experimental writing…”
“Yes?!” I asked.
“I have nothing more to say.”
I mean, is that what’s going on with that? If we look at the canonical works of Chicana lit, those by Santa Sandra Cisneros and Santa Gloria Anzaldúa, they’re not super experimental. Is it because if yer all wigged out about being seen and acknowledged and super invested in using literature as a tool for social change and/OR identity politics that makes yer work strive to be as scrutable as possible? Maybz. Works like the House on Mango Street and Borderlands and stuff seem to be about MEness and not an inscrutable MEness. A please decipher me MEness. Literary inscrutability is something I’ve long considered a white thang. A white thong. A white thing. Gertrude Stein, the genius, styled herself as an inscrutable bitch, but the thing is, she largely ripped off black style. That’s what a white professor told me. People constantly vilify jazz for being inscrutable, hard-to-follow music, but it’s not white. It’s blue. Filled with blue notes. So it seems like yes, chickenas can definitely afford to behave inscrutably. Maybe we truly own the domain of inscrutability but we are so used to being ignored as a result of our supreme inscrutability that we employ literature to remove us from that realm of excellence.
That doesn’t make much sense. But it might. It mite.
Here is me behaving inscrutably yet scrutably. This cums frum a manuscript wherein I use steinomancy and other methods of divination and textual interaction to conjure Gertrude…
Dear Gertrude Stein,
I don’t have to introduce myself to ewe. Ewe already no everything I know about myself and perhaps some things eye don’t. You have this insight because I am communicating with you thru the Oujia Board of my mind. THE OUIJA BOARD OF THE MIND. Isn’t that some queer as(s) logic? To conceive of the brain as a living Ouija Board? My brain chose you to correspond with and talk deep, solipsistic shit with since you’re a famous, dead queerdo, a poet who loved all the words that ever existed, especially simple words like chicken, paper, and Mildred. Gertrude, my brain also picked you to correspond with and talk deep, solipsistic shit with because you had the potato face of a Slavic grandma. Babushka. Babutchka
Kiss me, babutchka. Let’s mix spits. Lez mingle living and undead salivas. Sativas. Shivas. Sitting shiva. Sitting pritty. Lick my titty. Make it witty. Don’t be shitty.
Grrrtrude, Gurbtrude, Girthtrude, there must be a cosmic reason your name starts with the same letter as the guaddess’s. My last name starts with the same letter as yours and the almighty’s, and that makes me feel inferior since it’s not my first or even middle name blessed with that letter. Still, at least the three of us¾you, me, and the feminine divine¾have some alphabet in common.
We are all Gs.
Ain’t nothin but a G thang.
My friend Guadalupe who is a tattoo artist tattooed blue eyes to the soles of her feet. Those eyes are ticklish. I love the Spanish word for tickles. Coscillas. Guadalupe tattooed a cursive G above my right elbow. She etched a bright hot dog onto my right wrist. When people ask, “Why did you get a hot dog tattoo?” I reply, “I was hungry.”
Not everything has to be deep.
Sometimes, a hot dog is just a hot dog.
Sometimes, a hot dog is not a hot dog.
Sometimes, a hot dog is a not dog.
It’s soy. In Spanish, the word soy means am, as in yo soy gringa y yo como hot dogs de soja. I am a gringa and I eat not dogs. Not dogs are hot dogs made out of soy. Made out of am. AM PM.
Sometimes, not dog is not dog is not dog.
Sometimes, a not dog is not a not dog.
If you triple the negative, you double the fun. If you slurp the L out of triple, you get tripe. Inside of tripe, there is always ripe. Ripe here, ripe now, there is no other place I’d rather beef.
I’m no longer sitting at Hooters. I’m sitting at my dining room table, smelling something my boyfriend is cooking. Rice and broccoli and chicken. Rice and broccoli and chicken. That sounds like a Stein poem. A missing Stein poem.
There was some dish on the Hooters menu that came with the warning, “You will not be able to stop eating this dip. Its futile to try.”
Why am I telling you this? Because it seems important.
Omens may show up anywhere.
In collections of inscrutable poetry by dead white women.
In Hooters menus.
In my boyfriend’s sock drawer.
Inside a used condom that didn’t quite make it into a trashcan.
In a storage unit that contains the aftermath of a failed marriage. My lessbian marriage.
Clearly, this essay calls for more chickenas to engage in the art of experimental righting. Experimental lighting. Experimental cockfighting. Experimental tithing.
My boyfriend arrives, takes the stool across from mine, and our chickena server brings us chicken cooked different ways. I get a basket of wings. He gets his bird between buns. So this is an essay about lunch. This is an essay about being in a lesbian marriage and then not being in a lesbian marriage and being in a relationship with a biracial cisgendered man and eating chicken with him while my breasts ache. My breasts are grouchy.
The other day, a new friend texted me that her breasts were hurting in solidarity with mine.
I thought that was so sweet.
I don’t know which is uglier, my relationship with time or my relationship with my body or yours.
I can’t tell which girls here have had their breasts surgically altered. A scalpel has dallied with mine. A surgeon stuffed mine not like a chicken but Thanksgiving. My breasts are a thankful holiday. I liquidated my house and put about thirteen percent into my chest. I sold my house and used some of the profits to gentrify my upper body. My cups runneth over. My cups hit and runneth over.
An old white man sitting at the table behind my boyfriend holds our chickena server captive. She pretends to be interested in card tricks he performs in the air space above his empty plate. She excuses herself, “Excuse me,” and heads towards the kitchen (a word so close to chicken), and she doesn’t do what she does for me. She does it for the sake of relief:
She rolls her eyes as if to say fuck you to every white man who ever lived.
Maybe this is why there is so little experimental chicken-a-lit. Chickena-fil-A.
Because when we say fuck you, we don’t want it to be experimental. We want our fuck yous to be real.
The only white Hooters girl is helping a party of white and Asian men on the lanai. As she bends over, Asian eyes gaze upon her orange bits. His yearning differs from strip club yearning. His yearning is sadder. Safer. His yearning tastes like chicken.
The phrase nature versus nurture cums to mind. I want to ask someone what they think of the debate. I whisper, “What do you think of nature versus nurture debate?” to my breasts.
They whisper, “Fuck off.”
“Fakes!” I hiss at them.
The most interesting thing happening at Hooters is happening in a corner booth by the kitchen door. Three women of color and one fat white femme occupy its banquettes. They grub on baskets of wings. They do not interact with any men. They interact only with one another and the Hooters girl of color serving them. Their booth represents a utopia where women of size and color are in charge, men are peripheral, and chicken is plentiful.
My boyfriend sets a bowl of chicken, rice, and broccoli in front of me. I ask him, “Do you ever wish you were a white girl?”
He gives a vulgar answer. Imagine it.
The most bittersweet yearning thrums ‘neath my silicone. I don’t know what my heart yearns for—love, ice cream, bigger breasts—and I think of Socrates or some other Mexican who said: “It is better to be at odds with the whole world than to be at odds with yourself.”
I think perhaps I should’ve gone with a bigger cup size.
I reach for a glass.
Myriam Gurba wrote Dahlia Season and Painting Their Portraits in
Winter. Her writing has been featured at TIME, The Rumpus, and KCET.
She toured with Sister Spit. She loves nuts.